Kala Korner - by Dee Cee

From Spittel to Arthur
“My dear Arthur, This is just a line to tell you how very much Christine, Alistair and I enjoyed 'Sandesaya' last evening. Particularly superb was the rousing war song, almost Homeric, at the opening. It roused the blood even of me. Who wrote the song, who composed the music and who was the singer? Also exceedingly good were the agile drummer dancing with two small drums, and the lovely girl dancer. But the lullaby song dragged. Cut down by 1/2 it would make the audience wish for more. As it stands they might feel, as I did, that they have had too much.

"The Sinhalese are born actors in the colloquial medium as was used in the play. They are abominably stilted and out of depth when they use the grandiloquent medium of their dead language - as in the throne speech of yesterday.

"Here's my criticism: Cut the play down by 1/2 an hour and it will be superb. It is too long. The Portuguese outpost and your acting, though you lacked the stature, was fine. The laying waste of village as retaliation was most realistic and true to what used to happen those days. Also it was well proportioned; short, sharp, snappy and remorseless (without too much displayment of horror) - just as it should be.

"I loved the carter and his song and the rural scenes. I wonder, Arthur, whether you can get me the words of the carter's song beginning: Jhahk Kiya Kiya, Mahk Kiya Kiya, Mama dakkannang' and if you can, the translation too please....

"Heartiest congratulations to you and to Lester James Peries on your great achievement.”

This hand written letter by naturalist and social anthropologist, Dr. R. L. Spittel to actor Arthur Van Langenberg (Portuguese captain) dated 8.4.60, is the type of rare material that researcher Roland A. Fernando has included in his 328 page thesis on Lester James Peries's second film 'Sandesaya', now at the bookstalls.

Though Arthur's reply is not available, he would have provided the answers to Dr. Spittel's questions. Obviously he was referring to the warrior song 'Ko Hathuro - Ko Hathuro - Ko Apage Haturo' written by Arisen Ahubudu and sung by a chorus - Mohideen Baig, Dharmadasa Walpola, H. R. Jothipala, Sydney Attygalle and Ivor Dennis. It was a tune by Sunil Santha , who provided the tunes for all the seven songs written by Arisen Ahubudu, all of which became hits. Kanthi Gunatunga was the dancer referred to. Dharmadasa Walpola sang the carter's song while wife Latha sang the lullaby.

Roland's is the first exhaustive work on a Sinhala film and is an extremely useful dossier on all aspects of the film including cast and technical crew information, planning details, screenplay, reviews and photographs. Copies of newspaper advertisements, posters and other publicity materials give an insight as to how publicity was done in the early days of the Sinhala cinema.

The photo copies of call sheets published in the book reveal what a meticulous director Lester is. He has made so many notes on the typed scripts.

Successful run

Roland has tracked down the progress of the film from the day it was released. The proceeds of the first show held on April 10, 1960 at the Sapphire cinema were donated to the Deaf & Blind Fund. The film was screened at 25 cinemas but due to its popularity increased to 30 by the fourth week. This was the first time that a Sinhala film was being shown in 30 cinemas since the first film, Kadavunu Poronduwa' (1947). 65 films had been screened between 1947- 1960. He also reveals that 'Sandesaya' recorded the largest number of prints (132) for a single Sinhala film. In the 25th week the film was being shown at 18 cinemas including Colombo's popular cinema, Gamini which had four daily screenings.

There is many an interesting tale related about the film. The key location at Belihuloya was chosen quite by accident. Lester relates how he and cameraman Willie Blake were on their way to Wellawaya when the car they were travelling in, broke down about a mile this side of Belihuloya rest house. While the car was being repaired, they took a stroll in the lonely mountainous area. They climbed a little hillock and behold - here was the location they were looking for! Within a six miles radius, they found the exact sites they wanted - a low country village, location for a Portuguese fort, a range of mountains demarcating the Kandyan kingdom and the low country, and a cave where the rebels could take shelter.

The building of the fort (designed by well-known sculptor Ariyawansa Weerakkody)was a gigantic task. Once completed it gave shelter to 123 persons for six months at the end of which it was blown up to provide the most thrilling experience for Sinhala cinemagoers who got a treat with a historical masterpiece by the foremost filmmaker in Sri Lanka.

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