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
By Randima Attygalle
Q: Looking back, how do you feel about your eventful journey through life?
A: 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?
A: (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
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?
A: 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?
A: 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
Q: What we perceive in all your characters is that they are full of depth. What
made you evolve this individual forte?
A: 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?
A: (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!
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?
A: 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?
A: 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
A: 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
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?
A: 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.