Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Anula Karunathilaka: The Dhammi of our sensibilities

The Sinhala cinema, before its maturing in the seventies, underwent a paradigm shift in the sixties. Unlike much of the West, we didn’t have the kind of infrastructure that was needed for the cinema to claim “film stars” as such: whatever screen face that emerged came from the theatre. Regardless of what the critics may have thought, our films therefore owe as much to the West as they do to our hybridised, stylised theatre.

It is this relationship between two otherwise diametrically opposed art-forms, then, that defined our film industry for quite some time, and it is this which also (coincidentally) introduced a breed of instinct-driven stars who managed to distinguish between the theatricality of the stage and the subtlety of the screen. Anula Karunathilaka, who hasn’t acted for quite some time, would obviously fall into this category.

She is known more than anything else for depicting a lover who, regardless of the decades and generations that have since passed, epitomised our most heartfelt youthful interludes. At times she has been (unfairly, I believe) gauged on the merits of this one performance, and at times her other credits have been marginalised and understated.

But then Anula remains hard to define, harder to analyse, if at all because she was always an instinct-driven actress. When I first met her many, many years ago, she told me her story and how large a part coincidence played in her encounters, trials, tribulations, victories, and defeats.

Passing over the infinitely easier task of sketching out her biography, I asked her to start at the point her career began. That had been in 1962, the year her sister suggested that she send a photograph of hers to the Dawasa newspaper for a beauty queen contest. They had not however been published, which prompted the two of them and their father to visit the office and collect them. 

What happened next? “A new photo of me was taken,” she recalled, “and it was published a little while later. I remember that I was in the top six when the votes were counted and I remember being taken in for the final contest.”

That contest proved to be a turning point for her, because of two people attending it: Sumitra Peries (then Gunawardena) and Tissa Abeysekara, both of whom were to be involved in the first landmark film made here, Gamperaliya. A week later, Sugathapala de Silva and G. W. Surendra had come to ask her father as to whether she could be auditioned for a role in the film.

Did her father consent? “Not immediately,” she smiled, “Because you must remember, young girls were not supposed to act back then. The one point in my favour was the identity of the director. Even before Gamperaliya, Lester James Peries was reputed as an unconventional exponent of the cinema, who didn’t go for the kind of commercial flicks girls like me were notoriously associated with. After much persuasion and because of this one point, my father relented. Soon enough, he and my sister were with me as we went to Dr Peries’ residence.”

At his house, however, the man had seen Anula and had commented rather ruefully, “My dear, you are too small.” The role she had been asked to audition for had been that of Nanda, which would of course be filled in another girl who had already been featured in the cinema, Punya Heendeniya. For the moment Anula had been asked to audition with Gamini Fonseka, but eventually she had been given the role of Laisa, the servant-girl whose part was butchered in subsequent versions of Lester’s seminal film. She tells me here, rather bitterly I infer, that out of the hundred or so copies that were made after its release only one remains which hasn’t cut down on her screen time.

She was 16 when Gamperaliya was released. This was (still) in 1962. Her debut role in the cinema would soon be followed by a veritable series of stage plays, when in the following year Sugathapala de Silva took her in for his troupe “Ape Kattiya” and their first production, Dharmasiri Wickremaratne’s Ran Thodu (where she was paired with G. W. Surendra and Tony Ranasinghe). Ran Thodu had been a controversial masterpiece, a watershed in the history of our theatre at a time when stylisation held sway everywhere, and Tony and her wound up as Best Actor and Actress at that year’s State Drama Festival.

Her next foray into the cinema had been through Titus Thotawatte, who featured her as Sumana, the female protagonist, in his Chandiya, opposite Gamini Fonseka. The latter himself would feature her opposite him again in Parasathumal, where she connived rather menacingly and bitterly to undo the love triangle between Bonnie Mahaththaya (Fonseka), Tony Ranasinghe, and the woman at the centre of the story’s conflict, Punya Heendeniya. Parasathumal moreover was released in 1967, the year she turned 21 on the day she signed a contract for her next big venture, Golu Hadawatha. It was with that seminal production that she got her career-defining role, as Dhammi Kariyawasam.

I believe it was Regi Siriwardena who commented that Karunasena Jayalath was responsible for the shift in our literature from Martin Wickramasinghe to pulp fiction. This was beyond a doubt facilitated by the man’s own experiences, for his debut novel Golu Hadawatha (published in the same year Anula began her career, 1962) was rooted in his schoolboy days at Taxila Vidyalaya, Horana. I believe Anula summed up his attitude best: “It was a different world back then, with a different way of responding to emotions. Today you come across unrequited lovers resorting to the knife and the gun in a bid to reclaim their love, but back then people transformed those sorrows and defeats into laments, dirges, and poetry.”

Because of this perhaps, those who read Karunasena’s book grew to hate Dhammi, who in his novel had even less empathy that her onscreen avatar. “People hated her character, but they never failed to tell me that they loved my performance as her,” Anula told me. With vague and faint echoes of that other timeless tribute to unrequited love, Devdas, Golu Hadawatha proved to be a sensation, which meant that audiences were guaranteed for anyone who churned out a good, veritable, and reckonable film adaptation. This was exactly what Lester James Peries came up with in 1968, with the first of three films he made for Ceylon Theatres.

In Dhammi I come across a different Anula, the Anula who hid her emotions so well that in the final sequence relating her version of events, she let us know that she was not lacking in empathy. The first hour of Golu Hadawatha lets us in on Sugath’s perspective, which is probably why, to intensify our sympathy for him, Lester went for Wickrema Bogoda. But the real star in the film without a doubt was Anula, who swayed between “kelilol” playfulness and bittersweet seriousness throughout the story in a way that added meaning to an already intense conflict.

When we see her in that fateful beach sequence, for instance, telling Sugath that she never really loved him, we are confounded because, right until then, we had shared Sugath’s feelings for her. It would take a tremendous effort to transform our hatred for her to empathy, which is what she achieved with that remarkable sustained sequence of her version of the story.

Golu Hadawatha wasn’t her only film of course, and almost all her subsequent portrayals unearthed her versatility: in Ran Salu, for instance, she was both a freewheeling, materialistic woman and, towards the end, a serious and contemplative nun-to-be. Whether or not she would have continued this way, however and alas, is a question no one can answer, because owing to her marriage to the photographer Daya Wimalaweera she had to let go of her career in the cinema.

“I have no regrets on that score,” she told a very bewildered me, adding that she and Daya were always together until his demise many years ago. Incidentally, it was Wimalaweera who had taken the photograph of her at the Dawasa office. Small world, I thought to myself as I moved on.

Based on her responses to my other questions, I can say this about her later career. As Sunil’s mother in Amba Yahaluwo and as the mother to Kamal Addararachchi in Ran Diya Dahara, we come across a different Anula. She has by this point let go of her earlier avatar. Unlike most actresses her age who continued on with the cinema at this time (among them, Malini Fonseka and Geetha Kumarasinghe) she has refused to epitomise the youthfulness which virtually gushed from her in Parasathumal, Ran Salu, Golu Hadawatha, and Bakmaha Deege. She has become a matriarchal figure, prone to slight outbursts of temper, always suspicious, and never overfriendly.

There is one point that links both those aforementioned performances, however: the fact that even as a matriarch, she has to rely on a more powerful figure to assert herself: Maha Kumarihamy (Ruby de Mel) in Amba Yahaluwo, and the father to Kamal (Henry Jayasena) in Ran Diya Dahara. She of course continued to play the mother in several advertisements, but whether or not we could have continued with her film career this away, however and alas again, no one can answer.

I came across Anula for the first time as Sunil’s mother. Amba Yahaluwo was a prescribed text at my school, so watching it was vital for me to understand what I was reading. Regardless of how much screen time she was given and based on what I observed, therefore, I can say this much: the Anula Karunathilaka of the eighties had undergone a subtle but discernible shift. It is sad that she could not continue. We would have wanted her to. And we would have profited greatly.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, February 22 2017