“I will never call it a day”

“Simplicity of character is the natural result of profound thought” -Hazlitt

A man of simplicity and integrity is essentially what he is: Asoka Peiris, the celebrated actor and above all, the unassuming human being, shares life’s cherished moments with The Nation this week

By Randima Attygalle
Q: Can you recollect your school days and your earliest memories of drama at S. Thomas’ College Mt. Lavinia?
I had my preliminary education at Presbyterian Girls’ High School, Dehiwela and later at Ferguson’s Girls’ High School under Ms. Brooks before I was admitted to S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia. One of my first memories of STC drama was when I won an award for a Christmas nativity play for my portrayal of a Jewish girl! My award was a bottle of sweets called Barley Sugar and it was only later that I knew that every child who performed received a bottle of Barley Sugar! (chuckles)

It was my first stage appearance and there was a long silence after that. Then in my last year at College, in 1959, when Warden Canon R.S. de Saram retired, I was in a House called ‘Stone House.’ This was the time what is today called De Saram House was formed and all the riff-raff from various other houses were gladly donated to De Saram House and I was among them!
The Master-in-Charge was a very gentle person called Orville Abeynayake (father of Ranil Abeynayake). When we were questioned by Abeynayake as to what we could do, at our first meeting, I replied, sir apita rangapaanna puluwan (we can act well). The school drama competition, renowned for its highbrow nature was coming up, and I, with another friend, better known as Mad Mara (Marapana), got together and produced a Sinhala play called Karolis and Porolis.

Also among our lot were Wijeya Corea, Phiroze Choksy, Guy Sirimanna, Mahinda Welgama and Shanthi Perera. Our drama Karolis and Porolis, which was considered ‘unbecoming’ of a STC drama, raised the eyebrows of the staff and the Board of Governors. Nevertheless, the audience was quite thrilled and they nearly brought the roof down, with their thunderous applause. The judges, for ‘safety’s sake,’ awarded us the Best Play. The ‘Shakespearean’ and ‘Bernard Shaw’ guys were quite disappointed! (laughs) So that was my second incline, as I call it, of becoming an actor.

Q: What kind of a cinema did you enjoy as a youngster?
I was a real film addict. Only 50 cents was required for a ‘gallery show’ and after college, I used to frequent cinemas. For me, a movie was a movie and it didn’t matter whether it was English, Sinhala, Hindi or Tamil. Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand, Vyjanthimala were my idols from the Indian cinema. Then long afterwards, in the 60s, my perspective of cinema changed. I started appreciating what is called artistic cinema. My wife, whom I met at the age of 15, entered University of Peradeniya around this time and my visits to the University over the weekends to see her had a huge influence on me. There was famous Peradeniya wala where I saw the performances of top artistes such as Edmond Wijesinghe, Ben Sirimanna, Trilicia Gunawardene etc. The Drama Society of the University, which screened the work of Sathyajith Rai inspired me. From that point onwards, there was no looking back. But I didn’t lose the common touch of watching a good comedy as well. At the same time, some Hollywood influence crept into our lives. Stars such as Anthony Quinn, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Richard Burton were among my idols.

Q: Why didn’t your association with the University extend to an academic career?
My father died when I was about 16 years. My mother got only a very small pension of my father who was a government servant. She could no longer afford my school fees and at the same time I had the responsibility of two sisters. Therefore, I was compelled to bid adieu to my school career. Suddenly, I had to shoulder the responsibilities of a family as the sole breadwinner and a university career was not meant for me. However, what is called the ‘Thomian grit,’ which was cultivated in us as school boys, helped me win life, to achieve whatever the target you set your eyes on!

Q: What was your first cinematic endeavour as an actor?
It was a mere appearance in Dr. Lester James Peries’s Delowak Athara, an accidental incident! I had just married and was working at Wellawatta Spinning and Weaving Mills. My Personal Manager was Kingsley Amarasekera and we used to do dramas together with Lucien de Soyza. I also exhausted every drama which came to Lumbini Theatre, which was adjacent to the Wellawatte Mills. One day, Kingsley told me that some movie people were coming to do filming at the Mills and they were looking for a person for a role. The whole day I was made to walk around the Mill together with two other guys and one happened to be none other than Tony Ranasinghe! After the shooting was over I was wondering what it all meant because all I ever did was to walk, walk and walk! This mere appearance brought three personalities into my life, who later became three of my greatest friends – Dr. Peries, Tissa Abeysekara who wrote the script and the cameraman Willie Blake. After 20 odd years, destiny brought me to the galaxy of Dr. Lester James Peries when I was invited to play a role in Beddegama, which became my first portrayal. I played the role of a prosecuting lawyer in Beddegama and I had the privilege of acting with the cream of artistes such as Vijaya Kumaratunga, Henry Jayasena, Tony Ranasinghe and Joe Abeywickrama. From that point onwards, I became a stock player of Dr. and Mrs. Peries acting in films such as Maya, Yahalu Yeheli, Kaliyugaya and Yuganthaya.

Q: What are your fond memories of the cinema of the 60s and 70s?
I don’t think there will ever be an era like the 60s and 70s. Without all the technological know-how, the film-makers of that time knew how to make a film, to relate a story and win the hearts of the audience. It may be very wrong to use the terms ‘artistic’ and ‘commercial,’ but we are compelled to do so because those learned have categorised cinema into two different camps. If we talk about artistic films, nobody can deny the mastery of creations such as Delowak Athara, Nidhanaya, Gamperaliya and Welikathara. Nidhanaya was Malini Fonseka’s classic and it was one of the earliest times in my memory that I fell in love with an actress because her performance was simply brilliant. If we look at Dr. D.B. Nihasingha’s Welikathara – the script of Tissa Abeysekara and the performance of Joe Abeywickrama that showed the range a single actor is capable of rendering; all contributed to its mastery. I would say this golden era could be perceived in India as well and it was almost a universal trend.

Q: In what light do you perceive your highly acclaimed roles in Guru Gedera and Amba Yahaluwo?
When Sudath Devapriya invited me to play the role of Nelum Bandara in Amba yahaluwo I was quite delighted because my co-stars were Anula Karunathilake, (who played Menike’s role) an actress I have always admired and Ruby de Mel (Nelum Bandara’s mother) who was in fact my wife’s Godmother! I spent hours with T.B. Ilangaratne, who wrote the novel, discussing the character. Sudu Appo, my son, symbolised socialism whilst Maha Kumarihamy, my mother, old order. Nelum Bandara symbolised the transition from feudalism to socialism and he was torn between those two eras. This gave me the key to play his role successfully and in actual life Sudu Appo was R.S. Pelpola who became the first Speaker in S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s cabinet and T.B. Ilangaratne became the Industries Minister.

Today, some of the top movie-trainee personnel in the US emphasise on what is called ‘technical acting.’ In technical acting, one must have a total grip of the role from the first appearance to the exit. A good actor should be like an actor on a helicopter, he sees everything below, and the whole process. This is what I adopted in Guru Gedera. I prepared my mind so much about Ariya Bandara and I never wanted Asoka Peiris to take over him! This obsession of mine with the character, however, paid off as I was able to secure both Sarasavi Award and OCIC Award. Guru Gedera was also a great experience, especially having to work with artistes such as Ravindra, Anoja, Jackson and Yashodha.

Q: You are renowned for your facial expression. Is this an unconscious effort?
(Smiling) There is a well known principle in technical acting - ‘what you feel, the camera captures.’ What is important is to feel very deeply about the role you are portraying. In order to feel deeply, you have to study the character in detail and you should be able to imagine what his childhood was like, what his parents were like, although you may be portraying what he is now. I did a tele-drama Jeewachakra with Academy Award winning French Director Samy Pavel. It was one of the toughest assignments I’ve ever undertaken in my life. He would not even dream of allowing any artiste to depend on glycerin for tears, for he believes in activating one’s own tear ducks if he/she is to feel deep about it. I suppose, my facial expression is something that comes naturally because I feel so much for the character and it needs no striving.

Q: As an artiste who had explored the small screen what are your comments about the present tele-drama culture?
The term tele-drama is something you find only in this country. They are either called soaps or tele-films in other countries. Even in the US, soaps such as Dynasty and Bold and the Beautiful were held together to a certain extent with their enormous resources. But with limited resources in this country, when you exceed about 35 episodes, you are forcing the writer to write something, so he goes on from main plot to sub-plots and to further sub-plots, and if you miss one episode, you are confused with so much happening at once! There are far two many channels and each channel carries at least two so called tele-dramas and in the mornings, old ones are repeated. People are fed up to their teeth with very low quality, poorly-made dramas. As a result, well-made dramas are also thrown out and by the time they realise that there is a good drama, six or seven episodes have gone. It’s a real pity. In that sense, I feel so fortunate to have worked with some of the top names in the industry, whose TV productions are still highly acclaimed.

Q: What are your other interests in life?
I have always been a voracious reader and I also love fishing. In the good old days, we used to go to Colombo and watch a movie, which we hardly do now because there is no movie-atmosphere. I also enjoy a game of cards with friends. I do a lot of church work as well and I love cultivating and watching things grow.

Q: Today when you look back, what do you feel about your eventful life?
I have a very strong family, which is my greatest strength. I have been married to Chitra, my first sweetheart for 44 years and I’m still very much in love! (smiles) I think for any man to succeed in life, he needs the blessings of his wife, who sacrifices many things for the family. I’m one person who strongly believes in saying ‘sorry.’ I think everyone, spouses, children and parents, lovers, all should make up before the day is done, if there had been any argument, any misunderstanding because tomorrow may be too late. We have two sons and a daughter. As a father, I have brought up my two sons and daughter in the best possible way and allowed them to follow their own dreams. We have six grandchildren today. As an actor, I can never call it a day and I will never call it a day because still I don’t consider myself to be an accomplished actor! There is still so much to learn. I’m proud to say that I have always led an un-spoilt life and my image had always been an untarnished one.

Q: By whom would you like to be remembered most?
(Smiling) I would like to be remembered first by God as ‘Asoka Peiris, my servant.’ Secondly, I would like to be remembered by my family as a good husband and a father and finally, by my friends as a good human being.










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