Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Irangani Serasinghe, the mother of all our mothers

Irangani Serasinghe, the mother of all mothers in our cinema, turned 90 last week. What better time to examine how those performances of hers have had an impact on our movies and us?

Irangani Serasinghe is the only actress I can think of from here who has never tapdanced, cha-chaed, or freestyled to a song in a commercial movie. Nearly everyone else, from Malini Fonseka to Swarna Mallawarachchi, has done so. Swarna in particular, with Anjana, proved to the public that even the most serious actor has to endure the mainstream, formulaic cinema, a truism which is valid for any film industry, anywhere. Once in a while you do come across a Dhritiman Chatterjee who, by extraordinary resolve, excludes himself or herself from commercial movies and becomes, for the lack of a better way of putting it, a selective player. But being the exception, they are generally hard to find, harder to fit in.

With Irangani you come across a different actor, a different player. Born to privilege, she rebelled against it but never quite abandoned it. She flirted with Marxism in the forties via Professor Ludowyke and moved away when (as she informs us in Kumar de Silva’s light-hearted book on her, by her) she felt that Marxism would take her away from the only person she knew well: herself. That sweet, almost naïve course of self-discovery (how many Marxists do you know who can give the same reason for their later recantations?) is what makes up nearly every later performance of hers.

Like Marxists, mothers come in different shades. They are the products of the myths and fairy-tales we grow up on, and to a considerable extent they are aware of, but pretend to ignore, the futility of clinging on to their sons and daughters. The tragedy of societies like ours is that we are confused when it comes to this issue: we want to move on with the rest of the world but the past always haunts us, stunting our instincts while leaving you with the odd impression that, for all their superficial lack of understanding, our mothers probably know more about the past and the present, and the future, than we ever can. And yet we rebel, being the prodigals we are.

Irangani Roxana Serasinghe, who is a mother and a grandmother and has known the poignancy of being both, has played more matriarchal figures than any other actor here. We first saw her in Lester James Peries’ Rekava, where for all we cared she didn’t have a husband and a father to her son. When that brute of a man who is her husband brings home some of those jewels and purses that he’s robbed, she throws them away with disgust. Rekava was the only production that had her in that milieu, that setting, so she could afford to be disgusted in the coarsest, most vulgar way possible. But the director seemed to have misunderstood that milieu: the fact is that the only thing “local” about Rekava was Irangani, the first Sri Lankan mother to be featured in a movie. Lester had cast her. And she had redeemed him.

She was his first choice for the role of Matara Hamine in Gamperaliya, but because she was pregnant he opted for Shanthi Lekha, a temperamentally different performer. Again, the actress redeemed him, this time through accident: even back then, Irangani would have been too assertive to depict her character, as quietly but rigidly traditionalist as she was, the way Lekha did. “None of my mothers are ever the same,” Irangani told me two years ago. That’s true, but she was telling only half the story: those different mothers were variations of the matriarch who was adamant in deciding the destinies of her sons and daughters until she discovered that they were more adamant than her. Matara Hamine wasn't that really that kind of figure.

Right after Gamperaliya Lester made Delovak Athara, with his producer and friend Anton Wickremasinghe shooting down the idea of filming Kaliyugaya and Yuganthaya. (It was one of those rare instances where a Sri Lankan producer’s instinct for serious cinema proved to be right.) Delovak Athara was different, to say the least: it belonged to Raoul Coutard and the New Wave and the intellectual cinema of the sixties that would dissolve into the political cinema of the seventies. In it he cast Irangani, again as the mother, moving her to a milieu she was comfortable in. When she found her footing there, naturally, she let herself out and became more expressive.

Because of that, she is a treat to watch in Lester’s movie. Not only is she constrained by her social status, she also has only one child, a son, so since she’s afraid of losing him, she obsesses over his every move. There’s a sequence where that son (Nissanka, played by Tony Ranasinghe) reveals his role in an accident to his betrothed (Shirani, played by the gracefully rotund Jeevarani Kurukulasuriya) while the latter is to perform at a concert. She breaks down, predictably, and Nissanka’s mother, enraged, confronts the son at home later that night. The father (played J. B. L. Gunasekera) knows about the accident. She does not. Nissanka slowly reveals the truth to her.

She sits at once, aghast, and looks down. The son goes on about how difficult it has been for him to live with his conscience and to keep it a secret from everyone around him. He gets up and starts leaving the room, looking at the mother, now numb, now speechless. You’d think she’d be numb and speechless for that entire sequence, but no: just as he’s about to leave, she exclaims, not over the dilemma he’s in, but over an entirely different matter: “You didn’t trust me enough to tell me what you’d got yourself into, did you?” Nissanka has enough on his plate already. Nissanka’s mother, on the other hand, is only bothered by the fact that she wasn’t told, which she takes as a sign that he doesn’t trust her. This interplay of domination and distrust is what drives much of the plot, and the conflicts in that plot, in Delovak Athara.

In the sixties and seventies Irangani got to portray that kind of mother. We knew she was wrong, and that as long as she was wrong her children could never resolve their conflicts. But although she wasn’t in the right, she didn’t flaunt it. She rarely raised her voice, for instance, because if she did she wouldn’t have been any different to the other actors cast as mothers elsewhere. She always kept you expecting an argument, an explosion of some sort, but never delivered it in fortissimos. (Part of the reason for that was, I think, her slowness when speaking in Sinhala.) Not even in Ran Salu, where she had to endure a daughter who, entranced by a Buddhist nun, takes after a less materialistic, more frugal lifestyle. All she can do is mutter under her breath, since after all it is a Buddhist nun, and they are at least nominally Buddhist.

In the eighties and nineties she changed. Sometimes she never gets our sympathy, as in Deveni Gamana, where she and Denawaka Hamine unleash the irrational fury of their village at a daughter-in-law who can’t prove her virginity. “Who told her to engage in those things?” she angrily asks her son as he tries to stand up for his wife with the excuse that she used to play basketball and that can explain why she didn’t bleed in their first night together. She refuses to see the light: she thinks she knows what is correct, even though we know she may not be correct.

This wasn’t too far away from her roles in the sixties. But then she was undergoing a transformation. She was mellowing, becoming more empathetic, more correct. By the nineties that transformation was complete. In Doo Daruwo (along with every other Nalan Mendis production), Awaragira, and Loku Duwa, she has become the obverse of what she was: the most she can do now is to bemoan the disobedient son, the wayward prodigal, who in the latter two happened to be played by the wildly unconstrained Kamal Addararachchi.

When Punna in Loku Duwa (Geetha Kumarasinghe) tentatively says that, to cut down on expenses, she is willing to marry her fiancé (Jackson Anthony) without the obligatory poruwa ceremony, Irangani looks down: “Either we do something properly, or we don’t do it at all.” But there isn’t that same sharply delivered bitterness we get from Nissanka’s or Sujatha’s mother: she says it not because she’s embittered, but because she truly, deeply cares about her child without worrying about their social and economic standing. She never got an only son or daughter in these movies, moreover: there is always more than one, sometimes more than two, and in her oscillating attitudes to them we sense a wider range and virtuosity.

At the heart of those mothers she has depicted is a paradox. Caught between two worlds, of conformity and of individuality, they have grasped the paradox at the heart of all our mothers: that of standing up for one’s offspring while placating an impersonal world. From Rekava to Deveni Gamana, from Deveni Gamana to Loku Duwa and beyond, she has reconciled these two opposites the same way Chaplin did (through Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight) when it came to the funnily good and the starkly evil that coexisted in his world: by ageing gracefully. And elegantly.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 27 2017