Trailing a shimmering shawl and dressed to kill, Suranga Ranawaka is a picture of glamour, something that is only emphasised by her surroundings – a newspaper office in the middle of a working week. In fact, you might be hard pressed to identify the perfectly turned out young woman as the same one who stood by a checkpoint not so long ago, hair yanked back and braided into a stiff plait, face full of distrust. But Suranga has travelled a long way since then, braving forests and murky water, exhausting shooting schedules and an even more demanding script in her journey from raw novice to celebrity. But she says it was all worth it – the young star of “Road from Elephant Pass” (Alimankada) shines in her role as the troubled LTTE -informant Kamala Velaithan in Chandran Rutnam’s adaptation of Nihal de Silva’s Gratiaen prize winning novel.
At 26, Suranga knows exactly what she wants to do with her life – make films. She’s already directed three documentaries and made a few short films. Which explains how when Mr. Rutnam first spotted her, she was on the other side of the camera. “I’m just mad about movies,” she says, adding that she found her way to Film Location Services as a director’s assistant. Working behind the scenes on films like ‘Water’ and ‘Mother Theresa’, Suranga spent hours observing the way professionals do things. “I worked really hard and got the experience from the directors,” she confides, “I think that is the spirit of my performance.”
Nihara Rutnam, an executive producer for the film, says her husband Chandran was impressed by Suranga’s commitment to the role. It also helped that Suranga looked like Kamala. “When Mr. Rutnam started on the script, he had a certain vision of who Kamala was going to be – tomboyish, agile…” she says. Suranga, who takes pride in her athleticism, fit the description perfectly. Though he had found his star, and despite his love for the book and its international success, it took Mr. Rutnam over two years to find a producer for the movie. While they waited, he had Suranga study the script in detail. “When you live with a thing like that you grow into it,” says Mrs. Rutnam, who watched with approval as Suranga perfected her speech and mannerisms.
The film’s plot throws Suranga’s character together with an unlikely ally. Captain Wasantha Ratnayake (played by Ashan Dias) is a patriot and soldier capable of chilling violence. Charged with bringing Kamala to his superiors in Colombo, Ratnayake and the army are caught by surprise when the Tigers launch an attack on Elephant Pass. The two fugitives take off on foot, encountering everything from wild animals to blood thirsty deserters as they navigate the wilderness. The unavoidable intimacy of their journey forces them to reconsider their prejudices and the two fall deeply in love.
While both characters are hardened by war, Kamala is particularly focused on completing her mission. “She has no time for love,” says Suranga. Referring to herself in the third person she adds, “Suranga and Kamala both have similarities – she’s my age, she’s stubborn. Her main concern is her mission… she doesn’t care about love and all, everything else is secondary for her. I’m also like that.”
So how does a young Sinhala filmmaker play a Tamil LTTE cadre? Not one to do things by halves, Suranga immersed herself in Kamala. In an attempt to understand the latter’s motivations, she studied the ’83 riots. “I wanted to get a sense of how this ethnic problem began,” she says. Using her own camcorder, she made a 30 minute documentary. Suranga also found her way to Jaffna. The Tamil women she met there – from the tough LTTE soldiers at checkpoints to the women whose warm hospitality she enjoyed – were all people to learn from and Suranga made a point of scrutinising their body language and accents, and even how they ate. When she returned to Colombo, recognizing she still had a long way to go, she spent hours online, watching clips of female LTTE cadres in action. To improve her accent, she regularly began meeting a friend who hailed from Trincomalee, so she could practise her rudimentary Tamil.
|Stills from the movie: Suranga with co-star Ashan Dias|
When shooting began, the 80-day schedule proved a gruelling one for both cast and crew. Mr. Rutnam, who had been a champion shooter for the U.S Army, helped his stars get used to handling weapons. With the war in full swing, the jungles in the north west of Sri Lanka were substituted for the forests of Wilpattu and the Wanni depicted in the book. But the lines between film and reality blurred as the team struggled through the thorn laden scrub, interlopers in a landscape populated by large wild animals, hungry insects and poisonous snakes. Wading across streams, and trekking through sand plains, Suranga remembers the unrelenting heat. Occasionally, the real conflict came too close for comfort – security experts advised cast and crew to lie low when LTTE activity was suspected in a neighbouring village.
Suranga, who admits to being a little afraid of water, was nevertheless determined to do her own stunts. In one particularly memorable scene, she alternately runs and rolls down a steep sand dune. The first take ended in a serious scare, when Suranga had to be rushed to hospital after a suspected snake bite. Shooting was interrupted for two days. When Suranga returned, the entire crew wore protective boots, and she was ready to attempt the scene again. Looking back, she says it was the one she feels most pride in. Throughout the shoot, Suranga strived to stay in character. “For those few days she lived inside Kamala and Kamala lived inside her,” says Mrs. Ratnam.
The experience has left Suranga more thoughtful. Researching for the role has given her a deeper appreciation for the complexities that lie at the heart of the conflict and in particular an appreciation of what it must have felt like to live the life of a LTTE cadre. Looking forward she says she may not continue acting after her next film. Buddhi Keerthisena’s ‘Alone in a Valley,’ has Suranga playing the role of a jazz singer. “I still want to do something in this industry,” she says. She plans to add to her oeuvre, which aside from the documentary on the ’83 riots includes two others, one exploring the lives of children in Colombo slums and other about student culture in the Oluvil university campus in the north east. She has also made two short films – ‘Jane,’ based on the Jane Eyre story and ‘To be Filled,’ a story about women forced into prostitution to feed themselves.
In the meantime, the film is, quite literally, going places. Mr. Rutnam should be back in a few days, having seen the movie screened at the Golden Globe awards. It is also being submitted for the Oscars, while an Indian release in four languages will take it to audiences in the sub-continent. Suranga hopes that the film’s message of reconciliation and love in the face of seemingly impossible odds will shine through. Echoing her, Mrs. Ratnam agrees – “we just wanted to do justice to the film and to Nihal de Silva,” she says.
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on November 22, 2009. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by J. Weerasekara