Handahana with Arnold Wickramasuriya
Arnold Wickramasuriya, as Wickrema rightly put it, was, in fact,
preparing to mount a new production. It was a play by the well-known
trade unionist, novelist playwright and politician, T.B. Illangaratne.
The play was called ‘Handahana’ - Horoscope. The play itself had
nothing to do with politics or trade unionism - it was a light hearted
comedy based on the horoscopes (which are switched) of a couple of
twins, a young man by the name of Lalith and his twin sister by the name
An action picture from Handahana
The play had the appeal of witty dialogue, laughter and a bit of
detective work - ingredients that Mr. Illangaratne handles extremely
well in almost all his creative work.
Mr. Arnold Wickramasuriya, a well-known name in theatre circles of
the time - meaning the fifties - looked me up and down when my friend
I.J. Wickrema introduced me as a ‘good actor.’ He furrowed his broad
forehead and squinted at me making me almost nervous. “You are right I.J.”
crackled Mr. A.W. in his raspy voice. “We are in fact in the process of
getting ready to do a new play by our friend T.B. - T.B. Illangaratne
and I need a few fresh faces.
Group picture from Handahana staged in 1954
Your young man looks okay. But I must be sure about his acting
ability. A face alone won’t do, you know...” “Of course Arnold, you can
test him any time.” responded I.J. “I am sure you will find him quite
good.”Fort was not all that crowded those days. There were three big
architectural attractions - the Parliament building with its grand
facade, the Dutch (?) Clock Tower and the Queen’s house.
There was of course the Gorden Gardens too, which was open to the
public most of the time and many were the men and women, both young and
old, who either took a stroll or just relaxed in the cool of this
beautifully laid out place during the lunch hour. (I wonder if it is
still there and what it looks like now. Perhaps the barbed wire has
gobbled it up too)
There was no Bank of Ceylon (Pittu Bambuwa) building or the Trade
Fair building or any other ornamental structure. What was called Echelon
square occupied some Police offices and a place called the Quarantine
Anybody going abroad had to go there to get his or her anti-whatever
injections. That was the place where Mr. Arnold Wickramasuriya together
with another veteran by the name of Mr. Daluwatte held their auditions
to select the cast for ‘Handahana’. I am not sure how they got the
permission. Perhaps the authorities there may have considered theatre
and drama too as an ‘infectious’ disease!
There were several other young men too for the audition. Strangely
there were no women at all. Women those days never turned up for
‘auditions’. They had to be coaxed in - good or bad - to play any part
at all! We sat in a row of chairs and one by one was called for the
The candidates were briefed briefly about the play and asked to read
a little bit from the play or do something impromptu, when their turn
came up. My turn came up after a few had been tested. Mr. A.W. exchanged
a smile with Mr. Daluwatte as I approached the table where they sat with
files in hand. That smile reassured me a little bit. I was not nervous
at all. I had had a little bit of stage experience with Siri Aiya’s
troupe and also with my own ‘Janaki’ at Dehipe.
‘Stand perfectly still!” Ordered Mr. Arnold Wickramasuriya who had
suddenly assumed a sort of military countenance. I stood still and
remembered to breathe easily and relax my muscles - I had learnt that
much by reading as well as experience. Mr. W. smiled again. “Now,
walk...” He ordered once again, without being stern this time over.
Now, this is one of the most ‘difficult’ tests for any actor. Walking
naturally is one thing but walking to ‘order is something else. You tend
to become stiff the moment someone orders you to walk! I took a deep
breath, released it slowly, relaxed my leg muscles as much as possible,
and walked - naturally, I hoped.
I was selected to play one of the key roles in Mr. T.B.
illangaratne’s social satire ‘Handahana’ - that of ‘Lalith’, one of the
twins. I should say Mr. A.W. had selected a sterling cast for his
production who became big names on stage, screen, the small screen and
on radio, in later years.
There was Ruby de mel, Alfred Edirimanne, Dharmadasa Kuruppu, Ananda
Sirisena, Agnes Sirisena, and Henry Jayasena, to name a few. Two of Mr.
Arnold Wickramasuriya’s daughters, whose names I cannot recall now, also
played roles. That was the first time we experienced double casting.
The key female role of ‘Lalitha’ was shared by Agnes Sirisena and one
of the Wickramasuriya girls. I shared my role of Lalith with another
actor by the name of Athula Hewage. Unfortunately I don’t have a
souvenir of the production and I cannot recall all the names.
The old group photo featured here, should help, hopefully. Mr. Arnold
Wickramasuriya is in the centre. Ruby de Mel, Dharmadasa Kuruppu, Ananda
and Agnes Sirisena, Alfred Edirimanne, Athula Hewage and Mr.
Wickramasuriya’s two daughters Sujatha and Srima also played roles.
Out of the four little girls seated, I believe three are the younger
daughters of Mr. W. The little girl seated second from the left is
Viranee, a niece of Ruby de Mel. This picture is exactly 51 years old,
which by itself is a qualification, I hope.
We played ‘Handahana’ for five consecutive nights at the Royal
College hall somewhere in 1954 - I cannot remember the dates. We had
good houses and good reviews (yes, in those days almost every play
staged, was reviewed by the press in Sinhala as well as in the English a
courtesy we no longer enjoy) I think we repeated the play at the YMBA
hall at Borella too.
If I remember right the direction was highly commended and the acting
too, especially of Ruby de Mel. Perhaps I was mentioned too, together
with a few others. This was my second public appearance in a play, after
‘Harischandra’ in 1945 or 46 - our Nalanda Vidyalaya production by Siri
Aiya. Nearly ten years had gone by and getting back on the legitimate
stage was elixir to me.
I believe it was the first stage appearance of Ruby de Mel. She was
very soon snapped up by the local film industry which was more or less
at its infancy at this time. She however appeared in two more stage
One was an adaptation of an Oscar Wild play (A Woman of no
Importance) adapted by me as ‘Vedagathkama’ somewhere in 1955 or 56 and
the other was ‘Davasaka Venasa’ by P. Welikala - the much respected
radio drama producer, soon after ‘Vedagathkama’.
The theatre was a hunting ground for film people those days. Once
snapped up by the silver screen it was very seldom that an actor or an
actress had the chance or the time to get back to the stage. I can
mention a number of talents that were snapped up by the cinema.
Malini Fonseka, Tony Ranasinghe, Anula Karunatilleke and Nita
Fernando, among them. Of course Rukmani Devi and Eddie Jayamanne came
from the Minerva stage too. But they were not ‘snapped up’ but sort of
‘absorbed’ to the Sinhala cinema by one of its pioneers - B.A.W.
Jayamanne. I was chosen to the cinema also from the stage.
The cinema was not very happy with me. Neither was I very happy with
it. So I staged a more or less permanent come back to the stage and I am
very happy about it.
Tony Ranasinghe also came back, very powerfully though briefly in the
Sinhala production of The Merchant of Venice. I will come back to cinema
and some of my films later - all in good time.
Thought of the week
Talking of films, there are only a very few producers and directors
at the moment who take the trouble to make a Sinhala film. The most
regular, diligent and faithful among them of course is our national
icon, Dr. Lester James Peries. Vasantha Obeysekera comes in, in fits and
Other veterans such as Dharmasena Pathiraja, Tissa Abeysekera and
Dharmasiri Bandaranayake seem to be totally silent - perhaps they have
found more meaningful things to do.
The other day my son took me to see one of the latest films -
‘Sulanga’ by Bennet Ratnayake - a comparatively new comer into the
field. I am no film critic by any means, but I found ‘Sulanga’ to be a
captivating creation, which keeps you spellbound to the reality as well
as the innovativeness of its theme. Reality of ‘truth’ in its varied
interpretations. Suspicion creates havoc in a marriage. There is
individual ‘truth’ and truth as interpreted by law.
There are convincing performances all around from Sanath Gunatilleke,
Dilhani Ekanayake, Palitha Silva and a host of others. Newcomer Sathya
Erandathi Ratnayake brings on a quiet and intriguing performance as the
young lass who has practically come out of dirt and poverty and a
mother’s fierce love.
The latter half of the films dominated by a stunning performance by
Chandani Seneviratne who protects the purity of her daughter with the
fierceness of a lioness. I would gladly watch ‘Sulanga’ once again, to
relish her heart-breaking performance.