Dharmasiri Bandaranayake is not a man to mince his words. And his outspokenness is not confined to the fiery, controversial dialogues he delivers on stage. Seated at a table at the Cultural Foundation he set up five years ago in a quiet neighbourhood in Nugegoda, it takes little prompting to draw him into a conversation about his work as a dramatist and filmmaker and the wider role he feels his tribe has to play in Sri Lankan society if it’s to come out of the ‘cultureless’ pit it has got itself into.
|36 years in the same role: Dharmasiri Bandaranayake
“My medium is cinema /drama and I have a responsibility as an artist to express my views on what I feel is happening in our society and awaken the public to the dangers they face,” Bandaranayake says.
And what he has to say he says with passion and intensity be it in a stage play such as “Ekadipathi ”(The Dictator) that touches at the very political nerve of the country or via cinema through films such as “Hansa Vilak” (Swan Lake), which explores relationships that exceed the boundaries set by social traditions or norms.
To an outsider it would almost seem that he courts controversy by taking on subjects that others in his field would shun but again Dharmasiri Bandaranayake is not known to be a man who plays it safe by being politically correct. “It is true I intentionally choose to do plays with political themes and portray unconventional characters via cinema but the purpose is not to create a controversy but awaken the intellect of the public,” he says.
Bandaranayake first began to dabble in acting while a schoolboy at Vidyaratnaya, Horana taking roles in school plays but his entry into the world of cinema came when he was picked for a role in Dayananda Gunawardana’s ‘Bak Maha Deegaya’ in 1969.
Bandaranayake grew up in a volatile society and found himself in the middle of the first youth uprising in the country in 1971 soon after he completed his Advanced Level examination.
“The hopes of an entire generation of youth were dashed with the crushing of the youth uprising. Had I joined the JVP then, I may have been one of their senior members today, but instead, I joined the government clerical service and started working as a clerk at the Rubber Control Department,” he recollects.
It was while he was engaged in mundane clerical work that Henry Jayasena selected him for the lead role in the stage play Makara (The Dragon). “It was a great privilege to be selected by a person like Henry Jayasena and also to get the opportunity to act with prominent theatre personalities of that era. These experiences helped shape my career in theatre,” Bandaranayake adds.
But 1976 was the year that Bandaranayaka came in to his own, directing and acting in the politically explosive play “Ekadhipthi”. “The play ran to packed audiences for two full days in November 1976 at the Lumbini Hall in Colombo. Its staging coincided with the imminent collapse of the United Front government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and struck a chord with the audiences,” he recalls.
Bandaranayake has played the lead role of military dictator Sir Malcolm since the inception of the play now running in its 36th year, a remarkable feat for any actor. The play began its latest rerun in June last year and this time coincided with the emergence of a military strongman into the political arena of the country in the form of General (retd.) Sarath Fonseka, which caused some hiccups for the play.
“When I decided to have a re-run of “Ekadipathi,” the developments with regards to the early presidential election were nowhere on the horizon. But the staging of the play led to inevitable comparisons between my role and some in the real political arena and made people question if I had made changes to it to fit into today’s context. But I haven’t changed a comma or a full stop from the original play till today,” he says.
With more than 1400 shows to its credit and at least 20 more scheduled to be staged across the country over the next few months, the remarkable feature of “Ekadipathi” is its relevance to contemporary Sri Lanka as much as it was to the society that existed more than three decades ago. Does he share anything in common with the ruthless dictator who goes to the extent of ordering that the thumbs of the entire citizenry be decapitated to prevent them from writing as a collective punishment when some literature critical of his regime is uncovered.
“I loathe the character I play in ‘Ekadipathi’ but I have to become that person and play it for the pleasure of the audience,” he explains.
With the growing nexus between politicians and artists and the line differentiating the two beginning to blur, Bandaranayake prefers to stay out of the pack but that is after the experiences he gathered after dabbling briefly in politics in support of (President) Chandrika Kumaratunga. “Getting involved in politics was the biggest mistake I have made in my life,” Bandaranayake says.
He sees the lack of appreciation for culture and arts as a result of the conditioning of society in the past three decades to a war mentality but says the end of the war has led to an even more militarised attitude among the people. “I feel that in the past three years, people’s way of thinking has become more militant than has happened in the 27 or 28 years before that,” he adds.
It is these same attitudes that have seeped into the sphere of arts as well. “When I produced ‘Ekadipathi’ in the 70s, there was more camaraderie and team work which is lacking among today’s crowds. They too have been corrupted by society around them,” he says.
“We have to break free from that conditioning and as artists our role is to open the eyes of society to these threats,” he adds.
Lack of appreciation of the arts by politicians too is another notable change he sees between then and now.
“In the 1970s politicians also had a cultural life. I remember Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike coming and watching our plays along with her children. Prominent politicians such as N.M. Perera, Colvin R.De Silva, Peter Keuneman, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali were some of the others who bought tickets to watch the plays but now we have to invite them to come and even when they do, they bring a horde of security guards which disturbs the others.”
He laments the absence of official patronage for the arts in the country. “I visited Lester James Peries recently and he spoke of the necessity to have a film archives.
“This is what he has been saying for several decades now but nothing has been done,” he said.
So is it all gloom and doom or is there a light at the end of the tunnel for a more enlightened society to emerge? “We only need one good man to make this country. But that good man has to be the President,” he says in his characteristic candid manner.