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Nita Fernando and the parameters of fame

2017-12-14 00:41:50
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Before she and her husband left for Canada and settled down there, actress Nita Fernando put on hold what was considered to be a promising film career.  She returned to acting almost 20 years later, continuing to exude and exemplify a freewheeling, idealistic, innocent girlishness that no other actress here could match. 

This girlishness, and the naïveté of idealism, crop up in her two best performances from her first phase; in K. A. W. Perera’s Wasana (one of her first hits) and Vijaya Dharma Sri’s Duhulu Malak (which marked her breakthrough). It’s a testament to how serious she was about her portrayals that these two directors and movies never succumbed completely to the tropes of the commercial cinema, especially Duhulu Malak. Probably that’s why and how Nita’s girlish idealism caught us so quickly, and immediately.   

She wanted to be a stage actress. Naturally then, her entry to the film industry was accidental, having been selected to act opposite Gamini Fonseka in Parasathumal

A brief biographical sketch might help us understand this phase of her career. Nita was born in Katuneriya in Chilaw and was educated at Holy Family Convent, Wennapuwa, where she took part in stage dramas that inculcated in her a love to go out there, perform and show her face to the world. I was once fed with these memories by none other than Nita herself. Chilaw at the time had a veritable performing arts centre (a Kala Ayathanaya) and this she joined right after leaving school. B

ut like most people from her generation, and the generations that preceded hers, she didn’t want to enter the cinema. She wanted to be a stage actress. Naturally then, her entry to the film industry was accidental, having been selected to act opposite Gamini Fonseka in Parasathumal, but having had to give the offer up because of her parents’ disapproval. One thing led to another, though, and she found herself in R. T. Studios, headed by the formidable Robin Tampoe (who had earlier groomed and initiated Swineetha Weerasinghe).   

Getting noticed 

But it wasn’t Tampoe’s films that she was featured in. It was K. A. W. Perera’s, with Wasana and Lasanda, followed by Sathischandra Edirisinghe’s Rajagedara Parawiyo. By the end of her first 10 years in the industry she had taken part in more than 40 movies, most of them forgettable and a few of them notable. Those few – including Wasana and Rajagedara Parawiyo, as more than a secondary player – got her noticed by Vijaya Dharma Sri, who selected her for his Duhulu Malak. Partly (and crudely) inspired by Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Duhulu Malak was touted by contemporary critics and even audiences as being ahead of its time. 

It was a deeply sensitive production, and its theme – the immutability of love and of the family institution – was rather controversial. In it Nita was the wife (to Tony Ranasinghe, who became a lifelong friend) as well as the lover (to Ravindra Randeniya, who like Nita was cast in his breakthrough role). The controversy of the theme notwithstanding, I find the morality of Duhulu Malak rather muddled up, if not confusing, and I discern that most clearly in Nita’s astute, idealistic, but naively ecstatic portrayal of Nirupa Suraweera.   

While vaguely reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Dharma Sri’s film repudiates the sexual indifference of Lawrence’s novel and instead uses the theme of adultery, not to emancipate the woman at the heart of the love triangle (caught between the husband and the lover, Nirupa can only confess to her close friends, who while sympathetic implore her to choose wisely), but to affirm the family institution she wants to escape from. The husband is characterised solidly; busy, but caring, indifferent, but infatuated.

Not even two song-and-dance sequences that show this conflict between family ties and personal feelings (“Bonda Meedum” and “Ran Kenden”) are, in my opinion, enough to set aside the forced, contrived morality of the script, and Nita’s lovable, doll-like fragility, threatened most poignantly in that last sequence where the husband imagines shooting and killing her, serves to compound this self-contradictory morality. In the end Dharma Sri resorts to depicting the husband as an irrational, angered crybaby and the lover as a careless playboy who refuses to give up, and despite the confused morality of the plot, the only strong character who comes out is Nirupa herself. On her hinges the thin line between personal feelings and familial obligations, and she finally chooses, not the former, but the latter.   

Girlish idealist 

The strength of a film like Duhulu Malak comes from the solidity of its characters, and all three characters – the wife, the husband, the lover – were depicted squarely, with enough complexity to make them seem less the types they could have been and more the fleshed out individuals they were: Nita as the girlish idealist; Tony as the condescending husband who learns to care more for his woman; and Ravindra as the almost boyish prodigal who only at the end learns to grow up.

That Duhulu Malak gave her the breakthrough and it was confirmed by the fact that she left the country, with her husband Elias, soon after production wrapped up

(His final act, of throwing his shoe to the sea, is a contrivance by the script to make us forget everything that preceded it, but in that act we see him mature: he’s no longer a rabid, obsessive stalker, but a youthful idealist who’s lost his love.) And perhaps it’s the writer in me, but in her performance I see in Nita the schoolgirl aspiring to be a star. I put to her that even in Duhulu Malak, we come across a woman beset with little to no problems, who isn’t, but should be content with her station in life, and who, even in the most mundane pursuits, displays a naive and innocent attitude to the world around her. She agreed and replied, “When I was a girl, I wanted to be an actress because I wanted to act in everything. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING.”   

That Duhulu Malak gave her the breakthrough and it was confirmed by the fact that she left the country, with her husband Elias, soon after production wrapped up, and that when she returned 18 years later she was taken in for qualitatively different roles. “I didn’t even get to read reviews of the movies I had acted in, after I departed. I regretted that very much and I complained frequently.

But Elias was a very understanding man. Very down to earth, in fact. He got me acquainted with the issues and the problems people from that part of the world, especially expatriates like us, faced,” she said. Perhaps those experiences account for her transformation from the girlish idealist to a self-conscious, responsible woman, exemplified most vividly in her first outing after her return to Sri Lanka in Prasanna Vithanage’s Pawuru Walalu. Again cast as a woman (the widowed Violet) caught between personal feelings and familial obligations, Nita nevertheless tempered her performance and became more vividly and solidly realised.

 Vithanage’s films, with one or two notable exceptions, delve into a rigid, but textured Catholicised worldview, teetering between guilt and pleasure. That confused morality in Duhulu Malak, therefore, doesn’t quite come out in Pawuru Walalu, especially since in the former the transgression of moral boundaries is depicted flippantly, almost casually, as an innocent interlude on the part of the woman, whereas in the latter it provokes a crisis of faith in both the woman and her daughter (Sangeetha Weeraratne), along with her closest friends (at one point, in a Church, she admits to a friend that she has become a sinner), which not even a poignant ending can resolve.   

That Nita’s portrayal was more fleshed out was confirmed when she won the Best Actress Award at the 11th International Film Festival in Singapore. Pawuru Walalu was a landmark for her for another reason: it was the first movie she produced. To a considerable extent, this opened her to the cinema in ways that her acting career had not, as she herself put it: “The art of making movies is more difficult, yet more rewarding, than the art of acting in them. I am not belittling my earlier career, but the truth was that I was able to finance films which appealed to my conscience and my priorities.” 

I have unfortunately not seen this phase of her career completely, apart from a few performances in serious forays like Saroja and Bambara Walalla, the latter of which she produced. In Saroja she comes out as the most complex character in the story, as the mildly racist yet concerned wife to the protagonist, an idealistic schoolteacher (Janaka Kumbukage),who decides to shelter the daughter of a LTTE soldier. At times her maternal instincts for the forlorn girl conquer her, while at others she pushes her husband to give in to what the villagers want; force the girl away.

Pawuru Walalu was a landmark for her for another reason: it was the first movie she produced. To a considerable extent, this opened her to the cinema in ways that her acting career had not

It’s an inversion of all her previous roles, because she’s likeable and dislikeable and also because in that act of being both at the same time she’s easier to relate to, as a flawed onlooker. As for Bambara Walalla, as the mother she occupies less screen time, but the intensity of her portrayal comes out. In any case, her penchant for serious, socially conscious themes were articulated in every film she had a hand in shaping – patriarchy in Nisala Gira, societal violence in Bambara Walalla, and the stigma of AIDS in her latest production, Swara, which clinched awards at the Jaipur Film Festival two years ago.   

I sincerely believe Nita has done what she can to make us aware of certain things. Important things. We’d be indifferent not to acknowledge the performances she’s dished out to us, and more pertinently, the films she’s financed out of a desire to propagate pressing issues. She herself affirms what she’s done with a reference to her faith: “I don’t think God says, ‘Go to church and pray all day, and everything will be fine.’ For me, God says, ‘Go out and make a change, and I’ll be there to help you’.”        


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