Swarna & Nare

Although Swarna Mallawarachchi is a household name in Sri Lanka, her beautiful and intelligent daughter Narendra Bandaranayake has always been away from the limelight. Now she too is emerging into her own as a successful entrepreneur, and has therefore agreed to the first interview she has done together with her mother exclusively for Pulse.By Thushanthi Ponweera

A 50 year career, and 28 awards. It is impossible to talk to Swarna without wanting to know more about the memorable characters she’s built over the years. When asked how she feels when watching her movies today, she says that she almost forgets they were shot decades ago. “Nothing really distracts from the acting and the story, and they’ve all been good scripts. So it doesn’t really matter that it was filmed 20-30 years ago. I was extremely selective about the roles I chose. There’s nothing superficial or unnatural about my characters. All the movies I’ve been in successfully depict real life, and I think they performed well owing to this fact as well. Dadayama was in fact a true story, as horrific as it was. And after my recent movie, age asa aga, which revolves around an extra marital affair, I had many women coming up to me telling me that they’ve been in similar situations. So I think the themes are still valid, even in this era”.

Narendra who her mom fondly calls ‘my best critic’, adds that she loves that her mother’s movies are so raw. “I think she is hands down the best actress there ever was. All her movies have substance. Real life is not singing and dancing around trees” (“I danced in one movie!” says Swarna, to which Nare quips, “Yes, I didn’t much care for that one”).

Her multi-faceted characters also had something else in common- they were often the main protagonists of the movie. Much like how she has chosen to live her life. Here is a woman who, once she made up her mind to do something, went ahead and did it.
“I didn’t have any training in acting. And although an ardent reader, I never read any books on acting, only novels that I could get my hands on from the library. When bringing a character to life I would draw on what I’d read as well as my personal life experiences. And when that camera comes on- oh that’s my favourite noise! It’s like my cue to switch into my character- everything else disappears”. She says she sorely misses the noisy whirr of the camera of the bygone era, which has been replaced by the silent digital versions. And as immersive as her experience is when in character, she also knows when to switch off. “I am not the type to live in my role outside filming. If I did, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my wits about and raise her the way I did!” she says gesturing at her daughter. When asked if any of those roles had attributes that she would have liked for Nare, she says she has never thought about it from that perspective. “I never let my acting seep into my personal life. I don’t think about one when I’m doing the other- they’re completely separate”, she adds, with an air of complete confidence that only an actress of her caliber could possess.

Narendra, who has been watching her mother with a look of fondness, patiently accommodating Swarna reaching over to fix her saree or straighten her blouse, (pointing out that the border was stitched on by her mother who likes to sew in her spare time), is apparently the opposite of her mother. “I’m the one who talks a lot, she’s very camera shy”, says Swarna.

When asked why, Nare said, “It was possibly growing up around famous parents. In fact I pretty much grew up on set, watching her perform, or him direct. Seeing how much attention they received, how everyone was always looking at them, it made me want the opposite. I don’t think anyone even knows I’m her daughter. I’m a very private person”.
Swarna says of her daughter’s personality, “She would never use my fame for her advantage. Everything she has done, she’s done with her own perseverance. She is very independent, and that’s how I always wanted it. Even at age 5, she’d know how to pick an appropriate outfit for herself when we had to go somewhere. I didn’t even have to push her to study.”

As creative as her mother is, Narendra admits she hasn’t got the artistic genes- apart from writing, which she is good at, and which she would like to turn into an attempt at scriptwriting someday. In fact, her ambition was to become a doctor. “I somehow got fixated on medicine as a career path. I didn’t think of any other alternative. Although I could have pursued medicine, I decided I wanted to study in UK, by which time it was too late to apply for medicine at my preferred university. I got the opportunity to study at King’s College London where I did my undergrad in Nuerosciences. Being in the UK really opened up my eyes to my options. I pursued my Masters in Finance at the University of Cambridge, and ended up working for some of the biggest names in finance, including Goldman Sachs and Ares Management. I absolutely loved it”.
Then why the change, we asked her? She credits God for giving her the direction she needed, saying that although moving back was always a part of the plan, her eventual move wasn’t motivated by fear”. The fear that she speaks of was that she would lose her mother. Swarna was diagnosed with a brain tumour and subsequently breast cancer 06 years ago. She successfully overcame it, even going onto star in the sequel to Dadayama directed by the Oncologist Surgeon who treated her, Dr. Neomal Perera!

Nare contines, “I took the plunge after receiving a message of hope from God, that I should be in Sri Lanka for a reason that is yet to unfold. However, after 13 years of working in leverage finance in London, the career options in finance that were available here didn’t interest me. I was also missing my regular barre workouts, which were very popular in London, but wasn’t available or heard of here” With the encouragement received through her faith, she decided to be the one to start. “I got the necessary qualifications. Initially I was a one (wo)man show- everything from finances to managing social media to conducting the classes was done by me. And it really took off- we had 300 people signed up after just one week!”

“Barre is really a niche offering, and that’s what I’ve created at our new studio in Colombo 5- it doesn’t feel like a place you come to sweat it out- it’s a place you come to meet your friends, and have fun while improving your fitness. We don’t focus on weight loss. We are fully versed in anatomy and kinesiology and focus on proper technique, thereby avoiding injuries”. She also offers Reformer Pilates, which is done on a reformer machine, and is especially effective in post-injury rehabilitation.

One has survived brain surgery and breast cancer, and the other is dedicated to introducing a new form of fitness to the country, and they are both advocates for women looking after their health better. “We always put ourselves last, making sure everyone else in the house has eaten before we decide to eat. This way of thinking starts with a woman though, when the mother decides to treat her son differently to how she treats her daughter. We often discuss violence against women by men, but sometimes it’s women working against women!”, says Swarna, of the cultural norms she feels should change.

Nare says her goal is to entice those who don’t like to work out, because she thinks women should realise the benefits of prioritizing their health. Admitting that she too used to dislike ‘exercise’, “My hope is to encourage them by making them understand that there is a workout for everybody. Keep looking for options till you find something that suits you. If there was one workout I embraced, it was Barre and Reformer Pilates. So I’m glad I am able to continue it in Sri Lanka, and also be able to introduce it to those here!”.

Education is another area she is passionate about, and she is determined to be a change maker in this sphere in Sri Lanka. Although her own education has spanned wildly different areas, nothing has gone to waste. “It never occurred to me before that there are other avenues I could pursue education and career wise. In UK, what is valued are transferrable skills. The question is, how can I use what I’ve learned doing x when I’m doing y. This helps us always be curious in what we study, to see how it can be used practically. Today, running Barressential, I am able to use both my education in nuerosciences and finance. The former because I’m working with the body, and the latter because you can’t run a profitable business if you don’t have your strategy and finances in order!”.

Both Narendra and Swarna believe that empowering women starts with education, which was the aim of the setting up the Swarna Mallawarachchi Foundation. Swarna is currently working on a project with an Indian partner organization to teach women the art of high quality palmyrah weaving. Narendra too has been meeting with decision makers on multiple levels to get started on her plans to bridge the gaps in our education system. “Almost every problem we see in today’s society stems from the lack of a proper education. Even when they are educated, they lack the ability to market their skills, to be assertive, to think critically instead of rote learning”, she says.

Swarna is the epitome of female empowerment, but she doesn’t think she did anything special, claiming that she simply took life in its stride. Nare disagrees, saying that it is her mother’s positive outlook on life that made everything seem easy, even when it wasn’t. “I never worried too much about how things will happen, I just kept doing, and enjoying what I did. In my career, I have reached the pinnacle, and as a mother, I have raised a wonderful daughter”.

I’m curious as to how has her mother’s free spirit shaped her own ideals, especially on marriage and motherhood. “Everyone is constantly trying to make you fit into a mould, but my mother broke out of that mould 35 years ago. If there is a ‘conventional’ way to live life, then I’m not aware of it. There’s a lot of pressure created by Lankan society to be married- the notion that you aren’t a success if you aren’t (“And that you haven’t done your duty as a mom if your daughter isn’t!” says Swarna incredulously). But my mother has taught me how to be strong, and also how to be courageous. You don’t need a man to be all that. She’s shown me that you can do all of it on your own, and do it in the best way possible too”. She adds that a strong support system is vital, and it’s evident that they are each other’s greatest strengths.

Two inspirational ladies, both fearless enough to follow their heart and turn their passions into success. It reminds me a quote which read I am a strong woman, because a strong woman raised me.

I ask Swarna how she came to be this person, someone who lives life on her own terms.
“Well, it’s just like Sinatra said. I did it my way”, she says with an enigmatic smile.

Appeared in Pulse Magazine, Jul/Aug 2019 issue, Cover Story

Picture credits: Pulse Magazine