Though Orson Welles didn’t think much of it, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire is the finest Tennessee Williams film I have seen so far. Marlon Brando has never been better; second only to his performance as the ageing Mafiosi head in The Godfather, his Stanley Kowalski beats Terry Malloy from On the Waterfront (a role for which he won his first Best Actor Academy Award) by a considerable mile. Vivien Leigh hasn’t been finer too; her Blanche DuBois suggests what Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind might have turned into after Rhett Butler’s defiant departure. Her wistful longing for her former life, a life we never get to know well, doesn’t rub on Kowalski, who responds to her not with friendliness, as she thought he would, but with ferocity: he treats her like Butler’s brother might have.
Brando did not win an Oscar for his performance that year; the award went to Humphrey Bogart, for The African Queen. Bogart played much better in Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep, but as with every other star, the Academy saw it fit to honour him belatedly, in a year which saw much better performances. Personally, I can’t think of an act that exerted in one go a more profound influence on the art of acting than Brando’s Stanley Kowalski; in the pantheon of performances, his interpretation of Kowalski should certainly stand out. Kazan didn’t just give us a superior adaptation of a superlative play there; he gave us the greatest thing to happen to acting since Maria Falconetti claimed she saw God in The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Tennessee Williams has a way of fleshing out the masculinity of his protagonists; while some of them lose it, others compensate for their failings by asserting it. Marlon Brando epitomised the latter type well: he exuded a primeval manliness, an aggressive sexuality. It wasn’t just limited to Streetcar, nor even On the Waterfront. Throughout the 1950s Brando gave us a melange of roles that divided critics and appealed to audiences; his rendition of Mark Antony in the 1953 version of Julius Caesar, for instance, baffled some and polarised everyone. That it’s probably the most unconventional interpretation of any Shakespearean character beside the point; what’s relevant is that Brando ushered in through such performances a new method of acting, a new masculinity, a heightened yet fragile sexuality, which found its way to other film industries.
Not everyone favoured that kind of acting. The clumsy aggressiveness, the taunting sneer, the smug indifference, the constant shifting from assertiveness to passivity: these qualities distilled Brando, and traditionalist playwrights deplored actors who tried to emulate them.
This peculiar, idiosyncratic style came to Sri Lanka too, following 1956, after Maname and Sinhabahu turned a new generation of thespians from Sarachchandra’s stylised theatre.
The new generation, which included Dhamma Jagoda and Gunasena Galappaththi, made use of scholarships and bursaries to emigrate to the capitals of the West, meet the likes of Kazan and Brando, and bring back the methods the latter had pioneered here. Among the new actors whom these new thespians unleashed in later years, Ravindra Randeniya stands out.
Perhaps coincidentally, when Jagoda, in the 1960s, restaged Ves Muhunu, his adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire in which he had taken part as Samson (his reimagining of Kowalski) earlier, he chose Randeniya to play the latter’s role. It’s not a little ironic to consider that every other role Randeniya has played since then has been a variation on Samson, and that most of his best performances have him, somewhat unflatteringly, as an almost bestial villain.
What makes Ravindra Randeniya stand out, what makes him, at the end of the day, Ravindra Randeniya, is his contemplative frown. You see that frown creep up everywhere in nearly every picture he’s in. It turns him, in varying degrees, into an obsessive detective, a pained lover, a mistrustful husband, a compulsive conman.
Randeniya is at his best and his least empathetic when he conceals his intentions with his frown: it turns him into a concealer parading as a consoler. Not until the end of Duhulu Malak, the first real movie he was in after a series of mostly supporting roles, do we realise he’s no more than an irresponsible, prodigal playboy. We think he’s such an unlikeable womaniser, but he’s not; at the end he throws his shoe, in frustration, to the sea, and in that act he is resentful, yet upbeat, about the fact that he’s lost the woman he loved. He’s learnt to grow up.
What shields all these intentions is his debonair grace: a grace so debonair he can hide anything beneath his charms. That explains why Maya, Dadayama, Sagara Jalaya, and Anantha Rathriya click when he’s around: he’s so good at faking, but we believe him, as do the protagonists, who, in all these films, happened to be played by Swarna Mallawarachchi.
When Rathmali from Dadayama has her illusions about the man who impregnated her twice, she writes him a letter; when they meet, he is ominously evasive about his responsibilities: “Who are you to post letters ordering me? Who are you to boss me?” Yet in the sequences that precede this encounter, he is so charming, so unapologetic about what he’s done to her, that we know she has every right to threaten him: he’s become a part of her. When, in Anantha Rathriya, he attempts to save the woman he once raped and sent to prison after inadvertently forcing her into prostitution, it’s almost like the villain from Dadayama has come around, atoning for his sins, redeeming his soul. But by then it’s too late: the woman angrily rejects his offers.
Ravindra Randeniya was born Boniface Perera in Dalugama, Kelaniya on June the 5th, 1945 to a mudalali family. His father, a self-made businessman, enrolled him into St Francis’s School, run by the Dalugama Church. Two years later, he entered St Benedict’s College in Kotahena.
At St Benedict’s he entered a largely vernacular setting, despite it being a missionary school. “There was only one period for English. The rest of the time, we chatted in Sinhala, though we had quite a number of Tamil, Burgher, and Muslim friends. Of course race never mattered to us.” He liked to read; what he read, he remembered, turned him to the Left: “Everyone’s a socialist at 20!” Surprisingly, however, none of these encounters got him to act – apart from a Fifth Standard production of Sigiri Kashyapa where he played Kashyapa.
His initiation into the stage came much later through Dhamma Jagoda and a series of workshops the latter and a group of thespians had planned and begun at the Lionel Wendt. Jagoda, of course, had begun preaching Lee Strasberg’s gospel of Method Acting in the country; Randeniya quickly came under his influence. However, he did not enter the workshop intending to study acting; he had chosen scriptwriting, directing, and stage decor instead. Yet “somehow or the other, I found my way into an acting class. By this time I had been drawn to the idea of becoming a performer, and had grown tired of remaining at the backstage. Besides, that was a common class: whether or not you chose the subject, you had to attend it for around two hours.”
The course lasted two years. During that time, Randeniya saw himself being dragged into various roles and parts. His first breakthrough came through a performance of Gunasena Galappaththi’s Muhudu Puththu, controversial for its time owing to its depiction of adultery. The production had been a culmination to everything he, and his friends, had learnt.
became a success; among those who thronged that night at the Wendt was the filmmaker and the iconoclast, Manik Sandrasagara, who, after congratulating his performance, insisted on taking Randeniya for his first movie, Kalu Diya Dahara (1970). Kalu Diya Dahara was another success; impressed by his portrayal of an estate labourer, another filmmaker came around, congratulated him, and took him onboard his next film. The director was Lester James Peries, and the film, released two years later, was Desa Nisa.
None of these works really “awakened” the thespian in him. That had to wait until a year later, in 1977, with Amarnath Jayatilaka’s Siripala saha Ranmenika. There he starred opposite Malini Fonseka in a role that took him back to Samson from Ves Muhunu. “To become Siripala, I had to become bestial, inhumane. I had to summon the spectre of Samson.”
There were other characters, other films: as Migara in The God King (1975); as a contemporary Rama in Sita Devi (1978); as the rebel hero in Weera Puran Appu (1979); as the brother-in-law of the heroine in Sagara Jalaya (1988); as the troubled protagonist in Anantha Rathriya (1996), as the nouveau riche mudalali Lionel in Wekanda Walawwa (2005). In the first three movies he’s a beleaguered hero, in the latter three, a beleaguered antihero.
What makes his sense of obliqueness so apparent is that we’re never sure whether he intends to stick to what he says: he’s a talker, a consoler, but also a concealer. He projects one personality to one set of characters and another personality to another. You see this in Dadayama, where to his fiancée (played by Shirani Kaushalya) he is the perfect lover, and to the woman he befriends, rapes, and abandons, he’s anything but. He is so despicable in the story that Regi Siriwardena, in an otherwise laudatory review, called him “a solid character portrayal.” In the end that was what his villains amounted to: solid, despicable, hateful, and perhaps one-dimensional.
One of the most frustrating things about Brando’s career is that, right till the end, he remained an erratic genius tied to a specific type of character. In the most discerning essay written on Brando, the film critic Pauline Kael argued that he stuck to this type so firmly that in later years he turned into a parody of his early performances. This is a point that Tony Ranasinghe brought up when I interviewed him in 2014: dismissing Brando’s Mark Antony as a distraction in a movie that had such superior Shakespearean thespians as John Gielgud and James Mason, Ranasinghe noted that in outings like The Ugly American, Brando turned his characters into facsimiles of himself, to the point of ignoring every rule in the actor’s book.
In the end, he lost his complexity.
The point I’m trying to make here is that unlike Brando, many of those associated with his style and method elsewhere – including the great Toshiro Mifune – never lost their complexity. I see this amply in Ravindra Randeniya’s career; long though it has been, it’s seen a web of characters. Most of the latter seem morally ambivalent, and some of them lack any scruples. But that merely testifies to the intense dedication he has put into these performances.
I dare to say that unlike even Brando, Randeniya has waded through film after film, performance after performance, act after act, without losing his bearing. Even in his later years, years in which Brando lost himself, Randeniya becomes stronger by the role. In Wekanda Walawwa he does for his career what Malini Fonseka did to hers in Akasa Kusum, zeroing in on what his life has been building up to. The Sinhala cinema has many limitations. What has redeemed it is the dedication, the intense, Brando-like zeal, of the few. Randeniya fits into that few.
By Uditha Devapriya
The writer can be reached at [email protected]