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DateLine Sunday, 22 April 2007

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Historicity of a legendary genius

'There was an aesthetic side to my life, and an unsophisticated side as well. I began my career in cinema during an irrational era, when this country had not educated its film artistes in this particular genre yet.

Therefore we didn't have an appropriate way of learning conventional things. In those days I was still basically mesmerized by theatre. I was very attracted by Laddie Ranasinghe's acting. He was a great actor. I had also heard of some performing artistes at that time such as Romlas de Silva, Mark Samaranayake and Rukmani Devi.

While I respected them and was awed by their acting, I preferred to watch European films. Back then, the task of educating ourselves in cinema was directed towards England because we were familiar with their language only.

Yet we didn't even think of visiting England due to the cost of a sea passage at the time. I think our opportunity of going to England was curtailed. They always used our economic incapacity as an excuse as well as a justification to say 'no' to us.'

- Gamini Fonseka

***

Dinesh Priyasadh is one of the more noteworthy popular film directors in this country who has made high action films with modern special effects. He was also an intimate friend of Gamini's in the latter stages of the actor's life.

According to Priyasadh, Gamini wasn't an actor who took a lot of time to embody a mood for a particular character. He found his character at the exact flash of the camera's call to 'action!' He balanced a perfect integrity between real life and the cinematic dream world.

Therefore he was always ready to imbue new meanings in the actual instant of the rolling of the camera "as an actor who always acted within a given framework. He was a human being of colossal talent within a panoply of aesthetics, capturing the diversity of lifestyles extant in this society.

He was not rigid about mere language but was a practical actor who acted with immeasurable thought, always portraying the subtleties of characters representative of our neocolonial society successfully.

Perhaps this is what we have to derive from Gamini's acting style, as we create an cinematic ethos of our own after 500 years of colonialism. Yet did Gamini have the capacity to locate his great acting ability within this historical confrontation?

Film legend Sembuge Gamini Shelton Fonseka was born in 1936 into a typical upper-middle class family surrounded by a milieu entrapped between development and underdevelopment, Christianity and Buddhism, English and Sinhala, in an era where people were encouraged to compile their main cultural and aesthetic disposition through England and India.

He spent his first stages of boyhood (with his primary education from Presbyterian Girls' School, Dehiwala and secondary education from St Thomas College in Mt. Lavinia) in a colony countering the winds of change, yet trying to free ourselves from English supremacy within a constitutional struggle parallel to India's material struggle for freedom (within an economic condition where the East Indian Company had to leave India due to India's political struggle of nationalism, and there was no use value of keeping Sri Lankan economy under British administration any longer).

He grew up in a repressed psychological family environment, where his astrologically-bound mother did not permit him to stay outside at night, and was ever vigilant even when female cousins visited his house, whereas his macho type father was a businessman and a chandiya in both the orthodox and unorthodox senses, as well as being a cherished lover of aesthetics.

Gamini, highly respected as a trilingual (Sinhala, Tamil and English) character actor, was also a painter, writer of lyrics, and lover of music in its vast parameter.

Furthermore, he was an enthusiastic technical assistant and assistant cinematographer, screenwriter and film director who navigated his creative career midst the soft and profound passions of human kind in this society, sometimes making strong denunciations about violence against nationalities, castes and nikayas.

He was a man who used to deliver such lines just chatting with his mates, such as, "To me a man is a man, whatever the colour of his skin, whatever the language he speaks, whichever gods he worships, he is the kin of all men the world over...")

Gamini started his career in film before Rekhava, with the documentary Pol Vagaava (about a coconut plantation in Sri Lanka) directed by Lester James Peiris,where he acted as two converse characters: an old man and a young fellow.

This was his first encounter with Lester, and it motivated him to connect to films as a main actor. Then again he acted as two differently aged characters (while he was in his 20s) in Kenneth Hume's English film Elephant River.

Hume was surprised with this diversity in his acting and asked him, "At which school did you learn to act'" Gamini replied, "I did it on my own. I learned in my own school." After he acted in Elephant River, Lester James Peiris decided to select Gamini for the supporting role in his second film Sandeshaya.

In the early 1950s, Gamini's cinematic endeavour as an assistant director was further developed with the chance to work on David Lean's English war propaganda film, Bridge on the River Kwai. And again in 1955, he was assistant director on Rekhava, as well as acted in a small crowd scene in that film. Lester used to say later that, 'He was the most disciplined assistant director in my whole career!'

The philosophy of a local ethos in Gamini's acting method emerged through classical Sinhala films (such as Nidhanaya - a local masterpiece which can still be rated alongside any classic in the world) as well as through the local "heroic" films (such as Chandiya, which according to Priyasad contains a valuable element of heroism for our society, blotted out now due to the servile characters within the film industry as well as in the society).

Among these two categories of film, I suppose, both were equally significant and important in the sense of archiving an acting method of our own as well as of the rise of the film industry.

Gamini maintained a method remarkably different from the non-method actor Vijaya Kumaratunge (a hugely popular icon of the time) and the immeasurably methodical actor Solomon Fonseka (the only person in Sri Lanka with a doctorate in method acting, and one of the most "unfamous" individuals to even some who worked in the film industry).

Thus I deduced that Gamini was not such an actor of extremes, but an actor of praxis (fusing these two extremes) with an acting method relevant to our society, vis-...-vis a sense of building a valuable and competitive film industry (now reduced to merely a dream due to misadministration after 1977's absurd radical economic lobotomy). Hence it is awkward to frame his acting method in Eurocentric circumlocutions such as, He was a carbon copy of Marlon Brando' or whatever.

Gamini's film acting was mostly multilayered, with his personal improvisations based on various aesthetic forms such as painting, music, literature, etc., and through vast observation focusing on different cultural, national behaviours of a complex neocolonial society with different classes, and furthermore with a precise technical know-how to move and place the film camera.

Therefore anyone, who having endured 500 years of colonialism, locates Gamini's acting methods solely within the modern acting forms of highly Eurocentric settler societies (uttering words such as "He is another Brando"), would surely err off target.

"There are people who have an in-depth knowledge of acting styles in the world. Yet mere knowledge will not project an impression or an expression of a character. Therefore a knowledge of acting alone is not enough. Yet if by using this knowledge, you could practically develop something inside you ... then you could leave something solid for your country. - Gamini Fonseka

Gamini was of a generation who confronted the challenge of discovering a local method of acting after the shift in English colonial strategy (post-1948), after the decline of carboncopying the South Indian method of melodramatic acting (just after the 1950s, with Lester James Peiris' Rekhava, the first to be filmed outdoors in Sri Lanka).

Of most of the talented actors of this generation, Gamini's exceptionality was that he built a polyphonic acting style relevant to Sri Lanka's national and cultural variety regardless of whether it was Sinhala or Tamil, Goigama or Rodi, urban or rural, in the classical and popular films of our country.

This could nevertheless be totally consigned within the European conceptuality of acting, yet his technical apprenticeship was highly influenced by both India and Europe.

The technical equipment or "the means of production" of cinema (specially the film camera equipment sent to South Asia not to encourage reasonable autonomy but to subject us to further colonialism) was born within the European arena after the decisive historical juncture of the industrial revolution.

Therefore this technology did not have a direct historical connect to our pre-colonial era as one of our own "means of production."

The first film actors to develop an acting method of our own despite the reactionary trend of imitating European and South Indian styles in a carbon-copy approach, may be placed in two categories: The classical actors (D. R. Nanayakakara, Joe Abeywickrema , Henri Jayasena, etc.) and the entertainers (Ananda Jayaratne). Yet Gamini was one who determinedly developed a practical method of acting (with the rationality of building a better film industry for the country) within these two categories successfully, by carefully identifying our own locality within the meanings of both main languages (Sinhala and Tamil), and addicted to keenly and shrewdly observing real characters and their behaviour in our society, rather than merely imitating actors in Europe or South India.

A neo-renaissance of Sinhala cinema had commenced with Rekhava, the first to be filmed outdoors incorporating a realistic acting style in 1955, a film totally different to the wierd masala-mix melodramatic style of films carboncopied from South Indian cinema.

The refinement of cinematic culture touching Sri Lanka paralleled the Indian filmscape of Bengal, with Shanthinikethan influencing the genius of filmmakers such as Satyajith Ray who revealed Asian society in its real ethos. This refinement of cinema in Sri Lanka was spread through such bilingual middleclass filmmakers, as well as the filmmakers brought up under the limiting 'Sinhala-only' educational policy.

Filmmaking at that time was, therefore, not a cultural practice of ordinary people. Gamini also began by walking in as a trilingual middleclass film artist within this flow. Yet later he developed a classical acting style beyond this flow, which possessed even more human characters relevant to Sri Lankan society.

Additionally, Gamini was also engaged in the new culture of popular film, changing his previous ways of acting into a popular style of our own, which especially boomed in the early 1970's, mainly projecting a heroic figure for the common people.

He was also equally involved in bringing up most of the ordinary people of great talent into our cinema field. Thus he was one of those geniuses (as an actor) who engaged in between both classical and popular zones of our film industry successfully.

After 1977, as anti-national constitutional changes started blotting out the functioning of the state, the whole system of mass media in Sri Lanka accelerated into a certain type of chaos.

Therefore, within that jagged transition, cinematic art in Sri Lanka also started shifting its previous ethos, without proper guidance, into withstanding the complicated challenge of restructuring our aesthetic culture within a system of privatized endeavour.

Thus those pre-'77 cinema artists, even geniuses like Gamini, were unable to face this challenge due to the sudden fast inflexible imposition of Euro-US capital into the country. Nor could they face the institutional hypocrisy created through such political pollution and misguidance.

While Euro-Us capital started crushing our sovereignty into a more impractical existence, especially after 1977, it also started to blur our ethical standards of cinema with directly market values.

Hence a new generation, almost uneducated in the previously held values and standards, started immersing themselves in the new misadministration of aesthetics and cinema.

Consequently, by the 1980s, the cinema industry arrived at a stage of confusion, which began by crucifying previously classical filmmakers such as Gamini Fonseka, Lester James Peiris, Tissa Abeysekara, Dharmasena Pathiraja, Vasantha Obeysekera, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, etc., as well as those such as Titus Thotawatte and Sena Samarasinghe from the popular cinema.

This haemorrhaging, for example, significantly did not allow Dharmasena Pathiraja to create a new film for twenty years and reduced the amount of films Gamini acted in per year rapidly. This was also a sign of the devaluation of the whole pre-77 aesthetic culture of Sri Lanka, even as India was still changing its cinematic values with reference to this so-called neo-liberalism under their own constitutional valuing of autonomy.

With rising devaluation by this neo-Disneyland, some previously quality filmmakers betrayed their policies, changing into "some thing or another," to just settle down within the system without even a proper evaluation of this quick-cut transition.

Therefore, at this crucial moment of neo-crucifixion, those beings who were true to their creative art form, such as Gamini Fonseka, chose death by slow suicide rather than by changing their selves into mere clowns with an exchange value, always reappearing to shill some awful product on TV commercials endlessly.

You may retort that, "You are mad! It was a natural death, even the coroner's post-mortem report says so!" Yet I will tell you a story: When Hitler caught a musician who wrote compositions against his ideology, what did he do? He didn't shoot him to death.

He just shut him in a room, and blasted him with cacophonous tunes. In a situation such as this, of killing one's musical soul, what should an authentic musician do?

Commit his body to musical suicide? Thus some people in this society are killed directly by a bullet or whatever. It is a direct and honest way of killing. And some people have almost totally relegated suicide to a so-called naturally slow death.

So, what is the difference? Are we proud enough of our own country, even now, to nurture youngsters who prefer an authentic cinema?

"Hey Amaranath, I chatted with that chap Gamini, who acted as Jinadasa in Gamperaliya. He appears to be a great youngster, with lot of talents and knowledge. He should have been born in India. India needs these kinds of actors. He is invaluable to Sri Lanka!" Sathyajith Ray to Amaranath Jayatilake.

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