Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The mother that bullied

The language of love is silence, some have told me. I suppose that’s what the poets have been telling us, subliminally of course, in much of what they wrote, composed, or sang. The opposite must then be true: the language of hate and abuse is cacophony. It also must be true, hence, that this remains valid for all kinds of love and hate. Including a mother's love and especially in a culture which privileges the mother as much as we do, I should add.

There probably are as many kinds of mothers as friends in this world, though I wouldn’t know. Those who ended up portraying them onscreen (here and elsewhere) took note of one important point: the division of the mother-figure into love and hate wasn’t stark, and inasmuch as they showed affection through silence, they were imperfect and flawed. That explains why only a few, very few in fact, ended up depicting mothers in all their complexity. The rest either faded away or went on to depicting other characters, characters that lived and existed in a universe that had no shades of grey and instead subsisted on that black/white dichotomy much of our cinema rests on.

Three actors, as I have pointed out in this column, managed to typify the mother in our cinema. Each of them depicted a different figure: Irangani Serasinghe was overprotective, Shanthi Lekha indulgent and helpless, and Denawaka Hamine raw. They were all perfect in their own way, and while it’s not hard to have favourites from them, it was always difficult nevertheless to point out who was the most perfect. But one thing strung them up together: they may have pampered and indulged their children (onscreen) and they may have given the impression that they knew more than their offspring about what was best for them (when they did not), but all in all, they meant well and hoped for the best.

I forgot to mention, I realise now, that there was another actor who ended up portraying the mother. She was different. Not like the other three. She may have meant well in what she did, but she always ended up spewing malice. She wasn’t raw like Denawaka Hamine’s characters, but beneath her superficial charm and refinement she was almost unhinged. She made you think that she was gentle and then, at the very next moment, frightened you into realising that she was not. She was Ruby de Mel.

Unlike Irangani Serasinghe and pretty much like Shanthi Lekha, Ruby didn’t embrace the mother-figure immediately. She was there with some of the earliest stars of our cinema, almost always in the sidelines but present nevertheless. Like many other actresses of her time, she entered the cinema through the theatre. Her initiation into the medium was frowned on at a time when women were discouraged from indulging in the performing arts. Her credits were many, her characters diverse, but she is best remembered for the kind of woman who irked and irks us wherever we are: the mother that bullied.

Ruby Jasmine de Mel was born in Moratuwa in 1917 to a fairly middle class family. After attending Princess of Wales College in her hometown and Newstead College, Negombo, she took up a job at Radio Ceylon as an announcer. Back then the radio and the cinema had just opened up, and the sky was the limit. Ruby teetered on and off and managed to enter the theatre. T. B. Ilangaratne was staging his play Handahana and “discovered” her. She was immediately given a role in it and she ended up catching the attention of B. A. W. Jayamanne, who like most other directors at the time (and after) used to visit and watch plays to spot out promising actresses.

Her debut role was in Jayamanne’s film Mahathabada, in 1955. One year later of course, the Sri Lankan cinema would be born with Rekava, with a revolution that compelled a paradigm shift not only in the conception of films but in the way actors, scriptwriters, and even directors were perceived by the public. For the time being however, Ruby went under a different name (Vinodha Rasanjali) to escape her family’s censure: as stated before, women were not supposed to take to the cinema and if they did, more often than not, they were almost always isolated by those who knew them.

Success however wasn’t hard to find in those heady, sky-is-the-limit days, and so after a few films Rasanjali reverted to her original name. At a time when quantity and not quality determined an actor’s popularity, she got to act in a modest number of films: Perakadoru Bana, Suraya, Surasena, Kawata Andare, Handapana, Bicycle Hora, Penawa Neda, Ihatha Athmaya, and Aparadaya saha Danduwama. By the time she acted in those last four films (all directed by K. A. W. Perera), she was baptised into her signature role: the matriarchal, bullying mother. Things would never be the same again.

That role came up quite starkly in H. D. Premaratne’s Sikuruliya. In it she was the mother to a dwarfish, fragile, but ruthless hamu mahaththaya (played by Bandula Galagedara), who’s looking for someone to marry and falls in love with a village damsel (Swineetha Weerasinghe). Being the mother of an aristocrat, she harbours her doubts, but given how impossible her son is with women, concedes to his request. She then gets the girl’s father (Piyadasa Gunasekara) in, serves him a drink and gives him an offer to consider: get the girl married to her son. The father hems and haws. The mother (and this is where Ruby showed how ruthless and scheming her characters were) offers him more drinks. Mumbling incoherently, he agrees to her request.

Ruby de Mel doesn’t appear again thereafter (neither, for that matter, does her son, after his wife deserts him with their driver, Joe Abeywickrama), but she didn’t need to. In nearly every film she was in after that, she played secondary women, brutal and ruthless and insistent in whatever she wanted. In Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith, for instance, she was the mother to Helen (Malini Fonseka), who views her daughter’s affair with Baby Mahaththaya (Vijaya Kumaratunga) with trepidation and warns her to stop it immediately.

At times she towered over her own husband (Helen’s father), to a point where, apart from the antagonist of the story (Victor aiya, played by Joe), she concentrated its tension, energy, and conflict within herself. Sure, she was there for about a fraction of the time Victor aiya was, but she made up for that amply whenever she was present. With a voice that hid the rage and savagery she concealed beneath a superficial charm, she helped in aggravating an already inevitable conflict.

On that count, there couldn’t have been another woman to act out Maha Kumarihamy in Amba Yahaluwo, authored by the same person who had initiated her into the theatre. Asoka Peiris (who portrayed Nelum Bandara, her aspiring son) once said that when he consulted T. B. Ilangaratne, the man told him quite frankly that each of three main characters represent different epochs in history: his son (Sunil) for socialism, Maha Kumarihamy for feudalism, and Nelum Bandara for the transition from the one to the other. Bandara's downfall at the end of the story, Kumarihamy's fall from grace and arrogance, and Sunil's growing friendship with Nimal all reflect the gradual erosion of feudal values and the embrace of humanism.

By default, with television you have to get displays of emotion in your characters out at once. That probably explains the caricature-like exhortations, exclamations, and admonishments of Kumarihamy, who in Ruby’s hands turned out into a larger-than-life version of what her character represented. Her snide remarks to Nimal (“You needn’t waste any more time at school, come here and work for us!”), her patronising attitude towards his father, and her alternating attitude of condescension and hatred towards the peasantry, made up the most stark role she ever got in her career. Sure, there was hardly any complexity there, but that had less to do with the script than with the fact that the author intended her to represent a slice of history, with no room for shades of grey (except at the end, when she falls from grace).

She died in 2004. She was not quite 90 at the time. Long before that, she had donated her house, and together with a few other philanthropists in her hometown, had founded a home for handicapped children (which stands even today in Katukurunda). At the time of her death, she was making peace with herself at an Elders Home in Rajagiriya. She did not pass away unnoticed, but perhaps on account of the fact that she didn't get many leading roles, she was not bestowed with that kind of posterity conferred on larger stars.

Doesn’t mean she wasn’t a star. She was. As she continues to be.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, October 12 2016