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Cinema Queen Malani Fonseka

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It was Gamini Fonseka's last public speech. He was felicitating someone. He spoke about acting and about how this particular actor he was honouring couldn't be defined properly. "David Lean," he remarked, "was once asked about an actor. He was asked what the root of his talent was. Lean explained the best way he could. "But the questioner wasn't satisfied: 'What was so special about his talent?' 'That extra something which I cannot explain,' Lean replied. Well, let me tell you all that this lady here has that 'extra something' in her, which none of us can explain. That's the secret to her success."

There was a standing ovation then, for Gamini Fonseka had just described this actor the best way anyone could. He had put into words what decades and performances had achieved for Malini Fonseka. And for the life of me, there is no better way I can go by way of summarising her. That would be merely superfluous.

Malini is, without a doubt, the "Queen" of our cinema. And rightly so. She has achieved an enviable dexterity in both commercial and serious films which only a handful of actresses have. Through all this, though, she has retained modesty. No false pride has detracted her from delving into different films and different performances. No preconceived notions about "good" or "bad" roles have set her back. Perhaps this is the key to her agility. What is surprising about it is that she didn't come from an "acting" background: it was purely her love for both stage and cinema which took her to where she is now. That's achievement, but hardly the romantic "rags-to-riches" story one gets to hear every day.

Her first stints at acting, not surprisingly, had been at the stage, a typical phenomenon among actors here at that time. She was educated at Gurukula Maha Vidyalaya in Kelaniya, which bordered the Vidyalankara Campus (now the University of Kelaniya). Apparently the University was staging a play, but those producing it there were on the lookout for an actress to take the lead role. This had been a problem because the Campus had no female students at the time, only boys and monks.

The dancing teacher at Gurukula was told to find a suitable person for the role. Malini was asked then to take part in the play, but, according to her, "I did not accept it then and there, because I had to ask permission from my parents." The play was Noratha Ratha, produced and directed by H. D. Weerasiri: it marked the first time young Malini acted outside her school. From then on, the stage would entice her, getting her roles in such plays as Guttila by S. Karu.

Then came 1965. She was acting in a play called Akal Wessa, and would later win the Best Actress award for it. Among the crowd that had thronged at Lumbini Theatre that night was Tissa Liyanasuriya, by then a two-time film director. He and Joe Abeywickrama were on the lookout for a "new face" to take on the lead role in his next film. She hadn't been a unanimous choice: "Some people thought that I was far too thin and unsuitable for the film," she tells me. Liyanasuriya and Abeywickrama, though, were satisfied by her test screening, and took her in.

The film was of course Punchi Baba, which would be released in 1968. Tissa Liyanasuriya himself once described her to me: "I didn't order her around. She was fully aware and involved with what she did, and liked the script, story, and role. Others had wanted an incumbent for the film's lead. Joe and I were adamant: we wanted a newcomer. Seeing her, we were quite confident that she could do it." The film proved a launch pad for the budding film-actress in Malini, proved amply by her (relatively) minor role as the sister to Henry Jayasena in G. D. L. Perera's Dahasak Sithuvili that same year. Looking back, Malini says that none of the directors she worked with "imposed" their methods on her: "They were all quite respectful of my acting capabilities and the sort of performances I was generally comfortable with." Most cinemagoers will remember her for those countless commercial flicks which, in more ways than one, lent the "Queen" tag to her career. But she had her share of serious films as well. Akkara Paha and Nidhanaya figure prominently among this crowd, but there were others too. Amaranath Jayatilaka's Siripala saha Ranmenika, for instance, saw her play a very unattractive wife to Ravindra Randeniya, which won her unqualified praise from Satyajit Ray ("He couldn't reconcile my character in the film with me!" Malini nostalgically remembers).

She admits that even at this stage, she didn't entertain any preconceived attitude to "good" acting: "I didn't come from an acting background. Hence my education was firmly based on what I experienced hands-down." That, by the way, has been the main path through which giants in cinema have emerged. As she tells me all this, I am reminded of the American filmmaker John Ford, whose legendary directing style all boiled down to one dictum: "Photograph the actor's eyes." Echoed in that was Ford's own underestimation of his real directorial power. I think it's a case of modesty on her part, but the way I see it, Malini Fonseka's attitude to acting, though not completely shaped up on a "clean slate" (given her adolescent encounters with the theatre), was almost wholly made up of firsthand experience.

For me, however, and doubtless for thousands of other avid followers of serious Sinhala cinema, she will be best remembered for her association with Dharmasena Pathiraja. From a minor part in his debut Ahas Gawwa to a lead role in his pièce de résistance (and undervalued masterpiece) Soldadu Unnahe, Malini took on the demands of the so-called "socially engaged cinema" with unabated interest. She became part of the repertoire of actors who surrounded Pathiraja, among them Wimal Kumar da Costa (her classmate at Gurukula), Amarasiri Kalansuriy (with whom she was paired in H. D. Premaratne's unforgettable Apeksha), and Vijaya Kumaratunga.

Malini tells me here that the '80s proved her most fruitful decade. This may be true, considering the onslaught of colour and the mushrooming of budding, commercial filmmakers following the post-1977 "open economy" policies of the National Film Corporation. She lists Aradhana among her favourites. It won her the Best Actress award at the Presidential Film Awards ceremony that year. Indeed, her very first directorial effort, Sasara Chethana, an ambitious Western-styled action thriller, was made during this time, in 1984. She has since directed three other films: Ahinsa (1987), Sthree (1991), and Sandamadala (1994). As the years went by, it seemed as though she took on increasingly matriarchal roles, as evidenced by her acclaimed performances in Punchi Suranganawi (2002), Wekanda Walauwwa (2003), and Ammawarune (2006). It would be unforgivable to omit her role in Prasanna Vithanage's Akasa Kusum (2009) here, and I think it needs more than a mere mentioning in this article. She won her quite a number of awards internationally, including the Silver Peacock at the Indian Film Festival (which she herself once called the "biggest achievement in my forty years" in cinema).

The role was that of a former film star whose return to fame is marked by scandal. In hindsight, perhaps Prasanna Vithanage was spot-on for having chosen her to play the character. Echoing the "fading film star" motif which has figured in countless films in the West, the film delved into the patriarchal "despotism" that is at the heart of both our country and our popular entertainment industry.

One can spot out a kind of naked austerity in Malini's performance in the film. There are no attempts at frilling or exaggerating: here, more than in any of her previous films, she achieves a deliberate underplaying on her part. This underplaying is essential for her character of Sandya Rani, whose nostalgic reveries of the past are underscored by a harsh, all-too real present. The clash of personal feeling and class/social realities (especially when she gets involved in the scandal the film centres on) is the epicentre of the film, and she epitomises this clash succinctly. Suffice it to say that it represents the achieving of an overarching goal Malini's career has revolved around: the removal of the theatrical and the excessively emotional from her acting.

Perhaps this is one way I can explain what Gamini Fonseka said was unexplainable. Malini Fonseka is well aware of her capabilities and potential. She needs no perpetual limelight, though, purely because we ourselves know her worth. That, at the end of the day, may well be the secret to the fame she has subsisted on throughout all these years and decades. I still feel we are yet to come up with an indefeasible, indisputable summing up of her value, both as actress and as national icon.

Uditha Devapriya

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