Wednesday, December 28, 2016

G. R. Perera: Man of many faces

I love meeting old people, particularly old artistes who began their careers in the late fifties and early sixties. They weren’t just artistes back then, they were revolutionaries, breeding change in their respective fields of activity and in the process, helping us claim an identity of our own. I never grow tired of talking with them and I never grow weary of sketching out their lives. As writers, I believe we have a duty to let them talk, to take down what they have to say, and to preserve and archive. Sadly though, they are not talking enough. They should be.

G. R. Perera is a name we encountered a long, long time ago. He was and is an actor but like all such actors from that time, his career can’t be easily compartmentalised. I remember seeing him in practically every TV series I laid my eyes on here, and I remember some film credits here and there which I never really bothered to check out. He had other lives, however, lives which owing to changing times have evaded the biographer. I tried to capture this and more, as I sat down to talk with the man some weeks back. He was, in keeping with most of those characters he’s played onscreen, self-effacing to a fault.

He begins at the beginning. He was born in Kirulapone in 1939 and was initially educated at Rattanapitiya Ananda Vidyalaya. Rattanapitiya is close to Boralesgamuwa, which is made up of 13 villages. One of these is Egodawatte, where his family moved to shortly afterwards.

He remembers an uneventful and ordinary childhood, but then with a twinkle in his eye contends that what was uneventful then would hardly appear uneventful for a child now. “I loved climbing trees. After school was over, my friends and I would climb the kadju trees that adorned our village. My mother, always the caring, gentle woman, feared for me, but I assuaged her fears quickly enough. In any case, I got a reputation for being a quick climber: that helped when the villagers would organise a gammaduwa, because they needed someone who could tie two kadju trees.”

When he completed his fifth year, G. R. had stopped going to Ananda. “This was in 1950. The previous year, my father had won about 98,000 rupees at the races, a hefty amount for that time. Someone told him to bet some more, because for him the gods were generous with luck when you won a big amount in one sitting. Well, my father went on betting, and along the way built a new house.” Fortune isn’t always consistent, however: by the early sixties, the family was in debt.

In the three or four months young G. R. was at home away from school, his mother would send him to a nearby kiosk every morning with “kadeappan” (pittu and indi aappa). On one such morning, he had been walking along when he came across a sight he never had before: a boy his age, in pyjamas. “It was strange because we didn’t wear pyjamas,” G. R. chortles at me, “This was right after the War. Egodawatte was chock-a-block with Burgher people. Sure, there were Sinhala lads we referred to as ‘kalu lansi’, but there was something about this fellow that caught my attention.”

Predictably, the boy had beckoned to him. “He asked me where I was going. I told him. He then asked me what I was carrying. ‘Kadeappan,’ I shortly told him. ‘Kadeappan?’ he asked me: that word would have been outside his experience. So I opened up what I was carrying. He then asked me whether he could have some string hoppers. I defiantly got up and said that he’d do well to buy it at the kiosk. That was the first time I encountered this lad. I later got to know that he was born the same year that I had been, and that I was younger than him by about six months. It didn’t take long for us to get to know each other, and to become friends.”

That boy, who among other things would later introduce G. R. and his friends to the RAF soldiers stationed in the area (along with their women), was Tissa Abeysekara.

G. R. opens up about the man here. “Tissa’s father lost his money after the stock market collapsed at the end of the War. They had lived at Havelock Town but later moved to Egodawatte. Because of his upbringing, his command of English was excellent.” Apparently the two of them, together with their friends in the neighbourhood, would swim in a pond adjoining G. R.’s house every day. “As for the RAF officers, I suppose Tissa made such a good impression on them that on nearly every occasion he talked with them, they made it a point to give us something, anything, more often than not some chocolates.”

The two met for the first time on January 4. On May 17, G. R. was admitted to Kumara Vidyalaya in Kotahena. “My mother tried hard to find me a school in the neighbourhood. She could not. Kumara Vidyalaya was near Modera, where an uncle of mine lived. Soon enough, I moved into his house and from there, I’d travel to Kotahena every day.”

Things had been different at Ananda, and while Kumara hadn’t been endowed with every facility a school could have had, nevertheless the students there used what little was available. In fact it was there that G. D. L. Perera (no relative), the playwright and filmmaker who was G. R.’s senior by two years, had staged his play Sama.

A year later however, he had a tussle with that uncle. He soon returned home and once more, was without a school. “Tissa heard about this. One day, he asked me to meet him at about 05.30 in the morning. I was surprised, but Tissa being Tissa I agreed. So I woke up and met him.” The two of them walked through a cemetery, reached the station, took a train to Colombo, and got down at Maradana. “I didn’t know what was going on in his mind. From Maradana we took a tramcar to Galpotha. From Galpotha we walked to Kumara Vidyalaya. He kept on taking his father’s pocket-watch out and looking at the time. I was clueless.”

Having stopped in front of the school, Tissa then turned around and faced G. R. “He told me point-blank that it was a pity I’d stopped going there. He asked me to return. I protested and told him that it was impossible to trudge every morning from Egodawatte to Kotahena. He pooh-poohed that and said that if I caught the 06.05 train, I’d be at school by 07.30. It was then that I realised that he had been looking at his pocket-watch to record the exact time it would take for me to travel from Egodawatte to Kotahena, certainly not a route I’d normally take!” He had however heeded his friend’s advice, and hence from that day resumed his education at Kumara Vidyalaya. “I studied right until my HSC, after which he tried but failed to get me into Dharmapala.”

Their friendship continued unabated. Tissa would get G. R. to come to the Sahithya Sangam meetings at his school, where they would debate on the (de)merits of the writers and novels in vogue at the time. “By default, we took to Russian authors, in part because of how they related to our way of life. It was Tissa who took us from Gogol and Dostoyevsky to Erskine Caldwell and John Steinbeck. That was, of course, a leap which took time to get used to, but he ensured that we read and studied the best from the West. All in all, in terms of literary sensibilities, our childhoods were enriched.” Which is more than what one can say of today’s children, he could have added.

From here he moves on to his career. G. R. was there with Sugathapala de Silva, Premaranjith Tilakaratne, and a horde of other playwrights, after which he moved into the cinema through D. B. Nihalsinghe. Before that though, he chooses to explain how he was initiated into these fields.

As I suspect, it was through Tissa. “After we left school, we spent time frolicking, walking, travelling, basically spending or rather killing time on the arts. I remember one trip in particular, which we made in 1957 to Kandy.” That trip had taken the two of them and some other friends to Puttalam, from where they biked to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa before going to Kandy. “That was the first time I ever travelled on a push bicycle,” he wryly tells me here, adding rather wistfully, “I haven't ridden one since.”

Having visited the Dalada Maligawa, they had gone for a drink at the Botanical Gardens, where Tissa had suggested watching Rekava at the Wembley. The others, however, had rejected the idea, opting instead to take a nap at a friend’s place in Theldeniya. Only G. R. had agreed, and having ascertained that the last bus to Theldeniya came at 09.30, they went and watched the evening show. “Rekava was a short film, it was over by nine, so Tissa and I returned to our friend’s place quickly,” G. R. remembers.

What happened next would irk and amuse him. Tissa didn’t sleep that night: he kept on waking his friend up to talk about the film.

“It was simply annoying,” he laughs, “He was taken in by Rekava. He talked about certain sequences and how well they’d been shot. I must have silently cursed him. Eventually though, I decided to ignore his ramblings and get some sleep. Not that I was successful at it: at five the next morning he woke me up again.” The two of them went out and had some tea at a nearby kiosk, while Tissa bought some foolscap paper from a newspaper stand. When they returned, while G. R. went back to sleep, his friend went on writing something in those foolscap papers (“Three sides, to be specific”).

Not surprisingly, Tissa woke him up yet again. “By this time, I had given up on getting any rest. He wanted me to look at what he’d written, so with sleep-deprived eyes I went through it all. Essentially, it was an appreciation of the film. Tissa could write well, I didn’t see what I had to correct, but nevertheless we edited it. I then asked him to whom he was sending this letter. He didn’t reply. He instead went with me to the Post Office and addressed it thus: ‘Lester James Peries, Galle Road, Adjoining Good Shepherd Convent, Dehiwela.’ Now of course that’s not the way you address a letter to someone, but back then Dr Peries was quite well known in Colombo. Tissa hoped what he wrote would reach him.”

A little more than a week later, when they were back in Egodawatte, he came rushing at G. R. with a postcard. Peries had replied, and more pertinently, had given him a date to come and visit him. “Tissa asked me to accompany him. Since I had time on my hands, I did just that.” And so, for an entire day, the two of them visited and conversed with Lester James Peries, with much of that conversation flowing between him and Tissa. “I was almost an outsider that day. We went to his Dehiwela residence at about 10 in the morning. We left at about five in the evening. You can imagine the amount of talk those two engaged in!”

It was here, as he correctly surmises, that his own career began. As I mentioned above, it was the theatre that first entranced him, particularly through Sugathapala de Silva. Apparently Sugathapala had wanted a name for his troupe of actors, and to this end had downed 13 arrack bottles over 12 days under the Nuga tree at Victoria Park. “Not an easy thing,” G. R. comments, adding that it was he who saved the troupe from what would have been a series of unseemly hangovers: “On the 12th day, I happened to remark, ‘Balahan Sugath, arakku bothal daha thunak oni ne ape kattiyata namak hoyaganna!’ ‘Stop right there, you got it!’ was Sugathapala’s reply. I was bewildered. He repeated what I said, then noted, ‘Ape Kattiya we shall be!’”

All this had been for what would mark G. R.’s debut, in Dharmasiri Wickramaratne’s Ran Thodu. “That play created such a sensation that people joined us, including Wickrema Bogoda and another friend of Tissa from Dharmapala, Premaranjith Tilakaratne. Premaranjith broke away from Sugathapala not too long afterwards, and persuaded me to act in his debut, Waguru Bima, in 1963.”

One play led to another, and soon enough he was cast in his first film, D. B. Nihalsinghe’s Welikathara, which also marked Tissa’s debut as a scriptwriter. “I was Tarzan Kumara, a protégé of the antagonist of the story, Goring Mudalali, played by Joe Abeywickrama. I was there only for one sequence, at a police station which actually was the office of G. D. L. Perera’s theatre group Kala Pela, in Nawinne.”

Debuts are always memorable for more reasons than one. This particular sequence, as those who have seen the film will remember, has the antihero and of-sorts protagonist Wickrema Randeniya (Gamini Fonseka) interrogate and grill Tarzan Kumara for about five minutes before breaking into a rage. Randeniya then, according to the script, is supposed to tear at the man’s ears to force a confession out of him. “I suppose Gamini, who was known to ‘get into’ moods in such sequences, got into his character there. How? By breaking into such a rage that that he ended up tearing nearly every hair and even some skin off my ear. Needless to say, I bled.” He laughs at this: “Gamini was terrified at the sight of blood. I remember him closing his eyes and face with his hands and telling the director, ‘I say Nihal, let’s call it a day.’”

Since then, the man has been busy. 54 local and six foreign films (three Indian, two American, and one German) over the course of three decades may hardly seem prodigious for a man of his stature, but it is with those TV series that he’s become a familiar figure. 650 appearances, one must concede, is no easy task for one person. All of those, moreover, have been as supporting characters, a point reinforced some years ago when, at the Raigam Awards, he was bestowed with a statuette for the most number of such appearances by an individual actor.

So what does this gentle giant, now in his 77th year, think of the strides and deterioration we have encountered in our television industry? “First and foremost, we need people who understand the medium. We are seeing a deficit when it comes to such people. I don’t remember who it was, but someone once said that under a qualified director, a cameraman is only a technician. That pretty much applies to every technician involved in this industry and the cinema: if the director is bad, that trickles down to every other crew and cast member.”

I put to him that in the rush to commercialise everything, we have foregone on creativity, and he agrees: “To give you just one example, in my day we never had long takes for something as mundane as a character walking from a gate to a house. Today, however, because of this obsession over prolonging episodes for the sake of getting more advertising revenue, we have many such pointless long takes.” He adds here that an episode barely gets a lakh from the broadcaster, a painfully low amount which has the unintended consequence of keeping good scriptwriters away.

What of the theatre? “The biggest problem is also the most discernible. We lack good halls. We don’t have Lionel Wendt, Lumbini, and Navarangahala everywhere.” I put to him that we need more theatres, and if so, to propose such an idea would be difficult if the government is to get involved. To which, with some irritation, the man replies, “Why MUST we get the government involved? We’ve had actors who became presidential advisors. Who among them got the president to open at least a kudaarama for our playwrights? Not one! That is why I always believe that for artistes to rise, we must acknowledge that we are better than politicians.”

I then ask him as to whether he has a plan to salvage our theatre. He does. “It’s simple: build new theatres in areas in and out of the metropolis. Each theatre will be dedicated to a playwright from abroad and will be built according to the architecture of the country of that playwright. For instance, the theatre dedicated to Ibsen will be built the way they build such complexes in Norway. More importantly, these theatre complexes will not only have the obligatory stage, but a separate stage for rehearsals, a library, and rest-rooms for actors and crew members who come from afar.”

What of funding, a problem given his discernible distrust of politicians? “I remember talking with the former Ambassador of Norway, at his official residence here, about this matter once. He asked me whether I’d be sending the proposal for it to my government. I told him a story. Whenever I visited Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, I made it a point to visit the dagabas. When I came across them, tears would come to my eyes. Why?

“Because as I worshipped them, I remembered and wept for the people, my own ancestors, who contributed bricks and other material. The king was a patron, no more. So I told the Ambassador that we could finance this project quite simply: by getting each and every citizen of his country to contribute one unit of their currency. How would it differ from the conventional process of getting my government involved? Simple: when you get the people involved, you get everyone dedicated involved.” Not surprisingly, the Ambassador had taken to his suggestion: “He embraced me and asked me as to where I got such an idea. I told him that I was born with that idea.”

Life is short, art is not. That probably is a credo that this man of many faces has taken to heart. I don’t know when his project will end, or for that matter who will be there with him as he takes it forward. I do know, however, that with 650 appearances on TV, 60 on film, and a horde of others onstage, G. R. Perera has earned himself a place here. Such a place, no one else can claim.

As for his life, suffice it to say that those who grew up in the nineties saw it unfold on TV. I am of course talking about Pitagamkarayo, that landmark series directed by (who else?) Tissa Abeysekara. I suggest we all watch it, once again, to ascertain the worth of the man. Even if we can't, we ought to acknowledge his life. And we ought to lend him a helping hand. Our hand.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, December 21 and 28 2016