Friday, March 10, 2017

Swarna Mallawarachchi and the cinema of the taunted

The history of a film industry can best be traced through the evolution of its actors. Going by this truism, the industry here has more or less shifted from Rukmani Devi to Pooja Umashankar, both of whom have been identified as veritable stars and both of whom have pandered to the commercial strains of the most expensive art-form the world has ever known. This is not an article about Pooja or Rukmani, rather a brief perusal of what it means to be an actress in the Sri Lankan cinema, given its history and given the shift in gender relations it has brought about.

Someone pointed out to me the other day that Malini Fonseka epitomised the idealised, fetishized female in our cinema. This bears close scrutiny for one reason: even in her worst films, she gave a good performance, and in all her performances, she was the woman who made every man in the country desire her. And it didn’t end there: she made us want her so much that those who directed her reaped even more box-office dividends by separating her from the men she loved, until the very end of those stories she was featured in, when they were reconciled.

Separation, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. For better or worse, this is what Malini echoed in practically every performance of hers during the seventies. In K. A. W. Perera’s Wasana, for instance, she clearly loves Vijaya Kumaratunga’s protagonist, but owing to her social background, cannot love him for long. She leaves him and in doing so forces him to desire her even more, taunting her to a point where she loses interest in her present paramour and returns to him, triumphant. To a considerable extent, this meant that she not only made us want her but also made us go to any lengths to have her.

Malini came to us at a time when the cinema hadn’t yet unshackled itself of the patriarchy it had been rooted in. Despite the best efforts of Lester James Peries and Dharmasena Pathiraja (both of whom featured her extensively), it could not move away from the fetishized female she had symbolised. That is why, as Asoka Handagama observed in a Facebook post last month, even as Mala from Ektam Ge (who ends up ruining the lives of the two men who desired her) she could compel only love, not fear, from us.

Not surprisingly, she was never the femme fatale because she could not be: the most she could become on this count was the untamed but unsullied heroine in Sasara Chethana, whereas her own director she intertwined the Western with the fairy-tale-like theme of separation at childhood. In the end, she became a Queen precisely because of her characterisation of the frail, hardy, but chaste woman. No other actor could equal her, which is why the only actor who surpassed her in the eighties (and who is the subject of this article) became her equal by depicting the exact kind of woman she was not. I am, of course, referring to Swarna Mallawarachchi.

I pointed out elsewhere that Swarna’s first few performances after her return from abroad reflected her debut roles. In Sath Samudura and Thunman Handiya, she was the jealous, spiteful in-law. Her mere existence depended on how much she envied and despised her in-laws. That is exactly what comes through in Yahalu Yeheli and Hansa Vilak, both of which drove her to her second phase and which affirmed the kind of patriarchy she would later repudiate. It was in this second phase, moreover, that she became what Malini Fonseka could not: the woman who compels not just empathy, but fear and (as with Kadapathaka Chaya) loathing.

In the first half of Dadayama, Vasantha Obeyesekere offers us not just a female victim but the very idealisation of that victim conjured up by our actresses until then: weeping, struggling, and suffering, she can only fantasise about her lover. In the second half of that remarkable film, however, she has learnt enough and more to be wary of that lover: as Swarna herself contended in a televised interview recently, if a woman had faced such a calamity in an earlier film, she would probably have sung about it, wept, and gone on with her life.

Perhaps it was this which Regi Siriwardena had in mind when he wrote that even the popular cinema could “subvert socially enforced discourses.” Obeyesekere was a proponent of parallel cinema, which made use of tropes rampant in the commercial film industry to subvert the patriarchal strains underlining it. This, in turn, helped us witness the “latent and apparent agency of the female” (Malinda Seneviratne, “Swarna Mallawarachchi: A moving mirror reflecting who we are”) that Swarna unearthed and unleashed with Dadayama.

That final sequence, unbearable to sit through even on a TV screen, strikes us because by then, the director and scriptwriter (Obeyesekere was both) has guided us through the painful but necessary transition from fantasy to reality: no longer is there any background music (which coloured the earlier sequences of Swarna and her tormentor flirting around) and no longer is there any hope. The Rathmali of the first half of Dadayama is a dreamer, while the Rathmali of the second half is as brutal and vengeful as her abuser.

That Malini could not quite make it through this transition is evident in the films she took part in during the eighties. She won the Sarasavi Best Actress Award for Hingana Kolla, Aradhana, and Yasa Isuru when Swarna won for Dadayama, Sagara Jalaya, and Bawa Duka. Hingana Kolla doesn’t warrant a second glance, and Aradhana and Yasa Isuru have her as the tormented, alienated lover and sister, who (predictably) accepts her fate and moves on. The closest she got to that aforementioned transition, hence, was a supporting figure: in Parakrama Niriella’s Siri Medura (where she ends up being murdered by Anoja Weerasinghe, compelling empathy).

In Akasa Kusum she epitomised all her previous roles by reminding us of the younger, beautiful star she once was and how much of a replica of them she has become. That was potent enough. After Dadayama, Kadapathaka Chaya, Anantha Rathriya, and Channa Kinnari, however, Swarna couldn’t really worry us by making us imagine about her former avatar(s) this way, which is why, in Age Asa Aga, she became a virtual matriarch, protective of her familial bonds but receptive and not oblivious to the shattering of those same bonds. Is this an inevitable transition for her? I cannot tell because writers are not augurs, but I can guess. So I will guess.

Asoka Handagama directed Swarna in Channa Kinnari, so because he directed her again and precipitated her return to the cinema, what he says about her makes sense. Here’s what Handagama had to say about Swarna in Age Asa Aga, therefore: “With Malini Fonseka, you know what you see now is pretty much an extrapolation of what she’s acted in before. With Swarna, however, you need to prepare yourself, because virtually no two performances of hers are or can ever be the same.” In other words, she has become the inversion of the female she portrayed right until Channa Kinnari.

The plot in Age Asa Aga (or Let Her Cry) amply confirms this, I believe. No longer is Swarna abused or cast aside. She is only ignored, by a husband whose affections for a girl (Rithika Kodithuwakku) are spent the moment he realises his larger obligations. The girl, however, is not willing to accept this, even when her older lover makes it clear that he has to let go. Because she persists, and because a Handagama story is never that simple, the wife takes her in, not to shelter her but to intensify their latent, mutual loathing of one another.

Here it is Swarna who stands up for family ties, and it is Rithika who convinces her to accept her husband’s infidelity while offering empathy and staying away. To be sure, Handagama doesn’t give us a coherent storyline, which is why the film fails to move us, but despite that, he somehow parses his plot thanks to Swarna and Rithika. With the relationship between these two, he shows us the transition the former has undergone from denying patriarchy to (mildly) accepting it.

Will Swarna Mallawarachchi dish out more performances like this in the years ahead? Probably, probably not. Like I said, writers are not augurs. Based on what I’ve pointed out above, however, I can prophesize that it won’t really matter.

And why? Because Swarna, like Malini, has obtruded into our consciousness so much that when we see her, we are reminded of her earlier phase to the extent whereby what we see now are perceived as variations of her portrayals before. But Handagama’s contention about the dichotomy between these two, which I have alluded to and which I subscribe to, stands out, and for this reason, if Swarna opts for the character in Age Asa Aga, she may well be on her way to her third career phase. Whether or not this signifies her maturing, whether or not we will be ready to accept her as readily as we did in the eighties, only time will tell. Until then, we can only speculate.

Written for: Scribe Project, March 9 2017