Punya Heedeniya turned 82 on July 31. She was 25 when I first saw her many, many years ago on television, and 78 when I first met her in Colombo, one dull December evening. She had returned home with her husband and had run through a whole set of interviews with other newspapers, periodicals, and magazines.
That year, 2016, had been special to her: together with Nanda Malini, Sumitra Peries, Lester James Peries, and Amaradeva (who had passed away the previous month), the Sarasaviya Awards, held after eight years, had decided to bestow the “Abhimani” Lifetime Achievement accolade on her. Naturally, everyone in town wanted an interview. I was destined to be the last: she and her husband had planned to leave the following day.
From the 12th floor of Queen’s Court Apartment in Colpetty, you can see Sri Pada when the clouds and the dust settle. “I never fail to observe it,” Punya told me before we began the interview. “It reminds me of home,” she added. It also brings back memories of her debut. Deiyange Rate, directed by L. S. Ramachandran, produced by S. D. S. Somaratne, and based on a W. A. Silva novel, was made before she turned 20. “We ascended Maha Giri Dambe and shot Edward Senaratne lip syncing to H. R Jothipala. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t mouth his lines. So we ended up climbing 16 times.”
She looked to the horizon, beyond the windows. “I wake up every morning to the silhouette of the Peak.” She paused. “To me, it has always been a good omen.”
At Mirigama Madya Maha Vidyalaya, Punya had been an astute student and a voracious reader. She had also been a modest dancer. Apparently W. A. Silva had been a favourite: she read Deiyange Rate in middle school. This helped when a cousin of hers who knew S. D. S. Somaratne suggested her name after the erstwhile Senator and film producer asked him if he knew anyone who could play the role of Catherine, the female protagonist of the story. Punya’s father, however, needed some convincing; once her cousin and Somaratne got his permission, they whisked her away. L. S. Ramachandran had his office in Hulftsdorp, and the aspiring actress was asked to recite a section from the book. In her own words, “I not only recited it, I also performed it in front of them.” She was in.
Mirigama lies 60 kilometres away from Colombo. Situated in the Gampaha district; it is well known as the hometown of the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, connecting, on one side, to Kandy and, the other, to Kurunegala.
Punya came from a petty bourgeois family here. She lived “in two worlds”, as she put to me in my interview: that of the village and that of her school, where, in contrast to her Sinhala Buddhist upbringing, “I received an English education.” There she came under the powerful influence of her teachers, including the great Panibharatha.
“It was Panibharatha who got me into the performing arts,” she reflected, as her husband brought us tea and biscuits. She underscored her childhood lack of interest in dancing, singing, and acting with the fact that she didn’t take part in a single play at school. She wasn’t quite 17, almost out of school in fact, when Panibharatha called her to act in two dance sequences in Ashoka somewhere in 1953. “That was my initiation into films, though all what those two scenes amounted to was a set of traditional ballet items.”
This first encounter had intrigued her. Coming as she did from a staunch, traditional Sinhala Buddhist family, “I found it strange to reveal myself in front of an impersonal camera.” Her later encounters with the Minerva Players, including Rukmani Devi and the Jayamanne brothers, alienated her even more. “I realised how full of artifice the acting in their films was. After seeing them, I realised that to prosper as an actor, you had to break out of that mould. You had to become yourself.”
So how could a Sinhala Buddhist rural middle class girl from a suburb several miles from the capital city become herself? By selecting and getting roles that reflected her upbringing, of course. There’s a reason, after all, why Punya became the quintessential Sinhala woman on film, something not even Malini Fonseka equalled. Considering that such an achievement has been the result of a mere fraction of the roles Malini got, Punya’s importance – not only as an formidable actress, but also as an unmistakable symbol of how socio-cultural dynamics find their expression in a nation’s art forms – cannot be understated.
In the middle of a casual conversation with Lester James and Sumitra Peries years ago, I suddenly asked them to describe the milieu Punya hailed from. “I would say conservative, right of centre,” Lester conjectured. Sumitra was more specific. “They would have been the sort who voted for the UNP because of their landed interests and voted for the SLFP in 1956 because of their Buddhist roots.”
Scholars have interpreted the transformation of the underlying ethos of the national cinema in terms of the electoral change of 1956. In this scheme of things, there was less a transition than a paradigm shift in values, from a Colombo centric elite to a rural underclass. Thus Lester Peries’s Rekava is described as a symbol of the cataclysmic shift from the UNP to the SLFP, forgetting that the shift had been preceded by a change in the dominant ideology of the Sinhala cinema. This is true even of the actors who emerged at that juncture, of whom Punya no doubt represented a cultural high point.
A more comprehensive and thorough study of these trends can be found in Garret Field’s book, Modernizing Composition (University of California Press, 2017). By the end of the 19th century, Field contends, the Buddhist cultural revival had benefitted from the rise of print capitalism and, with it, the growth of an urban lower middle class and working class.
Together with the peasantry and the rural petty bourgeoisie, whose ideology undoubtedly influenced them, they “supported movements of religious revival and social protest.” In fact the line between their working class and ethno-nationalist aspirations blurred with the years, culminating in their participation in the 1915 riots that, as the likes of Kumari Jayawardena (who I’ve quoted above) have noted, had greater working class involvement than most commentators see it today.
The urban lower middle class and the urban working class found a ready outlet for their aspirations in the plays of travelling Parsi troupes. Field does not note the irony of an urban Sinhala middle class intelligentsia following up their support for Colonel Olcott’s Buddhist Theosophical Society and Anagarika Dharmapala’s revivalism with an enthusiastic reception of a dramatic form originating in a completely non Buddhist community, but the irony, if at all, can be explained by the fact that the organisers of these productions indigenised their themes to address issues considered relevant and pressing by that intelligentsia: in Field’s summing up, “edification, temperance, and education.” John de Silva’s act of indigenising them even more must be seen in this light. In converting a nationalist audience to his plays, he was, not surprisingly, being as much a capitalist as a “nationalist.”
The Parsees influenced the local urban theatre; it did the same with the local urban cinema. Ratnabivushana and Dissanayake, in regrettably the only study of its kind, conjecture that by the time of Kadawunu Poronduwa the “local film industry”, premature though it may have been, had come to cater to a largely urban Sinhala milieu. With its blend of Indian music and Sinhala poetry, its idealisation of Sinhala Buddhist “Arya” values through a mishmash of ragadhari and folk music, its appeal was unmistakeably profound.
Kumari Jayawardena writes of an instance where, during a performance of John de Silva’s play Sri Wickrama, a drunken sailor got up onstage and attempted to stop the actors playing the royal guards from leading Ahelepola’s family to their death at the hands of the last Kandyan king. You can see history being rewritten if not skewed in favour of a totalising “Sinhala” narrative right there, in the play’s denigration of that king as an evil, lustful murderer, though this reading is ironically pro British as Gananath Obeyesekere has shown. In any case, that peculiar worldview shaped the local cinema as well.
Urban lower middle class and working class society prefers colour, spectacle, the clash of cymbal and drum, and the valorisation of traditional values, and this spills over to more conservative sections of the rural community as time goes by. Unabashedly full of sound and fury, of legend and myth, the Minerva Players films therefore came to appeal to a considerable section of this population.
And yet, they were not enough. A more indigenous alternative had to spring up. The pioneers here were Sirisena Wimalaweera and Jayavilal Wilegoda, the one a director and the other an uncompromising critic. The anglicised upper class, meanwhile, sought refuge in the Western cinema; in 1945 they formed the Colombo Film Society, which as Lester Peries wittily observed in 1957 catered to “the culture snobs of Colombo 7.”
With its inadvertent mimicking of the Indian melodrama, the Sinhala cinema soon faced a crisis: by 1950, foreign films were being watched in greater numbers than local ones. At the time the music industry had moved from its Parsi roots: in the songs of Ananda Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha – both, incidentally, hailing from non-Buddhist backgrounds – the melody had become conspicuously more Sinhala. The Sinhala film, however, had not.
In reacting against the intrusion of the Indian melodrama, directors and scriptwriters decided to fight fire with fire. They began imitating the more openly and popular Hindi films. This had been done before, but as Ratnabivushana and Dissanayake note, “now the decision was to do [it] more brazenly.”
At this crucial juncture, directors of popular films returned to popular Sinhala literature. In W. A. Silva they found a saving grace. Even the Minerva Players realised this: the first adaptation of a Sinhala novel was not only based on one written by Silva, but also directed by B. A. W. Jayamanne: Kele Handa. Full of bawdy humour and physical combat, and set in a world where good and evil were divided into two irreconcilable halves, these new films – of which the apogee has to be Mathalan (1956) – projected a new set of values, though borrowing much from the films of an earlier era.
A new generation of producers soon emerged, among them S. D. S. Somaratne. With them, a new generation of directors: T. Somasekaran, Robin Tampoe, M. Masthan, Shanthi Kumar, Lenin Moraes, and L. S. Ramachandran. With them also, a new generation of actresses: Mallika Pilapitiya, Kanthi Gunathunga, and Punya Heendeniya. In the great twilight between Rukmani Devi and Malini Fonseka, Punya hence soon stood out from the rest.
Here I return to Punya, gazing at me, smiling openly as she and her husband remember their time in Africa and London and later in a different Sri Lanka, where they returned so that she could take up her signature role, as Nanda, in the sequel to Gamperaliya, Kaliyugaya. If you remember correctly, one of the more curious anachronisms in these two stories is that none of the women from the old order – including Nanda and her sister Anula – speaks English. When they have to do so, they rely on an interlocutor, like Nanda’s brother Tissa.
Vinod Moonesinghe tells me that this isn’t really historically accurate: the women of the old order,
when they joined the new, did try to learn English, just as their ancestors tried to learn and speak
Portuguese. That does not concern me though. What concerns me is the sociology behind it; the same sociology which explains not just the milieu of women like Nanda, but also the milieu of the
woman who played Nanda.
I left Punya Heendeniya there on the 12th floor, looking at Sri Pada and making plans for her departure the next day. I haven’t seen her since. I should, and hopefully, I will.
By Uditha Devapriya
The writer can be reached at [email protected]