Face2Face with Lilani Perera

by Thilak S. Fernando

Lilani Pereraıs voice carried through radio waves and registered permanently as that of Gomariıs, the legendary character she played in one of the most popular SLBC radio plays, Muwan Palessa. Picking up a radio career as a young girl and participating in childrenıs programmes she graduated to the heights of a Super Grade Drama Artiste at the SLBC. When a whole world opened up for her with Radio Rangamadala and other radio dramas, she confronted a major cross road in life leaving only two options for her - either to pursue her nursing profession in Sri Lanka while continuing with the radio simultaneously, or to specialise as a professional in Child Care Nursing in the UK. With the greatest reluctance, she bid good-bye to her much loved radio drama career and pursued her professional nursing career in the UK. It took a little while for her to break the ice in the London scene as an artiste among the Sri Lankan expatriate community. Starting on a new field of stage drama, and getting frustrated by trying to help out in a Sinhala radio programme she ventured into acting in a big way and produced a tele-drama jointly with Sriyani Amarasena and successfully made her mark as an effective actress on her latest tele-film HemantheWasanthayak. Another aspect of her life in London has been her involvement with charity work to help the Sri Lankan forces fighting an ethnic war in arduous conditions in the north and east of Sri Lanka and to give a new meaning to life to bright, intelligent and poor children to help with their education up to University level. She considers herself as an adult who grew up devoid of love, Œused as a woman for a second incomeı and practically as a person who has not known what love is! This particular issue may have triggered her to be involved heavily with fund raising charity work and do something for the humankind, which she admits, seen as thorns in some quarters in the Sri Lankan community who are only looking at things with various coloured glasses on. She spoke very bluntly in answering some of the Face2Face questions in order to get some of the tormenting facts, which were concealed within her to get them out of her chest.

Q. Of late, your name has been appearing quite a lot in the news media from your London performances in the form of drama and film acting. But werenıt you attached to the Radio in Sri Lanka long time ago?

A. Yes, since I was a small girl I used to take part in childrenıs programmes at the Radio Ceylon. Later I was auditioned for Radio Drama. Every year I had to undergo a voice test and I was classified as a Super Grade artist.

Q. Was Muan Palessa your first radio drama ?

A. No. I have taken part in a number of other radio dramas before. It was the time when I took part in Monara Thenna, Handiye Gedera and Vajira that I was chosen for Muwan Palassa series.

Q. What role did you play in Muan Palessa , and for how long did you do that role?

A. I acted the role of Gomari, the main character, and wife of Kadira who was living together in the same shed. To put in the jargon we use here in London, as a common-law wife. I was involved in the series for 10 years and the series continues even to this day .

Q. Were you then popular as Gomari character in Muan Palessa or Lilani Perera in Sri Lanka at the time.?

A No, I was known as Lilani all the time. No one could have called me Gomari even if they wanted to do so, because I was playing four leading characters such as Gomari, Karuna, Kamani, and Miss. Doolittle during the same week in different radio dramas.

Q. How did your radio drama-acting career come about?

A. As I mentioned earlier I was selected based on my performance records at auditions of the SLBC. Then again, while taking part in the Radio Rangamadala I came to know other producers such as Sugathapala de Silva, Mahinda Algama, Wimal Abeysundara, Nanda Jayamanne, Ananda Sisirsena, Palitha Perera and Dharmasri Munasinghe. I have also given my voice to several commercials and have taken part in radio short stories, love stories, and dubbing of films etc.

Q. You have a defined voice for drama and it blends well with any character you have played so far. Was your voice trained or did you attend any drama classes in Sri Lanka?

A. No, I never attended any drama classes. I suppose itıs a natural gift!

Q. Apart from Radio acting, are you capable of writing scripts and drama as well?

A. I have done a few but they were not very successful. I suppose I can do them but I am a bit lazy character when it comes to writing. I rather concentrate on what I am capable of doing.

Q. What brought to England?

A., I was in the Nursing profession in Sri Lanka and I came to the UK on a scholarship to follow a Special Baby Care Course - In medical jargon it is known as Course No. 401.

Q. When one becomes engrossed in whatever form of performing arts and earn a name as a popular artiste in Sri Lanka, it would be very heart breaking and difficult, I suppose, to bid good bye to that part of oneıs life and to be alienated from all that while leading a completely different life style in England. How did you feel when you faced that situation first?

A. Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation was my second home I missed my drama and second home terribly by coming over here. I suppose I gave preference to my professional career in England as I thought it would give me a Œ passportı to work in any healthcare unit in the world. In my fantasy, however, I have flown umpteen times to Sri Lanka, gone straight from the Airport to the SLBC, participated in a drama, and flown back. That was the type of lost feeling I experienced. I became completely lost in England. As I came to London, everything was entirely alien to me, the culture, the country, the people and, the lot.

Q. In London when did you first get a break in your acting career? Was it from Rata Giya Atto tele drama produced by GDL Perera in London in 1982?

A. No! Tilak. Is your memory failing? It was with you in Namel Weeramuniıs stage production, Professor Ediriweera Sarathchandraıs Elova Gihin Melowa Ava stage play that was shown at the Trycicle Theatre in Kilburn for three consecutive nights. I played the main role on the Friday show as Kalu Hamy with you doing the role of the Beggar, and on Saturday and Sunday you did the same role with Lanka Bandara and Karuna Bodhinayake. Trying to be modest are you?

Q. Well! I am talking about you right now. How did that opportunity come about and what did you think of the production.

A. One day suddenly Namel Weeramuni telephoned me and invited me to do the Kaluhamyıs role. It was my first break in London and I was very pleased and proud to have taken part in one of Professor Ediriweera Sarathchandraıs plays. I think I did it very well, and most of all I enjoyed the play.

Q. Then, you played a wife of a Sri Lankan woman married to an old Englishman in the tele drama Rata Giya Atto. How did you feel about facing the camera for the first time, and secondly what did you think of the role you had to play ­ meaning an unsophisticated woman coming from a backyard village in Sri Lanka over to England and getting married to an old Englishman? It was hilarious and you projected the character very well indeed.

A. Facing the camera was no problem. As far as acting was concerned, I suppose it did flow automatically from my drama experience. With regard to the role of the unsophisticated woman, I lived in that character to get the best effect out of what was expected of it, but never meant to insult anyone. The Director expected certain standards from that character and I simply obliged.

Q If I remember correctly, you were once involved with a Sinhala Radio programme which was broadcast from London. As a person with a lot of Radio experience in Sri Lanka how much did you, contribute to its success?

A. Tilak, is it still on? Are you sure? As far as I am concerned, I have stopped listening to that programme long time ago.

Q. Why is that?

A. This was the only Sinhala programme in England and I felt that I had an obligation to propagate my mother tongue and it was an ideal opportunity. At the beginning, there were criticism from listeners about its poor standard of performance and I tried to give a helping hand to break its monotony. So to make it more appealing to listeners I tried to bring a variety of items by introducing a Kantha Theeraya (womanıs Corner) and short dramas etc. Here again I must remind you how I coaxed you to write a radio drama which you obliged. In your drama Nonimi Asha. can you also remember that I yanked you do the Inspectorıs character with me in the play ? However, it was very tragic at the end. I am also a human being and I too had a limited amount of patience to put up with boredom. In my mind the concept of a ŒRadioı means a voice, and an ineffective radio is like a mouth without a tongue !.

Q. Being a talented woman and a popular radio drama artiste in Sri Lanka donıt you think the community needs more interesting, wholesome and effective Sinhala programmes? After all, every Sri Lankan would like to have a variety in a Sinhala programme and when there are established and experienced professionals, like you and others who are now in London and have been knocking about in the industry for so long, why are you all leaving this gaping vacuum to deepen day after day?

A. Good question indeed! We need more radio programmes in London no doubt, but organization is not my forte. If anyone would like to start a new programme, yes of course, I will be there like a shot. I am sure, there are so many others who are extremely professional and proficient in Sinhala would like to revive our ailing mother tongue in the UK over the radio waves today.

Q. You suddenly came into the film production scene of tele drama in London and being a co-producer successfully made the first ever Sri Lankan tele drama, Ira Bata Taruwa, filmed in Sri Lanka and in England locations with a complement of artistes from both Sri Lanka and England. Would you like to elaborate on your experience?

A. This was one of my lifetime ambitions to produce a tele drama and to be able to do it from London was a great opportunity. When I met Sriyani Amarasena once she just popped the question: ³ Shall we do a teledrama ?². Before we could say Jack Robinson, the filming got started. Main thing I experienced here was time saving in a big scale. Sriyani was so professional and experienced in this field and I was so happy to have worked with a person of that calibre. I shall always look forward to working with her in the future too.

Q., What other important experiences can you think of when you talk about Ira Bata Taruwa.

A. It was very well planned. I believe its success was due to its proper planning. Sriyani gave me the full freedom to work the way I thought was best and it was so easy to work with my co-actors like Wimal Alahakoon and his wife Kanthi. I hadnıt known Wimal that much at the beginning, but after working with him only I came to know what a gentleman he is. Wimalıs acting surprised me because he was performing like a professional. In my mind, I thought he could be put on a par with any experienced and professional actor. His quality of acting helped me automatically to do my role better.

Q. Radio acting is completely a different kettle of fish from that of stage drama or facing a rolling camera for a film. How do you adapt to such a variance in acting because usually if you are used to stage drama where the actors have to be sometimes unnatural and over act and shout ( to project the voice).In a film one has to be natural facing the camera. What is the secret behind your blending in acting with regard to different characters and varying roles?

A. In radio, drama the artiste has to create a particular character and the environment in order to give the listener a mental picture. To do this effectively, the artiste has only one tool, voice only. On stage, drama or films one can project through facial expressions or various bodily movements. In the case of a film, the camera can bolster an actor with various supplementary techniques. With Radio, you canıt play games or tricks and you are on your own with your voice and with voice alone you either make it a success or drown with it.

Q. You projected as a very experienced and professional actress living in the character of an inquisitive aunt in your latest London tele film, Hemantheyea Wasanthayak to the abhorrence of the watching audience who were engrossed in the story. That confirmed the quality of acting. In your facial and vocal expressions you projected as a Œnasty piece of workı if rubbed in the wrong direction. Is it a natural aspect of your character in real life or is it acting?

A. No, No!! No!!! Tilak. Itıs completely the other way. The success behind this role was because after Ira Bata Taruwa I followed a course at the City and Islington College in Drama and obtained a Diploma in Drama. This I did not just to get a piece of paper as a certificate, but I thought whatever I am going to do in the future has to be properly done. For my success, I must thank two people (Wimal Alahakoon and Robin Fernando, the popular actor) who helped me by signing as referees for me to gain admission for this Diploma Course in Drama. Mind you, I was interviewed three times by the College, before they accepted me for the course as you can imagine how popular and competitive course .it is !.

Q. Apart from being a Ward Sister by profession and secondly as an actress cum producer of films in London arenıt you a businessperson as well? I pause this question by looking back at your track record on social entertainment shows such as Œ Musical Evenings (with sponsored artistes from Sri Lanka) and film shows you were involved with?

A. No, Thatıs a wrong concept. I am not a businessperson. Two films, Thrishoolaya and Monarathenna, which were shown at the Commonwealth Institute, were organised to raise money for charity. As I am showing you these documents now (exhibiting a letter from Major General Rohan Daluwatta) you yourself can see how we have bought a land-mine detector for £1250 and donated to the Army although profits out of Thrishoolya were not even near that amount. We did not make a profit of £1250 but my friends and I raised funds required to cover the balance that was necessary to purchase this unit. Out of Monarathenna profits, we have given German made Artificial limbs (one arm and leg) costing Rs.125, 000 to the injured soldiers attached to the Ganemulla Commando Army Regiment Please read this acknowledgement from Major Pradeep de Silva. (Exhibits document)

Q. How about the musical shows?

A., I invited Visharada Gunadasa Kapuge, last November 2000 to London. This was to help my alma mater, Susamayawardane Maha Vidyalaya, Borella. with some computers . I felt that I was indebted to my old school for the education it received because itıs because of my education there that I am enjoying the privileges here today. Unfortunately, the show was not successful and it was a loss. Mind you, there were no sponsors for this operation and it was out of my own steam that I met every expense, out of my pocket, including the full air return ticket and payment to Gunadasa Kapuge..

I was feeling bad after the performance not because I lost money out of it but I could not fulfil my ambition. Subsequently I organised a December 31st night 2000 dance and raised the requisite funds out of which I bought six computers and a printer for the school. .By way of expenses, the second show was very costly yet I still managed to buy the computers for my alma mater.

Q. What else do you do to help Sri Lanka

A. I believe as a human being one should always have feelings for others and this way you can help others. I am proud to say that I am not a selfish person. Lord Buddha said: ³Divide your earnings into 3 portions. One to spend on you, save the other part for a rainy day and utilise the rest to help people². I am a devout Buddhist woman and the best thing that happened to me in life was that I was born a Buddhist. Although it has taken some time to fulfil my ambition, I am happy that I have not being too selfish to the extent of looking after my bank balances only.

Q. I remember you organised some sponsorships to help poor children in Sri Lanka, didnıt you ?

A Correct. I have sponsored 50 children in Sri Lanka with the liaison of the Lionıs Club. The aim is to give financial back-up to poor but intelligent children to help them study up to University level. This was initiated with my friends and family and I am proud to say that my family alone has sponsored eight children.

Q. What was that brouhaha about a newspaper article, which appeared in the Silumina last year under a title ³Londonaye Garilla² (London Swindle) and referring to a Mrs. Perera!

A. This was the time the Army lost Elephant Pass after a terrorist attack. My sister phoned me and said that Anuradhapura hospital required many items to treat the wounded soldiers and emphasised that mats were of paramount importance .I immediately donated £500 and my family gave some money and we raised funds of £1500 altogether. When I felt the response was good, I rang up my friends and many helped too. At the same time, Neela Wickrememasingheıs show was in London. I spoke to the organisers to spare five minutes for me, during the show, to speak to the audience to inform this dire need. The response was amazing and people started writing cheques and giving money on the spot instantaneously. I was so proud of myself that I trusted myself and they trusted me with their cheques and money with no time wasted.

Q. How did you send the money and why did the article refer to a Mrs. Perera ?

A. We immediately formed an Association called SLIFE (Sri Lanka International Funding Endeavour) and opened an official bank account under SLIFE and a ventilator costing five hundred thousand Rupees was donated to Anuradhapura Victory Army hospital, and many more accessories including 500 thermos flasks, which were needed badly for the field, were sent from that SLIFE account to Brigadier Saman Tilakaratne., Please, I want you to see these documents with your own eyes now. (Exhibits documents). All the accounts of SLIFE are audited and anyone wishing to see these can be done with prior arrangement.

Q. So, what has triggered anyone to write a damaging article on the front page of Silumina?

A. I was furious to say the least to see the manipulation of that article depicting the fate of our soldiersı arduous life at the battlefield and right next to it, this London Garuma gutter piece. It was such a vicious and a backboneless thing to have done especially writing something without a by-line of the author. I have no words to express the motives behind such irresponsible gutter journalism and can describe whoever who wrote that as a guttersnipe. But I am very grateful to my true friends who knew me and about me and placed trust on me in giving me the money and also writing to me, even after the damaging article, advising me not to be discouraged by orchestrated vilifying campaigns. I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and everyone who sent me encouraging letters from Sri Lanka and the UK, which put me back on the trail to have faith in human beings.

Q. What inspired you to delve into charity work? Is it because you care for other human beings, as you say you follow Lord Buddhaıs path, or because of the glamour and publicity one can get out of it these days or do you believe in a psychological or spiritual revolution transforming you into a better life in your next birth?

A. I am glad you asked that question and this is something that keeps on churning inside me all the time. I was not a loved person in this life, not as a girlfriend from the time of having boy friends in my adolescence and not as a woman either. As a grown-up woman, I became only as another source of income and I have never known the meaning of the word Love. Therefore, I suppose if you donıt know about it and you certainly donıt miss it! Mother Theresa once said Œpeople die without love and not without foodı and in my case it could be rephrased to say that I have money, food and everything in life but not LOVE. May be why I have developed a caring attitude towards others now!