Enjoying a near five decades-old Sinhala film Kala Korner by Dee Cee It may sound rather strange but I did ‘celebrate’ the 50th wedding anniversary of Lester and Sumitra Peries recently by watching ‘Delovak Athara’ – Lester’s fourth film screened in 1966. Thanks to Torana Video Movies, I was able to enjoy the DVD from [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka



Enjoying a near five decades-old Sinhala film

Kala Korner by Dee Cee

It may sound rather strange but I did ‘celebrate’ the 50th wedding anniversary of Lester and Sumitra Peries recently by watching ‘Delovak Athara’ – Lester’s fourth film screened in 1966. Thanks to Torana Video Movies, I was able to enjoy the DVD from distant Perth.

‘Delovak Athara’ had a mixed reaction even though it did well at the box office. Having got used to a beginning, middle and an end in Sinhala films, filmgoers felt let down by the ending. Possibly, the impact made by ‘Gamperaliya’ two years earlier was too strong for them to accept the master changing to an urban theme.

The story revolved round an incident – a young man in a sports car knocking a man down in the night and vanishing. The indecision makes him suffer mentally. Him being in the company of a young female is seen as a scandal in the upper class society to which he belongs. It even leads to a breakdown of his engagement. There is a family crisis.

Seeing the film again after nearly five decades was an experience in itself. Black and white still has its own attraction. To find Tony Ranasinghe as a smart young lad in his late twenties turning out a polished performance, Suwineetha Abeysekera playing an intelligent role giving sensible advice to her friend to act according to his conscience, the usual classy performances by Iranganie Serasinghe, J.L. Gunasekera and Winston Serasinghe, a rare appearance on screen by Sujatha Jayawardena are, to me, some of the highlights of the film. My mind went back to Sunila Abeysekera as a little girl doing her role in the then home of Lester and Sumitra down Keppetipola Mawatha.

In the supporting cast were big names on stage at the time, Navananda Wijesinghe, G.W. Surendra, Tony himself, Elson Diviturugama, Wickrema Bogoda and Wijeratne Warakagoda. Somapala Dharmapriya who impressed us in ‘Rekawa’ ten years earlier, played Martin, the houseboy who made Tony feel guilty when he saw the boy locked up at the police station having been taken in as the perpetrator of the crime.

I was reminded of my own campus days listening to Nissanka (Tony) and Chitra (Suwineetha) chatting about their Peradeniya days delivering Tissa Abeysekera’s lines in exactly the jargon we undergraduates used.

The rendition of ‘Gayanageum’ by Neville Fernando, the Los Caberellos leader made the song an instant hit.

It was yet another fine combined effort by Lester’s team comprising Lester himself and Reggie Siriwardena (script -with Gamini Gunawardena joining in), Tissa Abeysekera (dialogues) Willie Blake (camera), Sumitra Gunawardena (editing), W.D. Amaradeva (music) and Anton Wickremasinghe (producer for Cine Lanka).

Lester feels ‘Delovak Athara’ made Tony into a big star. “He was an enormous success in the film.It was not the conventional Sinhala hero but a new kind of modern hero. He was very good looking at that time. The film made him so popular that a whole lot of offers came his way immediately,” he comments in ‘Lester by Lester’ where he gives his views about his films.

He also thought Iranganie was magnificent as the mother who is horrified that her son was going to ruin the family.

Talking about the team, Lester said that the film revealed Willie Blake as an extraordinary cameraman who could not only do films like ‘Gamperaliya’ and ‘Rekawa’ but also handle the very modern contemporary newsreel-like shooting. “Not exactly as untidy as a newsreel but it had the feel of a newspaper report and that came through in his work. The triumph of the film came partly from Tony’s performance and partly from the camerawork.”

Discussing the Western music score, Lester pointed out that Amaradeva produced a melody which was played by the Colombo Symphony Orchestra. This was the first time that a Western orchestra used an oriental melody and orchestrated it as the main theme for the whole film.

To Lester, ‘Delovak Athara’ is “an isolated interesting film” that he likes very much. “Whether it is totally satisfying is best left to the ordinary viewers who were not totally happy even though they came to see it. I think they came more on the strength of ‘Gamperaliya’. Although the end of ‘Gamperaliya’ was not as satisfactory as people expected, it had an ending, whereas this had none. Structurally it was a very novel kind of exercise which I would like to repeat. But these days one dare not repeat that kind of thing. At that time it was a thing worth doing.”


The unfolding story of a pioneer in the field of Astrobiology

Professor Nalin Chandra Wickramasinghe, a pioneer in the field of Astrobiology, has portrayed an inspiring story of his life and times in this book. True to its title, its chapters span across many stages of his life, starting from his boyhood days, his scientific work over the past 50 years, the ground-breaking discoveries he had made, the controversies generated in the scientific community, and the slow acceptance of his discoveries. Written in lucid non-technical language – a hallmark of a great scientist who can convey complex scientific phenomena in layman’s language – it captures the essence of his research at Cambridge, England with advice from his mentor, the renowned astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, and frontier research in the field of Astrobiology.

Chandra was awarded Ph.D and Sc.D degrees by the University of Cambridge, and in recognition of his services as Science Advisor to the President of Sri Lanka, and his role in founding the Institute of Fundamental Studies in Sri Lanka, he was awarded the title of Vidya Jyothi. He holds several other international titles. He has published over 25 books and close to 300 scientific papers.

Chandra’s narrative, written in elegant prose interspersed with poetry begins with his boyhood dreams and sense of wonder at the universe at large. He recalls his father’s influence in the direction of scientific inquiry, and schooldays at Royal College, leading up to his entry into the University of Ceylon in 1957. Through the “mist of time” he remembers the sound of the sea filtering “like a whisper through the quiet air of the night”, or gazing at the incredibly spectacular Milky Way from his residence at 35, Hildon Place, Bambalapitiya. He recollects the upbringing in the traditions of Buddhism, the short spell of two years in England at the age of seven when his father was on study leave, and myriad experiences of his boyhood years that shaped his thinking in later years.

I had the good fortune of being his class-mate during our first year in the University, but soon he was on a fast track and completed the special degree in Mathematics with First Class Honours in three years, compared to the usual four years.

The storyline then takes us to Trinity College, Cambridge, where Chandra met Sir Fred Hoyle, his mentor and research collaborator for 40 years. Fred Hoyle had by that time made a ground-breaking discovery that after a star completes its conversion of hydrogen into helium (a process that radiates energy), the next step would be the conversion of helium into carbon – a life supporting element – and thereafter thrust into outer space through supernovae (periodic stellar explosions). This discovery had given Chandra an important lead for research. Notwithstanding the demise of the Steady State Theory proposed by Fred Hoyle and others, he (Fred Hoyle) remains a great astronomer of our times, by virtue of his numerous other contributions to astronomy.

Chandra’s core area of research begins with the nature and composition of interstellar clouds located in the voids between us and the stars of the night sky. This line of inquiry was inspired by Fred Hoyle’s book, the “Black Cloud”. If the clouds are too thick in dust, they effectively block out all visible light from the stars, but in the case of clouds that are not so dense, light traversing through them is partially absorbed, and scattered by dust particles, leaving a signature of their properties on the light that is received. Although hydrogen makes up the bulk of these interstellar clouds, followed by helium, and other elements to a lesser extent, Chandra was able to identify that the dust particles in these clouds are, in fact, carbon grains.

The approach was based on precise measurements of interstellar dimming (or “extinction” as it is called), combined with calculation of the scattering and absorption cross-sections of particles of various radii, using electromagnetic theory. This was a radical departure from the prevailing view at that time that these particles consist predominantly of water-ice material, as proposed by H.C. van de Hulst and others. This work led to the publication of his first scientific paper “On Graphite Particles as Interstellar Grains” in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1962. His next major publication was a book on Interstellar Grains (1967). Further empirical testing using infrared astronomy, observations by NASA’s Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 2, and subsequent tests confirmed Chandra’ Wickremasinghe’s carbon grain theory – leading to a gradual fading out of the old water-ice grain theory.

The storyline then takes us to Chandra’s life in Cardiff, as Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics, and to the controversial field of Astrobiology – linking astronomy and biology – pioneered by him and Fred Hoyle. He recalls his mother’s admonition: “Don’t go out in the rain or evening mists, or you’ll get ill”. He wondered whether cometary viruses entering the Earth, via meteor showers could cause disease. Empirical work at that time had shown a link between the frequency of freezing nuclei in tropospheric clouds and the occurrence of meteor showers when the Earth in its orbit crosses “the trails of debris evaporated from short-period comets”. Then, bacteria and viruses riding on meteor showers and acting as freezing nuclei for rain, find their way in rain drops falling on Earth.

Chandra draws our attention to how new epidemics and pandemics in historical times as well as recent times have spread with phenomenal speed. Far back as in the nineteenth century, Charles Creighton, a distinguished epidemiologist, had studied the influenza epidemics of 1833, 1837, and 1847, and found that, according to medical opinion, populations in several areas were affected simultaneously. He had attributed this to a “miasma” descending over the land, rather than to person-to-person contact. Isn’t it extraordinary that the influenza pandemics of 1889-1890 and 1918-1919 spread across a vast area of the globe in a matter of weeks before the advent of air travel?

The narrative then takes us to his brother Dayal Wickramasinghe, Professor of Mathematics at the Australian National University, who had used infrared spectrometers to test the presence of bacteria in interstellar dust. He recalls that Dayal and D.A. Allen had “obtained the first spectra of a source known as GCIRS7 which showed a broad absorption feature centered at about 3.4 micrometres (which) agreed in a general way with the spectrum of a bacterium that we had found in the published literature”.

The latter part of the book deals with the Cosmic Theory of Life proposed by him and Fred Hoyle. By 1977, he had come to the conclusion that the chemical composition of interstellar dust, as judged by spectral features, was unequivocally organic. The new generation of infrared space telescopes (e.g. the Spitzer Space Telescope) has provided data in support of this theory. In the mid-1980s astronomers in the USA and France had independently concluded that certain infrared emission bands occurring within and outside our galaxy are due to clusters of aromatic molecules (involving hexagonal carbon ring structures).

Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe had shown later that galactic infrared emissions at 3.28 micrometres and other well defined infrared wavelengths, combined with the extinction at 2175 angstroms can be explained most elegantly on the basis of biologically generated organic molecules. Based on evidence of bacterial microfossils investigated by a number of researchers, Chandra makes a strong case for panspermia or the origins of life from the Cosmos. Notwithstanding the substantial volume of evidence available, the Cosmic Theory of Life – a radical departure from conventional theories — remains controversial, and acceptance by the scientific community remains slow. (1 angstrom cm.; 1 micrometre = 10,000 angstroms).

It is of relevance to note that panspermia has emerged as an active field of research and discussion:

*In 2009, the world renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking talked about what humans may find when venturing into space, such as the possibility of alien life through the theory of panspermia, which says that life in the form of DNA particles can be transmitted through space to habitable places.

* In March 2013, NASA announced that its Curiosity rover has discovered evidence that Mars had the conditions necessary to support life in ancient times, specifically microorganisms

* In March 2014, Vatican scientists co-hosted a conference at the University of Arizona on the “The Search for Life Beyond the Solar System: Exoplanets, Biosignature & Instruments”.

* In mid-June 2014 (at the time of writing this review), the Loyala University in Maryland, run by the Jesuits, was to conduct their 32nd Annual Cosmos & Creation with one of the keynote addresses on “Where Will We Find Life Beyond Earth”. The other was: “How Strange is Life Beyond Earth”. Both were to be delivered by Dr. Chris Impey, Professor, University of Arizona.

To conclude, I must emphasise that the autobiography is a well-balanced one giving almost equal coverage to his scientific work and to his life and times with his family, friends, and research associates. His wife Priya features prominently with her passion for cooking, her warm outgoing personality, her publications of cookery books, and her appointment at the prestigious Leith’s school of Food and Wine in London. Their sea voyages, as for example through the Suez Canal provide interesting anecdotes.

Serendipitous events enter Chandra’s stage on and off, as for example the role of his brother Dayal in his research, or the flu epidemic of 1977, which provided an opportunity for hypothesis testing. The reader also gets interesting glimpses of bureaucratic processes in academic institutions. More importantly, the autobiography gives good coverage to Chandra’s quiet moments of thought and discussions in his mountaineering trips with Fred Hoyle, his extensive travels to Sri Lanka, and to scientific conferences, meetings with critics and other researchers in Astronomy, and his interactions with the scientific community at large.

I am confident that this autobiography would be of great interest to a wide audience.

Book facts

A Destiny of  Cosmic Life: Chapters in the life of an Astrobiologist, Autobiography of Chandra Wickramasinghe. Reviewed  by Dr. Hilarian Codippily. Publisher Kandy Books. Price Rs.750


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