Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Douglas Ranasinghe: Second to none

Sena, the protagonist of Madawala S. Ratnayake’s Akkara Paha, embodies for me the failure of the post-1956 youth to realise their social aspirations. Lester James Peries selected Milton Jayawardena, then an unknown player, for the role in his adaptation, while days after his choice was finalised he was visited by Vijaya Kumaratunga. I think it was a blessing, for both Milton and Vijaya, that the former got the character and the latter did not, because Vijaya would have been too brash, too assertive, to depict Sena’s failings and defeatism. In fact so defeatist and so much a failure was he that he gave the impression of being used, and guided, by every other character, especially the woman who ends up as his destroyer, Theresa, and his friend in the first half of the story, Samare. Theresa was played by Janaki Kurukulasuriya, who left the industry afterwards, while Samare was played by Douglas Ranasinghe, who stayed in the industry and remains there today. His performance was so frank, so unlike the more nuanced and gentle characters he would get later, that no less a person than Peries himself remarked that he had great difficulty saving the “hero” from him, a view shared and articulated by Philip Cooray in his book, The Lonely Artist.

Douglas Ranasinghe got to be the secondary player, the supporting actor, in whatever film (commercial or serious) he was in. This has been his biggest strength and limitation, though within his confines he gives out the best he could. You feel that some of his performances – think of Siridasa from Viragaya – are so calculated that they rise above the main actor. Then you feel that his other performances – think of Kulageya – have him as a side player, whose main function is to accentuate the conflict at the heart of the story, or – think here of Aravinda from Yuganthaya – to speak on behalf of the established order, of reason over emotion. Most of our supporting actors from the early days graduated into their own stars, especially Joe Abeywickrama, though some of them remained behind, especially because that’s where they were meant to be until the end (like D. R. Nanayakkara). Ranasinghe, strictly speaking, doesn’t belong to either category, because he transcends himself. And in transcending himself, he transcends his character.

He was born in Kurunegala and was sent, initially and in keeping with the family tradition, to the game iskole, the hodiya panthiya (comparable to the kindergarten today). From the hodiya panthiya he was despatched to St Anne’s College, where he grew to dote on athletics and other sports activities. He obviously remembers his days well even now: “St Anne’s was a missionary school, but unlike today missionary schools took in quite a number of non-Christians. In fact one of my schoolmates was Wijeratne Warakagoda, who was my senior, and who later left to Ananda College.” Apparently his first love, which he encountered while at St Anne’s, had been the military, owing primarily to the sports activities he took part in. Compounding this was the fact that he had been a prefect, which later made him try out the police and which emboldened him to apply for the post of Sub Inspector. Failing twice, he succeeded on the third attempt, and was drafted for a training course at Kalutara.

He also aspired to be a lawyer and to this end, immediately after leaving school, had decided to join Law College. “Acting never really figured in my scheme of things. That’s not to say that I shirked the performing arts, but in my day, films and plays were at best leisure activities, and never career options. By default, as professions, we had either the government service or those other fields which we could prosper in, including the law, medicine, and of course engineering.” Given this it comes to no surprise then that Ranasinghe’s forays into those performing arts was, as he himself admitted, accidental. Onstage, he found his niche through Sathischandra Edirisinghe, who suggested that Ranasinghe play his role (a Corporal) in Henry Jayasena’s Hunuwataye Kathawa. “That training course in Kalutara had at the time been delayed by three months. Sathis aiya had done me a favour, years ago. I was only too happy, consequently, to help him out.” It was a largely propitious debut, since after seeing his performance, Lester James Peries asked after him, took him in, and cast him opposite Milton Jayawardena in Akkara Paha. Jayasena had, naturally enough, been suspicious: “He told Lester, laughing, ‘Now, now, you are taking all my good actors away!’”

His performance as Samare had actually been his second, after G. D. L. Perera’s Romeo Juliet Kathawak (released one year before, in 1968, but filmed after Akkara Paha), which probably more than anything else is remembered for the Sunil Shantha classic that he croons with a guitar, “My Dreams Are Roses.” As for Akkara Paha, Ranasinghe remembers his experiences under Peries with understandable nostalgia. “It was frankly an eye-opener for me. With ‘Maestro’, you’ve always got to be sure of what you do and where you are. He never bosses you around, but that doesn’t mean you can be complacent or that you can forget your cues. In other words, he expects something substantive from you, and to this end opts for three takes: one for him, one for the camera, and one for the lighting. When all three are done, you go for the final take. Because nothing escapes his eyes, incidentally, you need to remember all three.”

What of his career after these two debuts? After taking part in a short film titled Bhavana, directed by the legendary Paul Zils and entered into the Berlin Film Festival of 1970/1971, he decided to leave for England for a three year course at the London Film School. The decision, he tells me, was both conscious and spontaneous: “I left behind a career in law just so I could learn more about the mechanics of filmmaking and acting. At the end of those three years, I was asked to stay back and take part in Shakespearean productions, perhaps to get involved with the Royal Shakespearean Company. But I was homesick. Perhaps a little too homesick. In any case, had I stayed behind, I would have been a different man. Who can tell?” Who can indeed, for even with the supporting characters he got to play after his return, Ranasinghe has retained a welter of conviction which empowers him to be more than who he is. It is in this second phase of his career that he becomes controlled, contained. He has weeded out the emotional hysterics which marked out Romeo Juliet Kathawak and Akkara Paha. Those three years in London helped, clearly.

Opposite both experienced and younger players, he has triumphed: Richard de Zoysa, Chitra Vakishta, and Somi Ratnayake in Yuganthaya; Sanath Gunathilake and Sriyani Amarasena in Viragaya; Vasanthi Chathurani, Sriyani, Lucky Dias, and Tony Ranasinghe in Kulageya. We see him occasionally in glimpses now (Siddhartha Gautama, Aloko Udapadi, Dharma Yuddhaya) and in all his recent performances he has mellowed gracefully. His most distinctive features, particularly his square, firm jaw, lend him both credibility and force. I’d like to think that’s where he triumphs.

Perhaps that’s why, as Aravinda in Yuganthaya, he doesn’t retain the sort of conviction he echoes in Viragaya. In Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel Aravinda is a flawed antihero, an aspirant who wishes to join the upper echelons of a society that he has from birth been alienated from. Lester Peries finds an equivalent, somehow, for Ranasinghe through several sequences which have him wondering through his village, silently, introspectively, and advising his friend Malin (Richard de Zoysa) against being a political rebel. But we are never used to this Ranasinghe, because in his other performances he doesn’t caution against rebellion but becomes more understanding of the reasons behind that rebellion. He does nurture a conservative streak (as Siridasa in Viragaya, for instance, he trivialises Aravinda’s selflessness as foolishness), but that never crops up to the extent whereby he represents, and affirms, the Establishment.

It’s a tragedy at one level, but I believe that we have ignored Ranasinghe’s versatility. For one thing, he has in addition to the cinema also operated in theatre, television, and radio broadcasting. Not every actor has taken part in, much less aspired for, all those fields, which is why the fact that the man has been involved in them deserves more scrutiny. That’s also a reason why his views on contemporary cinema, here, deserve more than a cursory sketch. Since I can at best offer such a sketch, though, here goes:

“To be honest, now the cinema teeters between crass commercialism and anti-war ideologies. The latter wins awards, the former wins hearts. I am not saying that we don't see a middle way between these two, but they are hard to come by. As a filmmaker myself, I prefer the lives, emotions, and sentiments of my people to what any outsider thinks they ought to be. Sadly enough, few ‘serious’ directors today realise this.” And he comments on how different the characters portrayed onscreen were in his day. “Back then we had a kind of character called the ‘parajithayo’. They lost out on life. They lost out on love. But through their defeat, they became heroic figures. I can think of two characters here, now: Sena in Akkara Paha and Sugath in Golu Hadawatha. But with the advent of time, they changed and went out of fashion. That's why we see polar opposites in mainstream films now: they are either angels or villains. Such characters do not exist, and reality isn't so stark, but I suspect filmmakers are playing into audience sentiments.”

Written for: Daily Mirror, January 2 2017