Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Swarna Mallawarachchi: The woman I saw

A tribute to the first real woman I saw onscreen here.

In Yasapalitha Nanayakkara’s Anjana Swarna Mallawarachchi does something she never did in her other movies. Dance. Anjana erupts in a riot of colour (it still feels rather oversaturated today, like all those commercial films from the eighties) and practically subsists on sharply defined reds, greens, and blues: ideal for the lavish, visually lovely, but rather incongruous dance sequences it contained.

When we see Swarna in that glamorous red gown today, we are not taken aback, we are stumped. But then we belong to a different generation. In her time audiences would have followed her ascent, from Nanayakkara to Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and Vasantha Obeyesekere, gradually. In our time audiences would have flocked to see her in Dadayama and Kadapathaka Chaya and assumed that they were all she was in. We never bothered to look at her past, at all those supporting roles she had to tolerate before her big break.

Just as we secretly loathe our commercial comedies and melodramas and their cast members, we also secretly play along to the myths they make use of. The lone woman in the company of men is there to be caught and almost killed before the other men rescue her. The rich heiress elopes with her poor paramour to a life of ease and comfort. The idealist abandoned by her lover croons about her plight to the only people who will listen to her, the audience. These situations involve women, and not for no reason: our cinema has tapped into our patriarchal outlook of the world in ways no other art form has, ever. The myths they revolve around needed directors who could challenge if not upend them and, obviously, actors who could break them apart. Not until Swarna did we come across such a woman, such a performer.

Along with Anjana, there were four movies which signalled Swarna Mallawarachchi’s return to the cinema after her sojourn in England: Sankapali, Ridi Nimnaya, Biththi Hathara, and Yahalu Yeheli. She won an award jointly for the latter three from the OCIC in 1982, one year after she was snubbed off with a token Merit Prize at the Presidential Awards Ceremony for Hansa Vilak. The difference between her role in Hansa Vilak and those three performances couldn’t have been more apparent. The latter three reflected her debut roles in Sath Samudura, Hanthane Kathawa, and Thunman Handiya, because of how unlikeable she was in them: in Yahalu Yeheli, for instance, she sides with her father against her own sister (the protagonist), while in Sath Samudura and Thunman Handiya she was as unsympathetic a relative.

In Hansa Vilak Swarna, as Miranda Ranaweera, becomes an inexorable figure of vagueness and confusion. There’s really no character whom we empathise with in the first place: not Miranda, not her lover Nissanka, not her husband Douglas, and not Nissanka’s brother-in-law Dayananda. The only real figure of empathy is Nissanka’s wife, Samantha, but then she was played by Vasanthi Chathurani, a qualitatively different actress. (She was the girl next door, which Swarna never was.)

When Miranda confesses about her adultery to Nissanka (she wants to return to Douglas), and when Nissanka reacts by attacking her, she doesn’t weep or scream or even moan, she just laughs. “I’ve known all along that this was my fate. Why wait anymore then? Go ahead, kill me now!” she practically sneers. Nissanka’s feelings of betrayal are ours too, to be sure, but Swarna’s enigma intrigues us. What does she mean? Perhaps it’s her religious devotion, or the sense of guilt it compels in her.

Even Swarna was afraid of taking that role, she once informed me. “I read the script Dharmasiri had written, and given that back then our cinema divided women into either paragons of virtue or she-devils, I thought my character was dark. I called Dharmasiri and told him this, but he assuaged my doubts.”

She wasn’t completely wrong there, of course, because on the basis of the criterion we used to judge female characters back then, she was a conniver, a she-devil. The great achievement of Hansa Vilak was that it was the first Sinhala film that delved into the subjective consciousness of a single character. If audiences found fault with Miranda it was because of this lopsided perspective: we don’t see what Nissanka doesn’t, we only imagine it. He’s convinced that Miranda is a conniving double-crosser, and given that we are seeing the world through his eyes, we concur.

Fortunately for her, the films she got thereafter never played around with that kind of confused perspective we saw her through before. In Suddilage Kathawa, Dadayama, Maya, and Sagara Jalaya, not only is she suavely confident of her own infallibility, she is adamant that she is the only real human being in the story.

The first half of Suddilage Kathawa, for instance, until Romiel’s return from prison, is about Suddi’s sexual conquests, her only method of survival in her village. “Romiel: wasn’t he sent to prison for murdering somebody?” the mudalali, played by the lewdest womaniser to ever be depicted in our cinema, Somi Ratnayake, asks, to which Swarna casually replies, “The Arachchi will set him free soon; he’s looking after the lawyer who’ll be defending him.” We obviously don’t believe her, and neither does the mudalali. But her casual reply isn’t a mere reply, it’s an invitation: a few minutes later, she has got him hooked up with her, and he becomes her benefactor.

How she does it, and by doing it how she shows us her invincible, indomitable character, was Swarna’s real achievement. Dadayama is an enduring film even today not only because of Ravindra Randeniya’s Priyankara Jayanath, but also because Swarna stands for everything that a woman, at that point in time, was told to never be: a fighter, a rebel, a destroyer. She asserts her dignity in that last sequence knowing very well that she won’t survive, but she gets on with it to prove to herself, and to her tormentor, that she can be as animalistic and predatory as he is. You can’t imagine another actress in such a powerful sequence because no other actress could be as frighteningly bestial as she was. She’s no longer the prey or the hunted; she’s the hunter, hell-bent on tilting the scales against the man she once loved.

With other directors she was virtually in a different universe, but with Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and Vasantha Obeyesekere she almost always got to play that kind of woman: torn apart, wasted away, and always seeking a way of fighting back. In the end this meant that she would embody the qualities of the same people she was fighting against, which is what she underwent in Kadapathaka Chaya.

Laleen Jayamanne, in her book Towards Cinema and its Double, describes Swarna’s character in Kadapathaka Chaya, Nanda, as unappealing, ambivalent, fatal: not the woman who’s fated to destroy her man, but the woman who becomes an avenger through a complex array of familial, social, and power relationships. In Dadayama she dreams of a life with Priyankara. In Kadapathaka Chaya, that dream ends the moment she’s raped by her brother-in-law, which sets of a chain of events that end with her manipulating him for her ends and her act of throwing acid on his face. (As with Obeyesekere’s other films, this too was based on a real incident.)

In the seventies and eighties the Western cinema tended to represent women, not as heroines, but as heroes: as doers, not submissive receptacles. Swarna in effect trumped this way of representing women because she was both a doer and submissive receptacle even in her most landmark performances. She is at the receiving end of a patriarchal world, but ironically and until her own end she aspires to be a member of that same world. Her desire in Dadayama is to marry Priyankara, just as her desire in Kadapathaka Chaya is to live a life of peace and comfort with Piyatilake. In our films marriage has been the great consoler, so even when she’s beaten down and traumatised, it is to that consoler she wants to succumb, to run off.

Swarna Mallawarachchi’s forte – embodying our deepest affection for and fear and even mild hatred of the woman as a rebel – became its own standard, its own benchmark. That’s why it’s difficult to remake Suddilage Kathawa today (Dharmasiri Bandaranayake has been approached with offers to remake it, all of which he has refused): not only because there’s no contemporary equivalent for Swarna, but because we’ve gone past that eroticised, multifarious depiction of the female victim.

And as Asoka Handagama’s Let Her Cry shows, even she seems to have realised this. Swarna began her career as less than empathetic in-laws. She went on to depict victims we took to even though we knew they were doomed. With Let Her Cry, she has let go to turn into a morally confused matriarch. “No two performances of hers are the same,” Handagama has informed us. True. On that count, she has become the inverse of the tormented female she portrayed until another of his films (his debut), Channa Kinnari. Handagama brought her back to the cinema after 20 years. It remains to be seen what her return will portend. Until then, we can only speculate.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 22 2017