D.B. Nihalsinghe: The virtuoso behind the lens | Daily News

D.B. Nihalsinghe: The virtuoso behind the lens

Can a camera change your life  Can a camera be a turning point in your line of destiny In D.B. Nihalsinhge’s case, a simple 16 mm film camera was to lead to a lifelong quest for cinematic excellence.

Dr. Diongu Badaturuge Nihalsinghe, who passed away last week, was a genius behind the camera. Yet, a life behind the lens was not in his crosshairs when he was schooling. The Head Prefect and a top cadet at Ananda College, Colombo and a member of the Herman Loos trophy winning cadet platoon, Nihalsinghe was a crack shot. Naturally, he wanted to join the Army.

But his father D.B. Dhanapala, the doyen of local journalism and mother Rathi Dhanapala, a renowned sculptor, educationist and folk artist, did not favour the idea. They were looking to divert his attention away from the Army. The answer came in the form of a 16mm Bolex camera, which Dhanapala presented to his son upon completion of the SSC examination.

New camera

Dhanapala’s gift idea was a success as the young Nihalsinghe immediately took a liking to the new instrument and showed signs of becoming a great film maker from day one. He made a couple of short movies with his new camera. When university beckoned, Nihalsinghe already knew what he would be: a film maker.

Nihalsinghe entered the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya and read for a degree in Economics. While at the University he did the camera work for the first documentary to be made by University students, Niyanada Rata, directed by student K.K.L de Silva.

After leaving the University, Nihalsinghe got an opportunity to enter the film field when he was offered a job as a cameraman for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Colombo. In 1965 he was offered a post with Hearst Metrotone News on the weekly newsreel, Metro News for the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. In the meantime, he had won the Most Promising Filmmaker award for his documentary Bhakthi at the Cardiff International Film Festival in 1965.

His big break, however, came after returning to Sri Lanka when he was asked to lens and edit Sath Samudara, a Sinhala feature film. He shot the movie with an Arriflex handheld camera. This was not an easy task but Nihalsinghe managed to keep the camera steady in his hand because he had newsreel experience. This was in fact only the second Asian movie shot with this method, the first being a movie by Japanese director Kazuo Miyagawa.

He then pioneered the use of CinemaScope (which paved the way for a much wider canvas) in Asia through his Ketikathava short film. In 1971 he made award-winning Welikathara, the first CinemaScope feature film in Asia. India's first cinemascope film, Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah, was made in 1972. Nihalsinghe also became the second in Asia to use the hand held camera. Now the technique is back in vogue even in Hollywood through so-called “Found Footage” films such as Cloverfield.

He then went onto make several more award-winning movies, although Welikathara remains his most seminal work. His movie Maldeniye Simiyon won star Anoja Weerasinghe the 'Silver Peacock' for the Best Actress at the 11th Delhi International Film Festival, 1987. Kelimadala won a dozen awards at the Sarasaviya film festival. Ridi Nimnaya, another colour CinemaScope film also won rave reviews.

A little known fact about Nihalsinghe is that he was an avid collector of Marvel, DC and other comic magazines from the US. He had a huge collection of comic magazines and was inspired to use the angles depicted in some of them for his handheld shots. Their editing style was also an impetus for him.

With the success of his early movies, at the age of 29, Nihalsinghe became the youngest person to hold the post of Director of the Ceylon Government Film Unit, succeeding George Wicremasinghe. The GFU has since won a name for its excellent documentaries especially in the pre-television days.


After a two-year stint at the GFU, Nihalsinghe was invited to head the National Film Corporation as its General Manager from 1972. He increased the screen time for local movies at theaters. Sinhala films were offered around 20 percent screen time then but foreign productions were offered around 80 percent screen time. Nihalsinghe increased the screen time for Sinhala films to around 60 percent. The initiatives resulted in audience surging from 30 million in annual attendances in 1971 to an unprecedented 74 million by 1979.

Television, introduced in 1978 to Sri Lanka, presented another challenge to Nihalsinghe. He adapted quickly to the new medium and introduced Sri Lanka's and South Asia's first serial/episodic teledrama Dimuthu Muthu in 1983. He went on to direct several more teledramas which are still talked about. Telecine, South Asia's first professional television organization, too was established by him. It remains one of the country’s leading production houses.

He was also instrumental in introducing 35 mm still film to Sri Lanka to replace 120 film when he was asked to oversee the photographic requirements of the National Identity Card project. He used Praktica cameras gifted by the then East Germany and managed to establish 35 mm still film as the standard for still photography. Incidentally, Nihalsinghe’s brother D.B. Suranimala was one of the country’s best known photojournalists who also popularised the use of 35 mm film. It was just a few years ago that Sri Lankan photographers went completely digital, replacing 35 mm.


Nihalsinghe’s work was widely appreciated abroad. He is the only Sri Lankan who has been conferred Life Fellowship of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers USA, the oldest and most prestigious film organisation in the world, established in 1915.

As Dr. Lester James Peries himself humbly notes in Nihalsinhge’s biography Nihalsinghe: the Third Eye, written by film journalist Nuwan Nayanajith Kumara, “no individual in film and television in Sri Lanka has contributed in a hugely varied facets - in film and television artistry; in technical advancement; in training new talent; in administration; in exploring creating new areas (e.g. CinemaScope, video projection); discovering and launching new actors in film and television; as a film and television teacher; in documentary, still photography short film and long form in film and television. He was also a film and television lecturer and trainer.

Nihalsinghe’s five-decade contribution to the film and television industries in Sri Lanka has left a lasting legacy of pioneering techniques and indelible memories. Nihalsinghe turned the camera into an instrument for capturing emotions in motion and made it a work of art in itself. That is no small achievement. 

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