There’s a sequence of overpowering lyrical rawness in Welikathara where the protagonist and his wife fight over each other’s pasts; it transforms the plot from a terse, Cape Fear-esque thriller to something pulpier, taking us back to the whodunit pot-boilers of the 1940s and 50s. That sequence was only partly there in the restored version, shown about two months ago to a sadly indifferent audience at the Regal in Colombo, because the first few scenes in it had (for some reason) been cut off. Unfolding right after our protagonist, Wickrema Randeniya (Gamini Fonseka) gets taunted by Goring Mudalali (Joe Abeywickrema), those scenes depict Randeniya’s wife, Geetha, who is angry that her husband has done nothing to get rid of the villain, ominously rejecting his advances. In that act of rejection, the film reaches its climax, and inadvertently betrays its pulpiness.
This encounter between wife and husband is so claustrophobically shot, with two frames cutting into each other, that owing to its overwhelming CinemaScope format (the first time it was used in South Asia) you almost cynically want them to continue bickering, building up the tensions until Randeniya does the only thing a character played by Gamini Fonseka, at that point in his career, could do to assert himself: Slap the wife and, with the sense of shame it compels in him, project his anger against the antagonist of the story.
Swineetha’s career belongs to a twilight period, the sixties, coming right after Rukmani Devi was acknowledged as the queen of our cinema and before Malini Fonseka became her successor
Fonseka of course met his match with Goring in Welikathara (it’s a testament to how provocatively and refreshingly novel Joe Abeywickrema was in his portrayal that after one point we don’t root for the hero, we root for him), but that conflict would never have intensified without Geetha. She needed to be depicted in such a way that in the first half she symbolises obedience and respect, and in the second contempt and hatred.
Played by Swineetha Weerasinghe, she embodied both rather well. That has as much to do with the script, by Tissa Abeysekara, as it has with her ability, because the truth is that Swineetha, whom I met several years ago, has always been an intriguing actress, capable of enormous sensitivity without the stereotypes that such artists are forced into. The greatest tribute to the range of emotions and experiences she could evoke, I think, was H. D. Premaratne’s Sikuruliya, where she was transformed from a village damsel, in love with Vijaya Kumaratunga, to a hapless, unhappily married wife of a cruel, dwarfish aristocrat, played by Bandula Galagedara, and then to the fiancée of a considerably older man, a ruffian, played by Joe. Coming right after Welikathara, Sikuruliya was also a massive success, and it too was shot and screened on CinemaScope. In both we saw Swineetha up-close, and in both we were moved by her complexity, her subtlety.
Swineetha’s career belongs to a twilight period, the sixties, coming right after Rukmani Devi was acknowledged as the queen of our cinema and before Malini Fonseka became her successor. It was an intermittent period, in which our actresses were taken to portray ordinary women who went about their lives without the need to attract, to be heroic. Swineetha was not alone here, but unlike those other actresses who entered the cinema during that intermittent period (especially Punya Heendeniya) she projected an at-times ambiguous attitude to the patriarchal world she was filmed against.
In the movies of Robin Tampoe (her first screen credit was in a dance item in Suhada Divi Piduma, in 1962, followed by three successive pictures: Sudu Sande Kalu Wala in 1963; Samajaye Api Okkoma Samanai in 1964; and Sudo Sudu, which paired her with Gamini Fonseka, in 1965) she found her niche, as the village damsel who possesses agency and does not genuflect unconditionally before male dominance. As Chitra in Delovak Athara, her first serious outing, she expanded on this quality of hers, dangling between friendliness and hostility with respect to her relationship with the protagonist, Nissanka Wijeratne.
I once asked Swineetha to list out the names of some actresses she looked up to at that point in her career, after Delovak Athara proved that she could reckon with both commercial and serious movies, and she did: Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Chaplin, Rita Tushingham. It’s far-fetched to suggest that this is enough for us to understand her élan but then again these actresses were, and continued to be, symbolic of a new woman, the kind that defied cosmetic innocence for independence, autonomy, defiance. Swineetha’s characters, especially from the late sixties, embodied these values.
In a way her biography offers some clues as to this contradictory streak in her.
Swineetha was born to a middle class family in Dehiwela. Her father had been a gunman in the British Army; her mother remained a housewife. Educated initially at Buddhist Girls’ College in Mt. Lavinia (until the Fifth Standard) and later at Dehiwela Madhya Maha Vidyalaya, she proved herself by winning awards for singing, dancing, athletics, and netball. “I was never interested in acting as a career,” she informed me, “But I was interested in medicine. More specifically, indigenous medicine.”
Resolving for a career in that field, therefore, she enrolled herself at the Government Indigenous Medical College. She never completed it; during her third year, she read an advertisement calling for budding actresses, received some flak from her mother and encouragement from her father, answered it, and got the role: in that small dance item in Suhada Divi Piduma.
It’s a testament to Swineetha’s capability that she has undergone this shift without the usual blasts of emotions that accompany it
Lester James Peries noticed her in Sudo Sudu, which marked one of Robin Tampoe’s rare forays into serious territory (that it failed commercially, as Tissa Abeysekara later wrote, indicated how unfamiliar that serious territory was for him), “borrowed” her from RT Studios (“Because they weren’t ready to just hand over an actor like her to a director like me who was defying their system,” Lester recounted to me years ago, chortling), and cast her in Delovak Athara in a role meant for the much younger Anula Karunatilake. Ironically, she had begun her career with commercial, mainstream movies, but returned to them only briefly thereafter, preferring the more serious ventures that would get her travelling to various film festivals: to Tashkent (where she met Simi Garewal, Sunil Dutt, Nargis, and Shabana Azmi) and Krakow with Welikathara, and to Tehran (where she met the Shah of Iran and, on his last day before departure, Satyajit Ray) with Hulavali.
Most actresses, as they age, tend to turn themselves into the matriarchs they used to defy in their younger days. It happened with Malini Fonseka; it happened in a more nuanced way with Punya Heendeniya (the difference between her Nanda in Gamperaliya and Kaliyugaya attests to that); and it has happened, to a certain extent, even with that most defiant of on-screen women, Swarna Mallawarachchi (as Age Asa Aga shows).
In their younger days they cried over the men they fantasised about; when they mature and grow wiser they cry when other women fantasise about their husbands. They enthralled us by their sense of daring; now they enthral us by their realisation of how hollow their youthful streak was. It’s a testament to Swineetha’s capability that she has undergone this shift without the usual blasts of emotions that accompany it. Perhaps it’s because of how subtle her acting is, or perhaps it’s because no one has filmed her or made use of her capabilities since the 80s. Either way, you can’t place any of her characters against a specific canvas. They are blissfully pliable, ambivalent, and multidimensional.
There have, of course, been other actresses, who came during that twilight period I wrote about earlier: Punya, Anula Karunatilake, Swarna Kahawita, Sobani Amarasinghe. But while they either yielded to their fates in their stories or defied them altogether to their cost, Swineetha’s characters don’t let us know immediately as to what they are feeling and which side of this divide they are on. In Delovak Athara she is, in several sequences, infuriated with Nissanka when Nissanka is calm and (inexplicably) cheerful when he is for obvious reasons frightened.
This refreshingly contradictory quality of hers is what adorns almost every performance, no matter how good or bad her films seem today. I think the reason for that is that she wasn’t prolific the way that Malini or even Swarna was: she chose her scripts meticulously. A prolific player tends to accept roles that pigeon-hole him or her; a more selective player tends to go for roles that he or she is comfortable with. Swineetha is, I believe, a living embodiment of this strange paradox.
And in the end that’s why she’s able to symbolise both submission and rebellion. In Welikathara she literally cradles her husband, comparing him to their soon-to-be-born baby. A couple or so sequences later, however, she has begun to feel so betrayed by his attitude of appeasement towards Goring Mudalali that she contorts her earlier feelings to spurn his very manhood.
It’s a call for defiance, a statement almost, but he gets it, the same way Nissanka gets it by facing his conscience and Vijaya Kumaratunga, Bandula Galagedara, and Joe Abeywickrema get it by discerning their inadequacies: with the realisation that beneath her sense of simplicity are strong undercurrents of individuality and agency. That’s where she triumphs: you never actually get her, because she prefers to reveal her characters, not in gushes and torrents, but in a more nuanced, less explicit way.