When you see Geetha Kumarasinghe dancing away, her own way, dazzling us, you wonder whether this could be the same performer whose father, an editor of a conservative Sinhala Buddhist magazine, prohibited her and her siblings from going to the theatre. Then you realise that Geetha’s career, in the movies and also, to a considerable extent, in politics, has been built on a contrapuntal, at times contradictory mixture of daringness and prudishness. She formed part of our wildest fantasies, got us to picture her running from one romance to another in those fantasies, and yet succeeded at creating a welter of security, of stability, around her. Malini Fonseka never faced this problem, because she came from a different time: she was the guiding star that everyone else after her had to follow, so she had the prerogative to be whoever she wanted to be. Geetha was different. In a rather exhilarating way.
And to me, that explains the kind of paradoxical world she operates in, in whatever movie and under whatever director. Malini was discovered by two cineastes – Tissa Liyanasuriya and Joe Abeywickrama – after she took part in a play staged at the Lumbini. She came to the cinema, in other words, with the theatre. Geetha never dallied onstage like this or like her other contemporaries, but got film producer after producer to help her graduate in the industry with a beauty contest held at her village. If you can’t think of another actress who could be drafted into 21 films and at the same time be extended a marriage offer from a well-to-do engineer from England without taking part in a single production, it’s not because Sri Lanka lacks capable actresses, but because it lacks capable actresses who can choose to dare. Geetha is paradoxical as a performer, and also a politician, because she is never who she seems to be with her life and career. At one point she can dance away on her own terms with whatever man cast opposite her; at another point, she can confidently refuse a tentative offer by no less an outfit than Playboy magazine to feature her on their cover. That’s where her package lies: in her ability to give out while never giving in.
Most of our popular actresses learn to perform a balancing act between commercial and serious flicks rather early on. Malini was like that (her first role, in Punchi Baba, wasn’t exactly “mainstream”; she had to wait some time for that kind of role); so was Swarna Mallawarachchi (who never really operated in the mainstream film industry) and Swineetha Weerasinghe and Swarna Kahawita and Anula Karunatilake. Geetha, strangely enough, though, had to wait for a decade before she could get out of the populist canvas that K. A. W. Perera (Wasana) and Neil Rupasinghe (Lassana Kella) had got her into. These two directors conceived her as a side player; she won us as that side player. It was in Kolamba Sanniya, as the daughter, that she epitomised her image as a freewheeling girl (an image you conjure up when you see her dancing, crazily, to the bitingly witty lyrics in Clarence Wijewardena’s “Nelum Pokuru Wage”, which ends with these suggestive lines: “දෙතොල රතට ලේ වගෙයි / මුණ හදුන් ලී වගෙයි”).
Malini was seductive in a kinder, gentler way: her coy eyes, her careful, cautious, but warmly encouraging smile, and her childlike strut were qualities that existed almost solely to convince the men who figured in her life that they were destined for her (or rather, that she was destined for them). Geetha, whether in Wasana or Lassana Kella or Kolamba Sanniya, acted differently: forceful, manipulative, at times cunning. She contorts our expectations of her as a peaceable lover because she is, frankly speaking, never really at peace. Here I quote the inimitable D. B. S. Jeyaraj: “She was not prepared to play the coy maiden if and when a scene warranted close encounters of the physical kind.” She never shies away, and can get provocatively loud or candid when she wants to. Malini provokes empathy, even when she’s in the wrong; Geetha provokes infatuation. This difference, vague to some, explains the incongruous contradictoriness of her more serious forays, right down from Karumakkarayo.
In Karumakkarayo she starred opposite Vijaya Kumaratunga; she would croon with him again and again, in Jaya Sikuru, in Raja Wedakarayo, in Jaya Apitayi, and more memorably than in any of these, in Anjana, the latter of which also starred Swarna Mallawarachchi (both she and Geetha dance in Anjana; for Geetha it was usual fare, while for Swarna it was not). So fixated she was on getting the men she wanted (who almost always happened to be played by Vijaya) that even in those serious forays of hers, she can never get away from the playful streak it compels in her. As Dotty in Palama Yata and as Punna in Loku Duwa – both of which she produced – she is almost always frail, vulnerable to abuse. But when the moment of reckoning does come – in Palama Yata, when she faces up to the indomitable, cruel Walaha (Sanath Gunatilake), and in Loku Duwa, when she tenders her resignation to her lascivious boss (Gamini Fonseka) – she is ready to unleash her fury. We see this happen with respect even to her closest friends and acquaintances, as with the brother in Loku Duwa (Kamal Addararachchi) and the lowlife husband in Ran Diya Dahara (Jackson Anthony). In the mainstream cinema she was always provocative while maintaining a welter of security; in these serious outings she was always frail and fragile while only at the last minute unleashing that provocative character in her. It’s a subtle inversion at one level, and it helps us understand her forte as a performer and even a politician.
Malini Fonseka, when she took to directing and producing films, provoked empathy from her female protagonists. Geetha wasn’t ready like that to portray women as forever-hard-done-by-weepers, which is why, in Palama Yata and Loku Duwa, she asserts her desperate need to be through with her miseries and at the time makes us aware of the fact that she has been schooled by her terrible experiences. (In a manner of speaking, both Dottie and Punna meet with the same tragic encounters, though they hail from two completely different milieus.) Perhaps it had to do with the fact that these films were better received by critics, here and abroad, than Malini’s directorial ventures, but when I see them today, I am reminded of the commonly held view that they were associated with her, that they were considered as directorial ventures on her own part. Geetha is Geetha in both these flicks, so much so that they become her. She pushes for what she wants, and becomes who she acts, even when she’s off-screen.
Written for: Daily Mirror, February 6 2018
Posted by Uditha Devapriya
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