Actors slip into and out of their characters. That’s a given. There are good performances and bad performances, and all too often the line between the two blurs. Not because the actor knows how to trick the audience into thinking he’s dishing out a good performance, but because we begin to read his character in such a way that we think he’s giving the best he can. The best actors, however, don’t trick us this way. The best actors embody life, dividing opinion and winning both critic and audience along the way. Kamal Addaraarachchi, I’m willing to bet, falls into this category.
Kamal is good at embodying life, and in his best performances that is what he does, but when he teeters off to that “other side” actors are accustomed to moving into, he tends to unnerve and disturb. He has for most of his career resided in a twilight world, between two extremes. The biggest strength the man makes use of, the way I see it, is his ability to display an almost erratic flamboyance which, like Mozart’s more conspicuous, colourful pieces pulsates and emboldens as the film he’s in moves on. I doubt a simple biographical sketch can or will paint him well.
Kamal begins my interview with him right at the point when his career really began – in school. He attended Wesley College, where (during his childhood) he had absorbed much from some leading teachers on drama and the performing arts. By his own confession however, he never really gave into the theatre that much in school, instead preferring to take part in various concerts that would be held throughout the year. But of course, this didn’t deter him from participating in stage plays as they came along: “By the time I got to Fifth Grade, I began acting in dialogue-driven, serious dramas.”
The turning point was Grade Nine, when he met his first real figure of destiny, Gamini Samarakoon. “Samarakoon taught us drama. More importantly, he taught me miming, which marked my first real brush with serious theatre.” By this time he was taking to other interests and activities, going as far as to become the drummer in a five-piece band (by name “Cat’s Eye”). He left it when the theatre, at school that is, proved too much to resist.
Kamal’s brush with theatre at Wesley wasn’t limited to Samarakoon alone, of course, and it is a sign of his humility that he acknowledges and goes through every other name which figured in at school and afterward. Like Nimal Fernando, who taught him in Grade Five. Or Shelton Weerasinghe, the principal at Wesley, who did his share in encouraging young Kamal to take to the stage. Or Dr Salamon Fonseka, the first Sri Lankan to have a PhD in drama and theatre, who personally catered to him. Or his second real figure of destiny, Heig Karunaratne, who taught him music and drama and later asked him to apply for an acting course.
This proved to be his second turning point. The acting course was apparently being conducted by a leading theatre practitioner, Dr Nobert J. Mayar, and was organised by the International Theatre for Children and Youth (ITCY). It spanned three months and some workshops, which young Kamal ardently took part in. “I never regretted accepting the request. Not now, not ever. I think I learnt so much with Dr Mayar’s course, far more than anything which words can sum up. What he did was give me the theoretical backdrop to my career in later years, something compounded by the fact that I met many of my contemporaries and colleagues, like Sriyantha Mendis and Jayantha Chandrasiri, there.”
Kamal’s professional training came off remarkably well in his debut performance in a play called “Ane Ablick”, staged in 1978 in Colombo. The ramifications of that debut, however, surpass anything which an article, let alone an essay, can fully capture. It marked his third turning point, moreover, one which transformed Kamal the theatre-maverick to Kamal the star, though of course such a transformation could hardly be effected overnight.
He explains what happened next: “A film producer saw my performance in ‘Ane Ablick’. He later told me that he’d been impressed by it, so much so that he was actually compelled to take me to meet the director of the next film he was financing. What mattered to me after I was taken, I must admit, was the identity of the director. He was Gamini Fonseka.” The film was “Sagarayak Meda”, Fonseka’s fourth film, one which had Kamal as the radical, leftist son to the protagonist-hero of the story.
He apparently hadn’t been that into the cinema back then, however, and he acknowledges to me that while he has always found the theatre more challenging, that in itself has provided reason for him to embrace it more than the world of celluloid. The thoughts of a true thespian, I note silently to myself as I listen to his anecdotes. I confess I haven’t seen Kamal onstage (I’ve been told that I should), but I have seen him on film, and he remains (for the lack of a better term) the very personification of exuberance.
“In the theatre you’re always in live communion with the audience,” he says by way of explaining his intrinsic love for the stage. Going by that logic however, Kamal’s film roles have won him, in effect, a live communion as well, if at all because popular audiences have always opted to judge his persona on the basis of his film credits. From “Saptha Kanya” to “Kinihiriya Mal” and beyond, he has taken part in his lion’s share of movies. It would be unbecoming of me not to say that we cherish them all, if at all because, even in the weakest of films, he comes out through remarkably.
But I’m letting myself get a little too ahead of myself here. “Sagarayak Meda” had been a baptism of fire, purely because Kamal’s parents had not been too willing to let him act. “I had to lie to play my character, and by the time I got caught red-handed, everything was done. It took three years for it to get released in cinemas island-wide, and it was acclaimed everywhere by both critic and audience. You must remember, this was when Fonseka was weaving story after story based on his notions of justice and fair play. These were aptly captured in ‘Sagarayak Meda’.”
Like I mentioned earlier, Kamal has had his lion’s share of movie credits, though I personally feel that 25-plus films over three decades is hardly enough for an actor of his calibre. True, the quality of his roles have not been uneven, because (for the most) they have teetered between variations of a) the innocent man bewildered by fortuitous circumstances (in “Saptha Kanya”, “Salelu Warama”, and “Guerrilla Marketing”), and b) the indifferent, rebellious, sometimes thoughtless youth (in “Kaliyugaya” and “Loku Duwa”). That he remains versatile even within the parameters of a short filmography speaks volumes about the man and his talent, I believe. I know others believe likewise too.
But if his talent is watched and appreciated in its entirety whenever he acts, his views on the same industries he’s worked in are sobering to say the least. I can’t possibly put them all here due to spatial constraints. Suffice it to say that when it comes to the theatre, Kamal views the English stage as having debased comedy by reducing it to a set of stock figures and cheap laughs in the political sphere (hence instilling a sense of complacency in the audience), while his critique of the Sinhala stage has to do with an excessive dependence on the same themes and subject-matter (when it comes to comedy, that is).
There’s room for hope, however, and I think Kamal’s return to the cinema offers a silver lining. I have unfortunately not yet watched “Address Naha”, where I’m told his performance (I will not reveal the character he plays) is suave and even somewhat mysterious. A return to form, I should think, the same form that demarcates him well as an actor who is just as showy and flamboyant as he is enigmatic. He has, for the most, been likeable even in his least empathetic roles – think of the younger brother to Geetha Kumarasinghe in “Loku Duwa”, who spits filth at her at one point despite the fact that she’s spent more than half her youth sacrificing her happiness for his sake – and this is a quality not to be met with in most actors here.
Kamal Addaraarachchi, in short, occupies the best of both worlds. One hopes fervently that a compiler and researcher will come and do justice to the true worth of his talent. I am only a newspaperman, after all. I doubt the likes of me can ever think of studying the man and his versatility, a versatility which has sustained him for over three decades. An achievement, certainly, and one which deserves more than a customary clap.