Sunday, November 19, 2017

Michelle Dilhara: Acting on, moving on

Michelle Dilhara is something of an enigma. For the most. By her own confession she is still learning her craft, which means she is still a student in that perplexing, disillusioning field called television, but what she’s learnt so far has given her enough confidence to pause, take stock of what was, and prepare herself for bigger and better roles, scripts, directors, and shows. I met her several months back, promising that I’d write on her within a couple of weeks. Never happened. In hindsight I realise this owes less to my carelessness than to a manifest inability to unscramble her story in a meaningful manner. Well, weeks have passed, as have months, and here I am typing down that story right down to the last detail. Naturally then, I will begin at the beginning.

She was born in Chilaw and was educated at Negombo South International until her O Levels, which she sat for as a private student, before joining Newstead Girls College for her A Levels in the Arts stream and in the English medium. While she secured enough results to obtain a placement in a local University (which means, clearly enough, that those results were good, or more to the point excellent), she dithered owing to her passion for and fascination with acting, a field which people her age would normally be discouraged from pursuing but which was actively encouraged by her father and mother. “They were very supportive,” she remembers, smiling at me, “I made it clear that I wanted to know this field before I worked in it. So a few months after exams were done, I joined the Abhina Academy run by Anoja Weerasinghe. She became my first guru.”

Now I have been to Abhina and I have seen Anoja teach and instruct and direct. While I haven’t been to her classes as a student, I know enough to understand what Anoja is doing: transplanting her years of study and research at the London Academy of Dramatic Art (LAMDA), which she attended in the early nineties courtesy of a scholarship financed by the Lever Brothers, in our children. Anoja has that remarkable ability to compel attention from you while being serious and jovial at the same time, and this, it must be said here, was what intrigued young Michelle. “I got to know of her Academy through word of mouth, given that she hadn’t advertised it in the media,” she tells me, “What I learnt there centred not just on acting, but also on personality development, on being more outgoing, a problem since I was an incorrigible introvert.”

While Michelle did not obtain a certificate or qualification as such from Anoja’s classes (to obtain that one must continue with her yoga sessions, which Michelle did not), it compelled her to seek instruction from other gurus in the field. And so, in 2014, barely one month after she left Abhina, she joined an acting class run by Damayanthi Fonseka, a qualitatively different teacher. “At Anoja Madam’s school I had studied about how to be myself and let my character out through meditation and reflection. Damayanthi Madam was more focused on acting, specifically on transforming a character from a script to a living, breathing entity. However I did not spend much time in her classes. After about two weeks, I left it and landed on another class, conducted by Randika Wimalasuriya and held at the Abhiranga Arts Centre in Negombo.”

Randika was, as expected, a qualitatively different guru. More focused on the theatre, he nevertheless made it clear to his students (Michelle took private classes from him as well, by the way) that there was a wide gap between the stage and the screen. One of his exercises, which he resorted to frequently, involved getting his students to act in front of a camera. Given that we love to overact and by default onstage at an early age most of the students would, obviously, overact. Randika chastened them. He got them to see the medium differently. In short, he was the kind of guru Michelle wanted right before she left the class to start her career. This, incidentally, had been compounded by an acting workshop conducted by the Indian playwright Ujwal Singh, who came down to Sri Lanka in 2016. “Ujwal got us through the Indian theatre and the children's theatre. That helped open up my perspectives on the medium.”

After her studies were done, at least for the time being, Michelle went for a screen test at Susila Productions, through which she got selected for two dramas: Dhara (in which she was a main character) and Sal Sapuna (which at the time of our interview was still being shot). Having built up the necessary contacts she got into another production: Bodhi, directed by Sanjaya Nirmal. Of these three, it is Sal Sapuna that interests her especially, since it was directed by a veteran: the formidable, reckonable, and in many ways larger-than-life Nalan Mendis (whose speeches, at various events and functions I’ve attended or heard of, are as expansive as his TV series). I start things off here by telling her, rather wryly, that he can be overwhelmingly and brutally honest about a person’s acting capabilities, especially first-timers, and she agrees wholeheartedly. I am pleased to hear, therefore, that he’s had nothing but praise for her acting.

Like Nalan’s other productions, Sal Sapuna is rooted in a largely middle-class milieu and involves love triangles, plot twists, and character changes that are too wide to describe in a single article. Suffice it to say, therefore, that in it Michelle, who plays the role of a girl called Preethika who has recently returned from London after completing her A Levels there, is a journalist who enters the family at the heart of the story and basically falls in love with the protagonist, a privileged and somewhat spoilt but well-meaning boy. The other members of the cast, including Rohana Baddage and Damitha Abeyratne, had all but completely and unconditionally encouraged her, going as far as to provide moral support for her portrayal. “They were all quite helpful,” Michelle remembers, smiling. Her next production, Dhara, was more vigorous, requiring up to 13 scenes a day. Shooting had been tight and the schedule uncompromising, but what Michelle remembers most clearly about it was the fact that its director, Suranga Lakmal Seneviratne, allowed more scope for the actors by encouraging them to improvise. Considerably.

These have been followed by other promising productions: Rathu Pichcha and Bodhi, both of which are being telecasted on Sirasa TV and the latter of which had her play, of all things, a she-devil named Kali Amma (though not the Kali Amma of Indian folklore). “That latter production taught me about the research an aspiring actor needs before delving into a character, any character. If I’d just gone ahead with Kali Amma without doing the needful, I would have survived, but I wouldn’t have been convincing. That’s where I need to remind myself, ‘Your learning experience isn’t over yet. You need to reflect on what you’ve studied and study some more.’ It’s hectic, but useful.” As for films, while Michelle hasn’t got any offers yet, she is hopeful as always. “If a good script comes my way, I will be more than happy to take part in it. I don’t want to go with the flow and be allured by easy, convenient fame. I want to learn more about my field.”

Three years, naturally, are not enough. I believe Michelle Dilhara has more to tread through, to wade through. Judging by her performances so far however (and I have seen them, though I normally don’t watch television these days) I believe also that what she has to wade through, she will wade through easily. So easily, not because she has built up a veritable network of contacts, but rather because she has that earnest love for her field that comes only to those who wish to pursue it less as a career as more as an interest. She will only do well, I am forced to conclude. Which is what all of us predict.

Written for: The Island YOUth, November 19 2017