Thursday, October 27, 2016

The man who grinned

Human beings are peculiar creatures. They smile only when politeness compels them to and they drown in sorrow, anger, and envy all the time. They don’t laugh as much as they should, simply because they feel that rebels against the principle of refinement (which is that you should break into laughter only as a conditioned response). That’s silly I agree, but then again being the peculiar creatures we are, we have endowed this world of ours with enough politeness to make ourselves substitute refinement and surface-allure for honesty. Whoever wrote that only children can laugh honestly clearly deplored this state of affairs.

Perhaps that’s why the cinema, for all intents and purposes, was born partly out of a desire to keep us happy. Entertainment for those first pioneers of the medium wasn’t just about adventures and princes dashing to save pretty damsels in the desert, but had to do more significantly with the ability of the actor(s) to thrill, raise hairs, and evoke laughter. Chaplin is of course the first such name that comes to mind, though there were others: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and that irrepressible duo Laurel and Hardy (who are imitated, again and again, by both the amateur and the professional: Jayantha Chandrasiri went for them in his depiction of the two police officers in his latest play, Hankithi Dahathuna).

Which brings me to Sri Lanka. We are “blessed” with humorists. Their CV apparently is to keep us entranced to the screen by whatever means necessary. For better or worse, this includes every imaginable attempt at compelling laughs from us, which at the end of the day deteriorates into exercises in puerile comedy. Yes, you know what I am talking about: turning the most mundane activity into a source of confusion so much that we’re supposed to laugh not because we feel like we want to, but because we feel like we ought to. There probably are a hundred or so examples for this that one comes across in our films, but that’s for another article, another time.

This week’s star was a humorist. In more ways than one. He didn’t force us to laugh. Didn’t need to. All he did was to turn everyday situations into veritable sources of humour. Moreover, he didn’t just act. He sang. He had a voice that could express sobriety in times of rhetoric and emotion in times of reason. He dabbled in the best of both worlds, without really clinging to either. And above everything else, he had that one key signature which no one in his field could claim to: the ability to make us think that even in the most rational and reasonable decisions he made, he’d always end up making a mess of things without batting an eyelid.

Who was he? Freddie Silva.

If Gamini Fonseka was the “sakvithi” of our cinema, then Freddie was its “vikata raja”. He specialised as a humorist, but never went beyond secondary roles. Unlike, say, Joe Abeywickrama, he was versatile only in comedy. I personally doubt that this unique man, who was almost always grinning and up to some mischief, could be made use of as a villain or lover, because by the time his career ended, he’d appeared in over 300 of the 850 films screened in the first 50 years of our cinema. Not an achievement that can easily be surpassed, you must admit.

Freddie was an only child. He was born on May 18, 1938 in Moratuwa and was christened as Halpeliyanage Morris Joseph de Silva. His father was an overseer for the Urban Council and his mother was a member of the Salvation Army. Both had been nearly fanatical in their devotion to faith, which they doubtless would have felt as having an impact on their son. As things turned out, however, what they expected was not what they got: young Freddie not only showed an indifference to religion, he indulged in probably the two least religious activities a child from his background could engage with: singing and dancing.

There’s a story about how he entered his field, written and recorded by many. Apparently Freddie had been taken to the birthday party of the then Prime Minister, Sir John Kotelawala, by a relative. By that time he’d practised singing so well that he’d gained a reputation in his village. Alanson Mendis had composed a tune for young Freddie to sing at the party, titled “Bar Bar Bar.” He did just that in front of his Prime Minister and what’s more, gained a standing ovation not just for his singing but also for his dancing. The response had been so overwhelming that Kotelawala had asked him point-blank, “Do you dance with springs on your legs, boy?” The idealistic young man had replied, “Sir, I am looking for a job.” The Prime Minister had replied back, “Singing is the only job you are fit for.”

Kotelawala would have been erratic there, but he meant what he said. He gave Freddie a letter of recommendation, which the young and budding artiste took to Livy Wijemanne. Livy read the letter, looked at Freddie, and took him in to broadcasting. Two songs followed: “Mottapala” and a version of “Bar Bar Bar” composed by P. L. A. Somapala.

His singing career deserves an article to itself, and can hardly be done justice to in the space of one paragraph. He collaborated with Somapala, Victor Ratnayake, and even Premasiri Khemadasa, but for schoolboys who grew back then and even children from my generation, I am willing to bet that he achieved an apotheosis when he got together with Premakeerthi de Alwis.

Premakeerthi was no ivory tower poet. What he wrote, he wrote for us. And what we wrote for us, he wrote to make us think about life. Humour figured somewhere in there, which is where Freddie triumphed.

Listen to those songs even today – “Boru Kakul Karaya”, “Aron Mama”, “Handa Mama”, and “Kalu Kumbiya” – and you will at once understand how the man entranced his listeners. “Boru Kakul Karaya” is a meditation on those who walk on stilts (metaphorically), who are perched up high and are inflated by arrogance. “Aron Mama” is about the crass art of gossiping. “Handa Mama” is about those who seek accomplishment and those who idle. “Kalu Kumbiya” is about how we should all strive for more, like the black ant and unlike the more offensive red ant. Like I said, Premakeerthi was no ivory tower poet. It would be wrong to suggest that these songs struck us purely because of the vocalist, but I can say this much: no other vocalist could have done justice to them.

To understand this, one should look at his film credits. After some stints at broadcasting, the man met K. A. W. Perera in 1963. Perera had by that time gone beyond writing dialogues and scripts, and was toying with the idea of making it as a director himself. Through some mutual acquaintances, Freddie had been introduced to the man, who had eventually taken him in to what would become his debut, Suhada Sohoruyo (which Perera co-directed with L. S. Ramachandran). Acting alongside the likes of Vijitha Mallika, Sandya Kumari, Rukmani Devi, Asoka Ponnamperuma, and Henry Jayasena, it augured well for Freddie: he’d be cast as the irrepressible comic sidekick for the rest of his career.

There was a time when you just couldn’t watch a comedy here without the man. That was expected. Freddie was blessed with enough and more attributes to warrant continuous involvement with our cinema: he was short, he was almost always grinning, and even in the most serious things he did, he managed to dish out humour. For that reason perhaps, he could never be more than a sidekick: in the eighties, for instance, he was constantly featured alongside Vijaya Kumaratunga in comedy after comedy. He was never in want of money, nor fame. He got both, he enjoyed both, but more importantly, he lived for art.

That love for art never left him. He could sometimes underestimate himself. Premakeerthi de Alwis’ “Kundumani”, for instance, is a song that can’t be performed the way Freddie did: tuned perfectly to a Carnatic melody, the man sings it almost as well as a Tamil person would, a feat rare among Sinhala singers at the time. Perhaps he lived for art before he lived for life, and perhaps this explains the prodigious output he was able to give us. We may never know.

Freddie Silva left us 15 years ago, on October 29. Had he lived, he would have been 78. He wouldn’t have been making more films and he wouldn’t have been acting, but he probably would have been more cherished than he was upon his death. As things stood however, his death passed by without unnerving us.

Revata de Silva, in an illuminating tribute to the man, explained why: “We are a ‘gunamaku’ (ungrateful) society.” I’d be willing to agree. Freddie made us laugh. So did Chaplin. Chaplin’s death attracted millions. Freddie’s did not.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, October 26 2016