Veteran filmmaker’s venture draws a blank

A disheartened and frustrated GDL of Dahasak Sithuvili fame, laments how his dreams for his Theatre School have been dashed
By Rajitha Weerakoon

Long before President Rajapaksa made the request for expatriate Lankans to return and serve the motherland after the end of the 30-year war, G.D.L. Perera (better known as GDL) had returned to Sri Lanka. He came back with wife Gitanjali in 2002, some 30 years after they left the island at a time when many were packing up and leaving to calmer climes.

GDL had the option of enjoying a comfortable retirement in London on a sterling pension having worked in some exclusive international cinema and TV related establishments. His choice however, was to return and serve the country using the knowledge he had acquired abroad. With Sri Lankan youth entering the film industry devoid of formal training, GDL’s vision was to set up a film training school in Sri Lanka offering a two-year full time residential TV and cinema study course. Each batch was to have 40 students with a syllabus which he believed would contribute towards the elevation of Sri Lankan cinema and TV.

And he wanted the Film Training School to be located in an aesthetic setting as befits the medium. Whether he saw the fruition of his labour of love is another story.

Salubrious setting: The film school on the banks of the Victoria reservoir

GDL made his presence felt on stage and cinema in the 1960s and introduced many of today’s veterans to the cinema screen including Malini Fonseka and Nilanthi Wijesinghe, producing ten stage plays and films.

He won the award for the Best Stage Play in 1964 for his “Thotupola” at the then annual Drama Competition organized by the Department of Culture. His heroine in “Mehev Lovak” - Leoni Weerasinghe was the Best Actress in 1962 and his first film “Saama” was one of the two films (the other being Gamperaliya) to be invited for screening at the Commonwealth Film Festival in London in 1965, and was acclaimed as a landmark at the Festival.

The winner however was “Dahasak Sithuvili” which brought GDL the coveted Best Director’s Award at the annual Sarasaviya Film Festival in 1968 while the Film Critics’ and Journalists’ Guild, a powerful body at the time, awarded the film The Best Script, The Best Cameraman and The Best Editor including a Special Award for the Best Production. “Dahasak Sithuvili” paved the way for GDL to become the first Lankan to follow a course for six-months in Film Appreciation organized by UNESCO at the famed Film Institute of India in Poone where lecturers included celebrated Indian film-maker Satyajit Rai.

On the strength of the success of “Dahasak Sithuvili” GDL was awarded a fulltime two-year scholarship in 1969 by the British Council to study all aspects of the film industry at the London School of Film Techniques. Sumitra Peries was the only other Sri Lankan before GDL to have followed a course at this prestigious institution.

Job opportunities flowed with the completion of the scholarship and GDL joined Pinewood Studios, the giant film studio in Buckinghamshire which made James Bond, Spielberg films, the Titanic and Superman series. GDL functioned as Assistant Production Manager in the Superman series. Three years later, GDL joined the leading film distribution group Classic Cinemas and his next break came eight years later when he was appointed General Manager of the Lumiere Cinema Circuit (LCC). “Lumiere,” the flagship of the LCC, located in London’s plush West End and the National Film Theatre of the British Film Institute were screening outstanding films every year as Royal Charity Shows and GDL in 1986, was responsible for the screening of “Carmen” – the film version of the opera under the patronage of the Duchess of York.

His last crossover was to the BBC when GDL joined BBC’s South East Asian programmes in 1990 as Sandesaya’s art critic. GDL returned to Sri Lanka as the BBC’s Marketing Manager with the BBC opening a Regional Office in Colombo. Five years later, GDL who had turned 65 at the time wound up with the BBC locating its Regional Office in Delhi.

GDL: A dejected man

Although GDL’s TV series “Ratagiya Aththo” got a primetime slot on Rupavahini in the 1980s, his children’s film “Peter of the Elephant,” made while working in Sri Lanka for a foreign company, is yet to be screened in Sri Lanka. This film, shot with a local cast of child actors and veterans which included Joe Abeywickrema and Malini Fonseka, has been screened in the west. GDL says that even if it cannot be screened in our theatres due to technical reasons, it could be shown on TV channels.

Meanwhile chasing his dream of establishing a Theatre School, GDL bought two and a half acres of land on the banks of the Victoria reservoir in the salubrious Kandyan village of Karalliyadde in 1986 to build the school against the verdant hills.

Initially he met relevant Ministers, Chairmen and authorities of the Film Corporation, Rupavahini and the Cultural Department before whom he placed his plans, seeking their assistance to fill a much needed requirement of establishing a film-training school. Even though the Sinhala Cinema at the time was nearing half a century of existence, we lacked a training school.

There was no response. GDL set out on his own and commenced the construction of the school. Then bureaucracy blocked his way. He was charged in Courts on the grounds that a property developer from London had encroached on crown land and was building on land allocated to the Mahaweli project. It dragged on for two years but GDL eventually won the case.

Disheartened, GDL returned to London and joined the BBC in 1990. By 2002 however, the buildings had come up well stocked with sophisticated equipment and all facilities costing him over Rs. 10 million. GDL returned to Sri Lanka once again and without seeking further assistance, set up the Meda Dumbara Kalagaraya and along with his wife Gitanjali, commenced training the poor, underprivileged youth from the surrounding villages in all aspects of acting and production free of charge.

GDL made ten productions at his own cost – two teledramas, two stage plays including a revival of his former award-winning stage play “Thotupola” with these youth of the Kandyan villages. His black and white film “Lakshmi, Maya and Sugath” is one where GDL’s cinematic creativity and the poignance of the theme is eloquently portrayed by a dedicated amateur cast of Sinhalese and Tamil girls and boys. The students are well trained in all aspects of the cinematic art.

Some of these productions were staged and screened at the Punchi Theatre, Borella for invitees with copies given to the relevant authorities to display the talents of these youth. The intention was to seek an opening for them. Opportunities however are yet to knock on their doors.

Now taking a long, hard look at the futility of his efforts of the last 10 years, GDL asks himself whether his stay in Sri Lanka serves any purpose. His time he feels would be better utilized in London where he can engage in drama and film productions of the BBC or in motion pictures. Several other disappointed expatriate-returnees who had made similar sacrifices are weighing their options.

GDL’s studio in Karalliyadde built for the advancement of the arts in the meantime, is up for sale. He has received offers but it is to set up a tourist hotel. It is still not too late for those in the right places to take remedial measures, turn the tide and set things right as it is Sri Lanka that stands to gain.

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