Swarna Mallawarachchi: A moving mirror reflecting who we are

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Swarna Mallawarachchi

By Malinda Seneviratne
"At the beginning of her career she may have been rather tentative in her style of creating character, but with maturity she has developed an intensity and passion which no other actress can equal. She is sharp, incisive and succeeds in creating very strong characters. Personally I feel sorry we have never worked in a film together." Such a character certificate, so to speak, from no less a personality in the film industry than Lester James Peiris would indeed provoke the question, "well, what more is there to say?" The point is, that there is also a real, live woman who lives outside of the many colourful and striking characters she has portrayed on the silver screen, and this woman also has things to say.

Actors and actresses are often remembered for one or two particularly powerful or memorable roles they have played. Omar Shariff, for example, was brilliancy personified as Yuri in Doctor Zhivago. Few people remember his other films. But Swarna Mallawarachchi is different. She has not acted in a "countless" number of films, but most of the 50 or so that she has, have emerged as landmark creations in Sinhala film not least of all because of the skills of this remarkable actress.

Swarna, brushed me off immediately when I started mumbling about doing a biographical sketch to start things off: "That is a story that has been written many, many times. I’d rather talk about cinema than my personal life".

Her first foray into the cinematic world was in sath samudura, way back in 1966. Apparently she had responded to an advertisement while still an Advanced Level student, because "I just wanted to meet Siri Gunasinghe, who was the director". Having started in that unplanned, almost random way, Swarna quickly rose to stardom in the film world.

She has never had any formal training in the field. "It is probably a sansara purudda that I have carried over to this life," said Swarna, who is a firm believer in rebirth and is a keen student of Buddhist philosophy. Sensitivity to the human condition in her case would have been nurtured to a large extent by the fact that she was an avid reader from early days. "I was a voracious reader of Russian literature. I also enjoy reading biographies. Since of late I have taken to reading books on philosophy and have developed a considerable interest in Astrology." Indeed her living room contained many books on these subjects and on the table was a biography of Indira Gandhi.

I remember Swarna performing in the Peradeniya open air theatre during the "Wala Festival" in either 1986 or 1987. The play was makarakshaya, directed by Dharmasiri Bandaranayake. Half way during the play someone from the audience remarked, "Ah, suddi, umba avada?" It was loud enough for the entire audience to hear. The faintest of smiles appeared on Swarna’s face, almost as if in acknowledgement, but she carried on without missing a step. That she was a professional of the highest order was quite apparent, for not everyone is able to come unscathed from the biting wit that "wala" hecklers are capable of.

Suddilage Kathawa was of course something else. Written by Siman Nawagattegama who is among the foremost exponents of the Sinhala language and directed by one of the most courageous film makers in the country, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, it is a masterpiece that shows that human drama in all its turbulence can be portrayed without succumbing to the easy temptation to lacerate the sensibilities of the audience beyond repair. That delicate aesthetic balance is most expertly obtained by Swarna’s ability to deliver just the right mix of passion, reflection and sensitivity to character and situation. In fact I believe this is evident in all her major cinematic efforts and is what makes her the mature artist she is.

It is the work of the biographer to go into each and every film that Swarna has acted in, measure, one way or the other, their relative merits, and separate the exceptional performances from the many high quality ones that the film-going public were privileged to see. I am sure all those who were enthralled by the many striking roles she played over the past thirty plus years would have their favourites. Swarna herself couldn’t pick anything that could be described as her "most memorable portrayal". She just said that she was fortunate to have worked for skilled directors and high quality screen plays. In fact she had acted in the film debuts of highly acclaimed directors such as Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Sathischandra Edirisinghe, Ashoka Handagama and Dharmasena Pathiraja, in addition to working with people like Sunethra Peiris, Vasantha Obeysekera, Tissa Abeysekera, and most recently with Prasanna Vithanage, starring in Anantha Rathriya, which has just been released.

Fifty films is a small number of films for someone with her talent, especially in a world where people with half the skill notches up something close to that number in less than 10 years, counting in countless teledramas and telefilms. Swarna, it seems, has been more discerning.

First of all, according to her, she prefers cinema to TV. "We work hard to make a film, and the least we can receive by way of acknowledgement is for the viewer to give full attention to the cinematic production, without being distracted by commercials, telephone calls etc. This is not to take anything away from teledramas and telefilms. It is a different form and not one that I am particularly keen on, that’s all."

Swarna has also been very selective, it seems, in choosing her roles. Laleen Jayamanne, in an article titled "Hunger for images: myths of femininity in Sri Lankan cinema (1947-1989)" published in the South Asian Bulletin perhaps says it best. "Swarna Mallawarachchi brings something qualitatively new; a set of visual traits and possibilities (narrative, emotional) that renders the bad/good girl opposition an untenable myth". This is true. Sinhala cinema suffers from a seriously flawed characterisation of the woman. She is either the paragon of virtue or a slut; a silently suffering weakling or a veritable virago. In most cases she is a one-dimensional creature who is far removed from anyone we would encounter in our lives. It is only an exceptional director who has a good script to work with that can transcend these mythological dichotomies, and only a highly skilled and observant, reflective actress that can lift such characters to identifiable, real, live persons. Furthermore she has been successful in exuding a poignant dignity that moves subtly through stories that refuse facile resolution.

So what does this woman who has, more than anyone else, helped show the latent or apparent agency is the female, think about feminism? "Those who are clamouring for women’s emancipation, in my view, are those who have lost their freedom by running after western models. I firmly believe in a feminism that is fundamentally based on motherhood." I asked her if it is not true that in the family institution there are only two characters, Nona Hami and Peduru (the wife and husband in Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s bava duka) and that those who deny this are but engaging in self-delusion. She agreed and laughingly said, "Actually Jackson (Anthony) claims that he is Peduru in his household". On a more serious note, she concurred that women are endowed with more agency than is usually acknowledged.

Acting is not all that she has done. She spent around six years in London and in Australia raising speculation that she was done with Sinhala cinema. Swarna admitted that she had not planned to continue with her acting career, but she had done one film when she returned in 1977, planning to "retire" afterwards. It is our good fortune that she did not, for since then she gave us many memorable characters, for the portrayal of which she won many awards. Even now she does have a life outside the world of film and film-making. Apart from being mother and homemaker, Swarna also runs a boutique for exclusive Indian garments called Crescat Boulevard.

I put to her that some of our young directors ruin potentially good scripts by trying to write in totally in appropriate dance sequences that are but cheap imitations of stuff culled from Indian commercial films. "Yes, and they just can’t do it. For several reasons. For one, the film industry in India is financially very strong. They can afford to train people for such sequences over a long period of time. More importantly, there is a strong focus on the arts among the general public in India. You wake up in the morning in any city and you will hear music, children practising an instrument or doing voice exercises. We don’t have that. In fact an Indian friend of mine once told me that we lack cultural identity in dress. This is true not just of our clothes, but in almost every aspect of our lives. We can’t become Americans and also remain who we fundamentally are."

Swarna also pointed out that films no longer came under ‘family entertainment’. "People just can’t afford to go to the cinema. There are no longer 9.30 shows, and those who can’t afford to have a car have transportation problems. It is no wonder that the general public have started leaving the cinema, so to speak. And then there is this ‘Adults Only’ tag. I think that many of my earlier films that were deemed to be suitable only for adults should be shown again, taking off that tag because compared to the violence and sexual depiction in present day films those were quite benign." Commenting on her latest film she said, "Anantha rathriya might very well be my last film, actually. And if this is the case, it would be an appropriate end to my acting career because I believe that this is one of my best performances". I am not a film critic and I don’t wish to spoil things for the potential film-goer by writing a "trailer" about the film. I will say this, though. It is a piece of work where Swarna has brought all her many years of experience and her exceptional acting talent into play. Prasanna Vithanage is a director of the new wave of film makers in Sri Lanka who is gifted with a keen editorial eye, something that Swarna believes is very important. He has been privileged, I believe, to have Swarna play the lead female role in the film, for she is probably one of the most competent artistes we have in the matter of examining fundamental human values of duty, responsibility and moral obligation.

Talking of responsibility, and especially in the context of a society that is undergoing social and economic transformations that are worrisome, Swarna pointed out that unfortunately the state of our film industry is in such poor shape that it is becoming increasingly difficult for producers to take on high quality film projects. "The film industry in Sri Lanka is not like the one in India. In India the work of the director is done once the film is made. The marketing and distribution is handled by other people. It is different here. For example, Prasanna Vithanage is running around trying to market anantha rathriya. Dharmasiri is still in the negative with bava duka and bava karma. When they have been squeezed like a lime, isn’t it natural for directors to think twice before undertaking such ventures?"

Still, she was hopeful that things would change now that Tissa Abeysekera is the new Chairman of the Film Corporation. "Since he took over we have been getting good English films and apparently he is trying to arrange things to help bring out a select number of good films every year.

More than thirty years in the industry has seen her win countless best actress awards. In addition she was honoured with the National Award of Kala Suri in 1993, and cited as the Zonta Woman of Achievement in 1992. Through all this, Swarna has remained one of the more down-to-earth and approachable personalities in that unfortunately unreal world of stardom. And this is probably why she is the respected and highly loved actress she is.

I believe that I would be voicing the wishes of the vast majority of film-goers when I express hope that the inevitable decision to put a full stop to her ability to create and project complex human emotions with tremendous evocative impact is postponed indefinitely. And this, for the simple reason that we are starved and hungry for images that project both our lived reality and more importantly a gaze towards the horizon of the universe of possibility. In short, hope.