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Iranganie : 

Expression of an ethos

Iranganie SerasingheThe Lionel Wendt Theatre opened in 1953 with the play Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky. Iranganie Serasinghe acted the role of Nastriya, in this production by Prof. E. F. C. Ludowyke and Neumann Jubal. In December a Sri Lankan contingent in Australia led by Ernest Macintyre will be staging The UN Inspector is a Sri Lankan as part of the theatre's 50th anniversary celebrations, and the veteran actress appears in this production too.

The opening performance on December 9 is dedicated to her late husband Winston Serasinghe, whose birthday falls on that day.

by Padma Edirisinghe

When I was assigned the task of interviewing our female veteran in the world of cinema I was under the happy delusion that it would be a delightful experience. But it turned out to be rather traumatic.

The famous actress of stage plays (both English and Sinhala) and cinema and myriad teledramas did not have a scrap of what is called in modern sophisticated parlance, 'curriculum vitae' (or simply bio-data), computerised or otherwise. Nor were there fat files bulging with press cuttings nor huge albums bound in gold to show off to visitors.

Iranganie Serasinghe in a scene from Lower Depths staged at Lionel Wendt Theatre in 1953.

To present the whole picture tersely this famous female rose above such mundane concerns with that kind of meticulous detail.

"I never bother to preserve memorabilia. When assigned a task I do it. Then it stays in a corner of my mind like a beautiful memory. That is all," she says. The lightness of her tone and mannerisms resonant of the typical uncluttered Sinhala Buddhist woman is almost infectious. Her innate simplicity could be one reason for this state, but an equally strong factor I felt was the sheer magnitude of the work indulged in that almost defies recording. She is defynitely one of the most photographed and written - about Sri Lankans, but she has relegated all material evidence of it to limbo deciding to live on her memories alone.

There are other achievements equally spectacular, I mused as I sat before her. In them I include her decision to take to the public stage despite her family background. The Meedeniyas (Iranganie's maiden name is Meedeniya) belong to one of most aristocratic families of the island. Her village is Mudugamuwa off Ruwanwella by a tributary of the Kelani ganga and her grandfather was Meedeniya Ratemahaththaya and father, Meedeniya adigar, later Rate Mahaththaya.

I put the relevant query to her regarding the reaction of the family and clan to her bold step but instead of the usual answer given for such queries, "Oh! They were just outraged" or "Astounded" pat came a reply that things were taken in their own stride. The answers reminded one of the deep gurgles that accompany the waterfalls cascading down our mountain terrain that includes the Central highlands and Sabaragamuwa from where Iranganie Serasinghe hails. Further they reflected the actual values and norms embedded in our own society before hypocrisy tinctured by puritanism set in. Our ancient women sang and danced openly.

However, there is another reason for the no - fuss acceptance. Physically the girl had been away from her village environment. Educated first at St. Bridget's and then at Bishops' and later at Kandy High School, her physical dis-association from the village atmosphere is obvious. To put it clearly things were happening to Iranganie's life in the cities of Colombo and Kandy.

When did she first get interested in drama, was my next query. It was always there, she said and the school provided, a definite stage, both literally and otherwise. She took part in short plays at Bishops' College and entertained visitors at home with her acting prowess. At Kandy High School she acted the role of Professor Higgins in Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw.

The University nurtured it. She was one of our early female graduates of the Colombo University (1947-1950) just before it moved to the salubrious climes of the hill country. Here her first public performance was the main role played in The Second Mrs. TaQueray. Coming under the influence of Prof. Ludowyke, she now got into the thick of theatre business. After marriage she went to London and got a training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and London School of Dramatic Art.

It is extremely difficult to give a recapitulation of the myriad performances of this award-winning actress on stage, in cinema and teledrama. Hence only a skimming is attempted. Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky staged at Lionel Wendt where she played the role of Nastriya stands out. Neumann Jubal, an Austrian Jew, who had fled Germany earlier was involved in the production.

Now in the 2003 play The UN Inspector is a Sri Lankan commemorating 50 years of Lionel Wendt Theatre, Iranganie is standing in for an absentee actress, Carmel Raffel. Other plays that followed were Antigone by Anouilh, Twins by Plautus, Three Sisters by Chekov, Ghosts by Ibsen, Macbeth and Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle.

It was Henry Jayasena who got her next involved in Sinhala plays. Apata Puthe Magak Nethe was the maiden result followed by Dhamma Jagoda's Vesmuhunu and Porisadaya.

The first film she took part was a traffic police documentary produced by Lester J. Peries, titled Be safe or be sorry. Then followed Rekhava and Delovak Athara produced by Mr. Peries again and Bakmaha Deege by Dayananda Gunewardene. Loku Duwa, Dadayama and Deveni Gamana and God King followed. Her latest films are Sudu Seveneli and Wekanda Walawwa.

Skipping many years of her career I next wished to know the reason for her popularity with the Sinhala audience as with the English audience. In fact, I said all of us were just enamoured of your role as a long suffering mother and wife in Doo Daruwo. That question, she said laughing, has to be put to the audience and not me, but later relented and went on to say that this is due not to her acting prowess alone but to the particular roles in themselves.

The mother in Doo Daruwo and Sudu Hamine in Yaso Ravaya were very familiar figures that the audience can easily identify with someone they know or even with themselves. Hence the popularity of the role. That was almost noble - trying to efface herself.

If Iranganie Serasinghe was mild about her utterances on her acting, she was much more firm in her opinions on environment issues.

She says that it is as important to her as her acting, if not more, in this advanced stage of her life. As founder of the Ruk Rakaganno Movement her life is almost irretrievably interlinked with the preservation of our flora and of course our fauna too.

In this context she was strongly critical of the location of the Lunugam Vehera Project, Pelawatte sugar factory and the Menik Ganga Diversion Project.

She stressed my giving priority to this issue. "There are the habitats of our wild animals and man encroaches into them and begins projects. The beasts are unaware of these human projects and kill the trespassers and the man-beast battle begins followed by killing of innocent animals. She was almost jocose yet sad about our current attitude to wildlife.

"People get into groups and jeeps and go on jaunts to visit animals in the wilds. Then they point their fingers and count the number of jackals and deer and elephants they see. They then come home and boast about how many they saw. But the care and attention to animals should go much beyond these acts." Her love for trees is the same or even greater.

We see you in TV ads, I said. "Yes, sometimes I sponsor causes like the need to eradicate dengue and sometimes I appear in commercial ads too as in the Munchi ad." She did not feel it necessary to give explanations.

Underneath that famous woman who has acted in scores of stage plays, teledramas and cinemas and blazed trails of glory and fame, both nationally and internationally, I could see the stolid typical village woman unadulterated by the tinsel of city life and show business. Iranganie Serasinghe nee Meedeniya may have left her village in Sabaragamuwa many years back, but, mentally she is still there. And it is this factor that pulsates in her roles and makes them so realistic and lovable.

But I have acted cruel roles too, she says and enjoyed the change.

She acted the rapacious brothel-keeper of Kinihiriya Mal and also did a nasty role in the film Dadayama. But those roles are few and far between.

Many would mostly remember her for her role in Doo Daruwo, spiced with the typical mannerisms of the long suffering mother of our villages.

The village - it just runs in her blood though she is trapped in a suburb of Colombo. "Any messages or advice, especially to the younger generation?," I asked and that made her laugh again and say there is too much advice going round which many are resilient to.

But "Do what you do with involvement," she says.

"And respect life, not only human life but life of animals and plants."

It was full circle back to Buddhist scriptures. Iranganie had been born a Christian due to a strange incident in the life of one of her progenitors that she regaled me with. It only illustrated the strange happenings in colonial Lanka. But today our female cinema heroine is a confirmed Buddhist ready to take everything including the final drama in her own stride. I left her under her trees in a much lighter and more spiritual mood than when I entered her abode.

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