The first of three articles exploring the trinity of our film industry.
The last few years seem to indicate that our stars can never truly transcend their power, their sense of glamour and fame. Hemal Ranasinghe in Pravegaya is really no different to the Hemal Ranasinghe in Adaraneeya Kathawak.
You see the same photogenic and potent features – his face, his drawl, even his strut – and you see him act out variations on the calm-and-quiet-hero-now-challenged. The same can be said of Uddika Premaratne, whose best performances (which are also the ones we remember, clearly) have him as a defeatist, the man at breaking point who needs someone to console him. (Part of the reason why the first half of Aloka Udapadi works so well in comparison to the second is that in there, the man acts out this defeatist, while throughout the rest of the movie he’s a stereotypical resurrected hero.)
When we grow used to such actors and the kind of performances we think they’re suited for, we are always put off when they veer off. That doesn’t happen very often in our movies (as often as it should) but when it does we are excited. Who wants to see the same hero again and again, anyway? We are tired. We want more.
I believe it’s true everywhere that as a film industry matures, actors find themselves being diversified and moved on to more complex roles. The only reason why Douglas Fairbanks or Buster Keaton or even Charlie Chaplin is remembered for the cranks and adventurers they were is that they were born to the early days of film-making.
Roughly the same can be said of our own stars -- Rukmani Devi, Eddie Jayamanne and D.R. Nanayakkara. Even Joe Abeywickrema’s early work was limiting, and often denied him the range that he discovered in later years.
"Gamini could never resist the camera, even when he was off-camera"
But these people had one excuse: they were there at a time when the producers demanded that they stick to one role. When a film industry matured and an actor persisted in being the hero or villain, in contrast, the excuse he had was that audiences were nostalgic and hence tired of the complexity that actors were subject to in this more mature era, and wanted a virile performer to remain virile. To a considerable extent, this explains the rise and the maturing of Gamini Fonseka.
Critics and commentators are ever so quick to compare Fonseka with Marlon Brando and Paul Muni. To me though, such comparisons are facile, hollow, and evasive, symptomatic of how facile, hollow, and evasive the critics themselves are. It’s as though these writers were not bothered about moving into what shapes and breathes life into a performance, a performer. Brando represented the West’s post-war rebellion against security and stability, while Muni, as Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H* so succinctly put it, was the guy who played everybody when “Franklin Roosevelt was president and Joe Louis [the boxer] was always the champ.”
Fonseka never really rebelled against stability, nor did he get to play everybody. What he borrowed from these two was their flair for researching and preparing for their roles. But what he borrowed was not what he gave out. He didn’t symbolise rebellion: his box-office records would have been enough to convince him not to. Brando didn’t care how big he was because he was prone to emotional breakdowns, crying out to us about his personal inadequacies. Fonseka was never that kind of hero.
To compare the one with the other would be to make two irreconcilable film cultures look similar. Hollywood likes to glamorize petty criminals, outlaws, and cranks. The Sinhala film industry of the fifties, sixties, and seventies (its richest periods) didn’t want to legitimise such outsiders. Rather, it wanted a hero. Not because it didn’t have any, but because every star it had, from Eddie to Rukmani to Joe (whose rise would predate Gamini’s), was content to play either the second-rate jester or the first-rate lover. We were laughing or crying too much. We needed to be thrilled, to be excited. Gamini saw this void, and like all shrewd, calculating stars, he filled the gap.
Gamini could never resist the camera, even when he was off-camera. There’s a sequence in Nidhanaya the morning after he and Irene marry, where Irene comes across a caged peacock and her husband slowly creeps up to her and disturbingly reflects on how the bird can, in a sudden fit of rage, kill its own mate. Douglas Ranasinghe (who had been in Lester James Peries’ earlier film produced by Ceylon Theatres, Akkara Paha) told me that when he was in location at the mansion and near that cage, Fonseka crept up to him in that exact same manner and began his meditation.
“I was so enchanted if not disturbed by his worldly knowledge, his serious tones, until a few days later, when I found out that he had merely been rehearsing for his part.” That was Fonseka: the hero who needed to be a hero.
"Critics and commentators are ever so quick to compare Fonseka with Marlon Brando and Paul Muni"
In an otherwise politically neutral review of Sarungale, Regi Siriwardena made the following extraordinary claim: “When the time comes to draw up a balance-sheet of Mr. Gamini Fonseka’s career, his role in this film as well as his part in conceiving its story and theme will have to be set strongly on the credit side against all the bad films in which he has played and his right-wing politics.”
Right-wing politics: what exactly did Siriwardena mean there? Was it the right-wing politics that adorns a film like, say, Sagarayak Meda, with its barely concealed attack on Felix Bandaranaike and socialism? Or was it the right-wing politics which pops up in his later performances as arbiters of law and order, even as the mellowed but potent antihero in Demodara Palama, the sequel to Titus Thotawatte’s Chandiya? Perhaps, but that marginalises another more important point: the populist strains of Gamini’s early career had by this time congealed to a rigidly conservative and right-wing ethic.
Fonseka’s depictions of police officers, army commanders, and law abiding citizens were the consequence of, and not a diversion from, his earlier depictions of thugs (the good sort), prisoners (the well intentioned sort), and outlaws (the Robin Hood, Yakadaya sort). In the sixties and seventies he was the man who broke every rule in the book if that meant standing up for the wretched who were unable to stand for themselves.
In the eighties and nineties he achieved a kind of transubstantiation: he found out that outlaws, when ageing, didn’t necessary have to resort to “outlawing” to achieve that kind of justice: they could be purveyors of the law, conservative, and still be heroes. For that, obviously, he needed to be his own star, his own director, which is what producers were only too willing to let him be in the eighties. In the end Gamini Fonseka became what he’d always been wanted to become. Gamini Fonseka.
It is said that our greatest and most accomplished actors have a fatal weakness: they can’t help being great and accomplished. I firmly disagree, but I wonder whether that point holds true for an actor like Fonseka. When you see Joe Abeywickrema as Silindu and Tony Ranasinghe as Fernando you know that’s Silindu and that’s Fernando. But when you see Fonseka as Simon Kabilana, smoking cigarettes in that suave fashion and dextrously jumping from Sinhala to English and back to Sinhala, what do you really see in him?
In the opening sequence of Welikathara you come across a star who was as able to hold a cigarette that way and dabble in both languages confidently. It’s the kind of confidence that never goes away unless one consciously wills it away. Perhaps that is why a prominent actor, no longer with us, once observed that when Fonseka asked for his opinion of his performance in Yuganthaya, he had only one answer to give: That in being Kabilana, he was being himself.
Of the many performances the man gave after Yuganthaya, his role as Kabilana being his comeback (he had vowed at that point to leave the cinema; the truth was that the cinema was trying to leave him, but couldn’t), only one really registers in my mind: the mudalali in Sumitra Peries’ Loku Duwa, easily the most self-parodying role he got in his career. “We sarong-wearing folk are better than those dogs who wear trousers, remember that!” he thunders to Geetha Kumarasinghe as she laments the fact that he just beat up her brother (Kamal Addararachchi). We are taken aback by his voice, but we aren’t intimidated; if we are, we are only intimidated to grin.
Fonseka was channelling a real-life mudalali (the sort who was never educated but prospered through his gut instincts) he had studied for his role but eventually we realised that he was channelling himself, only this time he wasn’t reinforcing his tough image, but making fun of it. Yuganthaya was directed by Sumitra’s husband Lester: these two were the only filmmakers who could depict Fonseka like that and get away with it.
"When you see Joe Abeywickrema as Silindu and Tony Ranasinghe as Fernando you know that’s Silindu and that’s Fernando"
He’s so vile in Loku Duwa that you know you have to detest him, but you don’t, not because of the actor’s identity but because of how he forces the plot to take a detour in its second half. In the end you don’t hate him, you laugh for him, that ridiculously rough accent, and that ridiculously slimy leer and grin.
The man could have played everybody but he didn’t. He wasn’t being typecast against his will there, though. He wilfully submitted to what he surely knew was the only way he could sustain his life, his career, and with it his movies. By sustaining that, he might have known he was sustaining us too. He was all our idealised conceptions and imaginings of him, if not more.
And in becoming that idealisation of him we’d treasured for so long, he became supremely confident that all he had to do in front of the camera was be the only person he could be. Himself. That was Gamini Fonseka at his best and (I daresay) his worst: the man who could only be what he’d got us, the people, to believe he could be. “I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am,” Marlon Brando lamented to Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront. Roughly the opposite, almost word to word, was true of Gamini. How could he have been a Brando in Sri Lanka, then?