By Prof.Kirthi Tennakone
National Institute of Fundamental Studies
Abraham Kovoor and his son, Aries Kovoor, rendered an exemplary service to the nation; it is now largely forgotten and not acknowledged to the extent they deserve. They were unassuming characters whose ideals stand pre-eminently important in the context of retrograde tendencies in the present day society.
A resurgence in actions, based on superstitions and myths rather than rational argument seems to be escalating as evident from recent happenings in our society. Rituals and quackeries have stood in the way of the efforts to contain the pandemic. Deities not known to exist are said to have prescribed cures and disclosed causes of the illness. Listening to folk healers and soothsayers, people suffer or die in situations where a doctor would have cured their condition permanently. Children are made to feel inferior because of their horoscopes. On the eve of the Grade Five Scholarship Examination they are taken to shrines dedicated to various deities. Decisions based on superstition engender harm to individuals and the society and cause backwardness and misery.
Abraham Kovoor stood against superstitious beliefs, debunked occult practices and equated hoaxers to criminals, demanding their prosecution.
Aries Kovoor, following in the footsteps of his illustrious father, upheld rationalistic views and denounced extravagance. His main concern was why Sri Lanka and many other developing countries continued to remain weak in science? Hence the need to determine causes and adopt remedial measures. He was also critical of institutional empire building – the expansion or enhancing the authority of organisations, for purposes made to appear as development, even though in reality, the outcome turned out to be largely the opposite.
Abraham Kovoor: A born rationalist
Abraham Kovoor was born to an acclaimed Christian family in Kerala in 1898, His father was the Vicar General of the Thomma Syrian Church of Malabar. Despite his religious upbringing, he began to question dogmas of faith from childhood. He contracted flu, when he was eight years old, and his mother gave him a syrup, asking him to sip it while praying. The child opposed the instruction, saying, “If I take the medicine while praying, I cannot decide which cured the cough – whether it is the medicine or praying. Therefore, I will first consume the syrup and pray later if the cough had not been relieved.”
Abraham received basic education in a Christian Seminary and earned a degree in Biology from the Bengabasi College, Calcutta. After graduation, he served as a lecturer in Botany at CMS College, Kerala, for a short period, and migrated to Sri Lanka in 1928, accepting a teaching assignment at the Jaffna College. Subsequently, he held similar positions at Richmond College, Galle; S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia and Thurstan College, Colombo.
Throughout his career, Abraham Kovoor pointed out the fallacies of superstition and obscurantism and the need for enlightening the society. In one of his books, Abraham Kovoor wrote “All those who claim to possess psychic, para-psychic and spiritual powers are either hoaxers or mentally deranged persons suffering from cryptesthesia (psychological disorder of abnormal perceptions). Nobody has and nobody ever had supernatural powers. They exist only in the pages of scripture and sensation mongering newspapers”.
After retirement, Abraham Kovoor invigorated his effort to curb superstition, presenting challenges to be answered by those who believe or indulge in such practices. In 1968, he offered a reward of Rs. 25,000 to anyone who could reveal the serial number of a currency note concealed in an envelope. Later, the value of the reward was increased to Rs. 1000,000. Understandably, none came forward to take up the challenge! A large majority of persons who claim paranormal capabilities, being frauds, fear exposure.
Supernatural powers do not exist to perform feats ruled out by rational logic. All phenomena determined to exist with certainty have been explained in terms of science or under its scrutiny. Everything observable comes under domain of science. The muddle-headed argument that there exist unobservable things, entails no meaning.
Abraham Kovoor, who said “I do not believe that I have a soul or spirit to survive my death and go to heaven or hell, or to roam about as my ghost, or even to be reborn”, passed away 18th September 1978.
Aries Kovoor questioned why science was weak in Sri Lanka
Aries Kovoor, born March 3, 1927 completed basic education in Jaffna and pursued a degree course in Botany at the Madras University. Thereafter, he returned to Sri Lanka and worked as a teacher at S. Thomas College. The principal of the school Dr. R.L. Hayman, persuaded him to continue research, making arrangements for him to visit Tata Institute, India, where he studied biological effects of radiation, in a laboratory headed by the nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha. In 1952, he succeeded in earning a research position at Sorbonne University, Paris, later ascending to a professorial rank at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France. He was also Professor at the Institute of Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka and served as the Advisor on Scientific Affairs to the President of Sri Lanka from 1996-2005.
Aries Kovoor in his capacity as science advisor to the President, analyzed scientific performance of Sri Lanka adopting international norms of judging scientific research.
Scientists are supposed to publish their findings in scholarly journals. Normally, journals accept articles for publication after a strict review by experts in the respective areas of study. Thus, being able to publish in such periodicals, indicate the worthiness of the work. The evidence that your work is read and cited by other authors, further strengthens the recognition of what you have done. Today, there are data bases providing statistics pertaining above criteria determining the quality of research. Aries Kovoor used these data bases to analyze research performance in Sri Lanka. He didn’t fully advocate consensus prevalent in the country that our scientific weakness was a consequence of poor material facilities.
Instead, he believed lack of emphasis on quality of research, institutional bureaucracies and how they were manned, played a bigger role.
Aries Kovoor, opposed institutional empire building, another malady that silently dampens developmental plans and social progress. Empire building means expansion of organisations in terms of material possessions and personnel to meet egos of an individual or group in deviance with the purpose of their establishment. Incompetency, insecurity and seeking undue publicity, prompt empire building. Failure or underperformance, corruption and wasteful consumption of resources are often the causes of empire building.
Aries Kovoor cautioned that the funds allocated to an academic and research institution to achieve an objective should not be utilised to build an extravagant and redundant infrastructure with glorified officials and shining tables. He advocated contractual modes of hiring with higher perks and performance based renewals to ensure elimination of deadwood. The countries where scientific research flourishes have adopted similar strategies.
Aries Kovoor pioneered the establishment of the National Research Council (NRC) of Sri Lanka to accommodate ideals essential for uplifting scientific research and provide funding. He was of the opinion that in order to boost research and higher education, all appointments to academic and research institutions such as Chairmanships, Directors and Members of Governing Boards should be based on their accomplishments. Therefore, he adopted statistics based scholarly publications to recommend the membership of the managing board of NRC. He maintained the view that heads of academic and research institutions should be active researchers, who read write and publish; otherwise, they are unfit to hold such positions. He emphasised that talented Sri Lankan researchers should strive to become leaders in their discipline, and not mere assistants to collaborators overseas.
Aries Kovoor managed NRC as the elected chairman with the help of one single assistant and no other officers. He was always available in office and readily accessible without intervention of a third party, who would truly or falsely say he was not in office or was busy.
The true personality of Aries Kovoor is apparent from the following incident. Once he met with a minor road mishap because he could not properly manoeuvre his old car, when the engine suddenly developed a problem. Although he apologised the aggrieved party expressing willingness to compensate, police took vehicle into custody to check its road worthiness. He was sitting on a bench in the police station for hours. When his official driver arrived, a police officer arrogantly said, “Who this insane man is, he gave a private residential address in Wellawatta and declared he had no religion”. When the driver replied, “He is the Science Advisor to the President”, police officer replied “Sir, why didn’t you tell me all this earlier?”
Aries Kovoor too humble and unassuming in all his dealings, loved to work in the laboratory and amusingly interacted with his students as a primus inter pares. He was a listener, observer and avid reader, rather than talker. At official forums, he spoke mostly when his response pertained to an important decision or a clarification. Unlike his father, he never made public appearances, but was keen to engage in intellectual dialogue with students and colleagues. His attitude was not to work tirelessly to gain credit for himself, but to encourage and praise the good work of others. Unfortunately, such persons do not shine manifestly in the society; many whose success owes much to them, rarely recollect and fail to acknowledge.
Aries Kovoor remained active in his research and mentorship until he reached the age 80 years. He passed away peacefully on 1st December, 2006.
Afghanistan: Down the Memory Hole
By Gwynne Dyer
I t’s only one year since the fall of Kabul last August and everybody in the countries that sent troops to Afghanistan has already forgotten about it (apart from journalists in need of a topic in a slow news month). This was predictable, but it is also unfortunate.
The 20-year Afghan war was never more than discordant noises, off-stage, for most people in the rich Western countries that sent troops there, so you can’t expect them to remember the ‘lessons’ of that war. The Afghans never had any real choices in the matter, so they have no lessons to remember. But Western military and political elites should do better.
The first lesson is: if you must invade somebody, do try to pick the right country. Americans definitely wanted to invade somewhere and punish it after the terrorist outrage of the 9/11 attacks, but it’s unlikely that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers were aware of Osama bin Laden’s plans. The ‘need-to-know’ principle suggests that they were not. The second lesson is: whatever the provocation, never invade Afghanistan. It’s very easy to conquer it, but almost impossible for foreigners to sustain a long-term military occupation. Puppet governments don’t survive either. Afghans have expelled the British empire at its height, the Soviet Union at its most powerful, and the United States.
Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology or a country. Sinn Fein, in early 20th-century Ireland, had the same goal as Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of the 1960s – to expel the British empire – whereas the Western ‘anarchists’ of the early 1900s had no territorial base and (deeply unrealistic) global ambitions. So do the Islamists of al-Qaeda today. There are as many different flavours of terrorism as there are varieties of French cheese, and each has to be addressed by strategies that match its specific style and goals.
Moreover, the armies of the great powers must always remember the paramount principle that nationalism (also known as ‘tribalism’) is the greatest force-multiplier. Western armies got chased out of Afghanistan, a year ago, because they forgot all the lessons they had learned from a dozen lost counter-insurgency wars in former colonies, between 1954 and 1975: France in Algeria and Indochina, Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique, and the United States in Vietnam.
The driving force, in all those late-imperial wars, was nationalism, and Western armies really did learn the lesson of their defeats. By the 1970s, Western military staff colleges were teaching their future commanders that Western armies always lose guerilla wars in the ‘Third World’ (as it was still known at the time). The Western armies lose, no matter how big and well-equipped they are, because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. They can’t quit and go home because they already are home.
Your side can always quit and go home, and sooner or later your own public will demand that they do. So you are bound to lose, eventually, even if you win all the battles. But losing doesn’t really matter, because the insurgents are always first and foremost nationalists. They may have picked up bits of some grand ideology that let them feel that ‘history’ is on their side – Marxism or Islamism or whatever – but all they really want is for you to go home so they can run their own show. So go. They won’t actually follow you home. This is not just a lesson on how to exit futile post-colonial wars; it is a formula for avoiding unwinnable and, therefore, pointless wars in the ‘Third World’. If you have a terrorist problem, find some other way of dealing with it. Don’t invade. Even the Russians learned that lesson, after their defeat in Afghanistan, in the 1980s. But military generations are short: a typical military career is only 25 years, so by 2001, few people in the Western military remembered the lesson.
Their successors had to start learning it again, the hard way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe by now they have, but they’ll be gone, too, before long. This cycle of learning and forgetting again doesn’t only apply to pseudo-imperial wars in the post-colonial parts of the world. The wars between the great powers themselves were having such frightful consequences by the time of the First and Second World Wars that similar disasters have been deterred for more than 75 years, but that time may be ending. Like many other people, I oscillate between hope and despair in my view on the course that history is taking now: optimistic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, pessimistic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and I refuse to think about it at all on Sundays. Today is a [fill in the blank], and so I’m feeling [hopeful/despairing].
Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s loss should result in breaking down societal imbalances
The river we step in is not the river we stand on
By B Nimal Veerasingham
Years ago, when visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, I found myself wandering through the sprawling campuses of Loyola University. It is not far from the mighty Mississippi river flowing almost 6,000 km and economically powering significant parts of US Upper Midwest. In an unassuming quite corner under a well branched shady tree I noticed a memorial structure commemorating the killing of eight people in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests in 1989. The six priests were also professors at the university of Central America in El Salvador at that time.
This May, as per Loyola’s ‘Maroon’, at the memorial event held at the Peace Quad at Loyola university New Orleans, now dedicated as a memorial to this tragedy, Prof Alvaro Alcazar addressed the gathering. ‘The colonial power that is still very much in place in Latin America has created a ‘faith’ that is blind to or silent about injustice. It was this faith that inspired the Jesuit’s activism, but it cost them their lives’.The involvement of US in this tragedy was also addressed by Prof. Susan Weisher something the United States has never taken accountability for.
US Foreign Policy
The many contradictions and positivity of US foreign policy and its vast turns and switches in reaching many parts of the world is like the mighty Mississippi that prowls almost through or parts of 32 US States. The depth and power of this vast river cannot be estimated by mere width and length. Hurricane Catarina breaching the dikes nearly destroyed the entire city of New Orleans.
Fr Eugene Herbert memorial
Early this year a memorial statue of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert SJ was declared opened by Rt Reverend Ponniah Joseph, Bishop of Batticaloa in the outskirts of Batticaloa town right by the shores of Batticaloa lagoon. The statue was placed midway between the Batticaloa town, where he lived and taught, and the town of Eravur, where he ‘disappeared’ along with one of his students at the Eastern Technical Institute, where he was a Director. He was on his way on the scooter to arrange a safe way for the nuns trapped in a convent in the nearby town of Valaichchenai engulfed by ethnic riots.
Rev Fr Eugene Herbert was born in Jennings Louisiana. He joined the Jesuits on 14 Aug. 1941, while still in his late teens. He volunteered to join the ‘Ceylon Mission’ and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948. As in the traditions of Jesuits as providers of high-quality education from their founding of their first school in 1548, Rev Fr Herbert served particularly in two schools in the East, St. Josephs College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. It is well known that Education in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence. It develops the whole person from intellect and imagination to emotions and conscience. It approaches academic subjects holistically, exploring the connections among facts, questions. Insights, conclusions, problems and solutions. It has succeeded in a variety of cultures because it adapts to the context of the learner.
Rev Fr. Herbert was a multi-talented genius excelling in music, science, technical studies, vocational studies and to be outdone of it all, in the basketball courts. In all disciplines, he brought a stricter structure that is besides excelling in the fundamentals, incorporating situational strategies encompassing critical thinking and adaptation. This was greatly visible none other than in the basketball courts where he injected exuberance and counter strategies to conventional wisdom. Saint Michael’s College Batticaloa up until his arrival in 1974 just was crawling in all Island Championships more so maintaining the status-quo. But Rev Fr Herbert revolutionised the outcome when Saint Michael’s started winning All Island Championships almost in all age groups against much more resourced Colombo schools.
Excellence in Basketball
Human excellence as we all know is not rocket science but striving to be the best with practice, discipline and endurance. But Rev Fr. Herbert’s presence provided the boys from the East who often lacked a concentrated leadership with clear and precise roadmap. The structural imbalance whether it be not so well built or barefooted at matches, didn’t determine the outcome. Rev Fr, Herbert provided energy and leadership both morally and corporally to the boys of the East who faced systemic roadblocks by not getting the direction and leadership. This was further evidenced by Rev Fr. Herbert’s active and emotional coaching that led the College teams to ignore opponent’s big city environments and large support base, but to keep concentrated on the final execution, the championship.
The referees in matches, where Saint Michael’s played paid greater attention to their decisions something that became standard when dealing with someone who knew the rulebook top to bottom. Rev Fr. Herbert quite often, if not in all matches, where St. Michaels College played could be seen challenging the referees for their inaccurate or missed calls. He always carried a basketball rulebook and could be seen feverishly waving the exact page of the rule and exclaims at top pitch when the referees failed to observe especially when the game was heated, and the difference between was swinging by one or two points.
Reaching the stars
I can remember that Rev Fr. Herbert once refused to participate in a Consolation Finals of a tournament. The team wanted at least to bring home a Consolation Finals Trophy, having failed to reach the finals. Rev Fr, Herbert looked at it differently. ‘We came here for nothing else but for the Championship trophy. Now that we couldn’t, we are catching the 8.00 PM night train tonight back to Batticaloa – and by the way, the practice for the next tournament will begin tomorrow evening, be on time’.
Rev Fr. Herbert’s humanity was visible in practically everything he exemplified, calculating the speed of the travelling train to explaining the mechanism of automobiles and the melodies from his clarinet. Between the matches and practices in Colombo he said mass at the Jesuit residence at Bambalapitiya. As teenagers with expectations we got confused sometimes with his message from the pulpit. ‘We strive to become the best and win. But at times that is not possible, and we have to accept defeat gracefully. But we have to rise again learning from our mistakes’.On another occasion, the security person refused to allow us to sleep on the floor of an enclosed classroom.
The train was late, and it was late in the evening; there was no one to instruct the security to open the classroom. He was ready to allow only the priest to the reserved quarter upstairs. ‘I will stay with the team and do not need any special arrangement,’ said Rev Fr without blinking, sleeping the entire night with us on the ground of an open but roofed half basketball-court, using his cassock as the bedsheet.
Rev Fr. Herbert exemplified through his life the true meaning of his calling and forging a future full of hope to a population that was at the receiving end of things for a longest while.
In one of his last letters to his fellow Jesuit in New Orleans he wrote,’ Enough for our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. I had really planned to write to USAID for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. This is in addition to our regular three -year course in general mechanical trades’.
‘Pray for us. God willing the current instability and disturbances will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune’.
Rev Fr. Herbert’s letter foretells several aspects of humanity that he was called upon to uphold.
The US continues to provide resources to ensure economic wellbeing, stability and peaceful existence across the Globe. The rule of law cannot be simply behavioral codes or identifying the cause or the culprit but ensuring resources and direction for the citizenry in general to break the cycle and rise above injustice. The rule of law cannot be applied differently to different set of people or on a best effort basis.
Breaking down societal imbalances
El Salvador and Sri Lanka were victims of a vicious violent cycle, where Jesuits lost their lives in obeying to their calls from above in their attempt to remake what it ideally should be. Many lost their lives in these cycles of hatred and violence both ordinary and clergy, including my well-liked and ever smiling classmate Rev Fr Savarimuthu Selvarajah. Fr Herbert’s disappearance galvanizes the distrust in our own destiny; many thousands were killed by fellow citizens than in the nearly 500 years of combined occupation by the foreign colonial powers.
The mighty Mississippi River, which travels almost 6,000 km is hardly comparable to a mere 56 km-long Batticaloa lagoon. Yet the son who was born on the shores of Mississippi became the true son by the shores of the Batticaloa lagoon.
This August 15th marks the 32nd anniversary of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s ‘disappearance’. Ironically, at the time of his disappearance he was a year less a day from celebrating his Golden Jubilee in joining the Jesuits (14th August 1941). No one has been brought to date to justice or rather under the clauses of the ‘rule of law’. The one who held the rulebook up above his head is still denied justice.Batticaloa and the entire Sri Lanka lost one of its true sons, and he just happened to be born in the United States of America.
Vijaya Nandasiri : Losing it in laughs
By Uditha Devapriya
Vijaya Nandasiri left us six years ago. The epitome of mass market comedy in Sri Lanka, Nandasiri belonged to a group of humourists, which included Rodney Warnapura and Giriraj Kaushalya, who redefined satire in the country. Nandasiri’s aesthetic was not profound, nor was it subtle. It was not aimed at a particular segment. Indeed, there was nothing elitist or pretentious about it; if you could take to it, you took to it. It was hard not to laugh at him, it was hard not to like him. Indeed, it was hard not to sympathise with him.
In the movies, Sri Lanka’s first great humourist was Eddie Jayamanne. Typically cast as the servant or bumpkin, Jayamanne could never let go of his theatrical roots. More often than not his laughs targeted a particular segment, so much so that when Lester Peries cast him as the father of the hero’s lover in Sandesaya, he still seemed stuck in those movies he had made and starred in with Rukmani Devi. Many years later he was cast as a close friend of the protagonist in Kolamba Sanniya, in many ways Sri Lanka’s equivalent of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even there, he could not quite escape his origins.
In Kolamba Sanniya, Jayamanne played opposite Joe Abeywickrema. Hailing from a different background, more rural than suburban, Abeywickrema had by then become our greatest character actor. Dabbling in comedy for so long, he found a different niche after Mahagama Sekara cast him in Thunman Handiya and D. B. Nihalsinghe featured him as Goring Mudalali in Welikathara. Yet he could never let go of his comic garb. Cast for the most as an outsider in the cities and the suburbs – of whom the epitome has to be the protagonist of Kolamba Sanniya – Abeywickrema discovered his élan in the role of the man who falls into a series of absurd situations, but remains unflappably calm no matter what.
There is nothing profoundly or intellectually funny in Kolamba Sanniya. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the humour emerges from the characters’ imperfections and foibles: their way of looking at the world, their accents, their lack of polish and elegance. The dialogues are not convincing, and some of the situations – like the hero’s family discovering a bidet for the very first time – are downright silly, if not condescending. What strengthens the story is Joe Abeywickrema’s performance; specifically, his ability to convince us that, despite the situations he is being put through, he can stand on his own. Like the protagonist of Punchi Baba, left to take care of an abandoned baby, he is helpless but not lacking control. He often makes us think he’s losing it, but then gets back on track.
Vijaya Nandasiri was cut from a different cloth. In many respects he was Abeywickrema’s descendant, yet in many others he differed from him. Whereas Abeywickrema discovered his niche playing characters who could conceal the absurdity of the situations they were in, Nandasiri’s characters could only fail miserably. Abeywickrema convinced us that he was in control; Nandasiri could not. As Rajamanthri, the politician who for most of us epitomised the silliness and stupidity of our brand of lawmakers, he frequently parrots out that he’s an honest man. Abeywickrema could say the same thing and get away with it. Nandasiri could not: when he says he’s honest, you knew at once that he was anything but.
Nandasiri revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune the ubiquitous Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile), though we don’t get why the latter never returns his affections. As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man flirting with his wife, the issue being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married. The whole plot pivots on two things: the fact that his boss doesn’t like him, and the fact that he has to disguise himself as an older husband of his own wife to conceal their marriage from his boss.
In his own special way, Nandasiri went on to represent our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians, by turning them into easily recognisable and easily mockable stereotypes. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold – though his wife only pretends to give in to their employer’s advances – and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure here during the past 20 years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even when playing characters who only vaguely reminded us of him, such as the antihero of Sikuru Hathe.
Many years ago, I watched a mini series on Rupavahini revolving around a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri played the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri’s driver. Early on I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s voice with the other, a trick that survived the first 10 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident that (inexplicably) leaves onlookers and relatives confused as to whose body belongs to whom.
Both are near dying. A quick surgery is hence followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices now revert to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but also a useful trick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the believer in authority and the politician the believer in Marxist politics. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Nandasiri’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him when he was there. For the mini series to work, hence, he had to be himself.
If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he raises in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle in Colombo he gets used to in Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s not a coincidence that, in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, very often in professions that called for security, stability, and status: as a Junior Visualiser in an ad agency in Yes Boss, as the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and as a police sergeant in Magodi Godayi. These symbolised a lifestyle that Nandasiri’s antiheroes sought to subvert and to defy.
Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and serials – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it: in Sikuru Hathe, for instance, he commits one deception after another for his family’s sake, especially his daughter’s.
Where he was paired with another actor, I think, Nandasiri failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are mistaken for two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in a village, he could not really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, he was less than he usually was whenever he was opposite Gamini Susiriwardana. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among a plethora of other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. There are moments in Yes Boss when Lucky Dias nearly outshines him. But Nandasiri gets back on track; he exerts his dominance again.
In other words, Nandasiri could give his best only if his co-star was alive to his range, or if his character was of a lesser pedigree than his co-star. That is what happens in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a fairly good comic actor himself, and because Nandasiri’s character, Hunther, hails from such a different world that the present (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) appears outlandish to him. Hunther to get used to this world, and that means getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.
Vijaya Nandasiri’s ultimate triumph was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Abeywickrema often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his career has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of upping the antagonist, but he does just that, providing us with the final twist in the story.
He couldn’t behave this way as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (the latter played by W. Jayasiri), the film preaches to us a homily on the corrupting influence of power, a warning for all politicians. But then, just as you come to terms with this conclusion, he wakes up; the whole scene, it turns out, was a nightmare.
Ordinarily, you’d think he would learn from such a nightmare. But he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he is soon back to being the pompous figure he always was. Yet in that brief sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about how the corrupt remain corrupt, and how irredeemable they are. Was it a cruel coincidence, then, that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya Nandasiri played Rajamanthri? We may never know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
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