Thursday, January 12, 2017

On Amarasiri Kalansuriya, or 'Kalan' to most

The seventies and eighties clearly were tumultuous decades for our cinema. Most commentators, in their rush to inject political relevance to our cultural history, tend to see in them the flowering of a political cinema. True. That does not, however, belittle the other precedents, landmarks, and revolutions which our directors, actors, and scriptwriters wrought. It was in the seventies, for instance, that H. D. Premaratne emerged, and it was in the eighties that, thanks in part to liberalised social and economic policies, an independent cinema here was given birth to. For me, the most significant result of all this was the rise and formation of a different breed of actors: those who not only appealed to the youth, but exemplified it.

Top among these actors, of course, was Vijaya Kumaratunga, whom I wrote on some months ago. Vijaya set a precedent. He was not Gamini Fonseka. He needn’t have been. He had an image and that image, at the end of the day, depended on how many conventional, formulaic films he took part in. Those who decry the man’s unwillingness to act in off-the-beaten-track ventures, therefore, fail to acknowledge the fact that for our cinema to throw up actors who took to our youth, the precedent-setter (if you will) had to participate in films which, though certainly lacking in critical appeal, reaped dividends at the box-office.

Vijaya came to us in Hanthane Kathawa. He acted opposite Tony Ranasinghe, by then an established star in the mould of Montgomery Clift and James Dean, and (I admit with no hesitation) bested him. But Vijaya was not alone there. He had a co-star. Someone who’d go on to symbolise youth in a different, less brash way. His name, Amarasiri Kalansuriya, or Kalan to most.

Before I (try to) examine Kalansuriya’s reputation in the context of our cinema, a brief biographical sketch is called for. He was born in Kandy in September 20, 1940 and was educated at Dharmaraja College. His mother died when he was 17, which compelled him to take care of his three younger brothers. He found menial work as a labourer after leaving school, eventually seeking employment at the Department of Agriculture at Mahiyanganaya, the Air Force (as a lance corporal), and Mallika Studios in his hometown. He left the latter after an argument with his superior, after which (he told me rather candidly when we met) he vowed never to work for anyone again.

This meant, logically enough, that he was his own man. He took to selling clothes. He was able to draw enough profits from these enterprises to set up his own tailor shop, thanks to which he managed to hobnob with several political and cultural figures in his day.

Long before he took to these jobs and before his mother died, though, Kalan had taken to the cinema. Sugathapala Senarath Yapa, on the lookout for aspiring, new actors for his debut, took in the man to act alongside Tony Ranasinghe. Hanthane Kathawa of course is a film that remains as fresh as it would have been back then, a point reinforced by its depiction of campus life. While Kalan had certainly not been to University (at the time he was still in school), he acted with so much sensitivity, wit, and candour that Lester James Peries, again on the lookout for new, aspiring actors, chose him to be Douglas Ranasinghe’s sidekick in Akkara Paha.

Given his mother’s passing away, however, he was forced to move away from films. Remembering this with me, he admitted that he found it difficult to leave behind a tentative career as an actor, but then agreed with me at once when I said that if it wasn’t for all those hard, harsh years, he wouldn’t have injected conviction into his later roles. That second phase in his career, incidentally, began with Dharmasena Pathiraja and Ahas Gawwa, where the director chose the relatively untried and untested Kalan for the role of the protagonist, opposite Wimal Kumar da Costa.

Pathiraja had his repertory of actors: Vijaya, Wimal, Malani Fonseka, Daya Tennakoon, Cyril Wickremage, and Kalan. Malani of course had been an established box-office star long before Ahas Gawwa, but it was with this politically and socially nuanced debut that all those other names really began their careers. The cinema of Dharmasena Pathiraja is noted for its exuberance, its unabashed lack of regard for uniformity (as opposed to say, the films of Lester James Peries). The narrative sometimes refuses to flow from A to B, it swerves and detours, and in the depiction of its characters, privileges spontaneity over reason. Kalansuriya couldn’t have asked for a better comeback.

In my article on Clarence Wijewardena I mentioned that the man couldn’t have made a career out of scoring films if it wasn’t for H. D. Premaratne. Premaratne was accustomed to taking risks and being emboldened by them. He went as far as to cast relative unknowns and in the process, jumpstart their careers (he did this for Bandula Galagedara, the dwarfish aristocrat in his debut Sikuruliya). To break ground and create a middle-path in our cinema, he resorted to actors as opposed to stars. He was not afraid of trying out new blood, which was how and why he invited Kalansuriya to act as the protagonist in his second feature, Apeksha.

If Sikuruliya gives the promise of an instinct-driven director, Apeksha confirms it. The plot’s conventional enough, if not simple: a rich girl falls in love with a man from a low social class, only to be engaged against her will to a man who has his sights on another woman. The predictable unfolds: the other man is exposed for who he is, and the girl’s father, aghast and shocked at his follies, lets the daughter have her way. That final encounter atop a hill, where Kalan (the hero) and his friend (Robin Fernando) fight the antagonist, could have been taken from a standard American flick, and the resolution of the plot’s conflict would have left audiences and critics happy in a way which drew both audiences and accolade. Much of this, no doubt, had to do with Kalansuriya’s acting.

While Sikuruliya and Apeksha conceded ground to the tropes of commercial cinema (with Kalan as the poor hero, Malani as the estranged heiress, and Ranjan Mendis as the rich antagonist), Premaratne’s next film was of a different mould. Parithyagaya, which examined the issue of poverty, class, and the dowry system, paired Kalan with Sriyani Amarasena and Vasanthi Chathurani. His earlier work had a refreshing pop quality to them (no doubt owing to Clarence Wijewardena’s music). Parithyagaya (which got Premaratne working with Premasiri Khemadasa) signifies a break from this trend, the beginning of a new middle cinema in the country. It boosted Kalansuriya’s image as an idealist beset with misfortune in his youth, which he retained throughout the eighties.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think that image ever left him. You see it crop up in every part he took. While the likes of Vijaya Kumaratunga matured, and I daresay hardened, Kalan remained the youthful idealist he would have been in real life. Parithyagaya, to give an example, opens with a sequence of the man riding his bicycle to the city: he rides it, stops it to check its wheels, clutches a moving truck, and daringly takes his hands away from the handlebars for a moment or two.

The opening sequence is crucial, though superficially extraneous, in establishing him as a strongman beset and cut down by social circumstances later on: when he steals money to get his sister the dowry she needs for her lover’s family to agree to her proposal, he is both daring and frail: a composite of opposites signifying the inner turmoil and self-contradictions his characters, in their quest to help others, bred and embodied. He doesn’t particularly do a good job of stealing the money, moreover: in that final scene, after his sister is finally married, when he imagines he’s marrying his fiancĂ©e (Chathurani) atop the poruwa and is disturbed by the intrusion of the police, he almost looks relieved in a defeatist kind of way: it’s as though he’s been expecting the police to come all along, as though it were a moment of reckoning for him.

I think this was the Kalan we grew up loving and (to a point) emulating. You never really had much hope for his protagonists (the man was unable to play antagonists, I like to believe), but that didn’t stop you from offering sympathy for them. The earlier Kalan was a sidekick, someone who, at most, offered balm to his co-star (think of Douglas Ranasinghe from Akkara Paha or Tony Ranasinghe from Hanthane Kathawa). The Kalan of the eighties was a different player. Being an instinct-driven actor, he found his niche with instinct-driven directors. He didn’t take part in a great many films (a pity at one level, a blessing at another) but in the few he was in, he brought home the point he wanted to make with his characters.

I met Amarasiri Kalansuriya the other day and I saw someone I’d seen many, many, many years ago. He remains the young idealist he always was. More pertinently, he remains young. Hasn’t really aged. Brash, candid, and honest, he has combined his youthfulness with a sense of humility and humanity that has, I fervently believe, aided him over most of life’s rough terrains. He hasn’t still finished his rounds, I suspect.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, January 11 2017