Asoka Handagama: Navigating life’s twists and unveiling artistic resilience | Sunday Observer

Asoka Handagama: Navigating life’s twists and unveiling artistic resilience

18 June, 2023

When Asoka Handagama embraced early retirement three years ago, envisioning a lifetime devoted to his first love of cinema and art, little did he know, life had its own different twists in store. His life took an abrupt detour when he confronted an unforeseen illness, compelling him to reconfigure his entire way of living. It was a bewildering, utterly peculiar experience that he found himself immersed in.

“Life took a wild turn when I was smacked with an unexpected illness, forcing me to reflect my entire existence. It was a mind-boggling, downright peculiar experience. At the outset, I was drowning in stress because I just couldn’t wrap my head around this reality. Anyone could find themselves in this adult-sized pickle, and even though I hadn’t taken any precautions against such ailments due to my own negligence, accepting my predicament became an immense mental battle. It’s an oddball situation I’ve never encountered before.”

In a recent interview with the Sunday Observer, Handagama reflected on his long-standing battle, sharing his experiences after many years.

“However, with each passing moment, there’s a chance for some healing, but there’s also this nagging dilemma: will there even be enough time left to truly live?” he flashed a smile, a mix of wistfulness and acceptance, as he voiced this eccentric thought.

Life’s twists

Handagama bid farewell to his job, opting for early retirement to pursue his artistic dreams with unwavering passion. Little did he know that the path he had chosen would lead him into uncharted territory. Just a few months before his retirement, the country was plunged into the throes of a relentless Covid pandemic, throwing everyone’s plans into disarray. In the wake of this upheaval, he found himself navigating a series of unprecedented circumstances, each more bewildering than the last. Yet, amidst the chaos, a glimmer of hope emerged.

As the country slowly regained stability, the opportunity arose to stage his theatrical masterpiece, ‘A Death at an Antique Shop.’ However, fate had a different script in store. The grand vision he had harboured for the play was dashed against the rocks of reality. It was during this tumultuous period that he was blindsided by an unexpected illness, casting a shadow over his artistic aspirations. His down-to-earth account of his own experiences brings to mind the timeless words of John Lennon: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” It’s a reminder that amid our grand schemes, life has a way of throwing curveballs and taking us on unexpected adventures.

“Throughout that period, I carried a deep sense of loss, as if everything that brought me joy had been cruelly snatched away. The ability to write, to express myself verbally, and to connect with others seemed to vanish into thin air. It was an excruciating ordeal, leaving me grappling with pain. While contemplating the impermanence of life may offer some understanding, I found it difficult to simply abandon my yearning for existence,” he said.

Driven by an unwavering determination, he made a bold decision to reignite his art career, undeterred by the physical challenges he faced. In the beginning of this year, he took the stage once again to present his latest theatrical masterpiece ‘A Death at an Antique shop’. The electric atmosphere of a packed auditorium breathed life into his being, reaffirming his purpose as an artist.

With successful performances already under his belt, he is preparing to captivate audiences once again this Wednesday, (21). “This newfound realisation, that the very essence of my existence is intertwined with art, has brought me immense satisfaction,” He added.

Transformation of creative process

With his new condition of life, he found himself unable to create in his accustomed manner. The act of writing scripts by hand, which he had always favoured, was now beyond his reach. Instead, he had adapted to writing his scripts using Google tools, although he found it to be a challenging task. The authentic and organic process of thinking and writing by hand had been replaced by the use of a technical device, creating a sense of unfamiliarity.

“Similarly, my ability to articulate my thoughts through speech has also been affected. Consequently, my creative process has undergone a complete transformation, becoming more intricate and demanding than ever before,” he said.

Throughout his creative journey, he has always been a methodical person, driven by the process. This approach has allowed him to complete the majority of his work prior to shooting, resulting in smooth and efficient production timelines. Given the current circumstances, he anticipates that he may need to allocate even more time to pre-production to ensure a seamless process without any hiccups.

“Also, the challenging economic conditions in the country may pose additional obstacles for production which we are aware of and want to find creative solutions,” he said. However, he considers himself incredibly fortunate to have a dedicated and dynamic technical crew on whom he can rely heavily. Their unwavering support and encouragement provide him with the strength to persevere and never give up.

Reflection on society and art

“Over the past two decades, our country has regressed in the pursuit of economic development, taking steps backward instead of forward. Even as a Central Bank employee, I observed this situation and expressed my concerns through my work. However, our national vision always seemed to contradict and neglect the true expression of artistes. The entire society found itself caught up in a frenzy, immersed in a whirlwind of excessive enjoyment. We often made light-hearted jokes about our own choices, yet failed to critically reassess the decisions that led us into this chaotic situation as a collective.

From my perspective, the recent ‘Aragalaya’ is not a contradiction to this indulgence but rather an extension of it. Due to my illness, I had the fortunate position of being an observer from a distance, rather than an active participant in Aragalaya. Reflecting on how it unfolded from beginning to end, I feel grateful to have missed the opportunity to be directly involved,” he said.

Handagama believes that the absence of gatekeepers in today’s society, particularly in the realm of social media, has led to an unbridled freedom that has had a detrimental impact on our shared values. In the modern digital era, each person is seen as an opinion maker, empowered by personalised media platforms. While this advancement is often celebrated for its democratising and liberalising effects, Handagama highlights the inherent danger of transitioning into a society where individuals exist as isolated opinion-makers, disconnected from a sense of community and lacking a unified direction.

As our discussion drew to a close, I posed my last question to Handagama: “Are you a believer?” In response, he expressed with eloquence, “I place my belief in the formidable power that resides within the collective unity of individuals, especially within the domain of politics. The true challenge lies in orchestrating this collective power towards the path of righteousness.”

Throughout his artistic journey, Handagama has advocated for a progressive society through his creative expressions, and he remains resolute in his commitment to this cause. With unwavering faith, he continues to tread the artistic path, contributing to the realisation of his vision for a better society.


A Death at an Antique Shop’ will be staged at the Lionel Wendt Theatre on June 21 at 7:00 pm.

The cast of the play includes the most distinguished actors in Sri Lankan theatre, led by veteran theatre and cinema actor Saumya Liyanage. Pasan Ranaweera, Nipuni Sharadha and Stefan Thirimanna are the other lead performers. Music for the play is by Chinthaka Jayakody, production design by Bimal Dushmantha, lighting by Anuruddha Mallavarchchi.