Anula Bulathsinghala: Humble Star Bids Adieu
By Priyangwada Perera
Anula Bulathsinghala has been one iconic figure in Sinhala stage plays. Her singing of Dee Kiri Dee Kiri is one of my first memories of the great actress. Her song, Budun Vandina Me Dethin sung with her daughter used to be a favourite of mine as a child. Anula was also a rare combination of talents. The sad news that she is no more would leave a void in Sri Lankan arts.
Anula Mendis, the young woman started off working at the CW, in Madampe long ago. She was not an actress or anyone known in the country. Call it coincidence or fate; working at CW she came into the presence of co-worker R.R. Samarakoon. He too was yet to enter the field of arts. Nevertheless, they were blessed with a group of people who took great interest in aesthetics. Unlike those who cut off talented people, this group only brought out the best in each other.
It was here that Samarakoon went on to produce his early plays. With the play Ledak Nethi Ledek, in 1967 he launched himself and also Anula the actress was revealed to the country. This turned out to be her breakthrough and the next thing we know, Anula was chosen by Dr. Henry Jayasena for his play Kuveni. Anula got recognised for her talents and in the next production of the same play,
Dr. Henry Jayasena the genius, took Anula for the lead role of Kuveni. Unknown to the more contemporary audience, Anula has had a truly rewarding journey. After the breakthrough with Samrakoon, Anula got her next game changer role in none other than Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s play Mahaasara. Not only did she get the opportunity to blend and act with great artists under the celebrated Prof. Sarachchandra but she also got the prominent role of Queen Mahaasara.
From there, the next most significant performance can be the play Konthare in 1968 by Prema Ranjith Tillekeratne. Konthare was based on the Oscar winning film West Side Story. It was a high budget play with a big cast and unfortunately could not last many shows. However, Anula had yet another life-changing moment when she met Lucien Bulathsinghala in this play as a co-star. They went on to act together in Thaaraavo Igilethi and also Muhunu Sayaki Rookadayaki. Anula Mendis became Bulathsinghala, marrying none other than Lucien Bulathsinghala.
It is Sri Lankan theatre that benefitted most with this coming together. The undergraduate Jackson Anthony acted with Anula in his first play Tharaavo Igilethi and the experience remains evergreen. They went on to act in Dayananda Gunawardhane’s Madhura Javanika. Young Jackson became a star, the play became a hit. The song Nainage Sooduwa was embraced by the public so much so that most people thought the name of the play was Nainage Sooduwa instead of Madhura Javanika. From there to the role of Siddhangana in Bera Handa she has been consistent in all her performances.
Rathu Hettakaari and Prof. Sunanda Mahendra’s play Pokuru Vessa are some of the most memorable of her performances. Those who acted with her, associated her as an artist, the spectators who watched her on stage remember Anula as an unconventional beauty. She had a personality and a beauty that was not common in the local arena. Her body language and beauty brought a new shade of Western seductiveness. Audiences embraced it. It is not fair to solely associate her with her physical appearance. It was her open mellow voice that still reached the last benches of the audience.
Anula was the soprano that gave birth to Loretta in Thaaravo Igilethi, enriched by Gunadasa Kapuge’s music. Anula was the contrast to Mercy Edirisinghe in the particular play and also the contrast in technique. The contrast of the lover and the mistress was brilliantly brought out. The song Sulangin Biththi Thenu is one gem of an example of her exquisite soft singing which is not practiced in Sri Lankan theatre.
Anula was someone who brought out theatre acoustics and voice projection to a Western level. It is to hear and watch this beauty that the young schoolboy Jackson watched the play Rathu Hettakaari not just once or twice but four times. Whether Anula got the due recognition officially is quite a different matter. She was always appreciated by spectators. However, the members of different juries seem to have deliberately ignored her brilliance. In one such year while her co-star Jayalath Manoratne was awarded the Best Actor, the judges also decided that year that no female role was good enough to be awarded.
Not many know that Anula was the first to get chosen by Dharmasiri Bandaranayake for the lead role in Hansa Vilak. However, it did not materialise. She went on to be a part of Bertram Nihal’s documentary Yugayaka Kathava, based on Gajaman Nona or Gajaman Puwatha. Anula played Gajaman Nona: this was in 1987. Following the documentary, Anula was chosen to act in Gamperaliya the teledrama, a masterpiece of Bertram Nihal. Gamperaliya, came in 1988. In this massive production which was nothing but a challenge, every small character mattered.
A teledrama gives prominence to each character and those who know Gamperaliya, would know the character given to Anula is quite significant. To my generation which watched Kaththirina on TV before being old enough to read the novel, Anula would always be the first mental image that comes to the mind. In the teledrama Kadawara, again by Bertram Nihal, Anula played a beggar who pretends to be blind. The scene was shot in a cemetery where she bears witness to a murder. However, being the blind beggar she has to pretend she does not see anything. This teledrama has stayed in our memory and no matter how small the character, she has shown her prowess.
It is rare that one person can conquer all forms of acting. Be it on stage, small screen or silver screen, the ability to act and sing and mesmerise three different audiences is magic indeed. To be able to live in all these characters, regardless whether it is the loving mother, gossiping villager, beggar, a queen or prostitute her versatility did justice to one and all. If the present generations have a memory of her, it would be of certain milestone characters or songs. Some may not have seen the entire plays or teledramas but hopefully, have had at least a sufficient look to decide. It is sad that we often write about people once they are no more. Hopefully, we would watch, learn and appreciate her talent and expertise. Adieu Anula, nobody else would sound like you, as the day dreamer-milkmaid.
(Pix courtesy Kumara Edirisooriya)