By Uditha Devapriya
R. Perera, who died last Monday, hailed from the same generation as Sumitra Peries, who passed away in January. A towering hulk of a man, Perera often played characters who did not want to flaunt their strength, who concealed their aggressive streak. This did not make him timid, still less submissive. Whether he was playing a monk or a Mudaliyar, he knew when to be assertive and when to step back. The result was a remarkable combination of bravado and self-restraint that epitomised him. Yet, such a combination served in the end to restrict him: much of the time he had to be content playing secondary roles.
It would be a mistake, however, to view this purely as a limitation. Perera may have been restricted to secondary roles, but even within these limits he gave his best and built up an impressive portfolio of performances. Not all of them ranked at the top of the league, but not all of them ranked at the bottom either: he could play the Mudaliyar (Nidahase Piya) with as much finesse as the servant of the manor (Aswesuma), a henchman (Welikathara) with as much facility as a monk (Giraya). Like Joe Abeywickrema, the greatest character actor Sri Lanka has ever seen, Perera remained, to his last, a chameleonic figure.
Chameleonic, and colourful. When I met him in 2016, he opened himself up, not caring to restrain himself. This may have been because he lived through a very colourful childhood and adolescence. Born in Kirulapone in 1939, Perera was initially educated at Rattanapitiya in Boralesgamuwa. His family moved to Egodawatte, one of the 13 villages which made up Boralesgamuwa, and sent him to Kumara Vidyalaya in Kotahena. It was at Rattanapitiya, in or around 1950, that he met and befriended Tissa Abeysekara. The two of them became good friends, cycling together to Kandy, sampling the latest films and books.
A deeply bilingual man, Perera’s tastes remained decidedly eclectic. He was at ease and at home with both Erskine Caldwell and Martin Wickramasinghe. His own career began with the theatre, specifically with Sugathapala de Silva. There are perhaps many versions of how de Silva came up with a name for his stage troupe, and Perera had his. Apparently the two of them had been brainstorming for names at the Vihara Maha Devi Park for almost two weeks, and along the way several arrack bottles had been, to put it politely, downed. Exasperated and not a little frustrated, on the 12th day Perera had blurted out, “Balahan Sugath, arakku bothal daha thunak oni ne ape kattiyata namak hoyaganna!”
De Silva had paused. “Stop right there!” he had expostulated. Thinking for a while, he had smiled at Perera and declared: “Ape Kattiya we shall be!”
All this led to Perera’s debut in Dharmasiri Wickramaratne’s Ran Thodu, which apparently created such a furore and a sensation that several actors and writers joined them, including Wickrema Bogoda and Premaranjith Tilakaratne. Premaranjith, a fiery radical even during his time, subsequently broke away from Ape Kattiya and formed his own troupe, 63 Kandayama. He persuaded Perera to play a leading role in his debut, Waguru Bima, in 1963. One thing led to another again, and D. B. Nihalsinghe chose him to play a minor though important role in his debut, Welikathara. Perera’s performance there lasts for around 10 minutes: it was shot, he remembered for me, at G. D. L. Perera’s office in Nawinne.
These associations made him an integral part of the social transformations which were sweeping across Sri Lanka at the time. The 1956 election had, for all intents and purposes, emancipated a Sinhala speaking intelligentsia and artistic community, giving them the freedom and the agency to do as they pleased and as they wished. From this emerged an entire generation of bilingual artistes, particularly playwrights, who not only repudiated the classical garb of Sarachchandra’s Maname, but also went out to the world in search of new, exciting dramatic and artistic forms. Perera soon found himself in their company, working alongside with, or making the acquaintance of, the likes of Tilakaratne, Perera, Sumana Aloka Bandara, and Sugathapala de Silva, all of whom hailed from his class.
Certainly, these were formative years, particularly for the Sinhala cinema. Yet Perera did not particularly distinguish himself in film. A tally of less than 60 films, including three Indian, two American, and one German, would hardly constitute a “prodigious” career, after all. Rather, it was in television that the man proved his mark and made a name for himself. Counting in more than 600 television serials and performances, Perera carved a niche for himself as a supporting actor, a feat which eventually broke records and for which he was recognised officially, when some years ago, at the Raigam Awards, he received honours as the actor with the highest number of television appearances.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Perera did not care to stick to a particular mould or archetype. What binds all his performances together today is that they are all supporting characters. There were one or two roles with which he took the lead, but these were, until his last days, exceptional. A concomitant of this was that none of his performances were ever truly likeable or dislikeable. Their function, as it stood, was to propel the plot, to better reinforce relations between the protagonist and the world around him in the narrative. In Aswesuma, for instance, he is the servant of the manor, whose main function, literally, is to despatch messages between the protagonist, played by Jackson Anthony, and the man who will eventually try to kill him, played by Ravindra Randeniya.
This is not to say that these characters lacked agency. But more often than not, they were deprived of it. With very little to do, they often lingered onscreen, waiting until the script gave them something to act on. But within the confines of his characters, he had very little to do, and catalytic though some of his performances may have been, in the end he refused to take the lead with them. This is the case with his performance as the game hamuduruwo in Giraya: in his attempt at educating villagers, he risks running up against the traditional social order represented by the occupants of the manor, particularly the Walawwa Hamine played by Grace Ariyawimal. But Perera’s monk does not become a complete radical either: he contents himself in educating his people, rather than inciting them to rebel.
The most obvious comparison and contrast that comes to mind is Joe Abeywickrema. Until Welikathara, which coincidentally was Perera’s debut, Abeywickrema remained at best a secondary player, whose roles in film seemed to be that of a consoler, the man who went out of his way to make things happen faster for the protagonist. After Welikathara, things never stayed the same. In both Welikathara and Aswesuma, one notices at once the rift, the contrast, between these two actors: Abeywickrema does not hesitate to take the lead, while Perera does all he can to stay away. In this both were responding to the limitations placed on them by their script, and in both cases, they gave the best they had. It is perhaps a sign of how distinct the one was from the other that although their characters in Welikathara and Aswesuma know each other, these two actors never meet in person.
He remained, to the last, prone to talk. It was impossible to end any conversation you began with him, especially if that conversation centred on subjects close to his heart. And there were quite a number of subjects close to his heart, among them the state of the nation’s theatre. Once, for instance, he had approached the Norwegian Ambassador and proposed a novel idea. “I wanted Sri Lanka to have more complexes outside Colombo. These would be named after playwrights from the world over and funded by the citizens of their respective countries. Norwegians, for instance, could help build a complex named after Ibsen.” Sadly, though the Ambassador had been intrigued, the project never came to be.
Such passions and obsessions dotted Perera’s life, though people would not normally associate him with them. For them, as for most of us, Perera remained an actor, a pretty decent one. Although much can be said and written about the quality of the productions that he took part in – from the high point of Sri Lankan cinema and television in the 1970s and 1980s, we have slipped, badly – it goes without saying that, despite the limits within which he had to perform, he performed well. Perhaps the best example for this would be one of his last roles, as Mudaliyar Don Spater Senanayake in Nidahase Piya. That film left much to be desired, historically, but as the paterfamilias of the Senanayake family, Perera reimagined his role, embodying him, but also individualising him. In the end that became his signature: his ability at assimilating his role, and giving it his own distinct flavour.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com.