Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sriyani Amarasena: The fragile female

The evolution of the Sinhala cinema can at one level be traced from Rukmani Devi to Pooja Umashankar in terms of the shift in gender relations the industry has brought about. No longer is the female denied agency, in other words. She possesses enough and more of it to think, act, and if necessary rebel on her own.

To be sure, there’s little that distinguishes the intensely patriarchal world inhabited by Rukmani from the subtly patriarchal world inhabited by Pooja, but the point of this article (the subject of which is the star of my column this week) is that the female figure was seen in terms of the image that the individual actor (or actress) projected. She could be weak, she could be strong. She could be bewitching, she could be innocent. Either way, she sustained a particular image, which defined her career.

Such a self-evident and self-explanatory point about our acting industry, however, becomes difficult to sustain when considering those other actors who resist easy categorisation. Where does one place the early Swarna Mallawarachchi (from Hanthane Kathawa, Thunman Handiya, and Matharaachchi) and where does one place the early Veena Jayakody (from Sarungale, Keli Madala, and Dorakada Marawa), devoid as all these roles are of the empathy both gained in their later roles? A question not many would want to answer, which is why this week’s star, Sriyani Amarasena, compels my interest.

Unlike the early Swarna and Veena and the later Irangani Serasinghe, there’s little (if at all) which distinguishes the first few phases of Sriyani’s career from her subsequent ones. I can’t come up with a proper description of the characters that she played, but I believe Lester James Peries came closest to it: most of her characters reflect her doll-like, fragile, empathetic figure and voice. This is not an assessment as such of Sriyani’s career or life, rather a cursory sketch of what she represented and how she figured in an era where the female in our cinema gained more representation and agency.

She was born Sriyani Weerakoon Kumarihamy in Meethotamulla to a fairly middle-class family. In her own words (I talked with her two years ago) she had a very secure and privileged childhood, largely protected by the income her father received from his job at the Colombo Municipal Council. Added to this was the fact that she was an only child, which meant that her education was received in comparatively good schools: firstly at Meethotamulla Vidyalaya, then at Museaus College and later at Gothami Balika Vidyalaya, the latter two in Colombo. She completed her studies until her SSC, during which time she also indulged in singing, acting, dancing, and drawing.

When I put to her that most girls her age, at that time, would have been discourage from pursuing the arts by their parents, Sriyani begged to differ and replied, “Not my parents. From Day One, they knew what I was good at. Far from discouraging me, they actually took me to Siri Perera in the SLBC and put me in his Lama Mandapaya program.” She was, she told me, about seven or eight at the time, young enough to nurture her talent at singing and acting so that in her teenage and adult years, she was aspiring for real performances. She got those through her first real figure of destiny, Dayananda Gunawardena.

Apparently her mother had answered a paper advertisement calling for a teenage girl for a stage drama called Thammanna. The role had been that of Kuveni. Because she was only 15 at the time, the director had turned down her application. Around the same time, however, Dayananda had seen her and had taken her in for his Nari Bana. She was the Gama Duwa, the girl who enraptures a wolf which kidnaps her to be its consort. While I have not seen Sriyani in Nari Bana I have seen subsequent versions of Dayananda’s play, enough for me to surmise that Sriyani symbolised the pliable woman she’d end up playing in the cinema.

In the late sixties, after her marriage to journalist and writer Arthur Amarasena, she was called in to act in Lester James Peries’ Delovak Athara by Tissa Abeysekara. Because she was pregnant at the time, though, she (and the other actress tipped to play the female protagonist in it, Anula Karunatilake), were not taken in. Anula would be featured in Lester’s next film, Ran Salu, while Sriyani got to play the sister-in-law to Wickrema Bogoda in his very next film, Golu Hadawatha.

As Champa, the almost motherly figure to Sugath (Bogoda), Sriyani occupied no more than 10 or 15 minutes in the story. She comes across as a perfect yet subtle counterpoint to Sugath’s lover, Dhammi. If Dhammi represents a talkative, freewheeling spirit, Champa represents stability, motherliness, protectiveness, and tradition. Her character is manipulated to appear rather too accommodating of Sugath’s shifts of temper and anger, but in the second half of the story, Sugath is made aware of how similar to such an accommodative character even Dhammi is, so much so that she compels him gently to return to his brother (Wijeratne Warakagoda) and Champa.

The roles that Sriyani got to play after Golu Hadawatha (especially as protagonists) were static and refreshingly so, to say the least. Despite the differences in time and place, there’s nothing much that separates Sundari in Desa Nisa from Vineetha in Ahasin Polawata (both of which were directed by Lester James Peries). The only difference is that in the former, we come across the Sriyani who compels men to take to her because of her compassion, only to be disconcerted once that veneer of empathy withers away. This is of particular interest to me, so I will explain it further.

In the final sequence in Desa Nisa (which was for some reason rather crassly cut), when Sundari is cured by the insidious hermit (Ravindra Randeniya), she finally comes across Nirudaka and understands why he was so unwilling to get her cured (because he is “ugly”). For a moment, both Nirudaka and his mother (Denawaka Hamine) are happy but on tenterhooks, expecting her reaction to his “ugliness”. When she does finally react, with a laugh that is at once sharp and ambiguous (does she laugh because she scoffs Nirudaka’s worries or because she dislikes his face?), Nirudaka retires to the forest, defeated. That laugh, and that ambiguous reaction, brings up my point that because Sriyani was so driven by empathy, the moment she let her instincts take over her essential character, she jolted every man and woman beside her.

That is why she induces our unconditional compassion as Vineetha in Ahasin Polawata. That is also why, paired as she was with the tempestuous Tony Ranasinghe (who by then had entered his second career phase, depicting cruel and morally ambiguous men), she was completely herself there, a point Lester implied in a conversation I had with him some years ago. As Regi Siriwardena noted in his review of the film (which he did not like), however, there is absolutely nothing that rationalises Tony’s dislike of his wife, save his irrational impulses, which in a way weakens the plot and which can’t be salvaged even by an able supporting cast (Vijaya Kumaratunga, Ajith Jinadasa, Vasanthi Chathurani, D. R. Nanayakkara, and Shanthi Lekha). In the end, Ahasin Polawata deteriorates into the same kind of maudlin sentimentality its director (Lester) had wanted to avoid.

On this count, it was Sriyani’s character which substantiated those irrational impulses which Tony’s character reflects. Tony is jealous, spiteful, and envious: he is driven by reason, not emotion, so much so that he refuses to deliver his own child. By her genuinely felt reactions to his many flare-ups, she helps us the audience parse the plot (which was dependent on flashbacks, reawakening Tony’s guilt at her death). The final sequence does not, to my mind, come together well (Vineetha’s sister Pushpa, played by Vasanthi, extends a hand to Tony, symbolising reconciliation), but the sequence before it, of Sriyani reflecting optimistically on her marriage, serves as a more coherent finale.

I have written a lot on Ahasin Polawata because for me, Sriyani came out best in that remarkable though flawed film. The films she got thereafter – barring a few against type performances in Sarungale (where was a hardy, chatty, and gossipy shanty woman) and a few other commercial flicks – accentuated the image of her as a fragile but determined woman, which put her opposite the likes of Swarna Mallawarachchi, Nadeeka Gunasekara, and Anoja Weerasinghe.

In the final analysis, with all those subsequent films and serials she got to act in, produce, and even direct, she merely reminded us that with that slender, graceful figure and voice of hers, she could portray women who neither crooned at nor rebelled against their cruel destinies, but rather opted to move along with the flow, retaining optimism in a world that was increasingly being occupied by cruel husbands, fathers, and lovers. It is from this point that I can conclude by writing that inasmuch as the agency of the female could be portrayed by depicting them as fighters and independent thinkers, Sriyani proved that even as a slender, fragile, and deeply thoughtful woman, she could just as ably reinforce that same agency.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 29 2017