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The many splendours of Iranganie Serasinghe

Saying that Iranganie Serasinghe is talented is an understatement. She is a complete person having done many things in her life. She is an actress, but earlier she had a hand in journalism, dancing and tourism. She also passionately believes in environmental protection.

Serasinghe’s life is one of gradual change. Never did she envisage being an actress as a child. Indeed it appears that the circumstances played a large part in her destiny. Among her many films are Rekhava, Ran Salu and Delovak Athara. Among her tele-dramas she is best remembered for her role in Yashorawaya. Reminiscences in Gold met this extremely versatile lady to discuss what it means to be Iranganie Serasinghe.


Iranganie Serasinghe

“I was born in a village called Muthugamuwa near Ruwanwella. The first school I went to was St. Bridget’s Convent. Then I went to Bishop’s College and most of my education was at Bishop’s College. I was in the college boarding because my parents were away from Colombo. And then for the SSC and University Entrance I went to Kandy High School. I entered the University of Ceylon in 1947,” said Serasinghe.

“When we were very small in Ruwanwella there was not much entertainment, but once in way a circus would come around. There was a huge tent and the circus would come and do various performances: singing, dancing, magic and did some imitations and things like that. I was fascinated by this and I came home and imitated these people. That is how it all started I suppose. At that time we didn’t know anything about acting; it was much later that we even went to a film or a play and saw performances.”

Public stage

Acting of course was never a childhood dream for Iranganie. She took part in her first school play called ‘Water Babies’. “So it was in my childhood that I started acting. It was never a dream we just acted because we were asked to act. At Bishop’s we did school plays, some of them we wrote ourselves. It was at Kandy High School, that we had a good English teacher. That was the first time I really got on a public stage. We did it at Trinity College. The play was Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’. That was the first time we faced an adult audience. Here we played to the general public. That was a good experience. It was only during my University career that I knew there was such a thing as learning to act. My professor, Ludowyke, said if I was going abroad I should go to a theatre school and I was quite surprised that there was something to learn in a theatre school. It was only when I went to the schools in England did I realize how much there was to learn.

At the University of Ceylon she got involved with the ‘Dramatic Society’ and every year they had a play. “Drama was in our subject for English. At University there was a Russian Jewish person called Jubal. I learnt a lot about theatre from him. He was a real theatre person. After University I taught English and History at Museaus College. I enjoyed teaching, it was very interesting to teach children.”

For professional acting, Iranganie got her training in Bristol and London. “I am glad I went there because I found that there was such a lot to learn. I first started at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and then went to the London Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art.”

Sinhala cinema

An actor has two instruments through which he can talk to his audience or to tell a story. His body and his voice. So there they train your voice and your body. You have to train it to be flexible so that you can do what you want with it. There are a lot of exercises and dancing. The voice has to be trained specially on stage where you have to throw out your voice. The last row must hear what you are saying. The projection of the voice, the enunciation and pronunciation and being clear in your speech and how to train your voice to express all the feelings you want.

Serasinghe’s debut was in Rekhava, directed by Lester James Peiris. As a young lady entering the world of cinema, how did this change her? “I was very frightened, because I had not done Sinhala theatre or cinema before and I had to learn the dialogue. And my village background helped me a great deal. Not that I was trying to copy anyone because imitating is not acting. Because things go into your mind, the way people talk and move and the body language is also very important. Still I was very scared.”

Serasinghe counts herself fortunate for doing her first film directed by Lester James Peiris who insisted on naturalistic acting. People were copying South Indian cinema; the acting was very stilted and the camera was never taken out of the studio. All the pictures were done in the studio. Lester James Peiris was the first one who took the camera out. It is a beautiful country with so much to show. He took the camera out and insisted on naturalistic acting. Serasinghe recalls that she was very happy about that.

The first three films she did, were with Lester James Peiris. “He must really go down in film history and after that everyone took their cameras out. He made such a difference to the cinema. And even when it comes to make up, he didn’t want loads of it. Today cinema has a very tough competitor in TV. But I suppose if there is a good film still people are interested.”

When asked who the interesting actors and actresses she worked with, Iranganie recalls Joe Abeywickrama. “He was certainly an interesting person I worked with, we used to chat a lot and he knew a lot of old tales and was very musical; he could sing old Sinhala songs.” Other than her role in Rekhava, which is Iranganie’s most poignant memory, her role in Sandesaya also stands out in her memory. Sandesaya was done in the mountains of Belihuloya where she was thrown into the Walawe river. The role she played was that of a spy thrown into the water.

Interesting experience

An old hand at journalism, Iranganie's first job in the field of journalism was at the Times of Ceylon. After arriving from England the first job she landed was the journalist post at the Times of Ceylon. She was a feature writer and the women's page editor. Having had such a fine experience at the Times of Ceylon did she feel that maybe she would have preferred journalism to acting as a career? She gave a wry smile and said that she prefers acting. However, she added: “Journalism of course was a very interesting experience. Because when you are in a newspaper you are aware of all that is happening in the world. So when I left the Times of Ceylon I felt something was missing. Because there was so much excitement going on.”

At one time Iranganie also worked for Walkers Tours And Travels, where she took tourists from Germany, England, Japan and America to various touristic places.

Iranganie is also green minded, feeling strongly about the environment. “Another big interest of mine was the natural environment. I have joined Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka and various other societies also came up and I started another society called 'Ruk Raka Ganno', since 1975. Here, there is a lot of volunteer work. I passionately believe in what I am doing. Humans have damaged the world enough.”

It seem there is nothing Iranganie had not done. She even took up Indian and Kandyan dancing, under Chitrasena. “That was during the time I was in the university. He was the first person I went to for my dancing lessons. It wasn't a university subject but I loved to dance. I recall he was a very fine dancer. He was very serious about dancing. I learnt dancing with him for about three years but I didn't want to pursue it as a career. I suppose if I had started dancing earlier I might have switched to dancing.”

The turning point in Iranganie's life came with the death of her son. According to Iranganie, all she wanted in life were children. “My ambition was to get married and have children. I couldn't get over it because it is very difficult to get over the death of a child. Then somebody gave me a book on Buddhism. And that was how I was able to come to terms with it. I was a Christian, now I am a Buddhist - an intellectually confirmed Buddhist. I spoke to people, read books and found out more about Buddhism. If you follow the Buddha's Dharma you can deal with life.

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