Vijaya Nandasiri: For all those laughs

Vijaya Nandasiri was greater than his successors in Sinhala comedy the same way that Joe Abeywickrema was greater than his predecessors. The latter was the apotheosis of Eddie Jayamanne. He was of course greater than Eddie could be, since Eddie’s roots were in the theatre, and never really in film. Vijaya, on the other hand, was the grand culmination of everything that Joe stood for. He is the last comic we can claim as of today, since everyone else were and are and remain, at best, mimetic.

Despite their differences, both began their careers as comic foils, whose function in the movies they were in was to console the protagonists. In the sixties Joe was almost always this foil, with Getawarayo (opposite Gamini Fonseka) and Dahasak Sithuvili (opposite Henry Jayasena). The seventies saw him emerge as his own player, good and redeemable except when he was the antihero or villain, in which case he was either doomed to suffer and die (Welikathara and Bambaru Avith) or to disappear from the story altogether (Suddilage Kathawa and Adara Hasuna). The only difference between them was this: while Joe belied a serious facade even in the most absurd dilemmas, Vijaya could at most only pretend to such a facade.

Vijaya’s inability to hide the absurdity of whatever situation he was in proved to be his strength just as his ability to so do proved to be Joe’s. Even in Kolamba Sanniya, the most enduring tribute to Sinhala comedy ever conceived on film (lavishly produced, it was a lavish hit at the box-office), you never distrust his ability to walk on a tightrope. As funny or inescapable some of the dilemmas he’s in are, he escapes them, trumping his own family’s expectations of him by contesting as a politician in his area. He’s a man of order, of method, even though he deceives us into thinking that he’s not. “Yuri Gagarin, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy: they are all my cousins!” he pompously remarks in Kolam Karayo. We disbelieve him obviously, but not the sincerity and conviction with which he utters it.

The opposite was true for Vijaya Nandasiri’s characters. “I’m an honest man!” he parrots out as Rajamanthri. We believe neither the remark nor the confidence and conviction. Because both the man and his ideals are never what they seem, he was almost always a trickster, a conman, a deceiver no matter how good his intentions were. His characters were all vain, conceited, and self-centred, interested in what is out there only as long as it serves him. Loud but never too loud, brash but never too brash, his characters were almost always cowards when it came to reality.

He revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile) though we never get why the latter returns his affections (is she tired of her husband, or is she truly infatuated with her idiotic neighbour?). As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man playing around with his wife, the problem being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know they are married (couples can’t work at the same office). You wonder why he doesn’t seek shelter in another agency, but then there wouldn’t be a story in the first place, would there?

Vijaya represented our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians by turning them into stereotypes to be laughed at. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold (though his wife only pretends to give in to their boss’s advances), and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure in our cinema from the past 20 or so years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even in those movies where he wasn’t him (as with Sikuru Hathe, King Hunther, and Magodi Godayi). Joe could never quite transform our contempt for his characters because they weren’t contemptible in the first place: they were either lovable or hateful. His calm exterior never betrayed itself, whereas for Vijaya it always would.

Some years ago I watched a miniseries on Rupavahini about a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri was the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri the driver. And yet I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s with the other, a feat that survived the first 10 or 15 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident which (inexplicably) leaves both onlookers and relatives confused as to what body is whose.

Because both are so near dying, a quick surgery is followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices are back to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but it was also a welcome gimmick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the conservative believer in authority and the politician the radical believer in Marx. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Vijaya’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him.

If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he has raise in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle of Colombo he has to get used to in Kolamba Sanniya), Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s probably not a coincidence that in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, often in professions that called for security, stability, sometimes status: as a Junior Visualiser in an advertising agency in Yes Boss, the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and a sergeant in Magodi Godayi. Where he was his own man — the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and TV series — he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it, like in Sikuru Hathe, where all those deceptions he commits were for his daughter.

Where he was paired with another actor, he failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are caught as two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in some village, he didn’t really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, opposite Gamini Susiriwardana, he was less than he usually was. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. He could have been in his own world.

So once he was cast with another actor, he couldn’t give his best. He could give his best only if his co-star was alert and alive to his range, or if his character was a lesser breed than that co-star. That is what transpired in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a versatile comic actor himself, and because Hunther was from a different time, so different and long ago that this present world (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) is outlandish, overwhelming. It needed time to get used to, and that meant getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.

Vijaya Nandasiri’s triumph then was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Joe often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his own interests has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of such a feat, but that’s how the movie ends. In vindicating his faith in us, he was getting us to vindicate our faith in him, no matter how idiotic he was.

He couldn’t be like that as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (W. Jayasiri), there’s a homily on the corrupting influence of power that’s supposed to represent every politician’s ultimate fate. And then, just as you come to terms with this end, he wakes up (because it was a nightmare).

You’d think he’d learn from his fears, but he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he’s back to being the pompous figure he always was and will be. But in that short sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about the way in which the corrupt could be taught the errors of their ways. Was it a cruel coincidence that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya actually played Rajamanthri? We don’t really know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.