Tony Ranasinghe :From angry young man to star crossed lover


by Sarath Amunugama

With Tony’s death a 50-year association between us ends. It holds for me many memories when our interests intersected at a time which was of some significance in contemporary cultural history.

When I was an undergraduate and later Lecturer at Peradeniya University in the early sixties, the Sinhala cultural scene was dominated by Sarachchandra. Maname and Sinhabahu had created a sensation and ‘stylized’ drama attracted many of our theatre-goers, particularly those who had been influenced by thousands of teachers, spread throughout the country, who had had the good fortune to study at the newly opened Peradeniya Campus in its idyllic setting by the Mahaveli river.

Even so, University Dramatic Societies had a history of producing naturalistic drama under Ludowyck and Sarachchandra himself. The high point of pre-Maname University drama was the staging of Neumann Jubal’s productions. Jubal was a reputed Austrian director who was a friend of Edith Gumroi who was an Austrian psychoanalyst who had married Professor Ludowyck and had assisted him in many of his outstanding productions. Jubal, it must be mentioned here, was not strictly a naturalistic theatre producer. Influenced by Brecht and Chinese theatre he was not averse to producing plays which had elements of stylistic drama. At that time there was space enough for naturalistic theatre in the country but there were no outstanding dramatists. I remember writing on this aspect to the Ceylon Daily News with the headline "Waiting for a Sarachchandra"? (In those days, even as undergraduates we could confidently write articles which would be featured in the centre pages thanks to sympathetic editors like Regi Siriwardene and A J Gunawardene).

This vacuum was filled by a group of mostly bilingual young, Colombo enthusiasts who had got together under the leadership of Sugathapala de Silva and Cyril B Perera. They were great movie goers and readers of books about the arts. Many of them worked in the translation bureaus of embassies in Colombo. Cyril B worked for the Indian Embassy. Sugathapala de Silva and G W Surendra worked for the German Embassy, if my memory serves me. So did Augustus Vinayagaratnam. Tony’s brother Ralex, Dharmasisi Wickremaratna and Tissa Abeysekara wrote copy for advertising agencies. Tony, then Anthony de Silva, was an English language stenographer in the courts.

This group used to meet regularly in Colombo pubs and Sugathapala was persuaded to write and direct a play. Soon after, Dharmasiri Wickremaratna also decided to write a play "Ran Thodu" which he directed some time later. Sugath’s maiden effort was "Boarding Karayo" which dealt with the humdrum affairs in a lower middle class boarding house which was drawn from their own experience. A sassy young girl, Prema Ganegoda was brought in by someone and to play opposite Surendra, Ralex brought his brother along. At this time Tony was dreaming of becoming a movie star having shortened his given name as a homage to Tony Curtis. But his idol was Dilip Kumar whose walk he imitated on stage. He was later to translate a book on the life of the Hindi ‘Megastar’ One of the attractions of Sugath’s plays was the scintillating dialogue drawn from middle class argot – only to be expected from a group that was full of advertising copy writers and journalists. Among the backers of this group was Vipula Dharmawardene who was a media adivisor to Industries Minister Philip Gunawardene.

With the success of "Boarding Karayo", virtually the same cast was got together for "Thattu Geval" which again dealt in crisp, witty dialogue with the life of young lower middle class urban youth. Wickremaratne on the other hand presented a bolder and more controversial work, though less dramatically effective, in Ranthodu which dealt with pre-marital sex and the loss of virginity symbolized rather obviously by the heroine’s loss of her earning.

I was a member of the jury that year and, despite objections of some traditionalists, we gave the best actor awards to Anula Karunatilake and Tony Ranasinghe. I remember that the late H. D. Sugathapala was also a supportive member of the jury. He made a great contribution to the promotion of Sinhala theatre and was a good friend of the ‘Ape Kattiya’ often allowing them to rehearse in the hall of the Royal Primary which later became the John de Silva Theatre. Coincidentally this was a time when there was a renaissance in the British theatre. John Osborne’s "Look Back in Anger" had created shockwaves as the voice of a generation of ‘angry young men’ who railed at British upper crust life and was celebrating the loss of British power and prestige in the post-Suez world. A number of plays including ‘Entertainer’ ridiculed the long held values of the British middle class. The intellectual ferment caused by these changes affected the ‘Ape Kattiya’ who participated in the cultural life organized by embassies in Colombo representing the two sides locked into the cold war. It is difficult now to imagine the East-West cultural wars that took place in Colombo at that time.

Lester James Peiris often went to see Sinhala plays and actors and actresses eagerly looked forward to acting in his films. At this time Lester was casting for "Gam Peraliya" and had already decided on Gamini Fonseka and Punya Heendeniya for the two leading roles. They were already the leading stars of the silver screen. For the rest he wanted new faces from the theatre. Thus Henry Jayasena and Trilicia Gunawardene were selected. On the other hand, ‘The Ape Kattiya’ became a pool of talent than he could draw on for supporting roles. Tony was very keen to play a bigger part but had to be satisfied with the role of Baladasa. Wickreme Bogoda got the bigger role as Tissa, and Surendra and Anula Karunatilake were also selected for ‘bit’ roles. Lester enjoyed their company and ‘Lester Mahattaya’ was the idol of the young players. Lester liked the irreverent, ‘eating and drinking’ life style of these young urbanites and was amused by their pranks.

I had the good fortune to accompany Martin Wickremesinghe and Regi Siriwardene to the Maha Kappinna Walauwe in Balapitiya to witness the shooting of a crucial scene for ‘Gamperaliya’, namely the wedding of Nanda and her first husband Jinadasa.

Lester is an unhurried director on set. While his technicians were setting up the shot in the portico of the Walauwe he had a leisurely breakfast with us and walked over to instruct his actors. Special attention was paid by his crew since this was a ‘crowd scene’ with a sizeable number of participants including a few ‘white men’ who mingled with the other guests at the wedding. When Lester called ‘action’ the couple came down the steps and ‘pop’ went a big cracker hung on the ceiling and confetti came showering down the couple and onlookers. Tony in a grey coat and slicked down hair was Baladasa when Gamini in an ill cut black coat and boutonniere greeted him briefly. I remember there were only three ‘takes’ and the visitors settled down to good food amidst banter by Tony and his cronies Surendra, Bogoda etc. who had been co-opted by Lester. In the film there is very little of Tony but those few glimpses showed an extremely handsome young man with an enchanting smile.

Tony’s role was applauded by the critics and Lester decided to cast him in the lead role in "Delovak Athara" with Swineetha Weerasinghe who came from the conventional Sinhala cinema. In this film we are taken to a milieu which Lester instinctively reacted better to due to his own upper middle class upbringing.

This was the film that shot Tony and Swineeetha to fame as very sensitive and creative film actors. Tony was the astonishingly handsome upper class man avoiding responsibility for a serious motor accident. Sweenitha is a typical ‘Peradeniya graduate’ from a lower social class but with a higher social conscience. She confronts her lover with his cowardice and finally wins him over to do the right thing. Unlike in many other films, with their cast of thousands, in "Delovak Athara" Lester focuses on the conflict in attitudes between his two protagonists and draws out two splendid performances.

Another of Tony’s films I like is "Parasathumal" in which Gamini, Punya and Tony come together again. It is known that Gamini’s maiden directing effort was largely influenced by Lester who even directed some scenes, especially the iconic shot of a bare chested Gamini on the banister of the Walauwwa casting a long shadow in the background.

This is very much Gamini’s film and Tony, perhaps even more than necessary, plays the servile employee in his plantation who finally looses his self control when the ‘hamu’ lusts after his girl.

However, this film led to a great friendship between Gamini and Tony which had a beneficial effect on Sinhala cinema. It was Gamini who appreciated Tony’s talents as a stage and film actor, translator of Shakespeare (He himself played in Tony’s version of Julius Ceaser) and especially as film script writer. He used many of Tony’s scripts particularly "Koti Valigaya" which marked not only Gamini’s return to film making after a long exile in Kadugannawa but also a change in his matrimonial life.

It is noteworthy that Tony’s arrival marked the end of the dominance of South Indian style Sinhala film heroes with their wavy hair, pencil thin moustaches and ill fitting clothes. Local duplicates of MGR, Shivaji Ganeshan and Gemini Ganeshan represented by Stanley Perera, Asoka Ponnamperuma, Ravindra Rupasinghe and Prem Jayanth were banished to the cinema wilderness and more authentic players like Gamini, Tony and Vijaya became favourites. Occasionally they too were forced to play in South Indian style but they were more comfortable in their own style. If they admired foreign actors they tended to come from Hollywood and Bollywood.

We will remember Tony for his love of humour and constant pranks. But deep down he was a very serious and religious person. It is said that before he took to acting he considered joining the Catholic priesthood. We have spent many happy hours together and I deeply mourn his death.

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