Ti Mahattaya: Yet another Sinhala cinema pioneer departs

Kala Korner by Dee Cee

Another stalwart in Sri Lankan cinema bade good-bye a week ago. Reputed film editor, director Titus Totawatta – fondly called 'Ti Mahattaya' is no more.

Having contributed much to improve the editing aspect of Sinhala films, he showed his talent by directing a number of films, including the award winning 'Handaya' – the first Sinhala children's film in which Henry Jayasena turned out a superb performance.His contribution towards presenting something fresh on local television was even more noteworthy. A user of the correct and appropriate Sinhala idiom, he cleverly dubbed English cartoons and gave them his own unique Sinhala dialogue on Rupavahini- the national TV, in the 1980s. That is how 'Pissu Poosa' and 'Dostara Hondahitha' became very popular feature programmes in the early days of Rupavahini.

"A pride of Ananda" was how the principal of Ananda College referred to him when Totawatta was felicitated two years ago. He was not in the best of health then - yet he graced the occasion and followed the proceedings with a smile. A junior old Anandian, journalist Nuwan Ranjith Kumara presented him with a fine study of Totawatta's contribution to cinema and television after an exhaustive study. 'Sonduru Adiyuru Sakasuvano' (The human director and editor) was a fitting tribute to Totawatta.

Taking the bold step of leaving the Government Film Unit along with Dr. Lester James Peries, he was in the 'Rekava' team helping to create a meaningful Sinhala film at a time when Sinhala cinema was a mere copy of the South Indian. He was editor of both Lester's early films 'Rekava' and 'Sandesaya' in the mid-1950s. Sumithra Peries recalled recently how she met Totawatta in Paris when he went there with Lester taking 'Rekava' for the Cannes Festival and how she was the understudy and learnt a lot under him when editing 'Sandesaya'.

He was in great demand as a film editor. His clever editing helped in no small measure in the success of films like 'Getawarayo', 'Ran Muthu Duwa', 'Dheevarayo', 'Parasathu Mal' and 'Saravita' .

Totawatta had the knack of turning out box office hits when he moved over to directing films. He was mindful of not falling into the trap of making cheap stuff. His 'Chandiya', 'Hara Lakse' and 'Maruva samaga vaase' were fine examples of good entertaining films. He picked his plots from some of the most talked about crimes of the day. 'Hara Lakse' was based on the famous Ceylon Turf Club robbery involving four lakhs of rupees – a princely sum five decades ago and 'Maruva Samaga Vaase' was based on the daring character Maru Sira. Totawatta created a sensation by having the car (it was one of the big cars of the day) involved in the robbery displayed on a huge hoarding opposite Gamini Hall – the cinema where the film was screened.

Totawatta's pioneering efforts in Rupavahini were highly appreciated. Henry Jayasena who was head of programmes at Rupavahini recognised his talent by mentioning that the Dubbing Unit did a marvellous job under Totawatta with programmes such as 'Dostara Honda Hitha', 'Loku Baas - Podi Baas' and several children's programmes. "Most of the time he wrote the dialogues himself - often adapting the story line and the plot and the wisecracks to suit our audiences. He even achieved subtle humour and irony on some of our politicians and other public figures", Jayasena wrote.

Totawatta got lyrics for his dubbed programmes written by well known lyricists. Premakeerthi de Alwis' creation 'Baey kiyala baei kiyala bae' in 'Dostara Honda Hitha' was hummed by viewers long after the series had ended.

Totawatta was uncompromising, frank and forthright. At his felicitation, his chief disciple Athula Ransirilal related the story of how one day when both of them were busy at work, someone walked into the room and wanted to talk to him. He ignored the uninvited guest when after about 20 minutes, the visitor had announced that he had been sent by a VIP and mentioned a politico's name. Totawatta did not even bother to look at him. Instead, he made a pithy remark to Athula and the visitor made a quick exit.

Possibly Totawatta's independence and unwillingness to ask for favours made the authorities virtually forget him during his last years. Yet those who knew of his contribution towards the upliftment of Sinhala cinema and the local television scene will not easily forget him.

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