The line between emotional authenticity and contrived melodrama has been so thin that even our best actors can’t resist crossing it. If it’s surprising to come across Ranjan Ramanayake in as atypical a performance as the youngest son in Awaragira, or the father to the Gautama Buddha in Siddhartha Gautama, it’s not because we don’t doubt their ability in both the commercial and the serious cinema, but because he (and others like him) have not been given a proper outlet to be flexible in that sense. This is roughly true of every film industry which lacks a solid base: some actors make it and adapt, others remain more or less limited. In Rukmani Devi we come across the former of these. She remained, to her last, a veritable queen, but she retained a certain welter of conviction. After her we come across another monarch in Gamini Fonseka. It is only after Gamini Fonseka, then, that we come across our cinema’s first real queen, Malini Fonseka.
In the two Fonsekas we see a bifurcation of the sensibilities that nurtured Rukmani Devi, between our need for a hero and our need for a heroine. It’s certainly not true that Gamini and Malini represented a synthesis of aesthetic sensibilities when they were cast together (whether in a commercial outing like Hondata Hondai or a more serious outing like Nidhanaya) because Malini was the first actress here able to make herself the only destined woman to whatever man she was paired with. If one imagines her equally adept in front of not just Gamini, but also Tony Ranasinghe, Joe Abeywickrama, Vijaya Kumaratunga, and the later generation of Amarasiri Kalansuriya, Ravindra Randeniya and Lucky Dias, it is because, as Asoka Handagama pointed out in a social media status, her characters were conceived to enrapture the male protagonist. They existed almost solely for this reason.
She was earlier the girl next door; now she has become the woman next door, all too aware of the rift between fantasy and reality
Malini was the idealised female, the fetishized woman. Even in the worst film concocted here, she gave a decent performance, and in all her performances, she made every man who came across her desire her. Directors who realised this tapped into the box-office potential of their movies, not by pairing her with the two biggest names in the country (Gamini and Vijaya), but by separating her from the characters they played. In K. A. W. Perera’s Wasana Vijaya’s character croons Jothipala: “Oba Langa Inna” was that film’s distillation of this quality in Malini’s lovers. Separation they say makes the heart grow fonder. This was the underlying philosophy in Wasana and later, in H. D. Premaratne’s Apeksha. Malini not only made us want her, she also made us go to any lengths to have her. It’s difficult to think of any other actress here who could equal her in this respect, if at all because her directors were shrewd enough to understand where her forte lay.
That explains why she was never really a femme fatale. The closest to such a character that she got to was the unsullied heroine in Sasara Chethana, which she herself directed and which had her intertwine the Western with the fairy-tale-like theme of forced separation at childhood. But even there she was unsullied, whose sense of chastity was so calculated and yet fresh. Her most distinctive features – the sleek, flowing hair (which she uses in Sasara Chethana to fight a villain), the shy, contained, but genuine smile, and the beguiling, yet careful eyes – helped her in this regard. Some of her most memorable commercial outings in the seventies – the films of K. A. W. Perera, for instance – personifies her as a doll: fragile, defiant, tempestuous. In Sahanaya (directed by J. Selvarathnam) she was paired with Gamini, but their roles are somewhat inverted: she is the spoilt heiress; he is the idealist who paints her, and compels her to slap him angrily when she finds out. Sequences like that abound in many of her films, but they are always intermittent, and always there for a reason: to ensnare the man closer to her.
If there’s an almost naive sense of self-discovery in her first roles it’s because that’s who she is in real life. A biographical sketch would help us here. Malini Senehelatha Fonseka was born on April 30, 1947 in Peliyagoda as the third child of a family of 11 siblings. She was educated, firstly in Nugegoda, later at Gurukula Maha Vidyalaya in Kelaniya, where she met and befriended some of her later collaborators: Wimal Kumar da Costa (a classmate), H. D. Premaratne, and Donald Karunaratne. Gurukula bordered on the Vidyalankara Campus (now the University of Kelaniya), and got her involved in the theatre.
One day some students from Vidyalankara came over looking for an actress to play the lead role: a problem because the University had no women, only boys and monks. The dancing teacher at Gurukula considered Malini, asked her, and after she got permission from her family, acted in it. That play, Noratha Ratha, was written and directed by H. D. Werasiri, and marked the first time she had acted outside school.
In 1965 she took part in a play titled Akal Wessa, which won for her a Best Actress Award and got her the attention of two members in the audience who were looking for a newcomer to play the leading female character in an upcoming film. Tissa Liyanasuriya and Joe Abeywickrama unanimously chose her for her intense subtlety. Remembering his choice many decades later to me, he had this to say: “Some people thought she was thin and rather unsuitable for my film, that she was untried. Joe was satisfied with her though, and so was I”. Punchi Baba marked Malini’s first foray into the cinema. Of her encounters aboard it Liyanasuriya had this to say: “I didn’t order her around. She seemed fully involved.” That sense of being involved and committed was what coloured her career in the seventies, but in these first few performances (including her second role, as the distraught sister to an obsessed elder brother, played by Henry Jayasena, in Dahasak Sithuvili) she was still naive: more the girl next door than the girl of your heart.
You see Malini shedding this avatar from her through her first serious roles, particularly Akkara Paha, where she was the sister to another obsessed, introspective brother, played by Milton Jayawardena. In Dahasak Sithuvili she more or less succumbs to the quirks and fits of temper of Henry Jayasena, but here she’s more assured, more assertive. By the time she was featured in Nidhanaya, which was the culmination of all those commercial outings that paired her with Gamini Fonseka, she was fully aware of her own parameters: she has let go of being the girl next door, in other words. This was true especially of Siripala saha Ranmenika, which had her opposite Ravindra Randeniya, as well as the films of Dharmasena Pathiraja: from a minor role (again, as a sister) in Ahas Gawwa to the titular role in Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, and to Bambaru Avith and Pathiraja’s understated masterpiece, Soldadu Unnahe. Soldadu Unnahe, however, lacks conviction on her part, because she was a prostitute, cast against type: consequently, despite her outbursts and tempestuousness, despite that ending where she is poignantly taken away, she is as convincing (if you can put it that way) as Swarna Mallawarachchi in Anjana.
It’s a sign of her personal tastes perhaps, but when I ask her as to what her favourite film is, she first thinks for a while and replies, “Aradhana.” This film, directed by Vijaya Dharma Sri, has Ravindra Randeniya befriend her and then, pushed by guilt and infatuation, come back to reclaim her. His character here is almost like his character from Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Dadayama, and in fact the entire film inverts Obeyesekere’s (even though the latter was released three years after Aradhana) to compel a happy resolution. That it was screened in the eighties, and in colour, is not a coincidence, because Malini admits that those were her favourite years (the years which saw her rise from a player to a director: Sasara Chethana in 1984, Ahinsa in 1987, Sthree in 1991, Sandamala in 1994. All these thematise femininity: frail, open to abuse, but always well meaning and vindicated. Sthree is an attempt at universalising the female experience by drawing a parallel between her character’s travails and those of a newly reared cow.
As the years went by, it seemed as though she took on increasingly matriarchal roles, as evidenced by her acclaimed performances in Punchi Suranganawi (2002), Wekanda Walauwwa (2003), and Ammawarune (2006). It would be unforgivable to omit her role in Prasanna Vithanage’s Akasa Kusum (2009) here, and I think it merits much more than a cursory glance. She won her quite a number of awards internationally, including the Silver Peacock at the Indian Film Festival (which she herself called the “biggest achievement in my forty years” in the cinema). The role was that of a former film star whose return to fame is marked by scandal. In hindsight, perhaps Prasanna Vithanage was spot-on for having chosen her to play the character. Echoing the “fading film star” motif which has figured in countless films in the West, the film delved into the patriarchal “despotism” at the heart of our country and our entertainment industry.
If there’s an almost naive sense of self-discovery in her first roles it’s because that’s who
she is in real life
One can spot out a kind of naked austerity in Malini’s performance. There are no attempts at exaggerating: here, more than in any of her previous films, she achieves a deliberate underplaying on her part. This underplaying is essential for her character of Sandya Rani, whose nostalgic reveries of the past are underscored by a harsh, all-too real present. The clash of personal feeling and class/social realities (especially when she gets involved in the scandal the movie centres on) is the epicentre of the narrative, and she epitomises this clash succinctly. Suffice it to say that it represents the achieving of an overarching goal Malini’s career has revolved around: the removal of the theatrical and the excessively emotional from her acting. She was earlier the girl next door; now she has become the woman next door, all too aware of the rift between fantasy and reality. Malini Fonseka’s career has been, in that sense, an attempt at self-discovery. In this phase of her career, it seems as though that she has completed her course in that respect.