Sunday, November 20, 2016

Nita Fernando and the intersection of fame and life

Film stars have a habit of venturing into other, relatively uncharted terrains, especially if these provide them with opportunities to dabble in issues and campaigns that appeal to their conscience. Remuneration and publicity usually figure in less here, and for the most these stars graduate as social agitators, campaigners, and what-not eventually. We probably remember them less for that than for the countless films and other appearances they make elsewhere, but despite this, they persist and they endure in doing what they love.

Because of this perhaps, their performances and their lives become polar opposites, and they admittedly don’t find it easy to reconcile these two. To make the latter reflect the former and vice-versa isn’t always what counts for popularity, after all. Perhaps that is why stars don’t tread into other, less traversed paths, and are content in retaining their stardom. Those who have been fortunate enough to live their lives in the intersection of stardom and reality, however, are known for their other lives. They are rare. And among them, we can count Nita Fernando.

Nita is many things: stage actress, film actress, producer, and activist. She is not an out-there campaigner the way some of her contemporaries are, but that doesn’t diminish her stature. I personally doubt she herself can point at any one field that can define her profession. No, that doesn’t make one of those typical Jacks (and Jills) of all trades: she inculcates nothing short of the most genuine enthusiasm in whatever she does. And you don’t have to look far to confirm this: just a short conversation over a cup of tea with her will prove how zealous she’s been in her life so far.

She was born in Katuneriya in Chilaw. From an early age, she loved and took to acting. She developed an impulsive desire to act onstage while at Holy Family Convent, Wennapuwa, and tells me by way of explaining this, “I wanted to go out there, to perform, to show my face to the world outside.” Chilaw at that time had a veritable performing arts society (a “Kala Ayathanaya”), and this she joined after leaving school.

Like most actresses from her time, Nita didn’t aspire for films. It wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that the theatre fascinated her as much for its artistry as it did for its potential to lure audiences. Her first few performances were in serious plays, two in particular by Gunasena Galappaththi (Sanda Kinduri, staged at Navarangahala, and Thaaththa), which won her acclaim in the late sixties.

Naturally therefore and by her own admission, her entry to films was accidental. She had been taken to the cinema hall as a child, and this had left her with a love for the medium, though not enough for her to wish for a career there. She had also been selected to appear alongside Gamini Fonseka in Parasathumal, but her parents had disapproved of it. One thing led to another, however, and soon enough she joined RT Studios. The Studio would baptise her into the cinema, when in 1966 she was cast alongside a veritable torrent of established stars, from Joe Abeywickrama to Dommie Jayawardena to Ruby de Mel, in Landaka Mahima (directed by the legendary W. M. S. Tampoe).

Actors often take a considerable period of time to move into serious productions and Nita was no exception to this. Soon enough, she was being signed into lucrative films, all of which guaranteed box-office dividends for the director and popularity for her. We remember them even now, in particular those directed by K. A. W. Perera (Wasana and Lasanda) as well as Sathischandra Edirisinghe’s beloved Rajagedara Paraviyo. By the end of the first 10 years of her career, she had taken part in more than 40 films. Enough, one could have surmised then and there, for her to be cast in a more nuanced, sensitive production.

This was Vijaya Dharma Sri’s Duhulu Malak, in which she was Nirupa Suraweera, the much vilified, misunderstood, lonely, and neglected wife who develops an affair with another man. The story was vaguely reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with the caveat that while Lawrence used the theme of adultery to comment rather savagely on male sexuality, Dharma Sri used it to privilege and pontificate on the importance of family ties over personal feelings. Despite this however, the director dared and went beyond his contemporaries in depicting, for the first time, adultery onscreen in our cinema (Tissa Liyanasuriya had depicted it about 10 years before in Narilatha, but only partially).

So where did Nita figure in all this? “Duhulu Malak was a landmark for its time and for me personally,” she observes, “This was so since I was a relative newcomer. Back then to even imagine acting in such a film would have been impossible, but fortunately for me, everyone, including my late husband, Elian Perera, and Tony Ranasinghe, who is married to me in the story, was supportive.”

Speaking for myself, while I find traces of conventional morality reflected in our cinema of the time in the film, Duhulu Malak nevertheless didn’t compromise on complexity to reinforce the director’s affirmation of family ties. Nita’s character, for instance, is not a virago, while Tony Ranasinghe’s character is not a fuming, jealous husband (at least not until the very end). And as for the womaniser (played to perfection by Ravindra Randeniya), he isn’t depicted as the lascivious, overbearing man we usually take such characters for, but instead is shown to be childish, irresponsible, and rather persistent, who has no sense of what’s going on and for whom maturity dawns only at the end (when, in a fit of anger and regret, he throws his shoe to the sea and walks away, defeated).

Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but in all these performances I see in Nita the schoolgirl aspiring to be a star. I put to her that even in Duhulu Malak, we come across a woman beset with little to no problems, who isn’t but should be content with her station in life, and who, even in the most mundane pursuits, displays a naive and innocent attitude to the world around her. She agrees and replies with a witty comment: “When I was a girl, I wanted to be an actress because I wanted to show my face. I wanted to act in everything. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING.” She is rather cryptic with that last sentence, so I ask her to lead me on to the next chapter in her career.

That next chapter would take a long time to come, however, because soon after shooting wrapped up, she and her husband Elian (a lawyer) left for Canada. “I didn’t even get to read the reviews of the films I’d taken part in,” she remembers. I am not so sure whether she considers this a curse though, given that she herself would experience the realities in other worlds, other continents in those 18 years she was away with her husband, years which would see her mature into the career to come. “Of course I complained. Of course I had regrets. But Elian was a very down to earth man. He took me everywhere and got me acquainted with the issues and the problems people in that part of the world face. You can say I learnt much outside Sri Lanka.”

There’s probably another reason why she’d consider this part of her life a blessing in disguise: it enlightened her enough to consider the cinema as a serious profession, and to consider it as a collaborative medium rather than the monopoly of a few popular artistes it’s often touted as today. No doubt she had all these in mind when she came back to the land of her birth.

It was Prasanna Vithanage who got her back into acting upon her return, in that beautiful but overlooked film Pawuru Walalu, where again her character (Violet) forms an affair with another man (this time played by Tony Ranasinghe, who wrote the script).

True, Violet is a widow, but then again the film was less an exploration into the personal conflict of a flirtatious woman than a drama revolving around her faith (Catholicism) and the guilt and sense of sin the affair compels in her. While the transgression of moral boundaries in Duhulu Malak was viewed as an innocent interlude, even by its characters, in Pawuru Walalu that transgression provokes a deep crisis of faith only barely resolved in a poignant, quiet ending. That Nita had made her comeback was confirmed at the 11th International Film Festival in Singapore, where she won the award for Best Actress.

Prasanna’s film was a precedent for Nita in another sense: it was the first film she produced. To a considerable extent, this opened her to the cinema in ways that her acting career had not. I think she puts it best: “The art of making movies is more difficult, yet more rewarding, than the art of acting in them. I am not belittling my earlier career, but the truth of the matter was that I was able to finance films which appealed to my conscience and my attitude.”

The themes these engender are proof enough for what she says, I believe: Nisala Gira delves into patriarchy, Bambara Wallalla delves into our collective, accursed penchant for violence, and her most recent, Swara, delves into the stigma attached to AIDS. The latter, incidentally, scooped up awards at the Jaipur International Film Festival, while last December it won for Nita a token of appreciation from UN AIDS Sri Lanka. It would be an overstatement to say that she has become a social crusader in these, though it would be uncharitable of me to belittle the attempts she has made in them to “market” the issues they explore to audiences here and elsewhere.

I sincerely believe Nita has done what she can to make us aware of certain things. She has a long way to go, and much of it she has already traversed. We’d be indifferent and rather inhumane not to acknowledge the performances she’s dished out to us, and more importantly, the films she’s financed out of a desire to propagate certain pressing issues. She herself affirms what she’s done with a reference to her faith: “I don't think God says, ‘Go to church and pray all day, and everything will be fine.’ For me, God says, ‘Go out and make a change, and I'll be there to help you.”

I am no critic. I can only comment. So I will say this: Nita, going by what she wanted as a child, has shown herself to her people and the world. She has trumped. She has triumphed. And now, she is going beyond merely clinching fame. We should be with her for that. And we should celebrate.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, November 20 2016