by Thilak S. Fernando

For voice, eye, action and expression no actor came out at all in the year 2000 in Sri Lanka, equal to Janaka Kumbukage. His pivotal performance in the film Saroja, along with his effectual performances in the theatre, qualified him to be chosen as the best stage drama actor as well as to receive the Presidential Award for the Best Actor in the Silver Screen in the same year. Most actors unconsciously assert the moral distinction of the people they play. Janaka Kumukage was a hero in Saroja. He takes no sides in acting and he was the compassionate school teacher who was seen as a hero in the film, Janaka Kumukage became a hero after the film. Janaka went off to Gamini Raththotuwagamage’s Dramatic Workshops at the beginning and subsequently became a member of Raththotuwagamage’s Street Drama Group before he embarked on the television and the silver screen in a big way. For Janaka Kumbukage, in life as in art, there are no class distinctions. He has no politics but feels that every human being is identical underneath their skin, having the same red blood corpuscles and, each individual has the right to walk freely on the earth irrespective of race, colour or creed. . In acting, he likes to take on increasingly difficult parts and learn to play them straight before even thinking of going into the area of film directing. His single mindedness about the theatre and his dedication to his own possibilities in tele drama stand out in a profession where self-absorption is a kind of fraternity badge. He feels himself still ‘ unformed’ even after being decorated as the best actor in the year 2000, a quality that demonstrates a sign of humility and diffidence in him. Janaka Kumbukage was recently in London on a whistle-stop visit, covering an European tour, performing in Sriyantha Mendis’s stage play ‘ Paadada Asapuwa. Just two hours prior to the dress rehearsal he managed to spare a few minutes to speak to Face2Face where he was seen exceedingly emotional when discussing various aspects of the on going war in Sri Lanka, which was brought to the public through the film Saroja, directed by Somaratne Dissanayake , which also won the best film of the year award in 2000.

Q. Let me first congratulate you on your biggest achievement so far in your acting career by becoming the best actor on stage and winning the Presidential Award for the best actor on the cinema screen simultaneously in the year 2000. It, no doubt, is a unique achievement for an artiste to be recognised this way, covering both fields in one single year.

A. Thank you Tilak, yes, you are correct. I was chosen as the best Stage Actor out of the Beehama Buhumi drama, produced by Sunil Chandrasiri, and I received the Presidential Award for the best actor on silver screen for the character I played in the film Saroja, directed by Somaratne Dissanayake. Moreover, as you are aware, Saroja film was chosen as the best film of the year 2000.

Q. Do you consider this recognition to be of any particular significance to you?

A. Yes, of course, the most momentous factor is that it is a rare opportunity for any artiste to be crowned with both titles, i.e. Stage and Cinema at the same time for performances in a single year. If I were to isolate me in this instance, and view it in a broad generalisation, it would be a very special achievement for any artiste in a single year of performance.

Q Can we now discuss how you came into this field of acting?

A. I am indebted to Gamini Raththotuwagamage who showed me the path and gave me a hand in this particular industry. .At the very inception I participated in one of his drama workshops and subsequently he invited me to be a member of his Street Drama team.

Q. What is Street Drama?

A. Street Drama means, as the name applies, a touring group of artistes performing in various parts of the country. Most of the drama and cinema artistes in Sri Lanka are the by-products of Street Drama. At the beginning Dhamma Ja Goda and Raththotuwagame formed an Institute called ‘ Ranga Shilpi Shalika’ (Lionel Wendt) and subsequently Raththotuwagame resigned from the Ranga Shilpi Shalika and formed this Street Drama Group.

Q. Am I correct assuming that you received the basic training out of those workshops before you embarked on the theatre?

A. Yes, after Workshop training, I joined the Street Drama Group as a member. This opened up the way for me and it gave me direct access to the theatre.

Q. Was your participation in drama confined to Raththotuwagame productions only?

A. No, I was able to partake in a number of stage dramas created by others as well, especially with young producers as well as the experienced and the veterans such as Dharmasri Bandaranaike, Somalatha Subasinghe, Asoka Handagama etc.

Q What was the period we are talking about, and approximately, how many stage plays can you think of, where you have participated in ?

A. Not much, approximately of about twelve years. I took part in Workshops in 1984. And from there, seemingly I progressed.

Q. How did you come into the tele drama scene from the Workshops and the theatre ?

A. Siva Rahasa Pura teledrama directed by Wimalarante Adikari was my first encounter with the television. It was a Rupavahini production and I became known as a tele drama artiste out of this play. This was a big break through for me as far as the tele drama is concerned and it helped me a lot..

Q And of the Cinema?

A. Yes, it was all in between.

Q Let’s talk about your Award winning film, Saroja. In this film you projected as a level headed Sinhala teacher who was not racist. In fact, on the contrary, you as a school teacher took very bold steps to inculcate young minds in your classroom with a message of human values, which unfortunately went against you. Was it easy or difficult for you to live in that character of the school master and project what was expected of you by the director of the film?

A The role I played as the teacher in the film shared a lot of my personal feelings and therefore, in a way it was not that difficult at all to live in that character and to project the human qualities I treasure.

Q. Would you like to elaborate on that?

A I believe that everyone in this world should be treated as human beings. With regards to this war, it must come to an end. Thousands of innocent and valuable lives are lost day after day in a senseless battle. Just because we happen to be born to various races, we are not different but identical inside. In our blood we are not labelled as Sinhala or Tamil or whatever, but as human beings. Therefore, we all should have the right to walk on this earth equally. This war must come to an end for people in our country to live harmoniously and peacefully..

Q. In the film you were mobbed by a whole village and ultimately you were pushed out of your job, house and the village altogether just because in the character of the school teacher, you were only concerned of the plight of a human being in a helpless situation and you went our of your way, to help him out of that vulnerable situation he was in without thinking of other repercussions, mainly pressurised by your little daughter’s innocent thoughts. If we project that scene into a real life panorama, today in certain quarters in our society there are fundamentalists who call every Tamil person a terrorist, at the drop of a hat! Also in your role you effectively managed to understand the human element in the other human being, who appeared to be a Tamil, who had been forced against his will to be a terrorist, but later found out that there was no difference in thought and feeling between the two of you ! How do you equate all these ?

A. This war is a ghastly battle and because of this mêlée, humanity has been crushed into splinters today. This is what the film Saroja as well as the character I played as the schoolmaster tried to portray - the agonizing story of the present day declining civilization. The moment I read the script it touched my soul instantaneously because if I can use the word to describe what is known as a war today is a Kalakanni (terrifying) state of affairs. Because of this war, everything has been destroyed and this destruction continues. The word death has no meaning anymore in our country today, whether it is one, fifty or hundreds. It has become only a number now. In the past, an announcement of a death was shocking news. However, today, people are only interested to know the numbers of the dead only. And when they get their answer they just nod their heads saying, “ah is that so”? They listen from one ear and let it pass out of the other. That is the saddening situation we are facing today as a society. This is a dangerous and a very sad state of affairs and we should somehow come out of this calamity.

Q. Do you believe that film producers such as Somaratne Dissanayke and artistes of your calibre have a role to play in amplifying this message to the society through the powerful media such as drama, tele drama, and films?

A. When we step out the country and come to these advanced countries in Europe we see how these nations work focussing the human welfare to the forefront. As participants in the world of drama it is our fervent hope to see that our country also should be brought in line with these advanced democracies. That is the basis we should adopt when we commit ourselves as responsible actors because whether it is on stage, television or a cinematic drama it is only a true projection of a real life drama in various forms and shapes.

Q. I am sure, you must have some memorable experiences in filming Saroja in the thick of a jungle, especially in the torrential rain where you were soaked to the bone while helping the wounded Tamil man and escorting him home?

A. Yes, that was a completely new experience as we had to spend a whole day and throughout the whole night as well soaking wet in the torrential rain. Filming in the rain is quite difficult even in normal circumstances. I had never handled a gun in my life before and when the ‘terrorist’ threw the gun at me and asked me to shoot him, I had to fire live shots into the sky in disgust, and then break the gun into pieces. It was definitely a lifetime experience for me. Of course, I had some training and we had the Army Officers behind us during the film shooting. I was not confident of myself as to whether I could fire a gun at the beginning but some rehearsals prior to the shooting of the film helped. Thank God! we managed to film all those successfully in one-take only.

Q. What do you think of the two child artistes?

A. They were very cute and extremely talented. I think we should raise our hat to Director Somaratne Dissanayake for having found those two kids for the film. It’s not the easiest task to do a film with children; in fact, it is one of the most arduous responsibilities. They became bored most of the time, then they were hungry and sleepy and at times they started crying in the middle of shooting. In between, shooting and direction, Somaratne Dissanayake had to comfort them when they were discomforted. If he carried one girl the other one was with a long face etc. and he had at times to carry both the girls while attending to so many other things. I can tell you that it was not fun at all for him. However, a film ended well ..

Q. What impressions have you made of Director, Somaratne Dissanayake, after your experience of working with him in this film Saroja?

A, He is an extremely amiable person and throughout the film his pleasing qualities helped everyone to make it an ultimate success. He put us all in a very relaxed mood and there was not a moment of regret. The time passed so quickly and at the end we in fact were sad that it had ended so quickly.

Q. How long did it take to finish shooting?

A. It took about a month.

Q. What can you say about having to act with a senior actress like Nita Fernando in Saroja?

A. At the beginning, I was slightly nervous because she is an experienced actress who came to the film world in the 1960s whereas I came to the scene only towards the latter part of 1980s. However, she was a great prop for me. Also there was a big challenge at the beginning for the Director about the suitability of my role as her husband, but both Somaratne Dassanyake and I overcame that obstacle. There were little tittle-tattle before the shooting and prior to the screening as well to say, that Nita and I did not blend very well into the characters we had to play, but after screening the film, that notion died a natural death. It became very easy to act with Nita as she put me at ease like an old friend whom I had known for so many years.

Q. Do you give credit to Director Somaratne Dissanayake for his professionalism in casting?

A. In a country like ours, (Sri Lanka), the opportunities for young artistes like me are so limited. Therefore, especially in such a climate for Somaratne Dissanayake to have picked me for a very important role was certainly a challenge no doubt. I would, therefore, like to take this opportunity to convey my heartfelt thanks and appreciation for the challenge he faced fearlessly accepted .I, too on my part, am glad that I was able to deliver the goods to his and many other’s satisfaction. The beauty of all this is that he normally resides in Australia and whenever he comes to Sri Lanka he watches tele dramas, goes for stage drama, and picks up the strongest and the most suitable characters for his films and creations . This is another rare gift that he has been bestowed with.

Q. When I talk to you., face to face, now and when I saw the film Saroja what I find is that you are normally a very calm and collected person. Do you see any difference in your behaviour in the school teacher’s character in the film and in your normal life?

A. (With a hearty laugh) Acting is not your normal life and it exceeds boundaries much more than in real life. Through experience, we learn many things in our every day life. Then again, we get special instructions from the Director of the film. In performing this particular role my success was attributed to both the director’s advice as much as what I have learnt out of my life’s first hand experiences .

Q. Do you have any plans in the pipeline to be a film Director in the near future?

A. (Again with laughter) To work as a Director of a film is a very responsible task. Acting is one area and direction is a completely a different kettle of fish. I have drawn a distinct line between the two as they are, as I mentioned earlier, two different areas altogether. I believe that the experience I have at present is not adequate to put my hand into this responsible area of film direction. I have no ambition in the immediate future, but may be perhaps one day I shall endeavour, but now right now. I believe I do not know enough about acting, therefore, I would like to learn more and act more before jumping the gun.

Q. If one were to ask any actor or actress, even from a top Hollywood or Bollywood star, about them and they all come out with the same stereotype answer by saying ‘I could have done better. Is it a kind of being modest, do you think?

A. A special feature in this game of acting is the amount of depth involved in the profession. Only when one comes into this field one begins to realise that acting is a mementos task. Acting really is reacting life. It is not an easy job. What we come across in acting is human beings’ shattering in everyday life, and to recreate such issues and give vitality to a character is the most difficult task in performing. When you try to achieve that effectively you will realise that there is a lot more to learn and far to go in developing your skills. We can live through numerous characters in acting but if we go to film direction, all these will come to a full stop. That may be why, I believe, even prominent artistes come out with the same answer, which you quote!

Q. There are quite a few tele-dramas in the Sri Lankan televion these days. Almost every day and sometimes more than one in different channels. Do you think it has any paralysing effect on the cinema ?

A. I don’t believe that Rupavahini alone was responsible for the decline in our cinema. There are many reasons for this, and the main contributor can be sighted as the problems we have with the cinema halls. We have problems in finding producers and the finances etc. Having said that, I must admit the fact that Rupavahini is also contributing to a certain degree. On the other hand take any country for that matter. When the television was introduced first, the cinema has been affected at the beginning all along the history. However, those countries have overcome their problems by analysing the affected issues and areas and improved the cinema as well by addressing such issues productively.

Q. What do you think of the future of the cinema in Sri Lanka?

A. This is a very difficult question to answer as it depends on the future of the country as a whole. It is not only the cinema, but also the future of the culture; and our own lives equally. All will be dependent on the very prospect of the country. Until that moment, nothing can be predicted. Therefore, it would be unwise to come out with any predictions. .

Q. Saroja carries a good motto to the society, and I can think of another young director Prasanna Vithanage who comes out with forthright and bold issues in films. Do you think that we should encourage such directors and films to be produced more and more for the benefit of the society?

A. Undoubtedly. Not only Somaratna Dissanayake or Prassanna Vithanage but everyone who produces films or tele dramas is a special kind of wealth to the nation. Such players in the game have to be protected and the Government should look after them. But unfortunately, what is happening at present is quite the opposite. This is the sad story in our country. Take a Director like Prasanna Vithanage who has produced a film, which has won an International Award, but isn’t it sad that he cannot even show that film in Sri Lanka ?. This pattern should change dramatically. Take India for example, not only the private sector but the Indian State also backs up and supports the film industry in that country. If we take one section, of the media, which has been swept under the carpet in our country today is the performing arts – be it the cinema, Rupavahini or Stage, and particularly drama is the worst neglected. These are the problems we have, but lets not be too pessimistic about it but hope in the very near future we will overcome these - if not in our life time at least in our children’s life time.

Q. Why are you in London these days?

A. We have come with Sriantha Mendis’s Padada Asapuwa drama to be staged in London. We have performed in Paris, and two shows in Bonn, in Germany and it was highly successful. We have a shows in Austria, Denmark and three shows in Italy before we return home.

Q. Are there any of your new tele dramas or films in the pipeline for release?

A. Someone has approached me this year for a film and I expect it will take off towards the end of the year. Apart from that, there are many tele dramas, which I have completed. These are being queued up at present and will be screened in the very near future. Also there are few more contracts to be signed once I return home. Namel Weeramuni has invited me to take part in one of his stage dramas and I suppose I will have to give preference to that, the moment I go home.