On the eve of the launch of her biography, ‘Irangani’ as told to Kumar de Silva, Duvindi Illankoon speaks to a reluctant legend, the grande dame of Sri Lanka’s theatre and silver screen “The most exciting thing I’ve done in my life is fall into a pig trough, you know!” It was Christmas, and a six-year-old [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Everybody loves Irangani


On the eve of the launch of her biography, ‘Irangani’ as told to Kumar de Silva, Duvindi Illankoon speaks to a reluctant legend, the grande dame of Sri Lanka’s theatre and silver screen

“The most exciting thing I’ve done in my life is fall into a pig trough, you know!” It was Christmas, and a six-year-old Irangani Meedeniya was showing off her new doll to literally everyone in the household, animals included when she leaned in a little too far into the pigs enclosure. She laughs uproariously as she recounts her parents’ faces. They weren’t too surprised- this was the little girl nicknamed ‘Chandi’ by her family after all.

Irangani Serasinghe, now in her early 80s is a woman rather weary of her story. As we sit down for the interview her one request is, “for the love of God, don’t ask me to talk about myself. People must be tired of my stories by now!” That, was going to be a difficult one; her biography, ‘Irangani’…as told to Kumar de Silva, will be launched on March 29 and this interview is very much about the life and times of the grande dame of Sri Lanka’s theatre and silver screen.

Irangani-it is impossible to call this warm and incredibly sweet lady Mrs Serasinghe-is one of the few remaining acting legends in the country. Her career has spanned over six decades; from early beginnings on the stage to grand productions on the silver screen, Irangani is Sri Lanka’s most beloved figures. One knows that when her face graces your screen it is bound to be a good production. While she’s become rather typecast in ‘the perennially harassed, long-suffering, house-coated mother’ (as Kumar likes to put it), she was a fiery character in her heyday, leading Marxism influenced revolution in her university and starring in the first local film to be shot outdoors. Over the years the fire hasn’t died down but she’s tempered it with a certain grace and wisdom that can only come with maturity.

This biography is the first to be published as an ‘Irangani by Irangani’ account. Kumar, who admits to being an ardent fan and admirer before becoming a close friend, is perhaps the best man for the task. In 2007 he wrote and published ‘Lester by Lester.’..as told to Kumar de Silva, a series of first person accounts by the great man himself.

Early days at the Lionel Wendt: A young Irangani in ‘The House of Bernada Alba’

Irangani, who admits to being mortified at the thought of asking people to buy and read a book about her reluctantly agreed to speak to Kumar whom she has known for many years. “It turned out to be quite fun in the end though it wasn’t too easy going back in time,” she says. “It’s not like giving an interview-I had to be very thorough when it came to remembering certain parts of my life.”
Most readers would already know of her blissful beginnings in a village off Ruwanwella, growing up in Meedeniya Walauwa amidst the paddy fields and rivers. “Those were the days,” she smiles wistfully. “I love the village the best, still do.” That young and carefree girl was sent to Colombo for her studies first to St. Bridget’s Convent and then Bishop’s College, where she famously told her Headmistress that her mother wanted her to return home-and actually got away with it! It was at Bishop’s that she first got a taste for theatre when she was part of a production of Water Babies. Her love affair with theatre started when she starred as Professor Higgins in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a student at Girls’ High School Kandy.

Irangani went on to star in a slew of major productions in Sri Lanka when theatre was in its heyday. She made the transition to the screen not with Lester James Peries’ ‘Rekawa’, as many believe but in a short film titled ‘Be Safe or Be Sorry’ (also directed by Peries) for the traffic police. “I was so, so nervous!” she recalls. “All I had to do was pretend to be an old lady driving obliviously in the middle of a busy road, but still….”

Her first major role on the silver screen was with Rekawa (1956), a groundbreaking production in Sinhala cinema thanks to Peries’

‘Irangani’- a limited edition volume will be released on March 29. The book is printed by Samaranayake Publishers

insistence on taking the camera out of the studio and into the great outdoors. Till then, films were largely shot inside complete with cardboard moons and trees, remembers Irangani. “Lester was the first to take the camera out into some beautiful locations. Sri Lanka is the perfect setting for shooting. We have such a beautiful natural inheritance that unfortunately our people seem hell bent on destroying.”

Her television career began with Yashoraawaya, but perhaps her most famous role was in the long running TV series Doo Daruwo where her status as a matriarch was established. “I’m rather tired of playing the sweet old lady, you know,” she wrinkles her nose. “I love it when I get the opportunity to play a challenging character.” That was why she accepted the chance to play-of all things-a cigarette toting Madame of a brothel in H.D.Premaratne’s Kinihiriya Mal. “I absolutely loved playing that character!” she grins mischievously. “People were so shocked and highly scandalised- more for the fact that I smoked in the film. I remember getting one letter from a gentleman asking why I was setting a bad example for young girls. I wrote back saying they were hardly going to make a role model out of a brothel keeper!”

As if being directed by the great Lester James Peries was not enough, Irangani also came under the direction of Steven Spielberg in the 1984 production of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. She remembers Hollywood star Harrison Ford as an ‘extremely nice gentleman’, with the actor helping D.R. Nanayakkara with his role as well. This year she will grace your screens once more in several productions. This is one actress who has no plans to give up acting anytime soon. What keeps her coming back to it? “I like acting,” she says simply.

This biography will explore just how much she loves her calling in life, among other things. One of her favourite memories is of meeting Mr. and Mrs Nihal Fernando, she says. She had been a great fan of the prominent wildlife photographer and was glad when the families became good friends. Later, their families would explore the wilds together- a cause very close to Irangani (an ardent environmental activist she also formed Ruk Rakaganno in 1975). “We’d all pile into Nihal’s Land Rover-our spouses, my kids and his kids-and just go out exploring. That’s how I really learned to love the jungles,” she remembers. About her family, particularly of her late husband Winston Serasinghe and son, she’d rather not divulge details. “Sometimes you find it difficult to speak about the most emotional experiences in life. I’d rather not have the whole world know about every single facet of my life, I hope you understand.”

There have been ups and downs. Last year, she was about to mark her return to the stage with a role in Ruwanthie De Chickera’s play Kalumaali when a sudden heart attack had her bedridden for months. In a rather morbid turn of events, writer Kumar had also had a major heart attack earlier in the year (he was pronounced dead and miraculously came back to life). They’re both back in excellent form again, but as Kumar humorously puts it, “This could have been a posthumous publication!”

“The most challenging part (of writing the book) was that much of her personal life to me was totally unchartered territory,” admits Kumar. “Yes I had researched her life but I also had to be very careful not to invade her privacy at the same time extracting stories which would interest the reader. My favourite part was having my Sony Dictaphone running, me slouching in one of her easy chairs,

1975: As Varuni in ‘The God King’

listening to her stories…and being transported back in time.” He’s translating this love for publishing memories to a lasting collection of stories about his hit television show ‘Bonsoir’ as well. The Bonsoir Diaries are expected to be launched towards the end of June this year.

Kumar was partnered in this project by Tharindra de Silva, his collaborator on the project. “I think we then went into about six drafts with a lot of cutting and chopping and adding and reshaping until we arrived at the final version. You might read the book in one very long sitting but the working hours that went into it were numerous. I must also add that we did enjoy every single moment of it!”

So did she, says Irangani. But she’s still mortified at the notion of having a book written about her life. “Who will want to buy it?!” she laughs, not entirely jokingly.

Almost immediately the phone rings. It is an old acquaintance from Australia, asking how he can procure a copy of the book. Irangani smiles as she reminisces about the good old days with him; she’s got her answer.

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.