Monday, February 20, 2017

Vasanthi Chathurani: The girl next door

Actors and actresses are often remembered for their first role and the age at which they broke through the screen. Consequently, they reflect that age in whatever role they play and for that reason, reflect on their debut performance no matter how old or how young they are later on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Bette Davis, for instance, was a veritable hag and Jezebel even in her most mature portrayals, while Audrey Hepburn, at the opposite pole, epitomised youth and fragility even in her last few performances. What’s true for the West, one can hence surmise, is true for the rest of the world, Sri Lanka included.

Vasanthi Chathurani came to us as a little girl. She was cast in a film that tragically remains a little underrated, even today. Because she never really left behind her youth, I suppose she took her innocence with her even as the decades marched on and even as a different breed of actors emerged in our film and television industries. I met her, not too long ago, and talked with her, noting that this lady before me, who’s still at it in television, hasn’t really let go of the girl she was in her first performance. With respect to the image she’s projected to the world outside, I can say this much: she isn’t wont to that cosmetic, superficial refinement others in her field have wallowed in.

I begin by asking for a brief, biographical sketch. She readily complies. Vasanthi was born Doreen Peterson and was sent to Holy Cross Convent in Gampaha. Despite the opposition displayed by such institutions to the performing arts, young Vasanthi had delved into dancing, poetry recitation, and the theatre at school, on one occasion winning the Best Actress award for a stage play. I infer at once that she was enamoured of the cinema from an early age, and that there must have been some opposition by her family to this. I am correct on both counts: her grandmother, who’d looked after her following her mother’s death, was a gentle lady who nevertheless disliked films (or “bioscope” as they were disparagingly called then).

Her first foray into the cinema was with Sumitra Peries. Sumitra, on the lookout for a girl for her debut, had come to Gampaha because Colombo hadn’t yielded the figure she was looking for. “I must have been around 15 when Sumitra visited Holy Cross,” Vasanthi remembers, “Because some of our classmates were relatives of hers, she found it easy to breach into our Convent through our Mother Superior, Sister Helen, who surprisingly let her ask us about our lives and interests during the interval.” The girls, predictably, had all wanted to be in her film, and so had ranted and raved that they were better than the rest. Young Vasanthi, despite her love for the performing arts, was too shy to get through to Sumitra.

“That was when she noticed me and beckoned to me. I went up, rather shyly, and looked at her as she asked after me. When she inquired as to whether I would like to play the main role in her film, I tentatively said I would but that I had to ask from my family first. She agreed, took down my address, and let me go. About 10 minutes after I reached home following school, I was rather shocked to see Sumitra and her team come to our house.” She had reason to worry, incidentally: village girls just weren’t supposed to act in bioscope back then. Perhaps knowing that this was indeed the case, Sumitra talked with her relatives and grandmother, wrote down her address, and asked them to mail her their response as soon as possible.

Fortunately for young Vasanthi, her family wasn’t really hell-bent against the cinema. “There was a relative of ours who had watched Lester James Peries’ films. He told us that they were good, that they were different to the crass, commercial fare which we usually saw. That must have persuaded my dear grandmother to relent, and soon enough, I was on my way to Colombo to act for Mrs Peries.”

So how were the first few days, I ask. “Terrible!” she laughs, “I just couldn’t take to all those lights, the crew, and the camera. They overwhelmed me, obviously. Unfortunately on account of that, I refused to recite my lines and to act at all.”

Sumitra obviously had been upset and this had been amply reflected in her crew as well. Apparently some of them suggesting that another young actress be taken in, but the director had not listened to them. I ask Vasanthi why, and she replies that it was because by then, she had pictured her protagonist in her form. Not one to affirm defeat at once, Sumitra had then done what would today be considered as reckless: she had shifted the shooting schedule and, one week later, went ahead filming certain sequences at a school. “We had originally decided to start at a mati geya built in her property in Pita Kotte, with Trilicia Gunawardena and Jenita Samaraweera. We instead waited for one week and left to St John Bosco's College in Hanwella.”

What happened next surprised both Vasanthi and Sumitra’s crew (though not Sumitra herself). Once she was clad in a school uniform, she virtually did everything that a schoolgirl usually did at that age: talk, dance, even sing. “I took to my role at once,” she remembers, “I think the director realised then that I could act, because she distinctly told me that even if I could not act, I needn’t get worried, because what she wanted from me, she would get out of my eyes and face. At the time I didn’t get what she told me, but after the film was released, I did. Essentially, where words and dialogues failed, my eyes and face would do. They spoke for me, in other words.”

The film, incidentally and of course, was Gehenu Lamayi. In it, Sumitra did to Chathurani what Dreyer did with Renée Falconetti in his remarkable masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc: depict the woman as a tragic figure, cringing and crying for help but hardly being noticed by a largely patriarchal society.

Vasanthi was only 16 when Gehenu Lamayi came out, a point which intensified the tragedy she’s part and parcel of in its plot in a way Sumitra’s other films couldn’t: that final sequence, for instance, of her crying after realising that she has failed her exams and is therefore part of the unemployed, is rather unbearable to sit through. While I do not doubt much of the credit must go to Sumitra, it was with Vasanthi that we were able to watch and appreciate a different woman: the sort who neither crooned at nor rebelled against tragedy, but opted to give themselves to their horrendously unfair circumstances and destinies.

From then on, of course, she got one film after another, by the dozen: she was there, with some of the finest directors that era bred, among them Lester James Peries, Dharmasena Pathiraja, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, H. D. Premaratne, Sunil Ariyaratne, and Chandran Rutnam. I don’t ask her as to what portrayal she considers her favourite, because I already know the answer: it’s hard to pick, let alone choose. Speaking for myself, however, I would tentatively select her role in Adara Hasuna, where as the wronged and misunderstood wife of a powerful, authoritarian Colonel (Joe Abeywickrama), she intensified the story in a way that made it the closest the Sinhala cinema ever came to a Douglas Sirk tearjerker.

She led another life of course: as a television actress and, a little later, a producer of TV series. She began with Aga Pipi Mal, televised in 2003 and scripted by Sumitra Rahubadda (who wrote the source novel). Aga Pipi Mal was rather prophetic, an indication of the kind of stories she’d opt for as a producer. “All my teleseries centre on strong but maligned women,” she explains to me. Her landmark series in this regard has to be Gajaman Nona (directed by Wimalaratne Adikari for Rupavahini), and I tell her then and there that she virtually lived her role in that remarkable story of the most tragic female figure from that part of our history. She agrees, with a modest laugh. Glancing at her living room, I notice the many, many statuettes she’s won with practically all her productions.

Spatial constraints prevent me from delving into her work in its entirety, so I wrap up our interview by asking her as to how things have changed today.

“First and foremost, attitudes have changed. Directors don’t know how to handle actors anymore. In fact just the other day, I reprimanded a young director who had a habit of losing his temper with his cast. I told him frankly that if I, Vasanthi Chathurani, were harshly rebuked by my first few directors, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Secondly, they lack experience. They are so enamoured of the commercial aspect to their work that they opt for shooting one episode a day. Predictably, this cuts down on quality, not just because work is rushed but also because in that rush, they do away with multiple camera angles, shots, and smooth pacing. Thirdly, television stations sometimes give us about a fraction of the cost entailed in producing our series. This breeds two unfortunate consequences: one, good scriptwriters are kept away, and two, to cut down on costs, directors stretch their plots like elastic and go for the mega-series approach.”

Sobering reflections, I should think. To wrap up our interview, I therefore ask her as to whether she is still at it. She readily agrees. “We have talent, enough and more for me to continue. If we lose hope, we lose everything. Because I haven’t lost anything in my work, I hence continue to move ahead.” In the final analysis, perhaps that’s why she continues to do what she does, win awards, and win our hearts. Whether or not she’s there featured in her own series. That, I fervently believe, must have something to do with how much of the girl next door she’s become. Even today.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, February 19 2017