Gentleman actor, Tony Ranasinghe is no more. When I had a long chat with him over the phone, a few weeks ago, Tony was relaxing and I never dreamt that his exit would occur so early though he continued to suffer from a spine ailment over a period of time. The death of Tony brings the curtain down on the legendary trio of the golden era in the Sinhala film industry: Gamini Fonseka, Joe Abeywickreme …and Tony Ranasinghe. Gamini and Tony were bookworms. Their knowledge on many subjects other than the film industry was outstanding.
I associated with Tony closely to exchange views on many subjects. I educated myself much on the local and international film industry talking to my uncle Gamini Fonseka and Tony Ranasinghe. After Gamini’s demise, it was Tony who at times spent over an hour with me over the phone to enlighten me on the present pathetic state of the Sinhala film industry. He would in his own inimitable style dragging the words to say, “You know Prasad… the root cause of all evil in our society is dirty politics”. He was very forthright and never feared to tell the truth. That was why he was the most trusted lieutenant of film doyen Gamini Fonseka.
Tony Ranasinghe was in every way a larger-than-life figure. Nature was so close to him and offered him the background and opportunity to make an epochal contribution to the Sinhala film industry for five decades. Among men who established the dignity of the acting profession and offered a new image to the Sinhala film industry, Tony stands alongside Gamini and their mentor Dr. Lester James Peiris. Tony’s clean-cut looks in his role played in Parasathumal made him the idol and heartthrob of millions of fans when the Sinhala cinema was gaining its popular age. Tony was the kind of life of which dreams are made and his death leaves a vast vacancy in every reach of the film industry. His pugnacious approach to life was in perfect consonance with the emerging society of the 1960s when new emancipator social forces began to unleash.
Tony Ranasinghe was unique in his acting talents and his monumental role in the Sinhala film industry proved that he was able to straddle the two worlds of the commercial and the artistic cinema as a man with much creativity. Tony, like his friend Gamini, gained experience in all aspects of film making to stand in good stead and advise young film directors and producers on how quality films should be done. Tony’s character in Parasathumal was an inspiration and it can only be measured if we place it against the times. We now live mundane times that do not require larger than life heroes. Undoubtedly, Tony Ranasinghe was the best ‘character based’ actor with enormous potential, unparalleled even in the Indian cinema. That was the view held by film legend Gamini Fonseka in his assessment on Tony’s acting talents.
In the man called Tony Ranasinghe, the country saw a giant in him as an actor. He was also a fine human being with the mildest heart always sporting a cheerful smile. His command of the English language was par excellence. It was a privilege to listen to him and exchange views in that language. Tony never feared to be critical of Gamini whenever he felt Gamini did not perform to the expectation of the character in the sets. At times, Tony would ask Gamini to shoot the scene again. There were instances where Gamini lost his cool and said, ‘Tony, then you play my role’. Tony then used to sport a mischievous smile to crack, ‘Gamini, I can never be Gamini Fonseka. Only Gamini Fonseka can play that role and not Tony’. After shooting is completed Gamini and Tony used to sit for a chat and Gamini welcomed the criticism of Tony that helped him to portray that role in a better way. Tony Ranasinghe knew the acting talents of Gamini and how Gamini could perform. Therefore, he did not fear to criticize Gamini to the latter’s face.
Gamini always spoke high of Tony’s acting talents. In the era the Kapoors’– Shammi, Raj and Anil stormed the Hindi cinema in India with Raj Kapoor performing in an outstanding manner in character-based roles, Gamini claimed that none of the Indian Kapoors’ could match the character-based acting talents of Tony Ranasinghe who possessed a wider range in that sphere. Gamini saw the in-depth talents and the unparallel facial expressions of Tony as exclusive ingredients inborn in this actor. The association of Tony with Gamini drew me closer to Tony. From our first meeting we came close to each other discussing various aspects of the film industry and on acting. Moreover, I admired his expression and command of the English language. The flow of the language, sequence of words and the elegance in his expression enlightened me. We spent hours talking to each other.
On the fourth death anniversary of my uncle Gamini Fonseka, I met Tony at the commemorative event at Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7. There were a host of actors and actresses present to pay tribute to their legend Gamini. Tony Ranasinghe spotted me in the audience and called me out to have a chat. He was limping a bit and I asked him why. ‘Don’t you know age is catching up and I have a back pain’, Tony replied. Looking at the young glamorous actresses in the audience Tony cracked, ‘Beauty must be accompanied by talent if they are to go a long way like the ones’ of our era’. Saying this Tony put his arm round my shoulder and quipped, ‘Let us play the character of two good friends doing a walk in search of beauties’.
Spotting Sangeetha Weeraratne a few yards away, I cracked, ‘Tony, her charm in the dimples on her cheeks makes a man get lost’. Look further he said adding, ‘Veena is offering me her charming smile and she too has dimples on her cheeks’. Tony was a man of much humour and took things lightly in life.
Once I asked Tony how he performed so well in all characters he portrayed in films. He said an actor must read, and read the script well to absorb the character which helps the actor live in that character and thanked Gamini Fonseka for the training offered to them. ‘When you are in the sets, you cannot afford to make a mistake when Gamini is there’, Tony said adding that Gamini was like a school Principal keeping an eye on everyone. Tony is also a well read man on many subjects. The subject he hated in life was politics. He was critical of Gamini having entered politics. Tony always said that the decade Gamini spent in politics could have been used to produce at least five quality films.
Volumes can be written on Tony Ranasinghe, the actor and humble human being. I was privileged to associate him to enhance my knowledge on many subjects. Tony is the last intellect giant in the golden era of the Sinhala cinema. His demise has created a vast vacancy in the silver screen. Tony Ranasinghe was larger than life. Goodbye Tony, we will never see the likes of you again.