Theatre and cinema are clean different. Nuance and subtlety are to be met with in both, but it is true that it’s more evident in the latter. Actors reflect this, logically enough. Whether they’re exploring the human condition or a specific political issue in a work of art, the rift between overacting and underplaying tends to determine how dignified or nuanced an actor can be. In Sri Lanka as with most other countries in the region, what happens is that people confuse the one for the other. This isn’t to say that dignity (of the quiet sort) isn’t to be seen in our actors. But that is rare. Especially in the cinema, one may add.
That’s what arguably has sustained the film industry all this while, differentiating the amateur from the professional on the one hand and, on the other, the professional from the truly rooted, deeply sensitive human being. Douglas Ranasinghe, who’s no stranger to this distinction and has most often sided with the latter type, probably knows this quite well. As with others of his calibre though, history is yet to grant him a full, unqualified, and justifiable verdict. That verdict will not be long in coming, one hopes.
Ranasinghe was born in Kurunegala. As had been an unwritten custom in his family, he together with his siblings had been first sent to the village school, where he learnt his letters. Back then there wasn’t anything called “Grade I”. Instead he had gone through the “Hodiya Panthiya”, loosely comparable (though not completely) to the kindergarten today.
From there he had been sent to St Anne’s College. Douglas remembers his days there quite well, naturally: “St Anne’s was a missionary school back then as it is today, but unlike now it took in quite a number of non-Christians. Wijeratne Warakagoda, who later went to Ananda, was there as well. We produced quite a number of people who carved out excellent careers in whatever they did.” As a footnote he tells me that with the onslaught of nationalisation throughout the 1960s, the school began narrowing its criteria, admitting only Christians and thereby compromising on diversity and quality.
Young Ranasinghe had taken part in sports activities, which he says influenced his first love. “Almost every boy who took part in sports wanted to join the Army.” Added to this was the fact that he had been a prefect, which probably compounded his desire to join the police. He applied for the post of sub-inspector twice, but owing to his weight he was turned down on both occasions. Happily for him, however, he was called in the third time he posted an application, and was taken in for a training course at Kalutara.
In the meantime, he left school and decided to join Law College, a career as a lawyer being his second love. Recalling them now, he smiles a little. “They were my ‘first choices’ alright, but Fate had other ideas for me, I suppose. This isn’t to say I didn’t watching films or plays back then, but we lived at a time when acting wasn’t really a career choice by default for us. It was either the government service or any of the professions looked up at during that time, including the law.”
He had his experiences in the theatre first, under the inimitable Sathischandra Edirisinghe, whom he had met while waiting for the training course to start (it was delayed by three months). Apparently Edirisinghe had done him a favour at the time, and Ranasinghe had been asked a favour in return. “It was a simple request, actually,” Ranasinghe remembers, “He had been selected to play the Corporal in Henry Jayasena’s Hunuwataye Kathawa, but for some reason had to let go of the role. Sathis aiya wanted me to take it.”
Ranasinghe of course was more than happy to accept the request, and so he ended up on the stage then and there. Ironically, it had been the theatre that had baptised him for the cinema, when a film director, after seeing his performance in the play, had got around and asked after the budding actor from Jayasena. “Henry aiya knew what this man was up to, and had apparently asked him, ‘You’re taking all my good actors away, aren’t you?'”
The director, incidentally, was Lester James Peries. Peries cast Ranasinghe in the second of three films he directed for Ceylon Theatres, the quietly moving but often overlooked adaptation of Madawala Ratnayake’s Akkara Paha. That had actually been his second role: G. D. L. Perera had directed him in Romeo Juliet Kathawak, which was released one year before.
Ranasinghe is understandably nostalgic as he relates his experiences aboard that film to me. Akkara Paha, in any case, had been an eye-opener for him. I remember Philip Cooray (in his book The Lonely Artist) writing on how Ranasinghe dominated the first half of the story as Samarasena, the hard-bitten friend to the main character Sena. This perhaps would have been due to how Milton Jayawardena underplayed his role as Sena, to the point where “Samare” appears to be dominating him and guiding his every act and move. “Even Dr. Peries once said that he had great difficulty in saving his protagonist from me!”
He is even more nostalgic remembering the great man himself, Lester, who had been his first guru in the cinema. Acting in films, he tells me, is more strenuous than it first may appear, and with Lester that had been slightly less intimidating on account of how much leeway he allowed his actors. “That of course doesn’t mean you can while away the time. True, ‘Maestro’ isn’t authoritarian. But he expects something substantive out of you. You have to do three rehearsals for him: one for him, one for the camera, and one for the lights. After all three are done, he asks you in for the final take.”
According to Ranasinghe, that distinguishes Lester by a wide margin, especially on account of how much he expects of his players. “You can’t play the fool with him. You must not only perform well in those three rehearsals. You must also remember what you did in them, so that you can act well with the final take. He remembers nearly every detail of what you did very clearly. Nothing escapes his eye.”
Human lives are as divided into chapters and scenes as works of art are. Ranasinghe’s life is no exception to this. After taking part in a short film entitled “Bhavana”, directed by the legendary Paul Zils and entered into the Berlin Film Festival of 1970/1971, he had approached the idea of learning more about filmmaking and acting. Leaving behind a potential career in law, he hence left to and studied at the London Film School for three years, coming back well-versed in the mechanics of his soon-to-become profession. Asked whether he would have done the same should he get an opportunity to go back in time, he answers in the affirmative.
We remember this second chapter in Ranasinghe’s life not just for the kind of films he took part in but the restraint that marked them out well. Actors, no matter how hard they try, find it irresistibly difficult to practise discipline. They thus lose in substance what they try to gain through histrionics.
In Ranasinghe’s case the opposite has been true: restraint has been, for the better part of his career, his guiding principle, and that has served to elevate his performances even when he’s a supporting actor. It happened in Akkara Paha, and it showed him excellently in Yuganthaya (opposite Richard de Zoysa, Gamini Fonseka, and Somi Ratnayake), Viragaya (opposite Sanath Gunathilake), and Kulageya (opposite Vasanthi Chathurani). He is stuck for words when asked whether he can pinpoint a “best performance” from them, and to me this speaks about how clinically but nostalgically he regards his career today.
Douglas Ranasinghe is of a rare sort: having taken part in theatre, cinema, television, and even radio broadcasting, he has doubtlessly understood that the one medium cannot and should not obtrude on the other and hence he must keep a respectful distance between them. When asked to comment on the state of these industries today, he is noticeably woeful. “Today, we see the cinema teetering between crass commercialism and anti-war ideologies. The latter type of films wins awards, the former wins hearts. I am of course not saying that we don’t see a middle way between these two, but they are hard to come by. As a filmmaker myself, I prefer the lives, emotions, and sentiments of my people to what any outsider thinks they ought to be. Sadly enough, few ‘serious’ directors today realise this.”
And here he comments on how different the type of characters portrayed on screen were to today. “Back then we had a kind of character called the ‘parajithaya’. They lost out on life. They lost out on love. But through defeat, they became heroic figures. I can think of two characters now: Sena in Akkara Paha and Sugath in Golu Hadawatha. But with the advent of time, they changed and went out of fashion. That’s why we see polar opposites in the way characters are depicted in mainstream films now: they are either angels or villains. Such characters do not exist, and reality isn’t so stark, but I suspect filmmakers and scriptwriters are playing into audience sentiments.”
These are observations, and they are depressingly correct. They come from an actor who has sacrificed and obtained much. I have come to believe that actor and character are clean different, and that they way audiences interpret any character in a film may diverge wildly from time to time. In Ranasinghe’s case, however, the person and the performance have (almost) always been the same. He maintains a quite sort of dignity in real life, as much as he does onscreen. Moreover, he has sustained an entire career through this. He has not been unsuccessful.