Acclaimed actress Anoja Weerasinghe no longer yearns to be in front of the camera. Nearly four decades of being an integral part of the Sinhala film industry and many personal ups and downs later, she now takes pride in seeing actors trained by her make a mark in local cinema and television. And Anoja, who [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

She faced it all and didn’t bow out

Veteran actress Anoja Weerasinghe talks to Chandani Kirinde of the many challenges she has faced both personal and professional

Acclaimed actress Anoja Weerasinghe no longer yearns to be in front of the camera. Nearly four decades of being an integral part of the Sinhala film industry and many personal ups and downs later, she now takes pride in seeing actors trained by her make a mark in local cinema and television. And Anoja, who turned 60 this year, is on the threshold of fulfilling her ambition of opening the country’s first professional acting school through which she hopes to impart her knowledge and experiences to newcomers to the field of cinema and theatre.

Pic by Lakshman Gunathileke

“While there are more opportunities for actors today, most who enter the field come without proper training. To be a good actor and realise one’s full potential, professional training in acting is essential,” says Anoja, who during her nearly four decade-old career as an actress has learnt that the use of proper techniques in acting is quintessential to being a good performer.

She realised the importance of formal training for actors after having enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in 1989 but remarkably it was without any formal training that Anoja acted in some of the most challenging roles of her career including the one in Maldeniya Simeon in which she played the dual role of mother and daughter which won her the Silver Peacock award for Best Actress at the International Film Festival held in New Delhi in 1987.

“While I took on many challenging roles without any formal training, during my training at LAMDA I learnt that the essential ingredients of good acting such as voice, body movements and facial expression have to come together for an actor to perform their best,” she says.
Anoja’s love for acting and singing began in early childhood. Growing up in a family with her father, an insurance agent and mother, a housewife who occasionally took part in plays staged in her hometown of Badulla, Anoja and her eight siblings would often go to see their parents perform. “I remember vividly watching a play when I was around eight years old in which my father played the role of a barrister who shot himself on stage. When I saw the scene, I started crying loudly and only stopped when I was taken backstage and shown that my father was not really hurt,” Anoja recalls.

It was this passion for acting that was instilled at an early age that made her seek a career in the world of Sinhala cinema. When she came to Colombo to embark on her career at the age of 21, she was married and a mother to a baby girl. Her first stint was a 30-second appearance in the film “Tak, tik,tuk” directed by Yasapalitha Nanayakkara but her performance in a minute role so impressed the well-known director enough that he cast her in the lead role in Monaratenna, the film that launched her career.

Between Monaratenna (1980) and Julietge Boomikawa (1998), her last full length film, Anoja has acted in more than 100 films, for which she has won both praise and many awards. But her journey has not been without pitfalls.

Powerful portrayal: Anoja as the old queen Hecuba in Trojan Kantha

While riding high on the wave of her cinematic success she was confronted with a growing number of personal problems and even without realizing it, Anoja began slowly sliding into depression. “I was spending more and more time on my own, I would just lie down on the floor and stay there but I did not realize that I was falling sick. It was one of my friends who noticed the change in my behaviour and told me that I was suffering from depression and I should see a psychiatrist,” she says.

Along with the medical help she sought, Anoja also turned to her trainers at LAMDA to help her through the hard times. She also indulged in her passion for yoga which she has been practising continuously for over ten years having studied at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram in Kerala, India.

It was amidst these that she also had to pay a high price for appearing on the political stage in support of the United National Party (UNP). “It was in 2000 that I addressed several political rallies and following these I received many death threats. My daughter pleaded with me to go into hiding and I went away to India where I stayed for nearly four months.”

It was during her absence that her ancestral home in Monaragala was burnt to the ground by a group of persons linked to the then government in power. “Around the same time Dharmasiri Bandaranayaka in whose stage play Trojan Kanthao I acted in a lead role had scheduled a show at the Lionel Wendt. He was warned against showing the play due to its political undertones but he was determined to go head. He contacted me in India and asked me to return for the show and assured me that I would be safe,” she recalls.

It was then that Anoja decided that she would no longer live in hiding and would confront her detractors. “I felt very tense when I returned to the country and stayed in hiding in the home of a friend, going for rehearsals in secret. When I appeared on stage that night, the hall was full but throughout the three hours I was on stage, at the back of my mind was the fear that someone would pull out a gun and shoot me,” Anoja says.
But those are fears that are well and truly behind her now. Since starting the Abhina Academy of Performing Arts which she launched more than ten years ago, Anoja has conducted workshops for actors and singers and also worked with differently-abled persons, ex-combatants as well as soldiers using drama therapy to help them overcome the challenges they are faced with.

She also talks openly about depression using her personal experience to raise awareness and inform people that there should be no stigma attached to mental illnesses. “For example, cancer is a physical illness that affects the body. In the same way depression is a disease that affects a person’s mind and there is nothing to be ashamed of it,” Anoja says.

Now on the threshold of turning her part-time performing arts academy into a professional body that would teach diploma level acting classes, Anoja is rehearsing for another sterling performance in her role as Hecuba, the old queen of Troy, in Trojan Kantha which she has played continuously since the play was first staged in 1999.

Trojan Kanthavo will be staged at the Lionel Wendt on June 7 and 8 and this time it will be in aid of the Abhina Academy Building Fund, a cause close to Anoja s heart.

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