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Sri Lankan cinema and indian influence

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In the 1940s, S.M. Nayagam, an Indian Tamil and Colombo based businessman set up a company – Chitrakala Movietone and built Chitrakala Studio in Madurai to make films in Tamil and Sinhala. He made his first Tamil film, ‘Kumaraguru’ in 1946 and was keen to do a Sinhala film. Seeing the commercial value of a popular stage play – ‘Kadavunu Poronduwa’ (Broken Promise), produced by Minerva Company in Negombo, which had a run of over 800 shows, he negotiated with producer B.A. W. Jayamanne to do a film based on it. Thus the first Sinhala feature film was born 66 years ago -in 1947.

The film made in India was directed by a Bengali, Jyotiosh Singh and all the technicians were Indian. The assistant director was an Indian Tamil, S. Soundararajah and the music was composed by NarayanaIyer. The assistant music director R. Muthusamy hailing from Tamilnadu was to permanently settle down in Sri Lanka and became a popular film music director.

The group of Minerva Players led by Eddie Jayamanne and Rukmani Devi were taken to India in June 1946 for the shooting and the film was released on January 1, 1947 in Colombo and eight other centres including Kandy, Galle and Trincomalee. The premiere held at Kingsley Theatre was attended by Minister of Agriculture, D.S. Senanayake who was to become prime minister of Independent Sri Lanka a year later.

A still from ‘Kadavunu Poronduwa’

Tracing this background in ‘Early Sri Lankan Cinema and its association with the South Indian Film Industry’, Ashley Ratnavibhushana and M.L.M. Mansoor recall how by the early 1940s, cinema emerged as a form of modern entertainment and local audiences were completely taken up by the South Indian films. “Therefore, the emerging film makers of Sri Lanka who were so anxious to exploit this new medium for their commercial advantage were looking forward to South India for the realisation of their dreams. In short, the South Indian cinema was setting the trend in entertainment.” The authors refer to Nayagam’s move as an umbilical link between South India and Sinhala cinema that continued to remain intact for about two decades.“The early years of Sri Lankan cinemawas characterised by an unmistakeable influence of South India�The impact was pervasive and profound.”

Perturbed by the then prevalent trend of imitating South Indian films, Sirisena Wimalaweera (1900-63), a prominent writer and dramatist as well as an ardent nationalist gave leadership to a movement that spearheaded the indigenisation of Sri Lankan cinema and produced ‘Amma’ (1949) and ‘PitisaraKella’ (1953) utilising local talent. He established the Navajeevan Studio at Kiribathgoda in 1951 to make films locally

Referring to a formula taking shape for the making of successful Sinhala films Ashley R and Mansoor write: “Cinema was conceived as a family art, which would provide entertainment to the family as a whole. It was a combination of folk dance, drama and moral edification. Since the South Indian cinema was influenced by Hindi cinema that in turn had an impact on the emerging Sinhala cinema as well. The advent of the Sinhala talkie in the then colonial Ceylon was indeed an important event in the cultural history of our island nation. However, several writers and commentators were rather cautious in welcoming this new cultural product, given its strong umbilical cord relationship with the South Indian popular cinema. “

Chittampalam Gardiner (1899-1960), a Jaffna Tamil from Achchuveli was a pioneer in the entertainment industry and had started exhibiting movies through Ceylon Theatres Limited since 1928. He was keen on making Sinhala films and readily agreed to produce ‘Asokamala’ when its script writer Shanthi Kumar Seneviratne approached him. The shooting commenced at Central Studio, Coimbatore with T.R.Gopu, an editor in the Studio, joining Shanthi Kumar as co-director. The camera was handled by M. Masthan, who later directed several Sinhala films. “The trend set by the fore-runner ‘Kadavunu Poronduwa’ of unabashedly copying the formula-ridden South Indian cinema- was deepened by ‘Asokamala’ (released in April 1947) and the critics of the time including the doyen of Sinhala letters Martin Wickramasinghe, justifiably, were very harsh in their reviews”, the authors say. In a lengthy review, Martin Wickramasinghe pointed out that the film not only distorted history but also misinterpreted the so-called historical divide between the Sinhala and Tamil people.

‘Sujatha’ (1953), a remake of the Hindi film ‘Badi Behan’ described by the authors as “perhaps first Sinhala film that completely suited to the label of ‘popular cinema’” was a runaway hit. As a trend setter for the subsequent Sinhala films made in the 1950s, it further entrenched the Indian influence on the Sinhala film. The first box-office hit that brought substantial gains to the producer, the film was instrumental in tightening the grip of the Indian popular cinema on the Sinhala movie. A natural outcome was the remaking of a large number of Tamil and Hindi films in Sinhala. These included ‘Varada Kageda’ & ‘Ahankara Sthree’ (1954), ‘Matalang’ (1955), ‘Dostara’ &‘Duppathage Duka’ (1956).

‘Sujatha’ was produced by K. Gunaratnam and directed by T.R. Sundaram, an icon of the early South Indian cinema. The music director was V. Dakshinamurti and Subha Rao and M. Mastan handled the camera. Gunaratnam (1917-89), a Jaffna Tamil by birth, played a key role in the growth of the early Sinhala cinema as a film exhibitor, producer and studio owner. He also provided a new dimension to playback singing by engaging Indian playback singers for his movies. From ‘Sujatha’ onwards, he engaged the most popular South Indian singers Jamuna Rani, K.Rani and A.M. Raja who thrilled the Sinhala audiences with songs such as ‘Premalokenivigiya’ and ’Premagange’. The lead players Prem Jayanth and Florida Jayalath achieved overnight stardom in Sinhala cinema.

This is just a glimpse of the in-depth study by Ashley R and Mansoor bringing out some interesting facts on the birth, infancy and the formative years of the Sinhala cinema, which they admit, had remained a difficult and frustrating task. With most of the South Indians and Sri Lankans involved in the film industry during that period being no longer with us and even those who are still around finding it difficult to recollect what happened then, the paucity of literature and information make the task even more difficult. Yet they have achieved a lot through interviews, discussions and unearthing whatever material was available in South India and Sri Lanka. They must be commended for the seriousness with which they have done the job producing a near 200 page publication comprising 17 chapters. It is published by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) and Asian Film Centre AFC).

Identifying the 1950s decade as the peak of Indian influence, they sum up by saying that the late 1950s and 1960s witnessed the emergence of a class of film makers whose avant garde creations and experiments in the cinematic medium, as a form of visual art, slowly but firmly laid a foundation for an indigenous film industry, in which both mainstream commercial cinema and art cinema co-existed, totally cutting the umbilical cord with South India.

The interesting paradox here is the sheer inability of Tamil main stream cinema to accommodate artistic films into its fold, even after eight decades of its birth, whereas, by the 1970s, creative and innovative film makers of the calibre of Lester James Peries, Dharmasena Pathiraja, Vasantha Obeysekera and D.B. Nihalsingha had established themselves as a force to reckon with in mainstream Sinhala cinema.