10th October, 2004  Volume 11, Issue 13

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    


The Monarch of Sinhala Movieland

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj 

(Continued from last week)

My formative years as a Sinhala film fan were therefore heavily influenced and shaped by Gamini Fonseka. To me and millions of other like-minded people Sinhala cinema was personified by Gamini Fonseka for a long, long time.

Notwithstanding the brilliant creators of our times who have elevated the standards of Sinhala cinema, one is unable to imagine or visualise Sinhala cinema without thinking of Gamini Fonseka. Sinhala cinema is certainly not Gamini Fonseka but without Gamini Fonseka there is no Sinhala cinema either. His death therefore marks an end of......


 Returning to the Saradiyel era

By Henry Holdenbottle 

Dearest Satty, 

There is nothing fruitier in terms of material for an old retired DBU member turned columnist, than when a government minister whips around like an enraged bull terrier and snarls at his own pack. I refer m'dear to your rural industries bloke possessed of the small mind or is he the small industries chappie possessed with the rural outlook. I quite.......


The Monarch of Sinhala Movieland

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj 

(Continued from last week)

My formative years as a Sinhala film fan were therefore heavily influenced and shaped by Gamini Fonseka. To me and millions of other like-minded people Sinhala cinema was personified by Gamini Fonseka for a long, long time.

Notwithstanding the brilliant creators of our times who have elevated the standards of Sinhala cinema, one is unable to imagine or visualise Sinhala cinema without thinking of Gamini Fonseka. Sinhala cinema is certainly not Gamini Fonseka but without Gamini Fonseka there is no Sinhala cinema either. His death therefore marks an end of an epoch!

Sembuge Gamini Shelton Fonseka was born in Dehiwela on March 21, 1936 as the third child of William and Daisy Fonseka. After initial schooling at a Presbyterian institution he went to S. Thomas' College, Mt.Lavinia. He made his mark there not as a thespian but as an artist of repute. He was capable of caricaturing school masters mercilessly.

Apart from art, young Gamini also excelled in Sinhala language and literature while at college. One of his proudest moments was when he won the Sinhala literature prize when he was in the upper fourth. He received his prize from old Thomian and first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon, D.S. Senanayake.He was also a good cricketer.

Involved in many a schoolboy skirmish, Gamini had to cut short his secondary education early. He then entered the wonderful world of films in a technical capacity. He worked under the legendary David Lean for Bridge On The River Kwai and our own Lester James Peiris on Rekawa. His association with Lester as an assistant director on Rekawa changed Gamini's destiny forever.

First appearance

Gamini's first screen appearance was Rekawa as part of a crowd. The same man went on to become a crowd puller in later life. Gamini then acted in an English television series about the antics of an Elephant Boy filmed in Sri Lanka. He was also production assistant.

His first big break in acting came with Daiwa Yogaya in 1959 where he played a secondary role. Senadheera Kuruppu and Rukmani Devi were in the lead roles. Then came Lester's Sandesaya where nominally Gamini played second fiddle to Ananda Jayaratna but stole the show from him with a stellar performance.

It was around this time films like Adata Wediya Heta Hondai, Ranmuthuduwa, Getawarayo and Dheevarayo exploded on the screen and established Gamini as a box office draw. He proved however that he was not a melodramatic actor singing, dancing and fighting alone by making his mark as a character actorin Lester's Gamperaliya that won the Golden Peacock in New Delhi. Once again Gamini was the 'third' to Henry Jayasena and Punya Heendeniya but gave a performance par excellence as Jinasena.

Titus Totawatte's Chandiya was a milestone. This was perhaps the first anti-hero role of Sinhala cinema. Gamini breathed and lived the part of a tough guy. Titus had a sequel, Chutte. It was in a way art imitating life because Gamini was in every way a chandiya in real life. Thomians of yesteryear speak volumes about his martial prowess. The benchmark of his fighting prowess was the 'historic' encounter with Dehiwela's 'strongman' Karthelis, the brother of S de S Jayasinghe.


A major reason for the naturalism in Gamini's fighting scenes was the man himself. He was a fighter both orthodox and unorthodox. He often got into brawls, always for a good cause. One such incident was at Embilipitiya circuit bungalow when the caretaker and his cronies in an intoxicated state picked a fight with the film crew on location there. Gamini pitched in with flying fists and proved that his macho image was not confined to celluloid alone. He then moved the entire crew at his expense to Tissamaharama.

There was a time when film artistes and technicians were treated rather shabbily by the film makers. Gamini changed all that to a great extent. He fought for their rights and dignity with the filmmakers, distributors, media, Film Corporation and government. Yet he was not complacent and remained concerned about their plight.

He was unhappy about the way the various regimes treated and continue to treat the film industry. At his Rajadakma Gamini advised artistes to spurn politics and went on to observe: "I have worked for both parties but no one has done any good for the film industry or artistes."

Gamini reached the peak of his popularity in the late 60's and early 70's as a romantic action hero. When Sean Connery won over the Western world as Ian Fleming's James Bond in Dr. No and From Russia With Love, Mike Wilson cashed in on the OO7 craze with a Sri Lankan version. Enter our own man with a licence to kill - Jamis Banda. Who else other than Gamini could do justice to the role in Sorungeth Soru?

There were other popular roles too with Sri Lankan versions of the famous Tamil Vallava film series starring Jaishankar and Manohar produced in Tamil Nadu by Ramasundaram of Modern Studios. Gamini was the mainstay of the Sooraya film series in Sinhala. Soorayangeth Sooraya, Edath Sooraya Adath Sooraya, Sooraya Soorayamai, Hatharadenaama Sooraya etc.

The action films of old had a simple underlying thread that good triumphs over evil. So Gamini like MGR gave us a happy feeling and inspired all to greater heights.

This success in action movies did not mean that Gamini was playing stereo-typed roles alone. Far from it! He played a variety of roles and proved his thespian skills in many. Two memorable performances were in Lester's Nidhanaya and Yuganthaya: as Willie Abeynayake and Simon Kabalana. Nidhanaya, Lester's masterpiece is the only Sinhala film to be included in the '100 Best Movies Of The World' list.

There have been several actor-directors who failed when directing themselves. It was a case of underplaying or overacting. One man who performed this dual role creditably was Hindi cinema's Raj Kapoor (Awaraa, Barsat, Shri 420 etc). In Sinhala cinema Gamini was one man whose acting did not falter when directing.

Starting fromParasathumal to others like Uthumaneni, Sagarayak Medha, Koti Waligaya, Nomiyena Minissu etc., Gamini played his roles remarkablyin those films. At the same time he stamped his auterial mark as director. One cannot place him in the class of an A plus director in Sinhala cinema, but an A minus director he certainly was.

Gamini's maiden venture

Parasathumal in particular was brilliantly directed and proved a path breaking venture. It is indeed hard to believe that Gamini was under 30 when he directed this maiden venture. After Gamini's death I borrowed a DVD of Parasathumal from a friend and viewed it again. Being in a sentimental haze perhaps I was astounded by the movie. Gamini as Bonnie Mahathmaya was simple, Gamini as director brought out fantastic performances from Punya, Anula and Tony!

Other noteworthy films where his histrionic skills were strikingly displayed were Getawarayo, Hulawali, Oba Dutu Daa, Sanasuma Kothanada, Sana keliya, Sekaya and Sarungale. His performances in films directed by him were all fabulous.

Sekaya produced by SPM movies and directed by E. Rathinam was a remake of the Tamil classic Deivapiravi. Gamini, Rita Ratnayake and Tony Ranasinghe played the roles acted by Sivaji, Padmini and SS Rajendran in the original. I had the chance of seeing both films again in my 20s. It was then that I marvelled at Gamini's performance as against that of Sivaji.Sivaji like MGR, SSR etc. came to film from the stage. Gamini like Gemini Ganesh came straight to films.

Incidently both Gamini and Sivaji were greatly influenced by Marlon Brando. Gamini combined shades of Sivaji, Brando, Brynner and Paul Newman. His primary inspiration however was Brando. The Hollywood giant passed away some months ago. Though affected by Brando it must be said to Gamini' s credit that he evolved his own fusion style and distinctive method.

Two English films starring Gamini Fonseka  that I have seen are Sitadevi and Rampage. In Manik Sandrasagara's version of the Ramayana Gamini played a modern Ravana to Bengali actress Mamta Shankar. Rampage was a Moby Dick type of man vs beast saga with an elephant as protagonist. In this, Gamini played a planter-hunter opposite Mary Tamm who also acted inFrederick Forsythe's The Odessa File.

Gamini also acted in an Indian Tamil movie Neelakkadalin Orathiley. He had two heroines Radha Saluja the Hindi actress and Sri Priya the Tamil-Telugu star. An Indian Tamil magazine review described Gamini as a koluk moluk biscuit pappa look alike. What it meant was that Gamini had "babyish" looks like the child models in advertisements for biscuits. Radha Saluja became a close friend and used to correspond with him for a long time.

Gamini however never acted in a Sri Lankan Tamil film. When reputed writer Senkai Aaliyaan's Vadaikaatru (North Wind) was filmed Gamini was approached for the Viruthasalam character role. It did not work out. But Gamini gave an astounding performance as a Tamil in Sunil Ariyaratne's Sarungale. He played Nadarajah, the Jaffna Tamil clerk in a story that highlighted both the anti-Tamil communal violence as well as the caste contradictions among Tamils.

Among places that Sarungale was filmed in was Karaveddy, my mother's ancestral village. Gamini himself was very proud of his role in that. Once in a conversation before the film's release he told me personally "any Sinhala man who sees this film will never lay hands on a Tamil again." Alas! That was not to be and not many years later came Black July 1983.

Not communal minded

But one thing that must be emphasised in the case of Gamini Fonseka is that he was a man with absolutely no trace of communalism in him. I have had only about four or five conversations with him including an interview for the Virakesari in 1978.This is not enough to gauge a man but two lengthy conversations with him convinced me of his bona fides in this respect. But there have been several people intimately knowledgeable of Gamini like Sivanandhan (now in Canada) who directed him in Oba Dutu Daa who vouch for the greatness of the man in this.

A notable feature of Sri Lankan films both Sinhala and Tamil is the multi-ethnic diversity of the industry. Sinhalese, Tamils both Sri Lankan and Indian, Muslims, Malays and Burghers have all contributed to this. The contribution of Tamils to the Sinhala film industry is massive starting from that pioneer S. M. Nayagam producing Kadawuna Poronduwa. Many leading producers, directors, cinematographers, technicians, studio owners and even some artistes have been Tamils.

Gamini acknowledged and appreciated this immense contribution by the minority communities to Sinhala cinema. He has not been afraid to state this publicly whenever the occasion arises. He did so in the Golden Jubilee celebration and also in what was perhaps his last interview given to Prasad Gunewardena and Stanley Samarasinghe.

One important reason among many for the decline in Sinhala cinema is related to the escalating ethnic conflict. The single greatest blow to Sinhala cinema was the burning of Vijaya Studios along with the film archives. Many Sinhala films including those of Gamini's have been irretrievably lost.

On politics

In conversations with Gamini I have often heard him refer to many of the country's problems including the ethnic crisis as having been caused and exacerbated by "third grade politics," "dirty politics" etc. He has often uttered these wordsin some films too. The more I read of what transpired in this country in the Donoughmore era and the post-independence years the more I am inclined to agree with Gamini. Contemporary politics of which I have enjoyed a ring side view as a journalist has only strengthened that viewpoint. Even now the selfish, irresponsible conduct of our so called leaders demonstrate that we are accelerating towards doomsday.

Unfortunately, for Gamini, he too was sucked into politics. He began involving himself in politics during the days of Dudley Senanayake as a UNP supporter. The days of JR saw Gamini take a back seat. The ascendancy of Premadasa saw him get back in the fray. In the face of JVP terror Gamini braved the odds and contested in Matara. He won and became deputy speaker. Soon disillusioned he wanted to quit but stayed on because he did not want to abandon Premadasa in the face of the impeachment crisis. As deputy speaker he conducted affairs in all three languages and without fear or favour.

He felt out of place in a UNP sans Premadasa and was soon attracted to Chandrika Kumaratunga's politics. The mid 90s was an idealistic phase where many thought Chandrika Kumaratunga was going to usher in a new era. Gamini was one who thought so too. He was first disappointed by the national list fiasco. Amends were made by making him north-east governor. He was excited at first and had many plans to develop the areas and alleviate the suffering of the people. Once again he was to be thoroughly disappointed. After frustrating agony Gamini quit.

Thereafter his advice to all film artistes was not to enter active politics. Had he followed his own advice he may have been spared heartburn and disappointment that ultimately debilitated him. If Gamini had not entered full time politics, he would have been able to contribute much to Sinhala cinema as a director and as an actor playing mature roles.

Sincere desire

He had turned to song writing too and may have impacted positively in that sphere too. One aspect that cannot be lost sight of is that Gamini never entered politics to make money or for position but from a sincere desire to serve the people and country.

He was immensely helpful to people ranging from an old schoolmaster to out of work actors and technicians. Much of his charity was done without fanfare and publicity. Some people call him proud but others have found him accessible and friendly. Gamini made it a point to attend funerals of loved ones in the industry and also visit them when ill in hospital. The genuine outpouring of grief at his death was illustrative of the esteem in which he was held by his peers.

He has acted opposite many actresses but the one whose chemistry hit it off best was Malini Fonseka. Two others who paired well with Gamini were Jeevaranee Kurukulasooriya and Veena Jayakody. According to Gamini, Sandhya Kumari was the most beautiful actress he interacted with, while Malini was the best. The best actor according To Gamini, was Joe Abeywickrema, not himself. The best director who brought out the best in Gamini as a director was Lester andGamini himself.

The film reels have run their course. The projector has ceased humming. The curtain has rolled in. The Gamini Fonseka show has ended. The lights are on again but the light has gone out of Sinhala cinema. All that we have are fond memories of the past and copies of his available movies. The memory of this monarch of Sinhala movieland will never cease. Thank you Gamini for innumerable hours of entertainment, pleasure and satisfaction. Thank you again!

Returning to the Saradiyel era

By Henry Holdenbottle 

Dearest Satty, 

There is nothing fruitier in terms of material for an old retired DBU member turned columnist, than when a government minister whips around like an enraged bull terrier and snarls at his own pack. I refer m'dear to your rural industries bloke possessed of the small mind or is he the small industries chappie possessed with the rural outlook. I quite forget. but he is also sometimes called and referred to as Lalkantha or the trade union big sans the wig.

Puffing his chest out and cackling like a turkey with laryngitis the other day, he attempted to teach the teachers of Ranil's alma mater a thing or two about union action. Rise up and strike he lectured, rapping smartly on the podium with his left forefinger and thumb. He of course did not say for what. I take it that in his book you strike for no reason. It is not a book that I have ever read or would want to, but no doubt the JVP headquarters has a library with copies.

May be they even donated one to the newly reconstructed Jaffna library. After all it is the least they could do.

He also had a tiptop solution to the rise in the cost of living (COL). You could have knocked me down with a toothpick when he boldly told the audience that the government does not need to bring down the COL. No need to cut the cost on essential items like rice and milk he said derisively. It was all I could do to keep my ears from uprooting themselves from their nicely shaped sockets. He then made a few diabolical faces for good effect. The audience gasped. And then he gave away the secret of your collective success. Grab from the rich and give to the poor instead, he told us all.

Ever since I had to get back to the dara lipa on account of one cylinder of gas costing me half my bally pension and five kilos of samba rice costing me the other half, I have been chewing on my pipe wondering with growing curiosity what the economic policy of the government could be. I have no doubt that you had one, but could not quite figure it out.

Now I know. It is the time tested Sherwood Forest economic policy. The Saradiyel mentality. The two minute noodle quick fix. And Robin Lal K. Hood is without a doubt an avid DVD enthusiast. The rural chap having newly discovered that biscope could be watched at home has been renting out the movie Robin Hood-Men In Tights and watching it 24/7. It was all the organisers could do to keep him from donning a pair of blue tights and ared tunic and prancing up and down on stage.

Consider m'dear. You have a grand total of about 10 rich chaps in the country not counting the politicos - I somehow don't think your chap meant you should carve out the newly amassed fortunes of your own blokes - this solution is going to last you exactly six months and 23 days. May be even five months and 16 days depending on how fast it takes for the deserving poor in Paradise to down a keg of moonshine. And then what will Robin L.K. Hood do? Pray tell me?

No doubt he intends to burden the professionals, the upper middle classes, the decent folk - like me. Well let me tell you dear, that is when this lansiya goes back to Oz. You paradisians have had the knack of throwing to the dogs your prime cuts of meat. And the up shot of it all. You will be left with Lalkantha and Weerawansa and admittedly other 'rogues' and 'mafia' to swim in your thousand tanks.

But does this industrious rural chap stop there. No. What does he do but go to some other forum and brand his own government a pack of rogues and thieves not to mention trade union mafia. With the media mafia and union mafia prevailing in this country it is about time you changed your name to Don Chandrika. Come to think of it, Don Correleone or Don Chandrika, no difference eh!

Back to the antics of your latest court jester. He snickers in an evil way and tells the multitude gathered that if not for the JVP, you blue chaps would not even be in power. This may well be true, but considering how he and his men infiltrated the SLFP and devoured it all together in the process making it a gonubella shell to house the new JVP gonubella, speechifying in this manner is a pariah thing to do.

Then again what can you expect from a lot who snatched 500,000 identity cards from innocent folks and are now trying to use it to cast 500,000  votes for themselves.

L.K. and his lot have also been playing 'I spy with my little eye' once too often. I take it you heard how he accused some of you of living a life of luxury and doing jack, then merrily reaping the benefits of election toiling done by the true sons of the paradisian soil like himself, Amare and the Weerawansa chappies. 'Did nothing and enjoying the fruits of our labour', the trade unionist grumbled. Sipped French wine and nibbled on caviar biscuits in the luxurious interior of the Presidential Palace decorated by a floppy wristed Parisian, and now reaping the benefits of what we sowed, he laments. I tell you from all accounts, that chap has been spying on you and Mallo.

He seems to know so much about that decadent lifestyle you so quickly acquired while living on the left bank of the Seine. The Champaigne that flows ever so often down many channels. The Epicurian tastes that get you into so much trouble with the media. The late nights and the even later arrivals.  And to think m'dear, that we thought we were the only flies to settle on your walls.

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