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The Popular Sinhala Cinema : Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka

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by Laleen Jayamanne

Rukmani Devi, the first star of the Sinhala cinema and incomparable singer with a unique voice, originally known as Daisy Rasamma Daniel, was a Tamil Christian. It was well known that she couldn’t read or write Sinhala and that her dialogue and lyrics were written in English. Al-Haj Mohideen Baig, who sang some of the most cherished, perennial popular Sinhala film songs (including Budhu Gee), wrote down the Sinhala lyrics in his mother tongue, Urdu. The multilingual Mohideen Baig came to Lanka in 1932 for his brother’s funeral and stayed on. With the guidance of Mohammed Gauss at Columbia records, he began singing on radio soon after. In India he had sung Ghazals in Urdu in his village Salem and also Hindi and Tamil songs.

Once film production began in Lanka, he had a long career as a backup singer, starting with Asokamala (1947). His powerful, textured voice was unique just like Rukmani Devi’s, which made their songs immensely popular. Also, he acted as a beggar in Sujatha (53), walking across landscapes, singing melancholy shoka gee, commenting on the action. His love songs with Rukmani Devi are some of the most heartfelt songs of longing (viraha), in films like Nalagana (1960), which I heard as a child, at the proletarian Gamini theatre Maradana, where their songs blared out vibrating the small theatre and our hearts. Listening to the songs now on YouTube, those memories flood my thoughts (as I write), as only music can, though the films themselves are a faint memory. Gamini was among several Tamil owned cinemas burned down in July 83 race riots.

Here, I wish focus on Rukmani Devi and Baig Master’s careers within the multi-ethnic composition of the Lankan film industry. Gamini Fonseka will make a guest appearance here as a trilingual Sinhala star who built a Tamil fan base. I examine the period from Rukmani Devi’s starring role in the very first Sinhala film Kadawuna Produwa (Broken Promise) in 1947, going beyond her accidental tragic death in 1978, to the murdering of the director K. Vanket in July 83, and concluding with the assassination of the pioneering film producer and entrepreneur, K. Gunaratnam in 1989, by a JVP gunman.

I do this so as to understand anew the cultural value of the early Lankan hybrid popular cinema and its cross-cultural heritage of songs, its multi-ethnic history, through reading and listening carefully to several of its most ardent cinephiles and researchers. They are a group of older, now retired journalists who are in fact the first generation of Sinhala cinephiles and writers of the Lankan cinema, such as A.D. Ranjith Kumara, Sunil Mihindukula former editors of Saraswiya, Ranjan de Silva, Ananda Padmasiri and Ariyasiri Withanage, who have conducted research into those critically maligned early films, their songs and the mass audience and have helped create a film culture through their writing and programming of film songs.

As cinephiles and collectors, their passion for that popular cinema of the past remains undiminished even in retirement. I came across them through a series of informative programmes on Independent Television Network (ITN), directed by Indrasiri Suraweera (available on YouTube). Their careful historical research into the musical traditions of the films, and generosity of spirit should inspire younger generations of critics and intellectuals to do more historical and theoretical work on the Lankan cinema more broadly and not forget its hybrid foundations. It is a cinema I enjoyed as a child, but studied critically while writing my doctorate on female representation in these films. Also, because most of these men were trained as journalists on radio and the print media, they are highly disciplined concise speakers (unlike us verbose academics), so it was a pleasure to listen to them exploring an undervalued period of Lankan mass cultural history. This history has an important relationship to Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism and its relation to the ethnic minorities of the country as well.

A Feminist Perspective on Rukmani Devi’s Career

Rukmani Devi died in a car crash in the early hours of one morning in October 1978. She had been travelling all night from Matara to Negombo, after having sung at a carnival variety show there. While there are numerous accounts of her death in all its detail and of the mass funeral and public mourning recorded on film, there is no discussion of why she was travelling such a long distance all night, from Matara to Negombo, after a ‘hard day’s work…’. As far as I know there is no critical analysis of what happened to her career at midlife and how that might have had some connection to the circumstances leading to that fatal accident. Her career trajectory from super-stardom as both an actress and singer from the 1940s, mingling with political and business leaders and some of the major Indian film stars, appearing on the cover of the Indian film magazine Film Fare, and a long recording and singing career, starting as a girl, from 1938, to end up singing in a variety show down South, is surely an index of the precariousness of her life. Her financial insecurity was also true of the lives of many other people who had worked in the film industry (including technicians, directors, main and supporting actors), in the first decades of Lankan cinema. This dark history should also be included as an essential part of what is often referred to (with pride), by some Sinhala critics as, Sinhala sinamawe wansa kathawa (the illustrious genealogy of the Sinhala cinema).

That Rukmani Devi lived an independent personal life as a professional woman in Lanka, starting quite young as an actress, on stage and film in the late 1940s, strikes me as an important aspect of her career, though the roles available to her on film reinforced feudal patriarchal values. The film Samiya Birindage Deviyaya (The Husband is the Wife’s God, 1963, WMS Tampo), stands as one of the most extreme examples of these oppressive values. It’s been referred to as a ‘women’s picture’, one which ‘they like to watch crying’, said one Sinhala male critic. Hollywood called their version ‘the weepies’, a profitable melodramatic genre targeting the new female spectator-consumer, who attended matinees.

The panellists, Ranjith Kumara has written a book on Rukmani Devi and Ranjan de Silva is a collector of her gramophone records and the song sheets of that era. He is also knowledgeable about Indian musical traditions such as the Raga based Hindustani music and popular Bajan and Ghazal songs for instance. He could hear their precise influences on the best of the early Sinhala film songs and how the originals were adapted and modified, rather than simply copied in the best examples. Appreciating the high quality of the Indian originals, he didn’t simply dismiss the early songs as ‘bad’ just because their origins were ‘Indian’.

His ideas on adaptation are sophisticated and can be used to revise dogmatic views on the early film songs. Most entries on the web simply list Rukmani Devi’s’ films with plot summaries without an analysis of her roles, some even extending her film list to dates well after her death, perhaps their dates of exhibition!

I can find no discussion on how her career ended in sharp decline, and what that means about the economically precarious state of some of the personnel, both men and women in the film industry of that time. There is plenty of adulation and appreciation of Rukmani Devi now as a singer, especially at anniversaries. People still listen to her songs and know her ‘legend’, and sing her songs, but with voices that are very high-pitched and ‘thin’, without her rich timbre nor the wide range of her voice and intensity of feeling. These innate qualities prompted one critic to suggest that she might have been able to sing Western opera as well. There is an unfortunate absence of an account of her as a pioneering female professional actress and singer, the challenges she faced (as a modern high profiled Tamil woman), all of which I think merit research, especially by feminist scholars and critics.

A useful thesis or two may be formulated and written on this and related topics at one of our universities. The existing research by Ranjith Kumara and Ranjan de Silva and younger critics and researchers should be drawn on and extended from a feminist perspective on ‘women and work’ and ‘female representation’ on film. There are a few books written by these older cinephiles, which must be collectors’ items by now. There is a small book by Sarath Ranaweera on Master Baig.

The fact that Rukmani Devi returned to the stage to perform in Dhamma Jargoda’s Vesmuhunu (an adaptation of A street car named desire by Tennessee Williams), either in 69 or 70, was mentioned by Ranjith Kumara, along with a significant anecdote. He said that just before she went on stage to perform as an aristocratic lady (originally Blanche du Bois in Williams’ play), she had insisted on showing her respect to Dhamma in the traditional Sinhala manner of bowing to him by going down on her hands and knees at his feet.

Ranjith Kumara mentions this because, as he rightly says, it was an unusual gesture for a Christian such as Rukmani Devi to perform. Certainly, in our catholic villages, stretching from Uswatakeiyawa to Negombo (Rukmani’s home town with Eddy Jayamanne), there was never such a practice and it still remains quite a foreign gesture to me, though I do appreciate the idea of ‘guru bhakti’ which encodes Rukmani Devi’s gesture. Ranjith Kumara elaborates on this, saying that it was Dhamma’s Shilpiya manasa (artistic intelligence) that Rukmani bowed to. One could take up this fascinating anecdote, told with such perspicacity, a little further.

Cultural Capital: Rukmani Devi and Irangani Serasinghe

I happened to have seen some of the rehearsals of Dhamma’s Vesmuhunu, as an inaugural student of the Art Centre Theatre Studio of 1970/71. If I remember right, Dhamma also did a version of it with Irangani Serasinghe simultaneously, alternating between these two brilliant Lankan actors. Some of us saw both rehearsals in Harrold Peiris’s large open garage at Alfred House, where our workshops were held, before the Lionel Wendt complex was refurbished to house the workshop. So, Rukmani’s unusual gesture of gratitude to Dhamma, I imagine, is because someone of his stature in Lankan theatre had finally given her the gift of playing a serious dramatic role in a modern play. The actress who started her career in the popular Tower Hall Nurti plays of the 40s and the Minerva theatre of B.A.W. Jayamanne, was finally given the opportunity to act in a modern western classic. Kumara also mentioned how much Rukmani Devi appreciated being able to act in Lester James Peries’ Ahasin Polowata (From the Sky to the Earth) where the Nimal Mendis song she sang won her a posthumous award.

There are several other famous global super stars who have yearned recognition and respect as ‘serious’ actors. The most famous of course being Marlin Monroe who produced The Prince and the Showgirl just so she could act with the famous British Shakespearean actor, Lawrence Olivier, while she was still married to Arthur Miller the famous American playwright. For unusually gifted super stars such as these, popularity alone is insufficient, knowing full well how ephemeral, limited and confining their popular ‘sexy’ image is for them, they longed for something more durable to work on, something with cultural and intellectual capital, one might now say.

Perhaps reading Rukmani’s autobiography (Mage Jeevitha Vitti), might provide more leads into the intricate intersections between her life and work, which in her case are especially inseparable, unlike that of any other Lankan film star I know of. Her use of the word ‘vitti’ (information), rather than ‘katha’ (story) suggests that she knew how to protect herself, her privacy. Rukmani Devi’s career started with her elopement and marriage, while still a minor, and she never stopped working in the dominant language which was not her mother tongue, having done only a few performances in Tamil. Whereas, many Lankan Sinhala female stars have left their careers at the height of their popularity to get married and have a family. Most memorably Jeevarani Kurukulasuriya (who formed such a popular romantic duo with Gamini Fonseka, our first male action hero), abandoned her career at marriage.

Dharmasena Pathiraja’s comments, at the official celebration held by the then president Maithripala Sirisena (along with the former president Chandrika Bandaranayaka), to mark the 50th anniversary of his professional work in the Lankan film industry, are relevant in thinking about Rukmani Devi’s predicament. He undercut the idea that he had worked ‘professionally’ in the ‘Lankan film industry’. He asked, rhetorically but politely:

“What Industry? How can there be an industry without capital, if there is no professional stability and proper infrastructure? When we look at the sad last days of Rukmani Devi, Domi Jayawardhana and Eddie Jayamanne, how can we speak of an industry? I wasn’t a filmmaker professionally, was anyone able to make a living professionally? I made a living by teaching as a lecturer from 1968-2008. (Maha lokuwata, arambaye sita karmanthayak gana katha keruwath, ape athdakeema anuwa wurthiya sthawarathwayk nathnam kohomada karmanthayak thienne!) The people who say there is an industry are the exhibitors and some producers.”

These starkly realist comments may be taken as an important starting point for future research into the economic, cultural and biographical histories of stars of the Lankan cinema, by young scholars. Clearly, Pathiraja knew from within what exactly had happened to these once very popular actors late in their lives. Perhaps it’s not too late yet to do some oral history before those with personal memory and deep knowledge of the vital early decades also pass away.

I remember visiting Master Hugo Fernando (who did comic routines with his little knot of hair tied at the back and large umbrella tucked under his arm), to talk about the ethos of the old days, which he did so graciously. Kumara and de Silva’s research is indispensable in this regard. Irangani Serasinghe would probably welcome a chance to talk about working with both Dhamma and Rukmani on the same play simultaneously, a most unusual experiment only he could have devised. I feel, in doing so, he was paying homage to two of Lanka’s uniquely popular actors from vastly different social worlds and actorly traditions, with very different cultural capital.

There is a strange symmetry in their career trajectories, but going in opposite directions. Irangani became a beloved house hold name only after the advent of the teledramas once Television was introduced in the late 70s. Prior to that, her acting began at the University Dram Soc where she famously played the heroine in the Greek classic Antigone. After her training at Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she acted in the English language theatre and in the films of Lester beginning with Rekava (1956). Her repertoire included Shakespeare, Chekov, Lorca, Brecht and others. This also led her to play in Sinhala theatre as well.

During this time, she was recognised as one of our finest actors in both languages, but was not a household name as her work was consistently on the English stage. In contrast, Rukmani was a national figure of great adoration as an actress and singer on film and radio starting from the 40s. While Irangani worked in the domain of high-culture, Rukmani Devi created a Lankan popular mass culture (with Master Baig and others), through her films and songs. But with each change of taste, fashion and the fact of ageing, her film appeal diminished. But her resilience at self-reinvention is evident when she joined the group Los Cabelleros, singing Sinhala pop songs to Latin rhythms, with a show in Jaffna where she sang in Tamil.

I wonder if her Sinhala fans were curious enough to ask her to sing in Tamil as well. In her later years she longed to perform in work that was considered intellectually serious, engaged art. And this chance she did get but belatedly with Dhamma, while Irangani, through her later work in tele-dramas and films, has been able to continue her career well into her 90s and also become a cherished ‘national treasure’. Just as some critics dismissed the early Sinhala films dependent on Indian models, there are those who are critical of many teledramas for their low quality and diluting of popular taste and powers of discrimination. Unlike Irangani’s, Rukmani’s career trajectory marks a sad decline, as Pathiraja stated so forcefully. Therefore, all the massive outpouring of love and grief at her death is no compensation for the loss of worthwhile work. After all she died at only 55 with so much untapped creativity still left.

I am not alone in thinking that Lanka failed this rare artist of national and international stature, as it did Master Mohideen Baig (but more of him later). A visiting Indian star on hearing Rukmani Devi sing had said that, had she been born in India she would have been far more famous. Perhaps like the iconic singer Latha Mangeshkar, of whom Kumar Shahani once said: ‘If India has a heart, then that would be Latha Mangeshkar.’ Singing melancholy songs (Shoka Geetha), but with poetic lyrics written especially for her in Tamil and Sinhala, Rukmani Devi might have become, for all of us, (irrespective of our ethnic differences), Lanka’s sole soulful female voice. Baig Master was the only singer who sang with Mangeshkar, who also sang a song in Sinhala.

Rukmani Devi’s unerring ear meant that she could ‘pass’ as Sinhala, without a trace of her Tamil mother tongue inflecting her enunciation of the words. This ability was not a matter of aesthetics alone within the history of race relations in modern Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. In fact, the ability to pronounce ‘correctly’ the Sinhala word for bucket as ‘baldi’, became a sign of one’s ethnic identity during anti-Tamil riots in July 83. Saying ‘valdi’ instead of ‘baldi’ resulted even in death.

Mohideen Baig, a Muslim, who sang duets with Rukmani Devi, did so with a slight Urdu inflected accent and yet he was an essential part of Sinhala cinema and radio with mass appeal for much of the early period. Together, they evoked a haunting feeling of pathos tinged with a melancholy mood (viraha), in many of their songs, most especially in Jeevana me gamana sansare (samsare of this life’s journey).

Muttusamy and Rocksamy were the leading composers of music for the songs in Sinhala, though there were many other Tamil and Muslim musicians working in the industry as well. Even after better educated writers of lyrics entered the industry these highly skilled musicians continued to compose for them. For example, while Karunaratna Abeysekara wrote the lyrics for Kurul Badda the music was by Muttusamy. Rocksamy composed the music for Dharmasena Pathiraja’s great Tamil language film Ponmani, a truly innovative score in that the main song in the Karnataka idiom is repeated as a refrain, creating an emotional commentary on the main violent action. He also played the saxophone which was banned by the Sinhala nationalists at Radio Ceylon as being a brass Western instrument!

To be continued…

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