Acting out her destiny

Nanda epitomises a woman true to all times. Immortalising scores of unfortunate souls in her distinctive persona, Swarna Mallawarachchi has emerged fortunate in her pulsating forte. The celebrated actress, full of gusto, shares thoughts closest to her heart with The Nation this week

By Randima Attygalle
Q: Looking back, how do you feel about your eventful journey through life?
I feel quite contented. I am happy to say that as a woman, as an actress and as a mother, I have been quite fortunate. I am a person who never regrets events that take place in life. I believe that whatever befalls a person is destined to happen for that person’s own good. Even if you have committed a mistake, you can make it a lesson in life.
Sometimes even good things can come your way accidentally. I have received many good things in life accidentally! I also feel that each stage of my life had been colourful and that I have lived life fully. I have come a long way in life and I take humble pride in saying that I have always been climbing up the ladder and have never come down! I have come up in life the hard way and my will power has been a great strength to me to overcome many hurdles in life.

Q: How would you define yourself?
(Smiling) I could say I am a very positive thinker. I always do what my conscience says is right. I believe in enjoying every moment life offers without harbouring any regrets as nothing is permanent in this world of mortals! I am also very focused in whatever I do.
As an actress I have been very particular about my films and as a woman I have created an identity of my own and lived up to it. At one time I created news as the first woman to have gone on stage to receive an award clad in a cotton sari and I was often seen wearing a black cord around my neck with an emblem attached to it.
When I retuned to Sri Lanka after some years abroad, I once again created quite a stir with my ‘backless’ jackets! (laughs) I don’t always believe in what is in vogue. I believe in what I feel comfortable in and how well I could carry it.

Q: What are your cherished memories of your first film Sathsamudura?
I was a schoolgirl when I acted in Sathsamudura which laid the solid foundation for my acting career. It was directed by none other than Professor Siri Gunasinghe – my favourite local writer. Therefore I was more keen on meeting him than acting in a film!
Unlike today, where youngsters can ‘meet’ any of their idols at least on the small screen, our only medium was the black and white newspaper! Therefore it was a dream come true to meet my favourite writer. I have treasured memories of Sathsamudura which taught me the first lesson in acting.
I was also fortunate to have associated with so many intellectuals of many spheres during this time. People such as Professor Siri Gunasinghe, Dr.D.B. Nihalsinghe, Wasantha Obeysekera, Siril Wickramage and Edmon Wijesinghe inspired me a lot. Sathsamudura also instilled certain values in me as an actress – especially to be selective of films.

Q: If you place your characters on a scale, are they well balanced?
Yes, they most certainly are. I can confidently say I did justice to all my roles. I suppose that is why people still want to see me on the screen. They ask me why I don’t act anymore wherever I go. I suppose it is because my acting is deeply etched in their memories, irrespective of the role.
I think I was successful in all my films, whether it is Dadayama, Hansavilak, Sagara Jalaya, Suddilage Kathawa, Kedapathaka Chaya, Anantha Rathriya, Channa Kinnari, Hanthanekathwa, Meeharka, Bawaduka or Bawakarma. When I returned to Sri Lanka after globe-trotting for many years, many directors did not know who I was and there were so many new faces.
Although I had watched at least 1,000 good movies in England and Australia by this time (there was no TV in Sri Lanka then), I was alien to the local cinema, thus I went and watched each film that was released in Sri Lanka. In such a context Dharmasiri Bandaranayake placed utmost faith in me and offered the lead role in Hansavilak to which I did justice by securing the award for the best actress.

Q: What we perceive in all your characters is that they are full of depth. What made you evolve this individual forte?
I think the first reason why my characterisation is full of depth is because I always had a sound knowledge of what good cinema is even before I made a name for myself. Therefore I was very particular about my choice of roles. During my 40 years in cinema, I have not even acted in 60 films because I was very focused in my selection.
At one time when local artistes were sought after by the Indian and Pakistani film industry, I was made the first offer which I declined. That was just after Dadayama was released, a time that my role as Rathmali was much discussed. I was also very fortunate to have acted under good directors who could bring out the real actress in me.
The director is the thread that unifies the whole film. However much talented an artiste is, if that talent is not nourished by the director to enhance the whole film, the artiste is a failure and so is the film. Even my co-stars were talented artistes. Every film of mine was an education for me. I learnt from each and every person involved in the film.
I suppose my ability to perceive the character beyond the surface also added depth. Although I have never been to a cinema school, my exposure to ‘quality cinema’ and my extensive reading had helped me look at a role with open eyes. I don’t believe in compartmentalising my characters. Even in real life, so many individuals live in one person irrespective of your job or background. Therefore it is important to bring out all of them out, to go beyond one character, in order to enhance your portrayal.

Q: Can we expect to see you on the silver screen in the near future? If so, is there any novel role you’d like to exploit?
(Smiling) Yes, there is hope for all my fans to see me in a movie. It’s not that I have given up acting. I’d certainly act if I am offered a role of my choice under a good director. But it has to be the lead role. I don’t want to act a minor role merely to enhance the film. I have always had long hair in movies and I’d love to portray a character with this very short hair of mine! (laughs).
I detest false things on me. I have never worn false eye lashes and I will never wear a wig either! Even in films I insist on very little makeup. I find it difficult to act with my whole heart and soul when there are false things on me. So provided I get a strong role with a short hair-do, I’d certainly like to act!

Q: Whom do you consider as legendary actors of Sri Lanka cinema?
I think they are Gamini Fonseka and Vijaya Kumaratunga. Although I have never acted with Gamini, he was one of my very good friends. I was Vijaya’s first co-star. In Hanthane Kathawa. I was 22 and he was only 24 when we acted in this film! Vijaya emerged the best actor for his role in Kedapathaka Chaya in which he co-starred with me.
He was more than an actor. He was a compassionate man who respected all human beings irrespective of their backgrounds. Both Gamini and Vijaya had charisma which could magnetise anybody. I have lot of respect for all my co-stars, like Ravindra, Sanath, Joe, Tony, Cyril, Kalansuriya and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and female stars like Malini, Geetha, Sabeetha, Anoja, Sriyani, Sweneetha, Neeta and Vasanthi. We have so many talented young actors and actresses today and I wish there were more films made for them to ‘grow’ like we did.

Q: Apart from acting, what is your other main interest?
I am a voracious reader. Reading is my main hobby. My reading has helped me a lot in my career as an actress too. I am not Rathmali or Suddi in my real life. But the characters of books, registered in my mind, have helped me to place myself truly in their shoes. Tolstoy is one of my favorite writers. For me, his writing is like scripts. So much so I can feel the emotions of his characters, which I think is the test of good writing. I have also exhausted lot of contemporary Russian literature.

Q: Personally what do you identify as the main hurdles yet to be cleared by local women?
I think we need a very strong collective voice for women in the political sphere. Still we do not have a satisfactory female representation in this regard. Sexual exploitation has become a cliché today, yet I personally believe nothing concrete has been done in this regard. Without putting the sole blame on the culprits alone, I think women should have an inner strength to defend themselves.
Even career wise, local women have hurdles to clear. Daily, the world is becoming smaller and in this context there are so many interesting career opportunities available to young women where they can work only with a fax machine and a phone at home, yet contribute to the well-being of society!

Q: What is the best gift life has offered you and what are your values in life?
My daughter Narendra is by best gift. She has just completed her basic degree in neuroscience at King’s College, London and she is about to read for her masters. Now she can stand on her own feet and I feel that I am a very lucky and a proud mother!
I am an advocate of honesty. I have an instinct to say if someone if lying! If someone is very honest, he or she will enjoy peace of mind which is something money cannot buy. I also admire people who respect others. I also believe in appreciation. One must never take anything or any person in this short life of ours for granted.









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