There is a sequence in Delovak Athara I’m drawn to every time I see it. It unveils towards the end. Nissanka, our hero, is brooding by a lake. He is questioning himself, wondering whether to go to the police and confess his crime of running over a pedestrian.
There’s guilt here. He’s at a crossroads. Should he or shouldn’t he?
The camera then zooms in on his face. It is a face that stuck in my mind then and there. One that betrays suffering. One that seeks punishment for guilt. One that registers in you the minute you see it. Like Renée Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.
Nissanka Wijesinghe, like James Stewart in Vertigo and Cary Grant in North by Northwest, played what is referred to as an Everyman, a character on whom the entire thrust and pace of the film is based on. But there’s something else here. Nissanka wasn’t a character seen in our cinema before. We didn’t have Everymen in our films. Not until this one.
I’ve read about actors who made it their goal to blend in with the character they played. Tony wasn’t like that. Even when I interviewed him, he made it clear. Method of acting, with its emphasis on being the character and ‘forgetting’ yourself, wasn’t for him
He was our first Everyman, in other words. Truly a landmark.
Nissanka was played by Tony Ranasinghe. Ranasinghe passed away last Tuesday. He is mourned, yes, and for a reason. More on that a little later.
As a child who grew up disliking Sinhala films, there were faces that stayed with what little I saw. Like Gamini Fonseka. I could never forget his braggadocio no matter what film he was in. There was also Joe Abeywickrema, but somehow or the other I got around seeing him play only secondary parts.
And then there was Tony. He stuck to your mind too. As both primary and secondary actor.
Most knew him as actor. But like Gamini, he never limited himself to that. He was a scriptwriter and a voracious reader. His memory, those who knew him intimately will tell you, was phenomenal. Theories didn’t interest him the way they did with others, but that didn’t stop him from poring over books and trying to understand more about his craft. His career. In the end, that became his life.
I’ve read about actors who made it their goal to blend in with the character they played. Tony wasn’t like that. Even when I interviewed him, he made it clear. Method of acting, with its emphasis on being the character and “forgetting” yourself, wasn’t for him.
This may have had to do with his background in the theatre. He never let go of it. Or to be more clear, it never let go of him. Sugathapala de Silva, who set off a revolution with his “Ape Kattiya”, took in Tony and moulded him. As he told me last year, it was “Ape Kattiya” which got him into the cinema (he was Baladasa in Gamperaliya, with the roles of Tissa, Vijaya, and Laisa played by three of his colleagues from de Silva’s group). His penchant for keeping actor and character apart, then, must have been rooted here.
There was something more here, however. Although he spurned the Method, he was flexible. He absorbed himself. That is why the rift between Nissanka in Delovak Athara and Fernando in Baddegama didn’t really jar. Because he understood acting for what it was; a process of submersion (into role) and reflection (on oneself).
He also wrote scripts. Towards the latter part of his life, on film and television, that is what he became famous for. He never really kept a guiding principle here, but for the most part his scripts remained faithful to what was being adapted. Like in Awaragira, where its duration (almost three hours) bore witness to how faithful he was to the original. Perhaps that is why, when I asked him about how best a novel could be turned into a script, he was adamant that script must reflect source. Some would disagree here, but that was how he worked. We remember him more because of that.
My teacher (and voracious “reader” of cinema) Asela Srinath has this to say about the man: “Tony didn’t come from an acting background. But he understood what he did. He wasn’t just an actor playing a middle-class University student in Hanthane Kathawa. He was that student. He wasn’t just an actor playing a village schoolteacher in Parithyagaya. He was that teacher.” For a man who did not “take to” the Method, he probably knew more about taking the role in than anyone else in his field.
So what was it with him that stood out? Chandran Rutnam, who more than once collaborated with him, offers an answer: “Tony was the closest to a Montgomery Clift or a James Dean we had here. His sensitiveness was apparent in every role he played, particularly in his early career. The characters he got were all fragile. They were also handsome. This strange duality shaped him up as an actor who could play heroes, but heroes who were almost always defeated.”
Tony didn’t just play heroes. He played heroes who lost. They were all defeated. Alienated.
Actors change. He was no exception. He jarred a little with his first villainous part in Ran Salu. He followed this with Ahasin Polawata, Baddegama, Yahalu Yeheli, Sisila Gini Gani, and Saptha Kanya. Like I wrote before, these did not jar. They were all played by the Tony we knew. And loved. That was how he became peerless.
Perhaps that was also what distinguished him. We may never know.
His death is mourned for another reason. He came from a generation that bred Gamini and Joe. He was part of the Trinity which had both. When they died, he became the last. And when he died, so did that Trinity.
Goodbye Mr Tony. There will be tributes to you. Praise too. All unneeded. All superfluous.