All for Christ
Kumudini Hettiarachchi meets Ranil Rajapakse who has been bringing to life
the message of Good Friday for the past 20 years
'Ea kumakatada?' (For what?) directed by Shanthi Dias will be staged
at St. Joseph's Church, Kanuwana,
Ja-ela under the guidance of Fr. Joseph Perera on Good Friday, March 29
at 1 p.m..
Meanwhile, 'Kithu Samidun Samaga' written by Fr. Molligoda Moses and
directed by Thirajh Lester will be telecast on Rupavahini on Good Friday
at 9.30 p.m.
They scourge him, insult him, adorn him with a crown of thorns, make
him carry a roughly-hewn cross and finally nail him to it. Sometimes, the
cross is very heavy and the agony unbearable. But he bravely carries on,
all for Christ's sake.
Meet Ranil Rajapakse, Sri Lanka's "Christ" who willingly follows in
the agonizing and weary footsteps of Christ, bringing to life that momentous
and historic event 2002 years ago that changed the
world's course forever. Yes, every year on Good Friday, Ranil brings to
the humble and powerful, the message of forgiveness, sacrifice, unconditional
love and eternal life that flowed forth from the crucifixion and resurrection
of Christ on far away Calvary.
"For nearly 20 years I've played the role of Christ, in the Passion
plays held at various churches across the country and also in television
dramas," says self-effacing Ranil, though he could be rightfully proud
of his achievements. The growth and evolution of his acting career over
the years are documented in bulging photo albums and scrap books spilling
with news clippings. He has acted with popular actors and actresses in
many films and dramas, too numerous to mention, but his beginnings are
as humble as those of Christ.
Living in Modera, Ranil attended the nearby De La Salle College, where
his talents were first spotted by teachers there. They assigned to him
a role in the Christian play, 'David and Goliath'. From then on, his life
seemed to be predestined and also inextricably linked to the role of Christ.
1982 saw a major turning point for him, when St. Mary's Church in Tudella,
Ja-ela decided to stage the drama, Pilate's Judgement, under the guidance
of Fr. Joseph Perera. That was the humble stage on which he first played
the role of Christ. Being a devout Catholic, the events in Christ's life
were not strange to him. There he portrayed the public life of Jesus, from
His first miracle of changing water into wine in Cana, through the other
miracles of making the blind see, the lame walk, onto the Last Supper with
the disciples, His betrayal by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, Pilate's
judgement to crucify Him like a common criminal, the painful Way of the
Cross, the agony of the crucifixion and the hope of the resurrection.
For four years, the Passion play was staged at this church, but lack
of money for costumes and props such as the Roman palaces and also village
politics, in a smaller measure saw it peter out. But Ranil simply could
not get the spirit of Christ out of his system. He could not be stopped,
and every year thereafter, as Lent began, he took up the challenge of doing
the role in dramas such as the 'Good Samaritan', 'From the Stage to Gol-gotha',
'Pemaka Mahima', 'Golgothawe Geethaya', 'Maha Padanamaskaraya', 'Api Ohu
Maruwemu' mostly for Rupavahini and also for ITN. He also took to street
drama and acted out the crucifixion at street corners and went across the
country performing in different churches.
Other roles too came his way and he speaks nostalgically of the time
he acted as Sri Lanka's 'saint', Joseph Vaz, for a Rupavahini production.
This four-episode drama, allotted the longest airtime any Christian work
has ever got, was scripted by Clive Shantha, with Fr. Benedict Joseph and
Rohan Welivita co-directing. "When filming this, I had to be in a river
somewhere close to Kochchikade for a long time. What nobody told me was
that there were crocodiles in that river. I got quite a shock when I heard
that. Luckily it was after the filming, otherwise they would have been
hard put to persuade me to get into the water," laughs Ranil.
However, all those are minor happenings when compared to the preparation,
both physically and spiritually, he makes when playing that all-important
role of Jesus. "I try to lead a good life. I don't drink. For the 40 days
of Lent - the period when Christians the world over relive the agony of
Christ - I do the Way of the Cross, keep the holy hour and generally cut
out the fun times. I stop watching TV, don't go for parties, stop eating
meat and try to fast whenever possible. Lately, it has become difficult
for me to fast because I have gastritis," he laments.
Now, two decades after he began following in the footsteps of Christ
upto the summit of Calvary, he is a contented man, satisfied with small
mercies. But life does become hectic for this 52-year-old father of three
grown-up sons during the Lenten season. Running a school service, as he
puts it, he wakes up at the crack of dawn, and is on the road from early
morning to around 3.30 p.m. taking children to school and back. Then it's
a hurried lunch, a short rest and off to Kanuwana in Ja-ela, by 6 p.m.
where the Passion play will be staged this year. One of his sons too has
been taking on minor roles in the Passion play.
Is he grooming his offspring for this difficult role, which most people
won't dare touch? He shrugs and laughs off the question as if to say, "What
will be will be".
What then are the hopes and aspirations of this local 'Christ'? "I have
a good family and my wife has, thank God, recovered after surgery to remove
a cancerous growth on her neck. What more can I ask for? I am privileged
to play the role of Christ, for I make many friends," says Ranil, stressing
that he does not charge a fee for any of the church plays.
"I only meet more and more people and make new friends," he adds earnestly.
And the words of Christ to his disciples, "I will make you fishers of
men", come to mind as Ranil bids adieu, inviting us to see him in rehearsal
in the evening by lamplight.