Sanath Gunathilake’s epiphanies


by Uditha Devapriya


Actors sometimes get to play the same role and more often than not the script demands them to conform to variations of the same character. You can have a hundred different ways of depicting a lawyer, philanderer, or army officer and still be tempted to play them the same way you’ve been playing them for the past few years. The problem with such an approach is that it cuts down on versatility, unless of course you’re Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton and the image you’ve created for yourself remains indistinguishable from your life. Sanath Gunathilake, actor, director, writer, and commentator on our film industry, would no doubt agree.

Sanath’s been at it for the past 40 years and since his first performance he’s come to realise how important reading into his roles is. For this reason perhaps, when we see his characters today, no matter how similar some of them may be, we understand that he not only creates his characters onscreen but also appreciates those subtle details which differentiate the one from the rest.

He was born in Kandy to a fairly well-to-do family, his father being a lawyer and his mother a teacher. "The film bug bit me when I was quite small. I guess I inherited my father’s love for movies. My father, to his credit, understood me completely there. We were on equal terms and therefore we went to watch films on a regular basis," he remembers with a smile.

Sanath’s mother had been less inclined towards the cinema, though. "She was a schoolteacher, as I mentioned earlier. Schoolteachers think that films corrupt children, which is why she didn’t take to them the way my father and I did." I ask him as to what kind of movies he saw during this time and he readily rattles off a list: they were commercial flicks for the most.

His father apparently doted on Vijaya Kumaratunga and Gamini Fonseka. His mother, on the other hand, while not exactly a film-lover nevertheless had tastes of her own: "She preferred arty films in vogue at the time, like ‘Delovak Athara’, ‘Saravita’, and ‘Wesathuru Siritha’. They provided room for reflection, while the movies my father and I patronised were pulp fiction, with heroes saving their lovers from the villains. They amounted to the same story, come to think of it."

While he’d taken to the cinema as a child, however, acting didn’t figure in his scheme of things. "There were other priorities. Even at Kingswood College, my school, I took part in no more than two or three plays, because I was more focused on my studies."

He had received top marks for his O/Levels, not surprisingly, although he failed to repeat this feat in his A/Levels. The reason was, as Sanath explains, that while he got through the exams, he couldn’t get into University because under the District Rank system (similar to the Z-score system today) he failed to pass the required mark in the area where he sat for the exam. "Those who got lower results than mine managed to enter University," he remembers.

After his results came he began applying for various jobs here and there, to no avail. He had been called by various agencies, but thanks to some quirk of fate he hadn’t gone through the entrance exams in either of them. Reflecting on this today, he reckons that some higher destiny might have been slowly pushing him into the cinema. "This was during the 1970s, when the distinction between serious cinema and popular cinema blurred and the likes of H. D. Premaratne came up with a parallel cinema that combined elements from both sides of the divide. As I grew up I guess the films I watched educated me. Naturally, I matured."

While hunting down various job offers, Sanath had spotted an advertisement in a newspaper. The ad called out for would-be actors who were more than five feet and six inches tall. What appealed to him, however, was the fact that it specifically stated that the candidate’s educational qualifications would be considered. "That was a point I took at once," he says, "It was for a film by Vijaya Dharma Sri. I had seen his ‘Duhulu Malak’ before, and thought that the new film would be as good." Hoping that he would be selected for the job, he went for the interview. He was chosen.

The film was "Situ Kumariya", and since then he hasn’t turned back. More and more offers came his way, and at the end of it all, he would work with some of the greats: Lester James Peries, Vasantha Obeyesekere, and H. D. Premaratne have figured rather prominently in his career, which no biographical sketch can hope to cover fully. Suffice it to say that Sanath has (by his own admission) come to realise the inherent deficiencies in the career he’s cut out for himself.

He brings up Clint Eastwood as an example. "In his early years, Eastwood was the cowboy and hero who saved the day. But as time went by he realised how insufficient that image was if that was all he stuck to. When he became a director, he thus churned out films which couldn’t be more different to the Westerns he’d acted in before. I guess he taught us a lesson there: this industry will salvage you financially as an actor, but if all what you’re looking for here is money, you won’t get satisfaction. There’s something more you must reach."

Brushing aside the infinitely easier task of delving into his personal details, I then ask him to sum up the way he gets into his characters. Sanath collects his thoughts carefully before replying. "Well, the first thing I do when I get a role is ask the director to discuss it with me. Every pioneer I’ve worked with – Dr Peries, Vasantha Obeyesekere, and so on – has acceded to this request of mine. From time to time I get directors who haven’t, though. Their usual response is ‘There’s no need to discuss it, I’m sure you’ll be able to play out the character well.’ In that case I repeat my request again and again and again, and if the director still refuses to discuss the character with me, I politely turn him down. It’s happened in the past, mind you.

"As for getting into the role, you must first understand that there’s no set method. I don’t magically jump into whoever I’m playing. Before anything else, I come up with a ‘treatment’ for my character, which is to say that I sketch him in my mind and take down notes highlighting the subtleties of his character. It can be anything – the way he laughs, the way he smiles, the way he expresses anger and contempt – but nothing escapes my eye. Remember, no two characters are the same, and one of the biggest pitfalls you can face as an actor is thinking that you can play any two superficially similar characters the same way."

I ask him to give some examples, and he readily complies. "I played an army officer in Udayakantha Warnasuriya’s ‘Ran Diya Dahara’. I’d actually met such an army officer who’d been in charge of releasing funds to relatives of dead or maimed soldiers. He was a suspicious man, because he’d been cheated before and the money he’d wasted on those pretending to be relatives wasn’t his but the government’s. When I reflected on him later, I realised that I could depict him best by darkening my complexion. So I asked Ebert Wijesinghe to apply makeup on me.

"In Sudath Rohana’s ‘Sudu Kaluwara’, to give another example, I’m a mudalali who’s quite well-fed. I had to grow fat, which is the opposite to what I faced in ‘Viragaya’, where I’m almost emaciated. I remember that it took some two to four months to tone down what I’d gained in weight, and I remember Lester James Peries warning me. ‘Gamini Fonseka got fat when he acted in ‘Hulavali’,’ he said, ‘But that was when people identified and appreciated such things. Audiences today aren’t what they used to be. So be careful with what you do to your body.’"

All heady stuff, no doubt, but how has his career been lately? "I won’t say I don’t have plans for the future, having directed two films, but I admit our industry isn’t in a good state. On the other hand, I have some two or three scripts which I’d like to shoot some day, including one on the ethnic war."

To top this he’s also taken part in two films yet to be released: Isuru Weerasinghe’s ‘Pani Makuluwo’, a modern parable about the dangers of extramarital affairs ("What spouses do because they think they’re lonely, even though they don’t mean anything bad. I think it’s a good message," Sanath comments) where he’s playing a kindly businessman, and Lahiru Pannipitiya’s ‘Sangili’, where he’s a toddy tapper opposite a horde of other stars both young and old, like Veena Jayakody, Saranga Disasekera, Dulani Anuradha, and the late Rebecca Nirmali.

There’s a stock question I parrot out to end whatever interview I’m conducting: "What do you feel about the past?" I ask and I quote his reply in full.

"People think acting is all about earning, not learning. That’s not true. I learnt quite a lot from my co-stars, people like Tony Ranasinghe and Gamini Fonseka who were always ready to help the likes of me. Of course I lived in a different time. Back then we had people who directed not only the film but also the actors. We learnt the subtleties of acting in both arty and commercial films, which was a good thing: you didn’t limit yourself to serious roles all the time.

"I still remember Daya Wimalaweera and me talking endlessly, for instance, about my characters in his films, which some would consider puerile today given that he was a lowbrow director. But we talked nevertheless, because the sense of art we venerated back then was beautiful no matter how much it changed as the years went by. I’d therefore like to end on this note: I am thankful for I lived through, what I did and I’m sure there’s much more I can look forward to."

That wasn’t a stock reply, I know. That was an epiphany. One of many he’d seen in his career, no doubt.

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