The year was
1977, the venue the international film festival in Delhi, India.
Sri Lanka's entry in the competition was Amaranath Jayatilake's
Siripala and Ranmenika. Playing the title role of the outlaws
wife was Malini Fonseka, looking every inch the glamorous film star.
now shifts to the grand dining hall of the Ashok Hotel where the
official guests and members of the Jury were lodged. The Chairman
of the Jury was the great Indian director Satyajit Ray. Seated alone
in splendid isolation, with that combination of grandeur, awe and
elegance, rather like an Indian prince was Ray, nibbling at his
lunch, a far-away, distracted look on his face. Seeing me enter
the hall he called me over to the table as it turned out to be,
to divulge a Jury secret.
they had seen Sri Lanka's film. He had been enormously impressed
by Malini's performance. "Keep this to yourself, he said
stretching his 6ft 5 inch frame over the table. "I must get
this girl an award, some award - It's unfortunate the film's been
scheduled so late. The Jury has decided on the best actress award
and it's too late to upset the Jury's verdict. At least I'll get
her a special diploma. What surprises me is the actress I've seen
around here and the character on the screen is one and the same
person. I can tell you this. No Bengali actress, however good she
maybe will ever allow herself to be so distorted as Malini is in
the Sri Lankan film. No, not even in a film of mine.
What Ray found
difficult to reconcile were the two images - one the glamorous film
star physically present at the Festival and the disfigured face
of Ranmenike in the film.
As Sumitra and I had to leave the Festival before it ended I thought
I should at least confide in Malini that she might win something,
though I tried to be as vague as possible. It was a bitter-sweet
triumph in that there was apparently no time to have the special
diploma of honour ready at the award-ceremony which brings the curtain
down at the end of the Festival. Malini had to be content with a
special reception at the Indian High Commission in Colombo a few
weeks later. However to have made such an impact on one of the world's
greatest directors, particularly one who has excelled in moulding
great performances from actresses in his native Bengal, viz Mathabhi
Mukherjee, Sharmilla Tagore, Mamata Shankar, Karuna Bannerjee etc.,
I should think is reward enough.
acted in five major films of mine. In three of them Nidhanaya, Baddegama
and Wekande Walawwa she creates three unforgettable characters -
the virginal sacrificial victim in Nidhanaya, the young village
lass who turns into on old hag waiting for death in Woolf's classic
Baddegama and the aging widow, her private grief etched on her wrinkled
face as gradually she loses her son, her husband, her mansion and
her dignity in the longest performance of her career in Wekande
Cast for her
skill in portraying diverse characters, driven to the brink by private
tragedies, she has never failed, at least in the estimation either
of the director or the critics, both local and foreign.
I have never
cast her because of her popularity but almost as a challenge to
her popular image in the numerous commercial films which she has
been acting in. To play the old hag, to look plain, unattractive,
if the character demanded it was never a problem for her. In terms
of sheer range from the "singing- dancing" heroine of
the formula film to Ranmenike, Podi Menike and the remarkable characters
in Dharmasena Pathiraja's films, driven by narrative complexities
and social and political imperatives of a "new cinema",
she has never faltered. It has been so with many other directors.
What is quite remarkable is also her personal popularity with the
masses. Not since Rukmani Devi has an actress been so beloved of
the people and by the people.
To have acted
in well over a hundred films is in itself an achievement particularly
in the context of an industry notoriously unstable, a helpless victim
of conflicting government policies, regarded as commercially non-viable
despite the government's 100% tax exemption scheme for investment
It may be pointed
out by some that most of her films are commercial and, therefore,
unworthy of serious attention, but these are the very films that
the masses remember her by. Some of us tend to forget that switching
over from the acting style demanded by the commercial formula film
to the more serious film depends on a change of technique of sensibility,
which by its very nature is a creative process - and it is in making
this transition that Malini has triumphantly succeeded.
In this brief
tribute it would be difficult to discuss her work as a director
in her own right and her contribution to the small screen, both
as actress and director - though mention must be made of her extraordinary
performance in Tissa Abeysekara's epic TV series Pitagamkarayo.
Suffice it to
say that on the occasion of a special homage to Malini Fonseka,
all of us who have worked in the Sri Lankan cinema will wish her
many more years in a medium that has been enriched by her outstanding
ceremony for Malini Fonseka will be held at the BMICH on April 30.