There are stars who fade and those who don’t. There are also those whose names are so etched in our collective memory, that to lose them from our “caress” (so to speak) would be nothing less than a travesty, a momentary lapse, on our part. We owe it to these men and women, these icons who came and enriched our lives and experiences, to never forget and always keep to heart, and for one simple reason: so as to bequeath them to generations that followed them and generations that will follow us. If we forget them, to put it simply, we forget everything.
Gamini Fonseka can’t be written about. Not that easily. There have been, to the best of my knowledge, books and essays and tributes running by the dozen, all attempting to present the man and his career in the best way possible. The problem with him however is that everyone has his or her way of describing him, and it takes a while to establish a point of congruence between them. For this man wasn’t just a fighter in the scripts he was in: he was also a lover, a moralist, someone who spoke for justice and fair play the way he thought he could. I saw him in Parasathumal and I saw him in Sarungale, and to me the two were (almost) one and the same.
That was Gamini. At his best.
There were, of course, those usual, less than memorable roles. We remembered the fisticuffs in them, the lovers crooning by bushes, the hero dashing his way to save the heroine. That hero was always Gamini. Even in his less than conventional performances – in Koti Valigaya and in Parasathumal – he couldn’t quite get rid of his bravado, that sense of daring and mischief which won him everyone in his country. “He was an icon” is at best, I feel, a clichéd and overused way of describing this, for the simple reason that he went beyond being just an icon. He became a symbol. And like all symbols, he ended up using the same trademarks. Again and again.
No, writers haven’t really done justice to the man. There were those who referred to him as a “Method Actor”, a man who emulated Marlon Brando and that in a way which was at best imitative, at worst crass. He was not Brando, that much is clear. He had his affiliations, his devotion to various stars held as sacrosanct in his day (including Paul Muni, the Austrian actor). But to call them imitative and hence regard them as rubbish would be to do a grave injustice to this man.
For the simple fact of the matter was, Gamini Fonseka knew his people. I remember watching an interview of him conducted by the inimitable Nuwan Nawayanjith Kumara sometime back. Gamini was, if memory serves me right, asked about his background and roots. Having recounted his past for a few minutes, he detoured and made a point which probably summed him up better than anything else could. “Just because I was brought up in Dehiwela,” he said, “and just because I was educated at S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia, that didn’t mean I forgot my roots. We were from the village too, you must remember. We knew how to live with our community. We were hence never detached.”
He spoke with such conviction that I’m sure he was being honest with himself. And anyway, even in his less than serious performances you saw this pretty well. He was unparalleled in Chandiya and Yakadaya, two films which had him play out the hard-bitten antihero. Perhaps that accounts for how he could blend into other characters as well: he was repulsively empathetic opposite Vasanthi Chathurani in Amal Biso, and quietly poignant (not to mention convincing) in Sarungale. The latter film, incidentally, brought out and exemplified Gamini the lyricist (“Bambarindu Bambarindu” remains, for me, a haunting tribute to the crisis featured in that remarkable film, which at once personalises what Gamini, as the caste-conscious but gentle Nadarajah, grapples with).
He was also not a populist. Observe the films he directed. True, they were all concerned with the common man, but for Gamini what struck a chord in them all was his personal, intense preoccupation with justice and fair play. This could at times be a weakness, of course: it almost robbed Sagarayak Meda, which lampooned a dictatorial minister in a fictional government, of human density, for instance. His themes were all black and white, with no shades of grey. His world was occupied by the good and the bad, and in the end, the good triumphed, even if that moment of triumph could be bitter.
Towards the end of his career, his roles became less sympathetic. He infused sensitivity remarkably into his depiction of Simon Kabilana in Lester James Peries’ Yuganthaya, who was at once authoritarian and unsure (Sarath Amunugama, in a speech on Lester some years ago, once compared the final close-up shot of a distraught Simon to those harrowing close-up shots in Eisenstein’s landmark film Battleship Potemkin, of people so uncertain and afraid of the future), but he was repulsive as the mudalali in Sumitra Peries’ Loku Duwa. I have been told that he modelled himself on a real-life mudalali when he was acting in that film. I am sure it was that conviction which came through. At once.
Actors sometimes tend to play themselves. They do this so well that at times we forget the distinction between performer and performance. Gamini was like that. In one sense Parasathumal and Sarungale are clean different. But in another sense – taking into account his performances – they were virtually the same, because both had Gamini as Gamini. This is not a crude simplification but a spontaneous reflection on the man’s talent. In the end he won us. All those awards and titles he received, though rightly deserving, were peripheral. What mattered was how the people viewed him. What matter was how his name became his performance.
He was towering, this man. He knew when to step in a script and how to contort gesture and feeling. He was quiet in Gamperaliya but could be brash. He was authoritarian in Yuganthaya but could be forlorn (and he was, as Getawarayo showed). Together with Joe Abeywickrama, the man who made you laugh, and Tony Ranasinghe, the man who filled you with empathy for him from the word go, he formed the trinity of actors who continue(d) to enrich our collective unconscious. If that isn’t reason enough to celebrate him, I don’t know what would be.