Something for the ages
The endlessly charming Nita Fernando
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Nita Fernando is a household name in Lankan Sinhala cinema. She was the recipient of the prestigious Singapore International Film Festival Best Actress Award in 1998 for her role in Pavuru Walalu, and once again, in 2019, she has gained international recognition for her exemplary work in the film “Paangshu”, directed by Visakesa Chandrasekaram. Nita won her second international accolade, the Nice International Film Festival Best Actress Award, last Saturday (18). We decided to catch up with Nita, fresh off her win in France. Although she did not make the trip to the awards ceremony to collect her award, she was absolutely glowing and humbled in her victory.
Nita is probably the most joyful person you’ll ever meet. She was genuinely wonderful and endlessly charming, insisting that we make ourselves at home and have some tea. Nita gave us the breakdown of her career, spanning over five decades.
You made your film debut in 1965, and went on to garner mainstream appeal quite easily with massive successes like Duhul Malak. How was it, making that jump from being a convent girl from Wennappuwa to a bona fide film star?
I was barely 16 when I took up my first role, and honestly, I still believe it was the correct decision for me. An uncle of mine presented me with a film opportunity. My very first camera test was with Joe Abeywickrama, and he would later go on to win the same international award in Singapore with me. From 1969 to the mid-1970s, I did about 45 to 50 films; everything came my way one after the other.
In 1975, I left Sri Lanka to go to Canada with my husband. As a result, I didn’t even get to see most of these films. This actually proved well for me; as these films were being released successively, I remained a household name in the minds of people and they continued to feel my presence.
Majority of the roles you’ve played, including your most recent role, have been strong female characters with important social narratives. Is that something you look for when selecting roles?
The role must be one I am able to do justice to and move someone through. When I first heard of Paangshu, I knew it was special. But when it came to Duhul Malak, I was drawn to the forbidden love aspect of it. When you are young and adventurous and you are presented with a challenging role, your instinct is to tackle it head on; you really don’t care about any other implications. I was with my husband when I took up that role and he said that it was a very good character. He said that if I am going to do it, I should do it right. So, with his blessing, I gave it my all.
Your role in Paangshu – “Babanona” – is a woman fighting for justice after the abduction of her son. You’ve said it’s a role which is very close to your heart; why did you say so?
I have to say that the recognition I received for this role was unexpected. There was competition, but I was hopeful about getting the role; it was still a surprise when I got it. This character, I poured my soul into. She’s courageous, despite her many shortcomings as viewed by society. I believe I didn’t shed a single tear onscreen as Babanona. She was an iron woman.
Back in the era which this story took place, I believe there were so many mothers who suffered Babanona’s fate. For me to give life to such a character and tell her truth felt like I was giving those people a voice.
I feel that the world is filled with mothers and their love. I like to think that this film is for them. To see a little bit of the courage they exhibit every day, onscreen.
You’ve exhibited a dedication for character work and you’ve not shied away from going through extreme transformations to do justice to your roles. How did you prepare for the role of Babanona?
When Visak spoke to me about this, I was immediately drawn to it. But when he asked me if I could swim, I had to say I couldn’t because I was terrified of water. Instead of scraping everything, he asked me if I could give it a try. So, before he came down to discuss the role with me in person, I decided to get some training and learn to swim.
Despite trying my best, I was just too afraid. So I called Visak and apologised to him and insisted that he cast someone else. Visak only encouraged me and told me I should keep trying.
Eventually, when we shot the scene, it was absolutely hilarious because I had to have my instructor with me at all times to pull me out of the water as I just couldn’t swim. But I somewhat overcame my fear and I’m glad I went through with all that to do this role justice.
You’ve worked with many cinema greats over the years. Prasanna Vithanage guided you to your very first international accolade, and now, Visakesa Chandrasekaram has guided you to your second. How was it working with Mr. Chandrasekaram?
This experience with Visak was actually my first with an entirely storyboarded film. He had everything drawn out. Of course, others like Prasanna also had most scenes mapped out. He too was truly brilliant in his filmmaking.
Visak is a marvellous guy. He showed us every frame and pretty much poured these characters down our throats. Two weeks before shooting, he held a workshop for every individual character. This manner of filmmaking is completely unique to Visak. He said that when we get to the set, there will be no acting; he simply requested that we take our characters to heart and insisted they will then come through naturally. He was sure of it.
Visakesa is known for his debut film “Frangipani” – a critically acclaimed film, but also somewhat controversial in Sri Lanka. How do you feel about the importance of doing movies that highlight these “uncomfortable” issues?
In Sri Lanka, these issues may be a little uncomfortable, but internationally, they are really not perceived as such. However, in recent times, Sri Lanka too has become very forward thinking and the young generation has really seen the world. They have the correct exposure and tolerance with this internet age and they are very intelligent.
It’s very important to represent the reality of life on screen. The trend is such that they are being given a voice. This is mainly due to the bravery of film makers and the ability of the audience to receive a well-constructed message effectively.
What can you say about the industry’s trajectory in the country? Is it truly lucrative? How is it for fresh talent that makes it onto the scene?
This distribution problem has been a real damper on progress. There’s a backlog of films to be released; when they are finally being released in the gaps, the films don’t receive the attention and dignity they deserve. Now, there is a system implemented by the film corporation where an elected committee will see all the films and decide which ones will be awarded a full release.
As for financial viability, it is difficult to answer because as of recent times, payment structures have changed due to tele dramas. You cannot be a career actress without a side income. There’s a difficulty in finding funding as well. Even this film, it is Visak’s personal money. It is a big risk, and so it is difficult for new people to step in.
You are a career actress, you live and breathe cinema. So in your leisure, is watching movies something you enjoy?
Acting is my life, I love it. But in my leisure, I actually can’t sit and watch things. I am actually a gardener, I love to be with nature. But there’s so much fresh talent I love to watch, and so many new films I’ve enjoyed in recent times.
I really like Jackson Anthony’s “Address na” and I enjoyed “Raaththal thunseeyaka aadare”.
There’s also “Age asa aga”.I thinks Somarathne’s films are usually very good. The very first one I was in was “Saroja”.
I think upcoming actress, Dilhani Perera, is highly talented. She has so much potential and she can do any kind of character. I can’t really say upcoming because she is established now, but I want to say that she has so much more in her. I think she is one to look out for.
Closing things off, Nita expressed her gratitude for the long and successful career she has truly enjoyed, speaking about her husband whom she is eternally grateful for providing: “He made me the woman I am today. Once, when he was taking me with him to Canada, he promised me that he will show me the world and bring me back with dignity. I think he has kept his word.”
Photos: Pradeep Dambarage