The most difficult person to be is the funny man. By that I don’t mean the solitary satirist, the one-man-act savant whom the American cinema took out of the vaudeville houses: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, the Marx Brothers. I am talking about the comedian as we understand him today: the sort who can work with a horde of co-stars and still retain his identity.
Joe Abeywickrama was the culmination of everything that Eddie Jayamanne stood for in the theatre (which he never moved out of, as the Minerva Player movies showed). The men and women who made us laugh before him — Pearl Vasudevi, D. R. Nanayakkara, and of course Eddie — out of necessity resorted to exaggeration, the sort that evoked not just laughter but also, to a certain extent, tedium.
The result of this was that none of those actors ever broke through their limited canvas, which proved to be their greatest strength and biggest weakness. As the father in Rekava, as the womanising vidane in Sikuru Tharuwa, as the morally simple servant in Ran Salu, to give just three examples, D. R. Nanayakkara could never really get away from comedy. The reason for this, obviously, was that these men and women were all from the theatre. So was Joe (his was initiated into the cinema through the studios of Sirisena Wimalaweera, who was no cineaste), but the difference with him was that he didn’t enter the movies, he downright conquered them. And the timing couldn’t have been more right.
Gamini Fonseka had materialised at a time when our heroes and villains were borrowed from Bollywood; he became the first real onscreen hero we could claim. Tony Ranasinghe had materialised at a time when we were getting fed up of those heroes flaunting their chest-hair and making grand escapades despite the most inescapable dilemma; he became our first everyman. Joe materialised when we were getting tired of heroes and villains, and ordinary people being stumped by their sense of inadequacy. We wanted to laugh, but in a different way: we wanted someone who could be both heroic and ordinary to tickle us into laughter.
So the timing, as I mentioned before, couldn’t have been more propitious. Nanayakkara and Jayamanne had taken the theatre with them to the movies. Joe, on the other hand, took what he could from the theatre while shaping himself for the cinema.
That’s why there’s no blatant attempt at exaggeration (with none of those discernible marks that recall the comedians of the silent era: bulging eyes, dishevelled hair, indifferent but agile physique) in his earliest performances, when his entire role consisted of keeping his co-star from unhappiness: Gamini Fonseka in Getawarayo, Henry Jayasena in Dahasak Sithuvili. One imagines him in Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa, keeping the distraught lover (Tony Ranasinghe) company, but by then he’d become his own man, his own star: the role of the consoler would go to another up-and-coming performer, Amarasiri Kalansuriya.
Joe was never solitary, never alone, but at the same time he never made us interested in his own back story. Towards the end of Hal Ashby’s Being There we see the protagonist (Peter Sellers) walk on a lake (is he God? Jesus?). Throughout the story our attitude towards him is tempered by our consideration of him as an everyday, ordinary man who might have stepped out from anywhere. He keeps his benefactor happy, his daughter consoled but unfulfilled, and their family doctor suspicious. This curious blend of happiness, consolation, and mystery makes up Joe’s most recognisable performances as well: we don’t know where he’s from, only that he’s there to placate the main character and with the main character, us.
Because he had no background, and we didn’t know where he came from, we were content in seeing his antics and laughing at them. Towards the end of the sixties we could feel that his stints in comedy had become a prelude to other roles, more varied and diverse. The difference between Saravita and Punchi Baba is subtle, but discernible and rather reflective of this: in the former everyone is trying to get something from him, a bulath vita seller, while in the latter he is not just the centre of drama as before, but the centre of our attention, and hence the plot.
Saravita was of course a morality tale packed away in the slums of Colombo; our hero, Sara Aiya, is defined by those who are around him: the boy he adopts as his own, the ruffian who tries to harm him, and the haughty, snobbish Madame who detests his way of life. In Punchi Baba he has become a Chaplin; though its director, Tissa Liyanasuriya, was not influenced by The Kid, there is one Chaplinesque mark: the protagonist being forced into a dilemma in the form of a stowed away treasure, a lover, a drunkard friend, or in this case, an abandoned child.
Just as his early performances in comedy were tempered by the serious, the dramatic, his later performances in drama were tempered by the unserious, the flippant. You can discern this in Welikathara, his second dramatic outing after Thun Man Handiya: in one scene he’s a dangerous, Cape Fear-esque villain, and in the very next he bottles up all his rage, his motives, with calculated, witty, but careless asides (his first encounter with Swineetha Weerasinghe’s character Geetha, on the beach and around her car, plays around with this dualism). Even in Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith, as the villain Anton Aiya, those asides temper his evilness incongruously (“Dore? Dore nemeyi, janele!” he shouts at an errant lorry driver). Joe had wanted to be more than a humorist; in becoming a dramatic, dislikeable antagonist, though, he was finding it difficult to escape being that humorist. It just kept coming back to him.
And because of this, he never let go of that sense of mystery which had lingered with him before. In Desa Nisa, Lester James Peries’s attempt at moving Joe into a more serious role, he salvages an otherwise jerkily edited final sequence with a mystery: does Joe want his wife cured of her blindness, or does he want her to remain blind since she’s the only woman who’ll never be repelled by his deformities? We aren’t sure, particularly when he plays along to the shrewd hermit (Ravindra Randeniya) and gets him what he needs to make her see again.
When the moment of revelation does come, however, it doesn’t quite have the punch that everything leading up to it had us expect: neither the deformed man, Nirudaka, nor his mother (Denawaka Hamine) expresses anything more than mild distress. But consider Nirudaka: his distraught eyes, his walking away after the girl Sundari (Sriyani Amarasena) laughs at his face (again, a mystery: is it because she thinks he’s ugly or because she understands why he wanted her kept blind?), and his crying in the forest, is tempered by intrigue and vagueness, and in the end, after husband and wife reconcile, we are left wondering whether he ran away because he was relieved enough to yield to, or because he was depressed enough to cry at, her momentary, fleeting thoughtlessness.
Despite a rather unsatisfactory finale (which, among other things, expects us to believe that the hermit would let Sundari go without as much as a single scene explaining his change of mind), therefore, all three characters — the man, the wife, the mother — keep us intrigued, the wife because of her laughter and the mother because of her realisation that, though she loved her son, the rest of the world considers him ugly, hideous, with unkempt hair and misshaped teeth. Of them, not surprisingly, Joe retained that sense of vagueness, of ambiguity, the most.
Desa Nisa was not a success, and is considered today as one of Lester’s lesser films (considered, that is, without a proper rationale). But it did get Lester to achieve what he wanted, at least partly: opening up Joe’s range. Desa Nisa was released after Welikathara, but in Welikathara he was more antagonistic than tragic (which is why, in the final sequence, you feel as though some outside force was transforming his original encounter with Wickrema Randeniya to an abrupt and facile shoot up that ends with him dying like a dog). Desa Nisa, and before it Thun Man Handiya, was reflective of the sort confused, well-meaning, but thwarted characters he would play in later years, in Siribo Aiya, Soldadu Unnahe, Baddegama, Palama Yata, Awaragira, Purahanda Kaluwara, and Aswesuma.
These were the ultimate tragic figures of our cinema, more tragic than Tony’s, whose characters were all thwarted not because of outside forces, but because of personal inadequacies. In becoming the supreme comedian of his time, to be equalled somewhat by Vijaya Nandasiri, Joe had become the supreme tragic figure. By playing around with these two opposites, rather subtly, he soon became the funny man that we’d always wanted, who could keep us transfixed to his face throughout a film.
Gamini became our first onscreen hero in much the same way Joe became our first onscreen humorist. He never confused the ability to make us laugh and move us to empathy with the ability to keep us aware that we were seeing him, not his performance. He got us to betray our laughter, our facile view of life, without betraying himself. That explained his canvas.
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