On September 30, 2004, 11 years ago Sri Lanka’s heroic epoch era of Sinhala cinema died, alongside the sudden demise of a legendary film personality and politician. It was comparable to the shutting down of the screen of the Sinhala cinema where he stood very tall for nearly three decades dominating in many spheres spaced [...]

Sunday Times 2

A shadow over the silver screen

Remembering Gamini Fonseka, the emperor of Sinhala cinema on his 80th birthday

Gamini's genius was evident by his portrayal in "Nidhanaya."

On September 30, 2004, 11 years ago Sri Lanka’s heroic epoch era of Sinhala cinema died, alongside the sudden demise of a legendary film personality and politician. It was comparable to the shutting down of the screen of the Sinhala cinema where he stood very tall for nearly three decades dominating in many spheres spaced out from his unique, distinctive and own inimitable styles of acting.

Sembuge Gamini Shelton Fonseka is regarded as the emperor of the Sri Lankan silver screen and first crowned king before Joe Abeywickrema, Tony Ranasinghe and Vijaya Kumaratunga.

Gamini Fonseka was born on March 21, 1936 in Dehiwala the third child of William and Daisy Fonseka. He started school at Presbyterian Girls School along Station road, Dehiwala, located in his neighbourhood. Later, Gamini was admitted to prestigious S.Thomas’ College Mt Lavinia.

As a youngster, he had impressed with his innate talents when he gained a reputation for imitating college teachers. Gamini when young had shown his talents in the study of the Sinhalese language cum literature. D.S Jayasekara who was his first mentor later became the Head Master of the College. It was he who introduced Gamini to acting in stage plays in College as he had recognised in abundance his acting instincts and skills. The pedestal and footing for his fitting to be a renowned actor was laid while at S.Thomas’ College itself.

His acting hailed, acclaimed and much-admired when he was in the upper fourth class -  was nominated and awarded a Sinhala literature prize. The award for this achievement was presented to him by an imminent old boy of S. Thomas’ College, a graduate, and barrister from Cambridge University, Sri Lankan Prime Minister D.S Senanayake.

Gamini also excelled as a gifted and talented cricketer. He had an abrupt end to his College career at S. Thomas’ before completing his secondary education as he was eying an opening in the Sinhala cinema.

Gamini Fonseka married his adored teenage girl friend, Dorothy Margaret Valencia also known as Tina in 1962 with whom he had been intimately and emotionally involved during his teen years. The couple were blessed with four children Chamila, Thanuja, Damith and Ishara. His son Damith too inherited his talents and successfully had a short stint in the cinematic field. He remained legally married to his wife Tina until his death on September 30, 2004, over eleven years ago, when he was 68 years old at his Ja Ela residence.

Before the legendary Gamini Fonseka entered Sinhala cinema, our industry was struggling as it was totally dependent on the umbilical string of the South Indian cinema when it was plunged into their ditch. The legend was chiefly instrumental in changing the infancy status of our film industry which was at an immature stage for decades. Of course the South Indian films made with high technology were impressive and to break that trend and hoodoo was his desire which he to a great degree succeeded by acting, directing and editing mostly his own creations.

He brought in a cosmopolitan type of acting twisted to indigenous home grown types of films which made a radical sweeping which rejuvenated, thus uplifting our cinema to a very sky-scraping magnitude. For this theatrical change we should all be indebted to this genius actor and director editor of numerous spectacular and fabulous films. In short he freed single handedly those in our industry from further suffocation from the South Indian film obsession.

At the time he launched on this revolutionary and avant-garde task he was very fortunate to meet and to heed professional advice and guidance from a legend in the field Dr. Lester James Pieris and hence was equipped to take stiff challenges with his knowledge of a trilingual tongue. This was an advantage as he could converse with people of the calibre of K.Gunaratnam, Alfred Thambiah, Robin Tampoe, S.Nayagam, M Selvaratnam etc. apart from being an old boy of S.Thomas’ College.

Gamini was seen as the budding celebrity who would be effortlessly competent to revolutionise the silver screen. Before he launched into acting, he gained invaluable experience in technical aspects of film making, closely associating David Lean who made the film – Bridge on the River Kwai. That was influential in keeping Gamini in superior stead to make his individual creations beginning with “Parasathumal” which stimulated and motivated film fans in the early 1960s and his name was on the lips of every family entity. His first major appearance was in the film “Sandeshaya”. Gamini was a genius and hero in both commercial and artistic films which was comprehensively proved by his portrayals in roles in “Gamperaliya” and “Nidhanaya” the characters of Jinadasa in the former and Willie Abeynayake in “Sandeshaya”.

It was a natural phenomenon for films in which Gamini Fonseka portrayed lead roles to make box office records by running continuously for 100 days on film circuits. He possessed unparalleled talents and could indulge in stunts aerobatics and fights. Once when he acted in “Demodara Palama” when he was 60 years old he had to jump off a helicopter on to a bridge which the director wanted to perform with a stunt. He had gallantly said “no stunts”. Once he has had to dive 40 feet into the deep sea in “Ranmuthuduwa” which he portrayed without panicking. All such scenes were completed in his own inimitable style which scarcely an actor could emulate easily.

With time Gamini displayed his skills in the film industry to embark upon social and political themes that were relatively inconsistent with his preceding creations. One would bear in mind how Gamini queried the inequities in the judicial structure in the country in his film “Uthumaneni.” In “Sagarayak Meda” that truthfully irritated then Cabinet Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Gamini courageously challenged the rampant political supremacy of a Cabinet Minister frenzied with unconditional authority and a doctor persecuted under such a rule. Later, in “Sarungale” and “Nomiyena Minissu” he went into the intensity of complexities of the racial topic that obsessed civilization. Gamini was very honest in his convictions. When he called it a day from acting he had acted in 108 films, 86 in the lead role and 19 as the supporting actor. He had directed 10 films and produced two films.

Gamini had almost each year from 1964 to 1997 won a Sarasaviya award for the best actor, best supporting actor, best director and in the year 1997 was awarded the commemorative award of U.W Sumapthipala.

He withdrew from the cinema to waste his valuable time as a politician in 1988. UNP Presidential candidate Ranasinghe Premadasa, a long-standing friend of Gamini’s convinced the latter in the centre of the uproar of the second JVP rebellion to battle in the Matara district. Gamini accepted the bid proposed and advantageously contested the polls to be made the Deputy Speaker in Parliament. He presided over turbulent sessions but was highly respected by both sides of the House for his neutrality. As a member, he criticized the Premadasa management when the effects of its rule did not benefit the people. He gave innovative existence and recognition to the office of the Deputy Speaker.

After the change of government in the mid 1990s Gamini Fonseka was named the Governor of the North-East region by the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

Gamini Fonseka was a man who brought dignity to every sphere he was involved in. Today actors and actresses are treated with dignity and high esteem by film producers and directors because Gamini established self-esteem in the acting occupation. He left an inheritance to pursue and not to facsimile. Anyone who attempts to copy Gamini Fonseka would be unsuccessful.

Gamini’s mentor Lester James Peiris had forecast that another Gamini Fonseka will not be born in this country for the next thousand years. Accordingly to him, the gigantic void created by Gamini’s death in 2004 will not be filled for the next thousand years. Gamini Fonseka was a larger-than-life figure in every way. Physically he had a superior heart to a standard human being and that could have been a reason for his sturdy temperament, power and influence.

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