By Uditha Devapriya –
The first thing that struck you about him was his voice. Polished, elegant, and not a little jarring, it helped explained his figure, which was at once filled with resolve and fear. It was these two qualities, perhaps, that explained how self-contradictory the man was: a scion of the elite, yet fighting against the same values that same elite fought so hard to solidify against everyone else. He paid a price for this act of rebellion and that price was his life, but upon his death he sealed his name for posterity. Life’s like that, I suppose: you remember the dead and you never forget the murdered.
Had he lived, Richard de Zoysa would have been 58. He was little more than 32 when he was killed, and brutally so, away from the solitude of his house and family. This is not a politically coloured tribute to the man, but a take on the fields of activity he took to: the theatre, the cinema, and literature.
I am no thespian and I suppose not being one makes it difficult for me to comment on the theatre. I was born long after Richard passed away and hence, it will take nothing short of a miracle for me to assess his worth as a playwright and actor (onstage, that is). His credits in the theatre were many and while not all of them could be regarded as monumental (they have long since been forgotten), it is certainly true that even with the lesser among them he came out remarkably as an actor. The only play which featured him, that I have read with any sort of interest, was Regi Siriwardena’s take on the Soviet dissident Nikolai Bukharin, The Long Day’s Task, in which Richard was not only the courageous dissident destined for the guillotine, but also a key shaper in the tone, the nuances, and the general direction of the plot.
Being a film buff, I was always more entranced by his credits in our cinema. Richard de Zoysa was there in two masterpieces that won praise in (almost) every quarter, Tissa Abeysekara’s Viragaya and Lester James Peries’ Yuganthaya. In the former, he is an idealist, a character who was not featured in Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel but who was scripted in to its adaptation by the director to provide a point of reference for the largely socialist tilt it manifested towards the end. In the latter, arguably the pinnacle of his career, he is the fervent revolutionary, the prodigal son of the merciless capitalist, who turns against his own family in his quest for social justice. His performance as Malin in that film, for obvious reasons, deserves scrutiny, but only after a brief perusal of his life.
Richard Manik de Zoysa was born in Colombo on March 18, 1958. He was the product of a mixed marriage: his father was Sinhalese and his mother, who later became a key voice for bereaved mothers, wives, and daughters, was Tamil. Young Richard was sent to S. Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia, which had an active theatre culture and where, under the patronage of the then Head Master and Sinhala teacher D. S. Jayasekera, his penchant for the subject was encouraged. He was also a debater, while he won the Best Actor award at the Shakespeare Drama Competition in 1972.
He came from a particular social background and this, it must be admitted, explains the many contradictions his later career as an activist bred. As I pointed out, he was part of the elite, but being part of the elite he naturally saw the many ills and tumours which were being bred and perpetuated by them. He rebelled, naturally, and to this end sought refuge in progressive social movements. To date, he remains the only serious spokesperson for the New Left who emerged from the English-speaking intelligentsia, a feat no other person achieved. As a journalist too, he shone: during his last few years he was the head of the Colombo office of the prestigious Inter Press Service.
And in a large sense, those two film roles solidified the image of him as someone who detested compromise, who had a vision for the world and the society he was part of, and who wasn’t beset by the many fault-lines that encountered him as he set about reforming his community. In Yuganthaya, as the son of the ruthless Simon Kabilana, Malin (Richard) gave the impression of being a crusader at odds with his physique. At the beginning of that remarkable but overlooked film, we get it that he and his friend Aravinda (Douglas Ranasinghe) dabbled in Marxism in London, but we also get it that while Aravinda has shrugged off all that in his quest to rise socially, Malin hasn’t exactly let go of that (even as his own family jokes about it and as we are deceived into thinking that he will become as indifferent as every other child of the colonial bourgeoisie sent abroad to study).
Yuganthaya is considered by a great many critics as the weakest in Martin Wickramasinghe’s Koggala trilogy (it was written after Gamperaliya but before Kaliyugaya, even though the events in it take place after the latter), and it was left to Lester James Peries to salvage it from the political to bring it to realm of the personal. He did this by focusing the energy and the tension of the plot on the relationship between Simon and Malin. To this end, he went (whether unwittingly or not, we never can tell) for two actors who, by coincidence, represented the exact same political sympathies they exhibited in the film: Gamini Fonseka as Simon, and Richard as Malin.
Gamini was by then a recluse, a virtual loner who had bucks to spend and who had become to our cinema what the likes of Bogart, Wayne, and Burt Lancaster had been to Hollywood. Richard, on the other hand, was more fragile, sensitive, and refined. Gamini’s depiction of Simon was wholly aligned with the image of his character as a coarse, rough, by-his-own-bootstraps businessman, while the image of his son as a more detached, less vulgar gentlemen added to the film’s inner turmoil, as he turned to the burgeoning trade union movement against his own family. This came out even in how these two spoke: Simon was the gruffer of the two, Malin the more soft-spoken.
Actors are by default flamboyant and the more flamboyant among them create an image which outlasts their life. So it was with Chaplin, so it was with some of our own actors and thespians. More often than not, this image subsisted on a dichotomy. In the case of Chaplin, that was a dichotomy between good and evil, with the latter represented as an externalised force which the man’s characters combated.
With Richard too, such a dichotomy existed, even in those few roles he played in the cinema: even as Malin, you never forgot that, try as he might, he was always bonded to a class background that was incongruent with his beliefs, so much so that this conflict could only be resolved if that background was externalised. He could do this in only one way: by openly spurning his father. And so, in that celebrated finale, Richard is carried away triumphantly by his cohorts in the Trade Union, while a despondent Simon looks on, with a close-up to his face which Sarath Amunugama would, in a speech delivered at the second Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries Oration held four years ago, succinctly compare to the cold, harrowing, and tragic faces in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.
It jarred, not surprisingly, when he was cast as the wayward son in Parakrama Niriella’s Yashorawaya. No one can seriously contend that he was miscast in that series, but the point is that because we had got used to a set image of the man as a blue-eyed, yet flawed, idealist, it was not easy to get used to him as a prodigal outsider. Small wonder.
In Yashorawaya there is, barring the elder son (played to perfection by Lucky Dias), no perfect person: even the father (G. W. Surendra) is a pretender, and the other son (Gamini Hettiarachchi) is a drunken slob, but with Richard’s character you came across a closeted, not so open, but as indulgent a child, so closeted that upon his exit from the plot you neither knew nor cared about what happened to him.
He could have graced our cinema more. Could have, but could not. Like the Lepidoptera of the poem (of the same name) that he wrote, his broken wings and his crippled mind, which left us on February 19, 1990, could not be restored. In that poem he wrote of the ants of time, which carry away fragile specimens of humanity to be cast aside, forgotten, and belittled. Such a fate, however, was not to meet Richard: as I pointed out, his death only empowered his legacy, and his legacy, which extends not just to the virtually monolingual elite of Cinnamon Gardens (who, for reasons still unfathomable to me, have appropriated him as a symbol of lost causes relevant to their milieu when he was not) but to the rest of this country as well.
Richard de Zoysa, actor, thespian, writer, and journalist continues to be appropriated and continues to be celebrated. Should we celebrate or should we not? Is there reason for lament or is there not? These are, arguably, trivial questions. More important than any of these is this: has he been forgotten? The simple answer, no.