Celebrating 50 years in Sinhala cinema
Swarna Mallawarachchi
The Wonder Woman of the silver screen

Achieving cinematic success throughout a career spanning five decades, veteran actress Swarna Mallawarachchi is the ‘femme fatale’ of the Sinhala Silver Screen. Celebrating her 50th anniversary in the celluloid industry, Swarna has played a variety of roles which has showcased the entire gamut of her acting prowess. It was as Soma in Sath Samudura, that Swarna made her acting debut and she was in much demand. After that, Hanthane Kathawa, Anantha Rathriya, Dadayama , Suddilage Kathawa, Kedapathaka Chaya, Sagara Jalaya and Bawa Duka are just a few of her films that helped make Swarna a house hold name amongst cinema lovers in Sri Lanka. Since the 1960s Swarna has won 26 awards, her most recent, A Lifetime Achievement Award by International Festival of Asian Film (FICA) in France. Perhaps playing the toughest role ever, in her personal life, Swarna battled a brain tumour and breast cancer to emerge victorious and continue to be the cinematic icon that she is.

Text Tina Edward Gunawardhana

How did you become an actress?

I saw an advertisement calling for actresses and I applied purely as I wanted to meet the novelist, filmmaker and cultural critic Siri Gunasinghe whose work I greatly admired. I was surprised when I was invited for an interview, I was still in school but I went with the mother of a friend and was extremely nervous. We went by bus to an address in Ward Place, I was sans make up, as I did not know anything about makeup added to that my nervousness was compounded by a temperature. The waiting room was full of pretty women, beautifully dressed with professionally done hair and make up. At that time I decided I should make a hasty exit but my name was called and I had to walk in and face a panel of interviewers who asked me why I wanted to become an actress despite being in school. I told them that I did not want to become an actress but I simply applied as I wanted to meet Siri Gunasinghe. They were amused to say the least but then ultimately I was selected for the role of Soma in Sath Samudura.

You portrayed roles that championed the cause of women’s rights. Were those roles specially created for you? 

It may have been so, because I had faced traumatic phases in my personal life. I believe that those experiences prepared me for the many roles I portrayed as an actress. I think it is fair to say that I must be the most violated actress in Sinhala cinema, I have undergone almost every conceivable emotional and physical trauma in the roles I have acted. I also believe that many of the female roles I have played have motivated several actresses to portray dominant roles and also go on to producing films.

How dedicated are you to acting?

Dedication is there in equal measure with commitment. Others including myself were so passionate about what we did, money was secondary. We used to have lots of discussions with the director about our characters, the background and how they should be portrayed and created. While on set I was never distracted by newspapers or radio, in fact I used to watch the others acting so that I could immerse myself in the production. There were no phones to distract us on set and our main focus was always on the characters we were supposed to be playing. We had to be ready to play our roles at any given time. In the film Dadayama we had to shoot the last scene of the film first. Unlike today there was no sophisticated equipment. There was one person who made note of the continuity aspects and that included even our expression. So it was dedication and commitment from all that made a production successful.

Who were you favourite leading men on screen?

I have been fortunate to have acted in numerous films with several leading men. On screen the leading men have treated me appallingly as their roles thus demanded. But off screen they were very professional people and it was a pleasure to act with them. Amongst all of them if I had to choose it would be Gamini Fonseka and Vijeya Kumaratunga along with Dharmasiri Bandaranyake, Cyril Wickramage, Joe Abeywickrama, Ravindra Randeniya and Sanath Gunatilake, to name a few.

How did you cope as a teenager in a male dominated industry?

Initially, like in all industries I did experience professional jealousies. After Sath Samudura there was some animosity and I felt quite disillusioned. In Hanthane Kathawa, my second film, I was 19 years old and no chaperone, others had come with their mothers or aunts but I was on my own and that taught me to survive. I had to struggle in certain aspects. On hindsight I think at that time I took it all in my stride. During a TV talk show to mark my 50th anniversary Cyril Wickramage on his own accord said that for some inexplicable reason, he ignored me and did not talk to me. I was quite taken aback when he said this and apologised by saying even now he cannot explain why he used to ignore me. Now I can look back on that without bitterness and as I have said, it is these experiences that have helped to make me the strong woman I am today.

How does it feel when you recall the long and noteworthy film career spanning five decades? 

Five decades or 50 years is indeed a very long period. It’s hard to believe I made this journey. It feels good and I am contented with what reel life and real life have offered me. Nothing to grumble

In 2016 you returned to the screen after a hiatus of 20 years. How did it feel to be back on set?

Asoka Handagama invited me to play the role of a professor’s wife dealing with her husband’s extra marital affair with a student and is the driving force of the film called ‘Age Asa Aga’. The film dealt with the themes of relationship, religion and society’s accepted norms. Returning to the scene wasn’t tough. It was quite natural for me to return to the set. I felt like I had not been away at all.

Have you been lured to join politics like your cinema peers? 

I have been approached several times by people extending invitations to join politics but I have always declined and todate my stance remains unchanged. 
Women are gentle beings in our culture.

How did you cope with having to play hard nosed female roles?

No other woman in the Sinhala cinema would have been raped so much like I have on screen! I have played roles where I have been a hard hearted women, an accessory to murder and so much more but the audiences have matured and they know to separate fact from fiction and all they are interested in is seeing your capacity as an actress.

Your plans beyond 50 years in cinema? 

Nothing beyond cinema. I would love to do a few more good films.