Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Thank you, belatedly

How does one compose epitaphs for the dead? What is there in one obituary that is not there in another, particularly when it comes to those who won us while they were alive? Penning down words is easy, trying to attain some sense of meaning, order, and sincerity is not. So it is with those who gave something back to our so-called cultural industries, including the cinema. As always therefore, there are no tributes, only attempts at them. This is one such attempt.

The past two years swept upon us like a curse. One by one, almost all suddenly, some of our brightest and of course irreplaceable icons left us. Right down from Mercy Edirisinghe in 2014 to W. D. Amaradeva about three weeks back, we lost them all.

True, in this sansaric, interminable universe of ours not even icons are spared the indignity of death, but it is not those who fawn on them that I pity: rather, on those who belittle, ignore, or in other ways undervalue their work and their careers. There are children who have not heard of Amaradeva, for instance. These are not children sent to institutions teaching foreign curricula: these are children from local government schools. Speaks a lot about our education system.

Last week we lost Wimal Kumar da Costa. Did we, as a nation and a people who cherish the arts, know him? I am not so sure that is easy to answer. How can one answer such a bold, assertive question, after all? More to the point, what is there in the man that merits an affirmative reply to it? Let me say this, hence. I didn’t know Wimal personally and I am sure there are hundreds if not thousands who are yearning to write tributes to the man with their personal encounters. The man deserves as much, not because such encounters ought to be written on, but because in all of them (I am willing to bet) he comes across as a lovable, peaceable, yet self-indulgent man.

Wimal came to us through Dharmasena Pathiraja. He was featured in the latter’s first film, Sathuro, in 1969. He immediately joined the likes of Daya Tennakoon and Amarasiri Kalansuriya (both of whom are, thankfully, still with us) as part of Pathiraja’s repertoire of actors, and the films kept on coming: from Ahas Gawwa right down to cameo appearances in that remarkable masterpiece, Para Dige. In all these, Wimal came across as a talker who likes to indulge in rhetoric and is therefore flawed, but who like all such flawed individuals did not begrudge another’s friendship.

The exception to that, I think, was Pathiraja’s own Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, where as the hopelessly infatuated village boy he showed us that he’d go to any lengths to achieve what he wanted (even beating up the man with whom the girl of his dreams had fallen in love). That was, some would like to call it, an aberration in his career, one which saw role after role after role with him as the talkative sidekick. He was born for that role, and like Philinte from Moliere’s The Misanthrope his part was that of a consoler, a soother of sorrow, and a joker. No wonder he won us.

He could also be an idealist. In Bambaru Avith he showers his two friends (Kalansuriya and Vijaya Kumaratunga) with Marxist rhetoric and is continually the object of ridicule everywhere. He speaks of equality, the oppression of class hierarchies, despite the painfully obvious fact that no one is there to listen to him. No, not even when his predictions turn out to be correct, his friends’ interference in the fishing village in which the film is set invites chaos and anarchy, and, in probably the most iconic moment in the plot, he gets up by a bus stand and rants and raves on the virtues of pre-capitalist societies. As with all such ideologues, there is (again) no one to listen to him: as he looks down after he finishes his little speech, his audience is gone. What does one do in such a situation? I wouldn’t know, but Wimal did. He laughed.

But it wasn’t just Pathiraja who made use of him: in fact from the seventies I’d might as well say that his best performance came out in Vasantha Obeyesekere’s lovable (but atypical) Diyamanthi, where he is a pickpocket who befriends an unemployed Arts graduate (Vijaya) and a man just released from prison (Somasiri Dehipitiya) and goes on a rampage everywhere. That was a kinder, gentler world we lived in back then, and so, when we saw him frolic everywhere with the other two, when we saw the three of them stumble into a mystery that was resolved in a way which would have compelled a second glance from Hitchcock, we never forget his face: unkempt, rough, yet always smiling.

Yes, smiling. Peruse whatever photo you can of him (not from a film though), and you will see that his face was ever ready to break into a smile. That smile adorned wherever he was and made up the essence of his character: he didn’t meet a lot of people but he was not unapproachable, and he was (from what I have heard) almost self-demeaning when he did meet people. He was neither indifferent to nor enamouring of the public gaze, hardly a trait one comes across a man who took part in as many films as he did (more than a hundred, a respectable amount for someone who emerged from our cinema rather late in its history).

People talk. I’ve heard some of those who worked with him talk on him. “Wimal ta thibba gathiyak, e gathiya nisa mulu Lankawama eyata priya kara” was one such comment. “Eyata kochchara adareda kiwwoth kohe giyath minissu eyata adagahala sangraha karanawa” was another.

Yes, these are raw and unpeeled, hardly the sort that must get into a formal tribute. But then, should tributes be formal? Isn’t it precisely these comments, from those who knew the dead, which should describe the person being lamented? I believe so, and I believe that what I heard from Wimal’s closest confidantes can only lead to one conclusion: he was not popular in the cosmetic sense of that term, only in the sincerest, plebeian, and unrefined sense.

And for that, I think we must be grateful, though not complacent. There may be children who never heard of the man, and that is tragic. Should we lament? Yes. Should we brood? No. It is the duty of those who are alive, to bring him back to life. It is the duty of the writer to aid that miracle.

Wimal Kumar da Costa died last week and I never met him when he was alive. I saw him, though, ever since I began seeing the movies. He made me smile. He made me laugh. He made me think. He will now be missed.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, November 30 2016