Saptha Kanya is one of those rare popular works of art which actually stood for something: in its case, the eighties. Like the music of Clarence Wijewardena and the voice of Rookantha Gunathilaka and the dubbed cartoons of Titus Thotawatte and the television serials of Somaweera Senanayake, it was a definitive symbol of the most turbulent decade to hit this country. It was hard not to love, to be honest.
Saptha Kanya enraptured me the first time I saw it as a teenager for roughly the same reason why it continues to enrapture teenagers today; it tells a story and isn’t ashamed of narrating it the way we want. A surprise hit when it was released, it proved that the director, H. D. Premaratne, was a force to be reckoned with and that art and commerce, far from being polar opposites, could cohabit.
You can remember Saptha Kanya for many reasons. I remember it for two. Kamal Addaraarachchi and Sangeetha Weeraratne. I have already written on Kamal. This piece, for no reason whatsoever, is for Sangeetha.
I can’t think of another actress, before her time, who embodied the essence of her characters and made it look like it was the easiest thing in the world
I can’t explain why, or for that matter how, but as an actress Sangeetha never sticks to one mould. Unlike most actresses from her generation, she does not conform to one set of characterisations. I am not sure whether she picks her performances like some of her more studious contemporaries. I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t. She can be a free soul in one film, a fun loving girl in another, a tempestuous, wronged lover in another, a rural innocent in yet another. The closest to a summing up of these, the way I see it, is this; she likes to taste freedom and she likes to flirt, but if necessity compels it, she can, and she does, rebel. Thankfully, the fact that it is difficult to categorise her roles has the effect of making us remember all her performances; it’s the thin line that divides a typecast performer from a more versatile player.
Call me deluded, but when I see Sangeetha act, I don’t see her oozing out what she’s got to bring about a great or even good performance; she doesn’t struggle or knit her eyebrows to do what the script demands her to do. Part of the reason for that is her easygoing personality, and her casual, almost dismissive voice: she doesn’t muster every ounce she’s got for her role, but gets into it in the easiest, most effective way possible. In the history of our cinema I can’t think of another actress, before her time, who embodied the essence of her characters and made it look like it was the easiest thing in the world. There’s next to no effort, in other words, and even if there is, she doesn’t make it obvious. That is, I believe, her signature.
Yashoda Wimaladharma, as I wrote last week, had to graduate from the stage to the screen. Owing to her family, in particular her father, Sangeetha didn’t have to make such a trek. Surprisingly for her, however, she was never really interested that much in the movies. “I liked maths and dancing more,” she remembered for me when we met somewhere in January 2015; these she took to when she shifted from her first school, St John’s College Panadura, to her second, Methodist College Colombo.
Influence of Kamal
But then, her interests changed when her father, Timothy Weeraratne, entered the second phase of his career in the early eighties, and became a filmmaker. Still, she wasn’t exactly moved by the idea of cinema as an art: “I had a flair for accounts, so I became more fascinated with the business aspect to the movie-making process.” With his connections in the industry, Timothy introduced young Sangeetha to Roy de Silva, who promptly cast her in It’s a Matter of Time. She was 16. Perhaps it was more than just an irony of fate that even in her first outing, she would be paired with that most frequent collaborator and co-star of hers, Kamal Addaraarachchi, an advantage for her since “I picked up a great many things about acting from him,”she says.
It’s a Matter of Time, however, was a romantic comedy that, like most of Roy’s other romances and comedies, could have come from any director; for her to mature, she had to be taken aboard a more serious production.
This was Nomiyena Minisun, directed by Gamini Fonseka. “What was eye opening about the production was the man behind it. Fonseka had a knack for identifying the subtle nuances of his actors. This may or may not have come from his long career as our foremost and most sought after actor. In any case, he made you know wanted the best out of you.” The challenge for her in Nomiyena Minisun was to play out a pregnant woman who learns that her boyfriend has died on the battlefield. “How on earth could I portray a pregnant woman when I was barely 17?” That she managed to pull it off on the first take, to her astonishment, didn’t console her: “Continuity was my biggest issue. A few weeks later, when I had to repeat my performance, I realised it was not going to be easy. To put it simply, I couldn’t make myself cry.”
Fonseka being Fonseka, the solution presented itself to him in the most primitive way conceivable. “Imagine me trying to emote, and imagine him coming to me, cool as a cucumber, and without even warning me, bursting a can of glycerine on my eyes. That was what he did. I didn’t know how to react to it, except, of course, by crying.” Which is, after all, what the director had wanted all along.
From that point on, as that cliché puts it, there was no turning back. From H. D. Premaratne to Vasantha Obeyesekere, from Sumitra Peries to Benet Ratnayake, from Udayakantha Warnasuriya to Sunil Ariyaratne, she has encountered and been tutored under those who took a serious attitude towards the movies. At the same time, she has occasionally dallied with commercial outings: Kolompoor (Dinesh Priyasad), Johnson and Gonson (Roy de Silva), Sathutai Kirula Ape (Sunil Soma Peiris), and the most atrociously enjoyable of them all, Rae Daniel Dawal Migel (Roy de Silva, again). For some reason, though I can’t put a finger on it, I see the same character emerging from her in these populist forays, hedonistic and fun-loving, self-indulgent, almost always bohemian: a world from her serious performances.
Sangeetha is at her best when she reveals her character in glimpses, and not in gushes. I am thinking here of Saptha Kanya, Duwata Mawaka Misa, Dorakada Marawa, and Salelu Varama, as opposed to, say, Maruthaya, Sewwandi and Kinihiriya Mal. It’s a subtle difference you see between these, yes, but it’s a
I can’t explain why, or for that matter how, but as an actress Sangeetha never sticks to one mould. Unlike most actresses from her generation, she does not conform to one set of characterisations
As the years move on, she becomes more and more assertive from the start of the movies she’s in, thereby keeping us from expecting anything new. It was difficult, for instance, to imagine Deepthi in Saptha Kanya to be anyone other than the pickpocket she is till the end, just as it was difficult to imagine Subashini in Dorakada Marawa to be anyone other than the tormented, victimised spurned lover she was until her death. But the same cannot strictly be said of her character in, say, Kinihiriya Mal, where her rebelliousness comes out (in gushes) even before she turns to prostitution.
That sort of openness is what pits her against the more controlled Yashoda Wimaladharma in Guerrilla Marketing, particularly when her character learns that Yashodha’s character was in love with her husband (Kamal). It’s a clash between two schools of acting, not just actors, and while I won’t say which one triumphs over the other, I will say that throughout this phase of her career, Sangeetha refuses to let her characters cower before the brunt of the world so much that she ends up revealing her entire self to us, warts and all.