From 1969, which saw Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa, to 1989, which saw Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Kadapathaka Chaya, Vijaya Kumaratunga, the greatest matinee idol to ever grace the screen in this country, averaged about five movies a year. In both these films, undervalued for their time, reassessed more favourably today, he was cast opposite that other great actor, Swarna Mallawarachchi, and yet no two roles could have been more different: in Hanthane Kathawa he was the lover, the swashbuckling epitome of youth, while in Kadapathaka Chaya he was the impulsive rapist, the cold, calculating businessman who meets his end at the hands of his own victim. It took Vijaya all of 20 years to make the shift; perhaps (for I can only speculate here) another 20 years would have seen him diversify his range further.
At their toughest, heroes and superstars are virtually invincible. Supremely confident of their infallibility, their presumptions of their own strengths, they can only glare at those who boost their own presumptions. (Right after G. W. Surendra ends his valedictory for the protagonist in the opening of Welikathara, that protagonist, a newly promoted ASP, smiles rather contemptuously at him; the ASP, played by Gamini Fonseka, let us know then and there that only he had the prerogative to assess and inflate himself.) They don’t opt for cooperation because being cooperative in this society is, when it comes to heroes at least, seen as a sign of weakness, so much so that those who prefer to dream rather than do, to idealise rather than act, turn out to be inadequate versions of themselves (as with many of Tony Ranasinghe’s characters).
Vijaya Kumaratunga was our first on-screen hero who taught us that heroes need not always opt for unilateral action, and that the occasional compromise, the infrequent lapse, was forgivable and, more to the point, expendable. The romantic male stars, from here, weren’t really aggressive, but for the most they teetered between the domineeringness that Fonseka embodied and the fragility, the sense of inferiority, that Ranasinghe embodied. Both Fonseka and Ranasinghe instilled in their characters an intense desire to own the women they hankered after (which is why, when these two were cast together, as with Parasathumal, they tended to fight over the same love interest).
But when Ranasinghe was featured opposite Vijaya, the tide turned: it was no longer about a woman, rather about that eternal battle between age and youth. Even when he mellowed, even when he was cast against younger players, Vijaya remained very much young, which meant that he was forever destined to conquer the women he desired so much. Ranasinghe’s characters would have given up (unless, as with Duhulu Malak, the women of their dreams came back on their own accord), and Fonseka’s would have gone ahead, never bothering to try their luck with their fiancées again, but Vijaya was different: he cared, he compromised, and he came back.
He was almost an outsider, the man from a different world, an intruder who dared to creep in at a time when the trinity of our film industry – Gamini, Tony, and Joe Abeywickrama – was firmly established and had virtually monopolised that industry. They each embodied a different zeitgeist – Gamini with heroism unhindered by moral scruples, Tony with fragility underscored by a delicate, strange, almost otherworldly handsomeness, and Joe with a sense of mock seriousness which no chaotic situation or accident could trip – and they commanded the names and the salaries that would have made any newcomer a nonentity. But these three were from a different era. The outsider and stranger who intruded into their universe heralded a new age: an age in which education and employability had become polar opposites, an age in which stability was a hated word (simply because it was impossible to obtain, except through force). The young of those days, who had venerated heroism and fragility and mock seriousness, wanted something more: someone who could compound these qualities and embody them at the same time. They found their pivot with (who else?) Vijaya!
There are commentators who suggest that Vijaya never really acted, that he was being himself and that he hardly ever bothered to wait for the correct cue or take. Part of the reason for that, of course, was that unlike Fonseka he never selected his scripts meticulously: what he got was what he landed. That was, at one level, crude and almost primeval, but then in a country as small and yet indefinable as Sri Lanka being overly selective could have swept him off at a time when the market he inadvertently targeted – the young and the dispossessed, cut off from their own familial bonds – would have crassly ignored him if he wasn’t that frequently cast. Having averaged about one or two films from 1967 (Manamalayo) to 1969 and 1970 (Hanthane Kathawa), he struck gold at the box office with Neil Rupasinghe’s Hathara Denama Soorayo (in 1971). Three years later, Dharmasena Pathiraja chose him for Ahas Gawwa, and three more years later, he chose him again for Eya Dan Loku Lamayek.
When Gamini and Tony and Joe were cast as villains, they evaded our sympathy and evoked our deepest fears. Gamini began his career with a set of films that had him play around with the duality between love and hate, as with Seethala Wathura; Tony became less likeable as he aged, as Ahasin Polawata and Duhulu Malak evidently showed; and Joe, when he was not raging and ranting like a self-deluded man (like the domineering dictatorial husband in Adara Hasuna), played around with a variation of the duality that Gamini had, this time between fear and self-mockery (Welikathara). But even at their most dislikeable, these men knew what they were in for: they didn’t fall or trip, and if they did, the script prepared us for them. With Vijaya, on the other hand, those trips and falls were never part of a carefully ordered and ordained narrative. The lover in Wasana has to croon “Oba Langa Inna” to try and get back Malini Fonseka, and in Eya Dan Loku Lamayak, he endures the hatred and contempt of a teenage lover of Malini, played by Wimal Kumar de Costa, to marry her.
Having covertly slept with Helen in Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith, and having been upbraided by his two friends (Amarasiri Kalansuriya and de Costa), the man still feels confused about what he’s done: “What COULD I have done?” he sternly asks de Costa, the fiery revolutionary, as de Costa warns him about the chaos he’s unleashed on the fishing community they’ve moved to. If Bambaru Avith feels rather operatic today, rather blown out and loud and crude and deliberately cluttered, it’s not because of Premasiri Khemadasa’s innovative music only, but also because of the fact that Vijaya had become a new lover: the anti-heroic lover, who falls in love with a peasant girl engaged to another man (Cyril Wickramage). Vijaya trips and falls, but until the end those trips and falls are never explicitly rationalised by the script. Consequently, by being an anti-heroic lover, he had become an anti-heroic hero: the sort that his audiences had wanted all along, and got, with every other subsequent role of his.
If Vijaya seemed careless in his movies and the scripts did nothing to hold him back, the only consolation we had was the fact that he had no one but himself to fall on. In Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Diyamanthi he throws away his “useless” Bachelor of Arts certificate after he gets evicted by an irate landlady (Ratnawali Kekunuwala) and, in one of the most bizarrely concocted coming-together sequences I’ve ever seen in any film, befriends a pickpocket (de Costa) and a hard-done-by, recently released criminal (Somasiri Dehipitiya), as they venture out and make friends with a carefree heiress (Malini Fonseka). These men have nothing but themselves to turn to: they have no family, no one dependent on them and no one they are dependent on. In one sense this was more Godardian than Hitchcockian (the latter term being used by critics when reviewing Diyamanthi), except that Godard’s characters didn’t just lack families and dependents but were downright repelled by them. That attitude of being repelled and being alienated came out, for Vijaya, in Pathiraja’s greatest film, Para Dige.
Vijaya never really acted, that he was being himself and that he hardly ever bothered to wait for the correct cue or take. Part of the reason for that, of course, was that unlike Fonseka he never selected his scripts meticulously
In Ahas Gawwa the ending, which to many seemed apt and expedient for the two protagonists (Vijaya and Amarasiri Kalansuriya), also seemed rather contrived: there was nothing to suggest that either of them would have taken part in strikes if they were placed in a different setting. There needed to be an explicit rationale, failing which their act of participating in those strikes looked almost manufactured. Para Dige, for the first time in Vijaya’s and (I think) Pathiraja’s career, did away with a need for such a rationale, if at all because the characters don’t come to us with any back story: neither Chandare, the protagonist, nor his girlfriend (Indira Jonklaas) encourages us to find out more about their pasts, barring a section of the narrative in which Chandare returns to his sister (Sunethra Sarachchandra) and his parents (Chitra Vakishta and Joe Abeywickrama); that section, very much unlike the freewheeling style of everything that preceded it, naturally felt detached from the rest of the story.
This evolution – from the in-your-face likeability of the seventies to the cynical ambivalence of the eighties (at the end of Para Dige, Vijaya as Chandare embodies this ambivalence by answering his girlfriend’s questions with a slapdash remark: “I don’t know”) – was obviously one which would have led to a shift in his career, and like Gamini and Tony and Joe he would have made a leap to a new phase. But then there was only one film which indicated this shift, and after it was released in 1989, he was shot down and killed. That film was Obeyesekere’s Kadapathaka Chaya, where for the entirety of the plot he teeters between a superficial charm and a repressed sexual hideousness that spells out his own murder. Kadapathaka Chaya, unlike Dadayama and Palagetiyo, plays out like clockwork: the past and the future are inextricably woven together, and in Vijaya’s characterisation of Danaratne, the mudalali who rapes his own sister-in-law, there is an inevitable deterioration, which at times frightens us. Perhaps Kadapathaka Chaya was the only fitting end we could have had to a man we wanted so badly to be: a lover, heroic, anti-heroic, or otherwise.