In 1957, a group of people climbed Sri Pada with cameras, lighting equipment, and strange costumes. They climbed all the way to Maha Giri Dambe and began shooting a sequence featuring a song by H. R. Jothipala. The film, an adaptation of a W. A. Silva novel, was a first since the cinema had not “touched” the Holy Peak before.
Now we don’t know how the crew felt about the trek, but we do know that they ended up shooting that sequence 16 times, on account of the actor’s inability to articulate the song. This is not an article about that song or that actor, but about a simple village girl who found herself acting opposite all that for the first time in front of a camera.
I first saw Punya Heendeniya (as most of us did) in Lester James Peries’ Gamperaliya. I hadn’t read Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel but knew the story (the kind that makes its way to our collective subconscious) and knew the characters well enough to understand the way they reacted to their surroundings. Punya played Nanda, whose character in my opinion was to not have a character. Before we get to that landmark performance that has never ceased to fascinate me, though, there are other stories to relate about the actress behind the role. Punya left the cinema, but because the cinema never left her, I fervently believe those stories should be recounted in their entirety.
She was born Heendeniya Vidanaralalage Punya Heendeniya in the village of Meerigama. From an early age, she was not overtly enamoured of the performing arts, at least not until she came under the influence of her dancing teacher, Panibharathi. According to Punya, he got her interested in the only two art-forms she dabbled in as a girl, dancing and ballet. I ask her as to whether she loved to act or sing, and she categorically denies it: “I didn’t act in any play at Meerigama College. Not one single play.”
She had studied in the English medium and had therefore opened herself to the best of both Eastern and Western literature. It was during this time that Panibharathi called her to “act” in two dance sequences in Sirisena Wimalaweera’s Asoka (1953), “which wasn’t really acting, just a couple of ballets.”
Her first encounter with the cinema had intrigued her, however: “I found it rather strange to reveal my character in front of an impersonal camera.” This had been supplemented by her encounters with the Minerva Players, which through a series of theatrical films gave us the foundation on which our cinema would thrive. “Of course, the Minerva Players were overblown in their acting. After watching them I realised that to break out and to make my characters alive, I should improvise my own style and method.”
Her second encounter with the medium was more riveting. Apparently a cousin brother of hers was a lawyer and knew S. D. S. Somaratne. Somaratne was adapting W. A. Silva’s Deiyange Rate, the kind of book that filmmakers, in their quest to turn our nationalist streak into box office dividends, opted for back then. He had wanted a girl to play the role of Catherine, and had asked Punya’s cousin (“Siri Aiya”) to let him know about anyone who could fit the bill.
“Needless to say, Siri Aiya mooted my name, and the two of them tentatively approached my father to ask whether they could have me. In the end he complied, and I was whisked away to the producer, L. S. Ramachandran’s office in Hulftsdorp.” Ramachandran had asked her to recite a few lines from the novel (which she had read in school), and with all the expressions, gestures, and nuances of emotion she could muster, put her heart and soul into the recitation. Not surprisingly, she was chosen then and there. She had just completed her O Levels.
Her career, like the film, literally began at the top of the Holy Peak. The song I mentioned at the beginning was “Seetha Sunil Diya Dahara” (one of P. L. A. Somapala’s more memorable tunes), the song which practically forced the crew to climb up and down Maha Giri Dambe.
“I was paired with Senadeera Kuruppu and Edward Senaratne. Edward was chosen to perform for the song. He was a teacher who taught at Ananda, but despite that he had trouble articulating his lines. That is why we ended up climbing the final, arduous few steps to the Peak again and again.” Was it troublesome? “No, not at all! In fact my career began atop Sri Pada.” During her stay at the top floor of a high-rise Colombo 7 apartment, moreover, she wakes up every morning to a faint silhouette of the Holy Peak in the distance: “That’s how I start my days here,” she tells me, adding rather lightly that it has become a good omen for her.
After the excessive theatrics of Deiyange Rate, Punya found herself acting alongside D. R. Nanayakkara and Dayananda Gunawardena in Kurulubedda, often ranked alongside Rekava as the first” native” film made here. “It was in Kurulubedda and Sikuru Tharuwa that I realised how radically different our actors were. They were emulating the stage, basically. I discovered that to become a realistic performer, you must live and breathe your character. That proved vital when Lester James Peries, after seeing me in Kurulubedda, approached a mutual contact and got me in as Nanda for Gamperaliya.”
The making of Gamperaliya would probably fill an entire book, and Punya (one of only four people from the cast and crew who are alive today) attests to that at once. “Back then, directing and acting in a film was different. Time didn’t fly, it flowed gracefully. We didn’t feel the hours passing by, we just came and acted and went on with our lives. What I personally value about my role as Nanda wasn’t the fame or praise I got, but the fact that I was tutored under Dr Peries.”
I ask her at this point as to how it was working under him, and she brightens up at once: “Working with him is like living in a different world. He is a veritable reservoir of knowledge, and more importantly, he goes out of his way to help us understand the cinema.” Punya is not the first person who’s collaborated with him who tells me this, I note down as we move on with the interview.
Lester had been so enamoured of Punya’s performance that he and P. K. D. Seneviratne, who saw her as the epitome of rustic innocence, selected her for his next film, Ran Salu. As Sujatha, Punya stood out in the most subtle performance in the film (in stark contrast to the histrionics spouted by the other characters), and she puts to me that she never wanted to work for another director after acting in it.