own inborn skills and the cultural moment conspired to make Malani
Senehelatha Fonseka the fable that she has become. For Malani Fonseka is
quite singularly the film actress of our own age and century, an emblem of
the Sri Lankan woman of our times as she struggles with all the political,
social, economic and cultural forces to hold her own in a society where
the odds are stacked against women. This does not mean that Malani is a
consciously political figure or radically asserts her femininity.
this respect Swarna Mallawarachchi is more radically assertive. But Malani
owes her singular place to the fact that emerging as she did at the tail
end of the 1960s she defined for the emerging audience an image of a Sri
Lankan woman who could be believed in and to whom the middle and
lower-middle class audiences of the time could credibly relate.
Rukmani Devi was the star of the early Sinhala cinema a whole crop of
women stars followed her path-breaking footsteps in the 1950s and early
1960s among them Sandya Kumari, Vijitha Mallika, Florida Jayalath, Clarice
de Silva and many others.
none of these early stars could break out of the pre-conceived mould of
powdered and coifurred marionettes playing the role of the virtuous
heroine just as the male stars of the time could not break free of the
image of the well-barbered men with their pencil-line moustaches cast in
the mould of the South Indian film heroes. both these images were part of
the stock-in-trade of the early commercial Sinhala film which was often a
gross imitation of the South Indian, plot, dialogue, songs and all. Of all
these female stars who preceded Malani perhaps only Jeevarani
Kurukulasuriya was able to establish some kind of seminal identity of her
Malani emerged into the cinema, however, Sinhala films were beginning to
leave behind this unreal, studio-manufactured, celluloid world and come
out into the light of day. Even the commercial films in which she mostly
starred to begin with were becoming less fantastic. In this context Malani
was the ideal candidate for stardom.
from an average, middle-class family (her father was a foreman in the
binding section of the Government Press and there were 11 in the family in
those pre-family planning days) she was for the average film fan the girl
next door. But it was also the days before television and the later
spectacular spread of the mass media which has today served to demystify
in a sense the aura of stardom.
two strands conspired in turn to make of Malani the star that she became.
She was perhaps the first figure of the star system, an authentic symbol
of Sinhala womanhood transmogrified by the magic of the medium into a
was also fortunate in the sense that she came to the cinema through the
stage which provided an ideal springboard for her career. The early 1960s
witnessed a spectacular efflorescence in Sinhala drama, both original as
well as translations and adaptations and Malani made her mark in plays
directed by talented young dramatists of the time such as S. Karunaratne
and Sumana Aloka Bandara.
was to win the award for the best actress in 1965 for her role in 'Akal
Wessa.' This early conditioning in the theatre gave her an initiation into
stagecraft which was to stand her in good stead in later life and also an
early maturity and sense of professionalism denied to many star-struck
young men or women emerging into the limelight and the glamour of the
1960s in contrast to the decades which followed were still part of the age
of innocence. The rat race and the scramble for status were yet to
intensify while the political storms of the next decades were still in the
future. The expectations of a reasonably good life for the majority of the
people were yet to be completely exploded.
and rural middle-class and lower middle-class parents could still expect
their children to get respectable employment in the Government sector and
there was interest in cultural and artistic activities as evidenced by the
fact that Malani's fellow students at Gurukula Maha Vidyalaya in Kelaniya
should have been future film directors such as H.D. Premaratne, Pathiraja
L. S. Dayananda and K.A. Wijeratne, cameraman Donald Karunaratne and film
stars Wimal Kumara de Costa and Nilanthi Heendeniya.
Malani's emergence and rise as a film star not only paralleled the
development of the Sinhala cinema but that of the middle classes as well.
By the 1960s the cinema had left behind the studio tradition which
nurtured the copy-cat films of the previous decade.
these films were largely patronised by the lower middle class and lumpen
elements of the towns in the immediate post-Independence years by the
1960s the cinema was attracting a new middle-class audience which
discovered a self-image in the likeness of stars such as Malani Fonseka
and Gamini Fonseka. What is more there was a substantial expansion of the
film industry itself both at its commercial as well as serious ends.
were commercial film-makers such as Robin Thampoe, M. S. Anandan, Neil
Rupasinghe and Yasapalitha Nanayakkara, serious film-makers such as G.D.L.
Perera, Titus Thotawatte and Amaranath Jayatilleke and middlebrow
film-makers such as K.A.W. Perera and Sugathapala Senarath Yapa all
operating at the same time. There was also the man who introduced Malani
to filmdom Tissa Liyanasuriya who straddled all these categories and
produced such memorable films as 'Saravita' which was able to capture the
peculiar flavour of the times.
recently observed that she had been the screen fiancee of both Gamini
Fonseka and Vijaya Kumaratunga who represented not only two generations
but also two social categories. While Gamini was the tough guy who
appealed to the lower middle and working class audiences Vijaya had the
clean-cut and clean-limbed good looks of the new generation of the urban
young who were emerging in the 1960s.
was the time when even the lower middle class young people were slipping
into long trousers even if they knew no English and a large part of
Vijaya's appeal was that this category of the young was able to totally
identify itself with him. Vijaya who as a youth had aspired to be a Sub
Inspector of Police was able to establish an instant tie with them while
they in turn saw in Vijaya a vehicle for their vicarious wish fulfilment.
As for Malani she was perhaps Sri Lanka's first authentic film actress.
The leading ladies who had gone before her were largely wooden replicas of
South Indian film heroines, over-dressed, coquetish and residing in an
unreal black-and-white limbo of heroes, heroines and villains. Malani
although her first roles were also in commercial films was, however, able
to bring in a gust of fresh wind into this petrified celluloid world
because of her sheer spontaneity, youthfulness and playful manner.
the other hand she also appealed to the more conservative instincts among
those film-goers who saw in her a typical symbol of Sinhala womanhood, the
'game kella' or village lass. As Gamini Akmeemana has recently observed
she was shy, submissive, guileless and even somewhat naive but all these
constituted a huge source of appeal to the emergent audience of the 1960s.
The middle class audience and she were one for one magic moment.
was also among the first stars to move between commercial and serious
cinema with effortless ease. She was fortunate to have had a grounding in
acting on stage and to have moved in the avant-garde theatre circles of
the time and to have acted in her first film itself with veterans such as
Joe Abeywickrema but by any standards her performances in such landmark
films as 'Nidhanaya', 'Eya Den Loku Lamayek', 'Bambaru Avith' and 'Soldadu
Unnehe' were outstanding.
these, her role in 'Nidhanaya' (arguably Lester James Peries' best film as
well) as the human sacrifice of a psychotic nobleman played by Gamini
Fonseka was the best while her performance in Dharmasena Pathiraja's 'Eya
Den Loku Lamayek' as a village girl awakening to both the joys and pains
of adolescence brought her the award for the best actress at the Moscow
International Film Festival in 1975, the first time a Sri Lankan actress
had won such international recognition at a time when unlike today the
country's representation at such festivals was rare.
Malani Fonseka has straddled several eras of the Sinhala cinema and
conquered all categories of films. At a time when audiences were being
seduced away from the cinema, she herself turned her hand to film
direction with some blockbuster films of doubtful value and today is at
home in the television medium itself largely under the direction of her
husband Lucky Dias. But whatever she turns her hands to she has the
capacity to adorn and embellish, which is why she is more than a film star
in a pantheon which waxes and wanes alarmingly but something of a national
icon as well.