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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
Extras in Film, Politics and Diplomacy
2 October 2006
�Extras: People who appear in stage and movie crowd scenes or background scenes have been called �extras� since 1772 on the English stage. These actors have no lines as bit players do. As early as 1912 the Italian film �Quo Vadis� had a cast of thousands � most of them extras � for verisimilitude. Extras have been around since the earliest days of movies, but never so many as played in �Gandhi� which won the Academy Award as best picture in 1982. In the funeral scene of Gandhi close to300,000 extras appeared.� [Robert Hendrickson, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 3rd ed, 2004, p.249]
Here are three recent news bites which have received coverage in the Colombo press and elsewhere.
Guess what is the common thread to these three news items? The word �extras�.
In the first news item, President Mahinda Rajapakse played the role of a hero for his first official trip to New York and he took along a team of over 50 extras, including one chameleon Tamil politician, Douglas Devananda. The news report stated that �Rajapakse�s gargantuan delegation includes nine ministers. Also in the list was First Lady Shiranthini Rajapakse�s personal beautician, Amali Jayawardana.�
In the second news item, President Mahinda Rajapakse re-enacted his hero role in Colombo, when he admonished the 55 Sri Lankan Heads of Missions (extras in the theater of diplomacy) on service to homeland, following the debacle of the Sri Lankan Government sponsored candidate Jayantha Dhanapala in the recent straw polls for UN Secretary General contest.As per the lead sentence of the newsreport, this was �the first ever conference of its kind� in Colombo.
In the third news item, the policy mandarins from New Delhi (to show that they are no pushovers to their movie-making counterparts in Mumbai and Chennai, issued a casting call for three Tamil extras in Eelam politics � Messers V.Anandasangaree, D.Sidharthan and T.Sritharan, and the call was answered promptly and affirmatively by the �Tamil leader� impostors.
To comprehend the varieties and roles of extras in politics and diplomacy, one has to rely on the description about extras provided by ranking professionals who made it to the top in the movies. This is because, as indicated by word maven Robert Hendrickson, the origin of extras came from the English stage. Among my collection of nearly 25 autobiographies and memoirs of ranking stage and movie stars, a handful provide interesting snippets on how they began their careers as extras. [Why I have been avidly collecting these autobiographies and memoirs of ranking movie stars should be a theme for another essay.] I provide below what Sophia Loren (born 1934), Anthony Quinn (1915-2001) and David Niven (1910-1983) had described. They illustrate vividly the world view of extras.
Sophia Loren on her beginning role as an extra
Here is what Italian mega star, Sophia Loren, had reminisced about her professional beginnings as an extra, named Sofia Scicolone, in 1951:
What Sophia Loren had told remains true for the extras in politics and diplomacy as well. Extras have to behave like brain-dead schlemiels. They are expected to deliver only one word, �Yes�, devoid of any brain-mouth coordination. If they speak any other word(s), they will be thrown out of the sets. Just think, if any one of the 50-odd extras who accompanied President Rajapakse to New York had the independence of mind to say �No� to his invitation, he wouldn�t be in the good books of El Presidente. The same would be the plight of Anandasangaree or Sidharthan or Sritharan, if they have had the courage to say �No� to the recent invitation of New Delhi�s policy mandarins.
Anthony Quinn on his first disappointment as an extra
Sophia Loren at least got hired in a non-speaking role as an extra. But, Anthony Quinn had to even miss his chance as an extra, for want of a proper suit for a thug. That was the humiliating beginning of a great career in Hollywood and Europe for Anthony Quinn. In his entertaining autobiography, �One Man Tango� (1995), Quinn had recorded as follows:
Yes, having the proper attire at the needed time has been a requirement for an extra in movies, as well as in politics and diplomacy. And David Niven had tagged these extras with proper attire, as �dress extras�.
David Niven on the types of extras
Among the nearly 25 autobiographies and memoirs of ranking movie stars I have scanned, David Niven had sketched the evolution of extras in Hollywood humorously and had categorized them into four types. This debonair actor from Scotland, began his movie career as an extra in Hollywood in 1935 and rose from the lowly ranks to play meaty roles in 1940s and 1950s. I�ll let David Niven to tell the story of the evolution of extras in Hollywood, and how they came to be differentiated into four types. While reading the quoted paragraphs, I suggest that the readers can see the parallels between what happened in the Hollywood in 1920s and what happened in Chennai in the first half of 1980s for young Eelam Tamils, when the casting call were issued by the New Delhi�s South Block mandarins. To quote David Niven, from chapter 11 of his book of memoirs, �Bring on the Empty Horses� (1976),
David Niven continued further, on the categorization of four types of extras.
Extras in the circuses of Colombo Politicos and Delhi Mandarins
Now, using David Niven�s categorization of Hollywood extras, I try to place the local talent, who have wiggled their way into Colombo Politicos circus.
While the currently parading Colombo Politicos Circus came into existence only since last November, the Delhi Mandarin Circus via its gumshoes has been running its Sri Lankan opera for more than two decades. Thus it has depth in its pool of extras. In the first half of 1980s, it expended its energy on the fourth category of extras, i.e., cowboy extras, and had in its roster nearly a dozen groups, formed by the fission and deleterious mutation of militant groups EROS and PLOTE. There exists a degree of overlap in the four extras categories, between the circuses of Colombo Politicos and Delhi Mandarins, since extras wish to maximise their earning potential. As such, those who are listed in the above roster of Colombo Politicos, have also played (and continue to play) for Delhi Mandarins. One such character was Kethesh Loganathan.
A photo taken in 1986 in Chennai, is representative of this dual role by this extra. It features Vijaya Kumaratunga (the movie actor hero turned politician) with his wife Chandrika (then angling for the role of heroine), flanked by a Sinhalese extra in politics (Ossie Abeygunasekera) and two Tamil extras (then EPRLF leader K.Padmanabha and his side kick Kethesh). A 1987 quote of Kethesh Loganathan, is also of some relevance to his role as a Delhi-sponsored extra. In opposing the interim administration of LTTE, following the hyped Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, Kethesh Loganathan (as the spokesman of EPRLF) had protested vehemently,
At opportune moments, for strategic purposes, the Delhi Mandarins have also promoted their own dress extras, screened among the Eelam Tamils, in the past. These include, A. Varadaraja Perumal (EPRLF) and S.C.Chandrahasan (Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation). Delhi Mandarins also act as patrons of ENDLF, a cowboy extra element. Though David Niven noted that that the dress extras in Hollywood �were devoid of all acting ambition�, one can spot the difference among the dress extras of Eelam Tamils paraded in Colombo and New Delhi. To receive applause, all the dress extras among Eelam Tamils have showed an urge and tendency to excel as clowns.
Occasionally, Delhi Mandarins also display their fetish of misjudging the political events in the lands beyond their borders. One of their major faux pas was committed in August 1991, when the Delhi Mandarins hurriedly sent a congratulatory message endorsing the Soviet coup plot initiated against Gorbachev, by the KGB elements. When this coup plot of then Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, then KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov and Minister of Interior Boris Pugo failed miserably, India�s image in the international diplomatic circles received a well deserved beating. The coup fizzled within three days. But the Delhi Mandarins, in their haste to be the toadies of Soviets, dashed their congratulatory message to Kremlin plotters without any discretion to check the course of the failing coup. Thus, the recent invitation by the Delhi Mandarins to three dress extras in Eelam Tamil politics can be relegated to such perennial diplomatic mis-steps.
Okay - Bring on the Empty Horses!
This bit is also worth noting. The title of David Niven�s memoirs, �Bring on the Empty Horses�, derives from an anecdote, in which he was a participant as an extra. This had happened when he and another Hollywood legend Errol Flynn were starring in the movie �The Charge�, directed by Hungary-born director Michael Curtiz, whose English comprehension was less than perfect. To quote Niven,
Please note that Michael Curtiz, the domineering director from Hungary, directed some of Hollywood�s endearing classics, including Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, and White Christmas. But he also became (in)famous for his fractured English. Michael Curtiz and David Niven have now passed into history. But isn�t it neat that what they created for Hollywood � Bring on the Empty Horses � still plays in Colombo and New Delhi?