The most difficult person to be is the funny man. By that I don’t mean the solitary satirist, the one-man-act savant whom the American cinema took out of the vaudeville houses and popularised: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, the Marx Brothers. I am talking instead about the comedian as we understand him today, the sort who can work with a horde of co-stars and still retain his identity. Part of the reason why Chaplin appears so refreshingly-funny, even today, is his individuality, his belief in standing apart on his own. Not everyone can be a Chaplin, of course, but everyone can easily be or emulate the one-man-savant that he was. Retaining what forms you up as a distinct personality, while keeping your audiences laughing and coming for more, is considerably difficult, not least because we have short attention spans.
Joe was never solitary, never alone, but at the same time he never made us interested in his own back story
Because it’s tough being the funny man, it’s tough getting people to laugh convincingly. If we are extrapolate Lionel Abel’s thesis, we can say that what is true for his conception of Western tragedy (as thriving on self-consciousness) is true of the general conception of comedy, in both theatre and cinema. The funny man can’t betray his ability to make us laugh without betraying himself, which is why comedy in general betrays the falsity of its own medium: through counterfeit, deception, moral ambiguity. It’s no cause for wonderment, then, that comedy in Sri Lanka is, if I may be politically-incorrect here, terribly self-defeating: the men and women who try to make us grin immediately yield to their own awareness of how absurd they are.
Joe Abeywickrama was the culmination of everything Eddie Jayamanne stood for in the theatre (which he never moved out of, as the Minerva Player movies showed). The men and women who made us laugh before him – Pearl Vasudevi, D.R. Nanayakkara, and of course Eddie – out of necessity resorted to exaggeration, the sort that evoked not just laughter but also, to a certain extent, tedium. The result of this was that none of those actors actually broke through their limited canvas, which proved to be their greatest strength and biggest weakness. As the father in Rekava, as the lascivious vidane in Sikuru Tharuwa, as the servant in Ran Salu, to give just three examples, D.R. Nanayakkara could never resist being the funny simpleton.
The reason for this, obviously, was that these men and women were all from the theatre. So was Joe (his was initiated into the cinema through the studios of Sirisena Wimalaweera, who was no cineaste), but the difference with him was that he didn’t enter the movies, he downright conquered them. And the timing couldn’t have been more right. Gamini Fonseka had materialised at a time when our heroes and villains were borrowed from Bollywood; he became the first real onscreen hero we could claim. Tony Ranasinghe had materialised at a time when we were getting fed up of those heroes flaunting their masculinity and making escapades from even the most inescapable dilemma; he became our first everyman. Joe, going by that, materialised when we were getting tired of heroes and villains, and ordinary people being stumped by their sense of inadequacy. We wanted to laugh, but in a different way: we wanted someone who could be both a hero and an ordinary man to tickle us into laughter.
So the timing, as I mentioned before, couldn’t have been more propitious. Nanayakkara and Jayamanne had taken the theatre with them to the movies. Joe, on the other hand, took what he could from the theatre while shaping himself for the cinema. That’s why there’s no blatant attempt at exaggeration (with none of those discernible marks that recall the comedians of the silent era: bulging eyes, dishevelled hair) in his earliest performances, when his roles consisted of keeping his co-star from unhappiness: Gamini Fonseka in Getawarayo, Henry Jayasena in Dahasak Sithuvili.
Joe was never solitary, never alone, but at the same time he never made us interested in his own back story. Towards the end of Hal Ashby’s Being There we see the protagonist (Peter Sellers) literally walking on a lake (is he God? Jesus?). Throughout the story our attitude towards him is tempered by our consideration of him as an everyday, ordinary man who might have stepped out from anywhere. He keeps his benefactor happy, his daughter consoled but unfulfilled, and their family doctor suspicious. This curious blend of happiness, consolation, and mystery is what makes up Joe’s most recognisable performances: we don’t know where he’s from, only that he’s there to placate the main character, and with the main character, us.
Because he had no background, and we didn’t know where he came from, we were content in seeing his antics and laughing at them. Towards the end of the sixties we could feel that his stints in comedy had become a prelude to other roles, more varied and diverse. The difference between Saravita and Punchi Baba is subtle, but discernible and rather reflective of this: in the former everyone is trying to get something from him, a bulath vita seller, while in the latter he is not just the centre of drama (as before), but the centre of ‘our’ attention, and hence the whole plot.
Just as his early performances in comedy were tempered by the serious, the dramatic, his later performances in drama were tempered by the unserious, the flippant. You can discern this in Welikathara, his second dramatic outing after Thun Man Handiya: in one scene he is a dangerous, Cape Fear-esque antagonist-from-the-past, and in the very next he bottles up all his rage, his motives, with calculated, witty asides (his first encounter with Swineetha Weerasinghe’s character Geetha, on the beach and around her car, plays around with this dualism). Even in Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith, as the villain Anton Aiya, those asides temper his evilness rather incongruously (“Dore? Dore nemeyi, janele!” he shouts at an errant lorry driver). Joe had wanted to be more than a humorist; in becoming a dramatic, unlikeable antagonist, though, he was finding it difficult to escape being that humorist. It just kept coming back.
Because he had no background, and we didn’t know where he came from, we were content in seeing his antics and laughing at them. Towards the end of the sixties we could feel that his stints in comedy had become a prelude to other roles, more varied and diverse
And partly because of this, he never let go of that sense of mystery which had lingered with him before. In Desa Nisa, Lester James Peries’ attempt at moving Joe into a more serious role, he salvages an otherwise jerkily-edited final sequence with his enigmatic intentions: Does he want his wife cured of her blindness, or does he want her to remain as she is since she’s the only woman who will never be repelled by his deformities? We aren’t really sure, particularly when he plays along to the shrewd hermit (Ravindra Randeniya) and gets him what he needs to make her see again.
When the moment of revelation does come, however, it doesn’t quite have the punch that everything leading up to it had us expect: neither the deformed man, Nirudaka, nor his mother (Denawaka Hamine) express anything more than mild distress. But consider Nirudaka: his distraught eyes, his act of walking away after the girl Sundari (Sriyani Amarasena) laughs at his face (again, a mystery: is it because she thinks he’s ugly or because she realises why he wanted to keep her from getting cured so badly?), and his act of weeping alone in the forest, is tempered by intrigue, and in the end, after husband and wife lovingly reconcile, we are left wondering as to whether he ran away because he was relieved enough to yield to, or depressed enough to cry at, her thoughtlessness. Despite a rather unsatisfactory finale (which expects us to believe that the hermit would let Sundari go without a single scene depicting his change of mind), therefore, all three characters – the man, the wife, the mother – keep us intrigued, the wife because of her laughter and the mother because of her realisation that the whole world considers her son ugly, hideous, unkempt, misshaped.
Desa Nisa was not a success, and is considered today as one of Lester’s lesser films (considered as lesser, that is, without a proper rationale). But it did get Lester to achieve what he wanted, at least partly: opening up Joe’s range. Desa Nisa was released after Welikathara, but in Welikathara he was more antagonistic than tragic (which is why, in the final sequence, you feel as though some outside force was transforming his encounter with Wickrema Randeniya into an abrupt and clichéd shoot-up that ends with him being killed like a dog). Desa Nisa, and before it Thun Man Handiya, was reflective of the confused, well-meaning, but thwarted characters he would play in later years, in Siribo Aiya, Soldadu Unnahe, Baddegama, Palama Yata, Awaragira, Purahanda Kaluwara, Aswesuma (his last great performance).
He got us to betray our laughter, our facile view of life, without betraying himself. That and that alone explains his range, his wider canvas, his great ability
These were the ultimate tragic figures of our cinema, more tragic than Tony’s, whose characters were all thwarted not because of outside forces, but because of personal inadequacies. In becoming the supreme comedian of his time, to be equalled somewhat by Vijaya Nandasiri, Joe had become a supreme tragic figure. By playing around with these two opposites, rather subtly, he gradually became the funny man that we’d always wanted, who could keep us transfixed to his face throughout a film.
If Gamini were our first onscreen hero, then Joe became our first onscreen humorist, with a caveat: he never confused the ability to make us laugh and move us to empathy with the ability to keep us aware that we were seeing him and not his performance. He got us to betray our laughter, our facile view of life, without betraying himself. That and that alone explains his range, his wider canvas, his great ability.