Feroze Kamardeen has the somewhat odd habit of sending text messages to himself – it’s how he archives his jokes. As the playwright and director behind the Pusswedilla juggernaut, Feroze has no shortage of funny lines, but he’s discovering that after 20 odd scripts featuring the MP turned President of ArsikLand, he needs to make [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Puss started off “almost as an accident”

Feroze Kamardeen tells Smriti Daniel that he’s not yet ready to bid adieu to one of StageLight&Magic’s most enduring theatre characters but that he’s getting ready for bigger things

Feroze Kamardeen has the somewhat odd habit of sending text messages to himself – it’s how he archives his jokes. As the playwright and director behind the Pusswedilla juggernaut, Feroze has no shortage of funny lines, but he’s discovering that after 20 odd scripts featuring the MP turned President of ArsikLand, he needs to make sure he’s not running an old gag.

Feroze Kamardeen at the Lionel Wendt: A long journey with ‘Puss”. Pic by Mangala Weersekera

Keeping the farce going since 2007, Pusswedilla has become one of the most popular series in recent times, playing to sold out audiences. Now, fans are asking if they are about to see Chaminda Pusswedilla’s final curtain call. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Feroze tells us he’s not yet ready to say goodbye, but that he is looking forward to moving on.

However, before he does, we’re to have one more encounter with this ‘friend of people, son of the village, father of democracy, brother of freedom, cosin of human rights and close relashen of meediya freedom.’ Puss has appeared in dinner theatres, hotel ballrooms, skits in schools and even has his own line of DVDs, but it’s at the Lionel Wendt, a.k.a the Pusswedilla ArsiklandNashnel Theatre (PANT) that he’s enjoyed his greatest successes. His latest escapade, ‘The Antire Solooshen Summit’ opened this week and the box office emptied of tickets much too soon, prompting Feroze to extend the run.

Feroze is feeling nostalgic when he explains that Puss started off “almost as an accident.” When their theatre company StageLight&Magic decided to produce a spoof on American history they realised that while the first half was something local audiences could relate to, the second might leave them at sea. When he rewrote it he created Pusswedilla, a Sri Lankan politician who would debate a George W. Bush like character.
When this minor character earned the most laughs, he was promoted to his own show, going on to dominate the company’s productions for the next seven years and ultimately becoming their most enduring claim to fame.

24 hours before ‘Thank You for Voting’, the first instalment in the series, was about to open, Feroze remembers being thrown when a trusted friend said to him ‘Everything is nice, but what’s the story?’ The play was then structured as a series of interviews in which Pusswedilla progressed from MP to Opposition Leader and finally to President. “Looking back on it now it was probably the best way for us to start the franchise,” says Feroze. “It proved to be immensely popular. We were completely taken aback when it sold out.” Members of the audience came up to the cast and director to congratulate them on voicing what was on everyone’s minds. Feroze knows there was another side to it too – “it’s always nice if someone is taking the risk and you can sit on the side-lines and laugh.”

Pusswedilla is very much a product of Feroze’s own politics. Beginning with his days as a debater at D. S. Senanayake College, Feroze finds the subject universally relevant. Over the years, he has delighted in taking great plays and finding ways to make them relevant to this time and place. ‘The Accidental Death of An Anarchist’ was set in a Sri Lankan police station, and when they staged ‘Julius Caesar,’ the scene where Mark Anthony finds the body was rewritten so that the actor discovered the murder, made a call, lit a cigarette and waited for the cameras to arrive before he delivered his iconic speech asking that ‘bleeding piece of earth’ to pardon him.

Though he has his fair share of crowd pleasers, Feroze prides himself on the sharply political productions like Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Widows’ (the only play he’s revisited), ‘Animal Farm’ (which they reinterpreted as a rock opera) and George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ among others but Pusswedilla is entirely his in a way these other productions can never be. Though they’re very proud of never having altered even the most pointed jokes, regardless of who was in the audience, Feroze does admit to some self-censorship. “We made a very conscious decision that we were not going to refer to the war, and we were not going to refer to any religion. And we have followed it ever since,” he says.

Audiences have been content to laugh at the subject matter the plays do cover, from the reliance on thuggery and intimidation to eliminate dissent to a weak opposition and the embarrassing failures and bunglingof diplomats. ‘The Antire Solooshen Summit’ will build on a trend of casting Pusswedilla in the role of friend to foreign leaders and commentater on world issues. Feroze isn’t worried that he’s deviating from their formula for success by ranging outside Sri Lankan politics. “I think a lot of our audiences are switched on,” he says, identifying them as typically liberal, middle class and dedicated readers of news. They certainly have to be among the latter to follow the action – “if you don’t know the issue then you’re not going to get the reference. I expect people to know, I’m not going to spoon feed them.”

There are enough people who enjoy being in on the joke for there to be a dedicated fan base. The Pusswedilla page on Facebook for instance has over 30,000 fans but this triumph Feroze credits to Leo Burnett who have designed and implemented a unique marketing campaign for the play beginning in 2007. Videos on Youtube and regular posts on Facebook between productions keep fans engaged year round. “It’s all organic,” says Feroze.

It’s also testament to the show’s popularity that fans have kept buying tickets despite the many changes in casting through this period – with different actors playing the lead roles at different times. (Udara Fernando who plays the chief bodyguard is the one constant.)

Despite this, Feroze says the lines between the actor and the role have blurred not just for him but for audiences. Pasan Ranaweera who has become known for his depiction of Cyril Nithramasuffering or Dominic Kellar who has been dubbed the ‘face of Pusswedilla’ are good examples. Feroze says the actors have had to contend with being stereotyped – so hard do audiences find it to separate them from their characters in this series. The Pusswedilla walk or handshake is actually Dominic’s own, but has been thoroughly co-opted by his fictional counterpart. “He’s just being himself, it’s just that the characters are very natural. The script plays to their strengths.”

Feroze has seen those strengths grow and evolve over the course of the production – when he auditioned, Dominic laid bare his weaknesses: he could not speak Sinhala and could not memorise large chunks of dialogue. Today those are the things he excels in.

Now, having come so far, Feroze believes that they’re all ready for a new challenge, which is why this might be the last we’ll see of Pusswedilla for a while. “We are hoping to put it on the shelf for some time. Our theatre company has always been hugely successful and the reason why we found or came up with a play like Puss is because we always experimented with different things.”

As we wrap up, Feroze takes a moment to reassure fans that there are no plans for a definite end and most importantly, for those anticipating a bullet in a dark theatre, there will be no assassination. This is good news for anyone not ready to say goodbye – though his creator may be ready to move on, Chaminda Pusswedilla will live to fight another day.

Thank you for Voting Part 5
The Antire Solooshen Summit
Written and directed by Feroze Kamardeen
October 16th – 28th 2014 at The Pusswedilla Arsikland Nashnel Theatre (PANT – Fomelly knonws as the Lynel Went)
Summit has been extended to the 28th of October
Box plan and tickets now available at the Lionel Wendt

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