A scene from ‘Vaishanavee’ by Sumithra Peries
- Over the decades since then, she has, for some reason, learnt to tone down, and radically so
- Yashoda Wimaladharma represents something of a conundrum. Like most of her contemporaries, she came from the stage
I met her for the first time three years ago, in Mount Lavinia. I met her many times before that too, but through the films and serials she was in, “Graced” would be a better way of putting it. In any case, she put me off when I called her. She told me flatly that unless the two of us met, she would not consent to an interview.
It was hard not to be entranced by her. Harder not to be rebuffed by her. For the truth of the matter is, I can’t think of an actress more capable of ice cold reserve, of the sort of indifference that makes you want more, than her. Most of our actresses graduated from ice maidens to sweethearts. For her, it has been the other way around. That is what constitutes her, as an actress and, to a considerable extent, a human being.
Yashoda Wimaladharma represents something of a conundrum. Like most of her contemporaries, she came from the stage. Unlike most of them, she never abandoned the stage. She has, moreover, gone on record saying that it is not easy to induce her into a performance unless she’s read through a script. That level of discipline, while not unparalleled or unsurpassed, is admirable and rare.
She is not ageless, but she embodies agelessness. In Samanala Sandhwaniya she makes the trek from a young lover to an old beauty. Then as now, makeup remains the most unconvincing aspect of the Sinhala film. But in this film, there is no falseness in her transformation. It’s as though her performance transcends the makeup department.
The Sinhala cinema graduated from Rukmani Devi, who chased the man of her dreams in film after film, to Malini Fonseka, who was chased by those men and yet spurned them till the very end, to Swarna Mallawarachchi, who spurned and at the same time made us feel she wanted them. Yashoda comes from the generation that immediately followed Swarna’s. It was a difficult time for our cinema, and this was more or less reflected in the role we ascribed to the female performer: seductive, yet strongly independent and fully capable of agency.
Acting didn’t come to her. She had to be “taken in”. During her A/Levels years, her uncle, Bandula Vithanage, chose her for the lead role in his adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Hiru Dahasa.
“I won the Best Actress Award at that year’s State Drama Festival,” she remembered, “which I never expected.”
What happened next? “I learnt about acting. I read up on technique. I polished myself as much as I could within six months. People were most helpful towards me. But after Hiru Dahasa, I felt the urge to go beyond what I had gained. I wanted to learn more, a problem given that we didn’t have acting schools back then. Nonetheless, my father, who knew my interests well, took me to the only man who could teach me. Jayantha Chandrasiri.” When asked how long she was tutored by him, she admitted, with a faint laugh, “I still am his student. Although my initial ‘training period’ went on for a few years, I’m always on the go and ready to take in any new technique. In that sense he taught me the basics of what I needed to know. That widened my interests.”
I can’t really put a finger on why and how Yashoda entrances us so well. Is it her meticulousness? Could be. Her eclecticism (her grasp of different languages, her performances in several non-English language movies)? Perhaps. Her embodiment of tortured innocence in the first few films and serials she was in (from a small part in Doo Daruwo to bigger roles in Duwata Mawaka Misa and Theertha Yathra)? Possibly. Or, by contrast, her embodiment of women capable of ambiguity (think of her roles in Maruthaya and Anantha Rathriya)? Probably.
Yashoda’s essence stems from her versatility. Like most accomplished players, she can salvage a bad film even when it’s at its worst. There are sequences in Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Maruthaya, for instance, where the rest of the cast gives up. Yashoda and the actress playing her sister, Sangeetha Weeraratne, manage to take us through these scenes (such as the seduction of Yashoda’s character by Palitha Perera, or the transformation of the two siblings from a politician’s daughters to prostitutes) though they appear to be, and indeed are, so heavy on our eyes.
The seduction by Palitha Perera and an earlier seduction by Neil Alles seem peripheral to the story; nevertheless, Yashoda, the object of both men’s desires, makes it relevant. Towards the end, the two women, at a night club, are shown to have made the trek from privilege to prostitution; a series of jump cuts ends with the transformation of the statues of two models to the two of them; this, the most symbolic sequence in the film, sacrifices a great deal of emotive power, yet it resonates because of Yashoda’s ability at channelling that power even when she seems wooden and statuesque.
Theertha Yathra and the much better Duwata Mawaka Misa represents two of the last instances where Yashoda openly away her emotions. There is not a single scene in Theertha Yathra (also by Obeyesekere), for instance, where she is not pondering, brooding, or crying. It’s so overwhelming that none of the other characters can take it: not the father (Ravindra Randeniya) or mother (Veena Jayakody), who are not her real parents; not her fiancée (Channa Perera), who is both disdainful of and drawn towards her; and not her actual father (Joe Abeywickrama), the latter of whom is the only other person more emotionally inclined than her. That emotiveness comes out more subtly in Duwata Mawaka Misak (by Sumitra Peries); her performance there was so well received that she clinched that year’s Presidential Award for the Best Supporting Actress.
Over the decades since then, she has, for some reason, learnt to tone down, and radically so. When she teamed up with Jayantha Chandrasiri (for the first time since he had coached her in the eighties) with Agnidahaya, she entered a different terrain. The difference between her earlier phase and this new one comes out more strongly in Chandrasiri’s next film, Guerrilla Marketing, a difference that can at once be inferred from the way she represses her emotions and the way her rival, played by Sangeetha Weeraratne, gives into hers.
When Yashoda smiles, or laughs, or ponders on her old romance with Sangeetha’s husband (Kamal Addaraaarachchi), she doesn’t yield; when Sangeetha, discovering the affair, tries to confront her, she yields. The difference is one of temperament, a difference that was turned the other way around in Maruthaya, where Sangeetha acted in a more nuanced and matured manner than her sister.
In Maruthaya and Duwata Mawaka Misak, she raises her voice, but in later movies, she quietens down. This has the effect, interestingly, of sustaining our interest in her whenever she does talk. While I am certainly not qualified to pass judgment on soft but firm drawl, I do admit that there has been no actress capable of conveying both desire and indifference the way she has been able to.
In Trojan Kanthawo
In the first half of Samanala Sandhwaniya, she is entranced by the young misfit; when she meets him as an adult for the first time, now an older woman, she talks cordially with him, and it almost seems as though the two will get with each other. She makes us expect her to be forgiving with our young hero the moment he performs his song and confesses everything he’s done, to her. But no: after he informs her, she gets up calmly, asks him to never get in touch with her, and leaves.
It is a tragedy, but of the sort that one would never expect: our sympathies, which were with the hero Vageesha all this time, are transferred to her. We do not chide Vageesha for his callousness, yet we feel that the tragedy belonged, not to him, who was there throughout, but to her, who was there intermittently. And she does it, not by her gestures or her emotional power, but by her voice. It is the most potent symbol of her at times contradictory personality; it makes us want to know more about her, and at the same time keeps us from prying into her deepest, innermost secrets.
Yashoda Wimaladharma has been at it for 30 years. Well more than a quarter century. We know more about actresses who’ve spent a fraction of that time than we do about her. This, I believe, is her essential character. Unlike Rukmani, Malini, even Swarna, she makes us want to come after her, and at the same time get away from her. “Do we truly know you?” I felt tempted to ask her. I didn’t of course, but I can guess the reply: “Perhaps.” At the end of the day, it doesn’t get more ambiguous than that.