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Tony Ranasinghe was not the conventional Sinhala hero but a new kind of modern hero


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Ranasinghe Hettiarachchilage Ignatius Anthony de Silva, known to the world at large by his stage cum screen name Tony Ranasinghe, was one of Sri Lankan cinema’s handsomest and most lovable actors. He excelled in playing both lead and character roles. 

This column focused last week on Tony Ranasinge’s dynamic duality as a lead and character actor and also briefly outlined the preliminary steps of his passionate quest in pursuit of the goal of becoming an actor. In this week’s article ‘Spotlight’ intends beaming more light on Tony Ranasinghe’s cinematic journey as an artistically-acclaimed popular actor.

Let me however commence on a personal note first. Although I write in detail about Tony Ranasinghe, I have had no close personal relations with him. I met him in person only once when I was working for ‘The Island’. I accompanied our writer on film matters, Bede Claudius Perera (B.C. Perera), when he interviewed Tony. It was BC’s interview and I was for the most part a silent listener. Tony however was friendly and amiable and exuded charm. I have also engaged in several conversations with Tony’s brother Ralex Ranasinghe, thanks to my friend Ajith Samaranayake who took me along with him for such meetings. We talked a lot then about Tony and his film career.

As an ardent aficionado of Sinhala films I have seen and savoured many of Tony Ranasinghe’s films with delight. My all-time favourite Sinhala film hero was and will be Gamini Fonseka forever. However, this fondness for Fonseka has not prevented me from enjoying performances by others such as D.R. Nanayakkara, Joe, Tony, Wickrama, Vijaya, Ravindra, Sanath, Dharmasiri and Kamal. I have seen many of Tony Ranasinghe’s films over the years and also read many articles about him and interviews given by him. This to some extent has given me an insight into the life and times of Tony Ranasinghe. Hence I write about the great thespian.

Four great male actors

Sinhala cinema began moving away from Indian “masala” influence and started coming into its own in the sixties and seventies of the last century. Four great male actors made their mark in that golden phase of Sinhala moviedom. They were, in alphabetical order – Joe Abeywickrama, Gamini Fonseka, Vijaya Kumaratunga and Tony Ranasinghe. Alas! All four famous film actors are no more now.

The first to depart was the youngest of them all, Vijaya Kumaratunga, who was born in 1945. His life was brutally snatched away in 1988. Vijaya who had begun engaging effectively in politics was assassinated. Gamini Fonseka, born in 1936, passed away in his sleep in 2004. Veteran Joe Abeywickrama, who was born in 1927, died seven years ago in 2011. The last of the legendary four – Tony Ranasinghe – bade farewell to his numerous fans on 16 June 2015. He was born on 31 July 1937.

Tony Ranasinghe who went by the name of Anthony de Silva during childhood and early years of his adult life was affectionately called Anton and Anta by family and friends in those days. After being persuaded by his brother Ralex Ranasinghe and convinced by the dramatist Sugathapala de Silva to change his name to Ranasinghe from De Silva, the “re-christened” actor opted for Tony instead of Anthony to be his full name. This was due to his admiration for the Hollywood actor Tony Curtis whose films like ‘Sweet Smell of Success,’ ‘The Vikings,’ ‘The Defiant Ones,’ ‘Some Like it Hot,’ ‘The Rat Race,’ ‘Taras Bulba’ and ‘Spartacus’ had enthralled many movie goers in all parts of the world.

Tony’s brother Ralex who was then in the advertising world tried very hard to promote his brother as an actor. Ralex was a very good photographer. Ralex Ranasinghe photographed his brother in many poses and from different angles. He made him dress up and pose like Indian actor Dilip Kumar and Hollywood stars Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart and compiled a photo portfolio. This was sent to most prospective film makers but to no avail. Incidentally Tony was an ardent admirer of Dilip Kumar and was greatly influenced by him. In later years Tony translated Dilip’s auto-biography into Sinhala as a labour of love.

Tony’s 

herished ambition

But what of Tony Ranasinghe’s cherished ambition to blaze a name for himself on the silver screen? The yearning to act on screen was stirring within him but try as he might, Tony just could not get that lucky break he was hoping for. Apart from his brother Ralex, there was another person who tried hard to boost Tony’s fortunes in this regard. This was none other than Arthur Amarasena, who is frequently referred to as the husband of actress Sriyani Amarasena. 

It is certainly true that Arthur is Sriyani’s husband but the man cannot be simply termed as the husband of Sriyani alone. Arthur Amarasena who worked as a journalist at the ‘Davasa’ and ‘Riviresa’ also edited the popular cinema weekly ‘Visithura’. Later he went on to edit other cinema-related periodicals like ‘Piyakaru,’ ‘Surathura,’ ‘Sathdina’ and a literary monthly, ‘Kalpana’.

It was Arthur Amarasena who first obtained a chance for Tony in a film to be made by the pioneering Sinhala filmmaker Sirisena Wimalaweera, who had built a movie studio in Sri Lanka. Arthur accompanied Tony for the interview by Wimalaweera at his studio ‘Nawa Jeevana Chithragaraya’ in Kiribathgoda. Wimalaweera wearing a sarong and banian was seated on the sole chair in the room. All others including Tony and Arthur had to sit cross-legged on the floor. 

Wimalaweera addressed as “Master” by everyone asked Tony “Rangapala thiyenewada?” (Have you acted before?). Tony answered: “Nehe Master”(No Master). Wimalweera master then asked Tony to read out a passage in Sinhala. He did so. Wimalaweera “Master” found Tony suitable and gave him a piece of advice as to how to recite dialogue. “Vayu tharanga anuwa wachana kiyanna” (use the airwaves when reciting your lines), instructed Wimalaweera. Tony took it to heart and began faithfully following it ever since.

First break as a film actor

Tony Ranasinghe got his first break as a film actor in Sirisena Wimalaweera’s ‘Punchi Amma,’ starring Rani Ratnatunga in the title role. Shooting began and several scenes featuring Tony were shot by Sirisena’s son Daya Wimalaweera who was the cinematographer. Daya Wimalaweera later became a famous film producer and director. Though Sirisena Wimalaweera had made many films in the past like ‘Amma,’ ‘Podi Putha,’ ‘Saradiel’ and ‘Asoka,’ he found it difficult to continue with ‘Punchi Amma’. Sadly for Tony the film was never released because it was never completed.

After having aborted ‘Punchi Amma,’ Sirisena soon began producing another film. He picked the dashing Tony Ranasinghe and an attractive girl, Yvonne Perera, to play the lead roles. Yvonne Perera was later re-christened as Sandhya Kumari by Wimalaweera Master. He chose the name Sandhya because Yvonne had first auditioned for him in the evening. Dialogue scripts were given to both Tony and Sandhya to “debas kiyawanna” (read the dialogue). Both Tony and Sandhya started preparing themselves for their roles. The film was titled ‘Rodi Kella’. Again, Tony was unlucky. ‘Rodi Kella’ never got off the ground.

Though ‘Rodi Kella’ was abandoned, Tony and Sandhya acted together in ‘Senasuma Kothanada?’ released in 1966. This maiden directorial venture of K.A.W. Perera with Gamini Fonseka and Jeevarani Kurukulasuriya in the lead roles was a tremendous success. Tony and Sandhya exchanged reminiscences of their short-lived stint with Wimalweera master’s ‘Rodi Kella’ during the shooting of KAW’s film. Subsequently Tony and Sandhya went on to earn a name for themselves in Sinhala cinema. The uncrowned monarch of Sinhala cinema, Gamini Fonseka, was to describe Tony as the greatest character actor and Sandhya Kumari as the most beautiful actress to adorn the Sinhala silver screen.

Saga of disappointment continues

Tony Ranasinghe’s saga of disappointment continued. One fine day Tony on his way to work saw an advertisement in the newspapers placed by T. Somesekeran, the Producer-Director of the successful film ‘Seda Sulang’. A lead actor for a Sinhala film was required. Tony went for the interview held at the Bristol building (burnt down in July 1983) dressed in tie-clad office attire. He saw a lengthy queue and panicked. Needing some “Dutch courage” Tony dropped in at nearby Colonial Hotel and gulped down a pitcher of stout.

When he returned to Bristol building Tony found the long queue had disappeared. Standing at the entrance was Somasekeran himself. After a short conversational interview, Tony Ranasinghe was hired on the spot as lead actor by Somasekeran. Tony was ecstatic. The film was ‘Deepashika’. After some rehearsals there was a change and Kingsley Rajapaksa replaced Somasekeran as Director. Soon there was friction between Kingsley and Tony. 

At one stage a heated argument ensued when Tony asked Kingsley for the full script. Kingsley fired Tony, accusing him of “putting parts”. Subsequently ‘Deepashika’ was released with the Director Kingsley Rajapaksa himself playing the lead role for which Tony had been selected earlier. However, relations between Kingsley and Tony soon improved and the actor was cast by the Director in subsequent films like ‘Singithi Surathal,’ ‘Indunila’ and ‘Kalana Mithuro’. Still the long-sought-after opportunity to act in a film remained elusive. 

‘Gamperaliya’

Upon hearing from his brother Ralex that Lester James Peries was going to film Martin Wickremasinghe’s novel ‘Gamperaliya’ and was looking out for actors to play the main roles, Tony rushed to see Lester with his friend Arthur Amarasena. The Director however had picked Henry Jayasena, Gamini Fonseka and Wickrema Bogoda to play the characters Piyal, Jinadasa and Tissa respectively. Lester chided Tony gently, saying the actor should have come to him earlier. Tony returned home dejected.

Fate however had decreed that Tony Ranasinghe should get his first film break through Lester James Peries in ‘Gamperaliya’. What happened was that Lester, Sumitra and Gamini Fonseka came to Lumbini to see the play ‘Boarding Karayo’ at the invitation of Wickrema Bogoda, who was acting in the play and had been selected to act in ‘Gamperaliya’. 

The play was staged by the ‘Apey Kattiya’ group of Sugathapala de Silva. Lester was highly impressed by the performance that he thought of casting some of the ‘Apey Kattiya’ actors for minor roles in his film. Thus Anula Karunathilaka, G.W. Surendra and Tony Ranasinghe were given small roles in ‘Gamperaliya’. Tony was elated. His cherished desire to act in a film was realised.

Amunugama’s experience

UPFA National List MP and Cabinet Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama in an article written about Tony shortly after his death recalled his first-hand experience of seeing Tony act as Baladasa in ‘Gamperaliya’. Dr. Amunugama writes thus: “I had the good fortune to accompany Martin Wickremesinghe and Regi Siriwardene to the Maha Kappinna Walauwe in Balapitiya to witness the shooting of a crucial scene for ‘Gamperaliya,’ namely the wedding of Nanda and her first husband Jinadasa”.

“Lester is an unhurried director on set. While his technicians were setting up the shot in the portico of the Walauwe, he had a leisurely breakfast with us and walked over to instruct his actors. Special attention was paid by his crew since this was a ‘crowd scene’ with a sizeable number of participants including a few ‘white men’ who mingled with the other guests at the wedding. When Lester called ‘action’ the couple came down the steps and ‘pop’ went a big cracker hung on the ceiling and confetti came showering down the couple and onlookers. 

“Tony in a grey coat and slicked-down hair was Baladasa when Gamini in an ill-cut black coat and boutonniere greeted him briefly. I remember there were only three ‘takes’ and the visitors settled down to good food amidst banter by Tony and his cronies Surendra, Bogoda, etc. who had been co-opted by Lester. In the film there is very little of Tony but those few glimpses showed an extremely handsome young man with an enchanting smile.”

Though Tony Ranasinghe got the role of Baladasa and many scenes featuring Tony were shot, several Baladasa sequences were edited out when the final version was completed. Tony was disappointed but not dejected. He had finally made his entry into films as an actor and that too in one of the finest movies made by the greatest director in Sinhala cinema. It was as if all his earlier failures to get into films had been due to divine providence. It was destined that Tony Ranasinghe’s film career should commence with Lester James and Sumitra Peries. The cinematic journey of Tony Ranasinghe began with ‘Gamperaliya’ released on 20 December 1963. 

‘Delovak Athara’

Tony Ranasinghe’s Baladasa portrayal amounted to a cameo role only in ‘Gamperaliya’. But maestro Lester James Peries decided to cast him in the main role in his 4th feature film ‘Delovak Athara’ (Between Two Worlds). 

Dr. Sarath Amunugama in writing about this says: “Tony’s role was applauded by the critics and Lester decided to cast him in the lead role in ‘Delovak Athara,’ with Swineetha Weerasinghe who came from the conventional Sinhala cinema. In this film we are taken to a milieu which Lester instinctively reacted better to due to his own upper middle class upbringing.”

“This was the film that shot Tony and Swineeetha to fame as very sensitive and creative film actors. Tony was the astonishingly handsome upper class man avoiding responsibility for a serious motor accident. Sweenitha is a typical ‘Peradeniya graduate’ from a lower social class but with a higher social conscience. She confronts her lover with his cowardice and finally wins him over to do the right thing. Unlike in many other films, with their cast of thousands, in ‘Delovak Athara’ Lester focuses on the conflict in attitudes between his two protagonists and draws out two splendid performances.”

The film ‘Delovak Athara’ made on a Rs. 200,000 budget was released on 24 May 1966. Tony Ranasinghe essayed the role of Nissanka in the movie. Lester James Peries in the book ‘Lester by Lester’ comprising interviews conducted by Kumar de Silva speaks highly of Tony and also relates an interesting anecdote about him. 

Lester recalls as follows: “I think it (the film) made Tony Ranasinghe into a big star. He was actually a Government servant and working for a long time as a stenographer at the Government Electrical Undertakings Department. Tony was an enormous success in that role. It was not the conventional Sinhala hero but a new kind of a modern hero. He was very good looking at that time. The film made him so popular that a whole lot of offers came his way immediately. He was faced with the dilemma of having to choose between the cinema and his Government job. He was married with two children.”

Tony had sought Lester’s advice then. “What am I to do? I can’t do both,” he said. Since he had three offers from film producers immediately after the success of ‘Delovak Athara’, Lester told him to take the risk. 

“Take the risk since you have to make a choice. We need actors like you,” he told Tony. Lester goes on to say: “He (Tony) was a new kind of romantic actor and a good one. If you ask him today, I don’t think he has in any way regretted, although all of us who have taken to cinema have had problems in our own private lives, as well as on the economic welfare front when pursuing a career in films.”

There is no denying that ‘Delovak Athara’ launched Tony to instant fame. B.K. Karanjia, the legendary Editor of India’s foremost film journal Filmfare, paid a visit to Sri Lanka known as Ceylon in 1966. Among the films he saw in the island were ‘Delovak Athara’. Highly impressed by Tony’s performance, Karanjia quipped that “his (Tony’s) performance makes one shudder in retrospect at our local breed (Indian actors) of tear-shedding, song-singing, namby-pamby leading lover boys”. In conversation with Lester and Sumitra, Karanjia had queried ‘why didn’t Tony come to Bombay?”

A refreshing change

The advent of Tony Ranasinghe on the Sri Lankan film scene brought about a refreshing change in Sinhala films. 

Sarath Amunugama describes this transformation succinctly: “It is noteworthy that Tony’s arrival marked the end of the dominance of South Indian style Sinhala film heroes with their wavy hair, pencil thin moustaches and ill-fitting clothes. Local duplicates of MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan represented by Stanley Perera, Asoka Ponnamperuma, Ravindra Rupasinghe and Prem Jayanth were banished to the cinema wilderness and more authentic players like Gamini, Tony and Vijaya became favourites. Occasionally they too were forced to play in South Indian style but they were more comfortable in their own style. If they admired foreign actors they tended to come from Hollywood and Bollywood.”

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com.)


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