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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 of Lalitha.

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 Dept.

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 audition.

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.

Sterling cast

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.

Hunting ground

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 plays.

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 starts.

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.

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