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Sinhala Cinema turns 73 today

It is a classic day for movie buffs on January 21 as Sinhala cinema celebrates 73 years. Immediately following Independence, Ceylon roamed in darkness. The country was at a loss. The country was looking for an identity at least for the sake of its majority ethnic group, Sinhalese. The urge had been brewing for a decade, and the architects were in the making.

A Roman Catholic by birth, S W R D Bandaranaike instituted a political crusade in favour of the majority ethnic group. There was much more to it than racism like it came to be portrayed a few decades later. Bandaranaike was focused on gaining a stretched political mileage through a unique adoption of the Sinhala-only policy. In London, Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy had a one-on-one discourse with Bandaranaike who was treading the Oxford University terrain. Dr Coomaraswamy offered him the tip of a famous five. Back in Ceylon Bandaranaike had the Sinhala-only policy crowd-sourced by this famous five: clergy, physicians, teachers, farmers and labourers. That ploughed Ceylon to welcome a cultural revolution.

All the same, Bandaranaike cannot be considered the high priest of that cultural renaissance. He was one of them. Chitrasena, Sunil Santha, Amaradeva, Lester James Peries and Martin Wickramasinghe came to the forefront to capsize the cultural capsule, while Bandaranaike continued to plough the land. He did not last long, sadly, though his mission did. The revolution came to pass at a fast pace and we are yet to celebrate its century. All masters of that revolution, save for a handful, are long gone.

That the local cinema initiated its long journey in 1947 with Kadavunu Poronduwa is known to everyone in this country. But the industry was struggling for uniqueness and originality. The industry was too newfangled for the local filmmakers to be original.

Arthur U Amarasena, a veteran cinema writer, has an issue with the records that place ‘Kadavunu Poronduwa’ first in the Sinhala film lineage.

“We all know that ‘Kadavunu Poronduwa’ is not the first film, though officially it can be,” he writes. Then he relates the story of the first unofficial film shot in Sri Lanka.

An Indian cinematographer Noorbai produced the first-ever film with the local settings and titled it ‘Rajakiya Vikramaya’ (The Royal Adventure) in 1923. The trivia has it that Dr N M Perera, more known as a politician, starred the main role in the film.

But Noorbai took it away to India, as he didn’t have enough local facilities. Ironically he could not keep it safe, because the reels got burnt. Noorbai didn’t come back to Sri Lanka, and no film was made until ‘Kadavunu Poronduwa’ in 1947.”

India enjoyed the monopoly of cinema technology and did not dare give it to Sri Lanka. But the events took a dramatic change, when the well-known trio: B W Jayamanna, Sirisena Wimalaweera and Shantha Senewirathna stole the covetous art; they learnt the technology in secret.

The project, however, was not that easy. There were many obstacles. Not a single woman was allowed to step into the celluloid world. The directors faced a dearth of good scripts. Things started moving towards a different plane when Dr Lester James Peries stepped into the foray with Rekhava, the 57th film (Noorbai’s production excluded) in 1956.

Rekhava, officially premiered in 1956 incidentally coinciding with the Bandaranaike revolution, took a turn against the prevailing conditions. The film was shot out of the studio premises and was confined to Ceylon. The dialogues were more natural. The storyline provoked more emotional nuances. Ultimately it went on to be the first feature-length film down the local cinema annals. It gained entry into the Cannes Film Festival in 1957 – an international honour denied for the films hitherto produced. Yet, this was not a consummation. Dr Peries was still experimenting with the subject.

Many more followed suit, and the Peries works became history. However, Rekhava remains at the cutting edge of the Sinhala cinema.

Dr Lester James Peries will be revered in Sri Lankan history on account of quality – rather than quantity – of his filmography. Film by film, Dr Peries planted a fresh seed in the industry. Film by film, Dr Peries introduced a new wavelength. He did not deliver art. He delivered a whole generation. That whole generation did not think outside the box. They formed a box for the industry. The likes of Gamini Fonseka, Tissa Abeysekara, Titus Totawatta and Sumitra Peries saw the light of the industry in Dr Lester James Peries’ cubicle. And that created the tunnel for emerging contemporary filmmakers such as Prasanna Vithanage, Ashoka Handagama and Vimukthi Jayasundara.

73 years does not mean a long journey for the local cinema - only if it gets closer to a century. We must neither lament about what is not done nor keep on blowing any trumpet on what has been done over the past seven decades or so.

More and more Sinhala films gain recognition at the IMDB or Internet Movie DataBase which is termed as Earth’s biggest movie database. It’s not an exaggeration to say so since it offers a comprehensive record on any Hollywood movies and many Bollywood and films from other parts of the world. Ironically however, Sri Lanka does not have an updated encyclopedia, except for the single-handed volume compiled by Dr Nuwan Nayanajith published a few years ago.


The top ten of the first 50 years of Cinema

(As identified by the government in 1997)
Rank Film title Director Year released

1 Nidhanaya Lester James Peiris (1972)
2 Gamperaliya Lester James Peiris (1963)
3 Viragaya Tissa Abeysekara (1987)
4 Bambaru Awith Dharmasena Pathiraja (1978)
5 Sath Samudura Siri Gunasinghe (1967)
6 Thun Mang Handiya Mahagama Sekara (1970)
7 Palangettiyo Vasantha Obeysekera (1979)
8 Dadayama Vasantha Obeysekera (1984)
9 Rekava Lester James Peiris (1956)
10 Parasathumal Gamini Fonseka (1966)
10 Welikathara D. B. Nihalsinghe (1970) 

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