As I look back twelve years when Sri Lanka’s most accomplished and versatile actor breathed his last, I recall how he made an indelible mark as a film director exactly fifty years ago. It was on September 30, 2004 that Gamini Fonseka departed and 38 years earlier, in 1966, he took up the challenge of [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Gamini: The actor that the fans were waiting for


Gamini the actor

As I look back twelve years when Sri Lanka’s most accomplished and versatile actor breathed his last, I recall how he made an indelible mark as a film director exactly fifty years ago. It was on September 30, 2004 that Gamini Fonseka departed and 38 years earlier, in 1966, he took up the challenge of directing his first film, ‘Parasathumal’. That was an instant hit and broke box-office records.

By the time he agreed to try his hand at direction, he had secured his place as the skilled actor that the Sinhala cinema was waiting for.  During our schooldays there were hardly any Sinhala films worth talking about. So we never missed a Hindi film with Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand or Bharath Bhooshan. They were our heroes. Nargis, Madhubala, Niutan and Vyjayanthimala were among the leading actresses. Most of the films had music by Naushad or S.D. Burman coupled with the voices of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohamad Rafi and Mukesh. True we didn’t understand the dialogue or the words in the songs but it didn’t matter. It didn’t take long to pick up the catchy tunes.

Things started changing after the mid-1950s with the arrival of Lester James Peries. He had the knack of picking the right players. From a technical assistant in his maiden feature film ‘Rekava’ (1956) LJP picked Gamini for a tough guy’s role in his second film, ‘Sandesaya’ (1960). The actor that the fans were waiting for had arrived. Gamini stole the show from Ananda Jayaratne, the much-in-demand romantic hero of the day. He was Jinasena, the rural type in ‘Gamperaliya’ (1964) – a totally different character. Once again he gave a run to Henry Jayasena, who played the lead role as Piyal.  He never looked back thereafter.

In a way, in the early years Gamini was really lucky. Within the first six years in the 1960s, he was offered lead roles in almost all the better quality films. While he didn’t say ‘no’ to what most of us felt were “cheap or meaningless”, his performances in some of the ‘better’ films those days became immortal. How we enjoyed them in an era when Sinhala cinema got into the right track. Among the films he appeared in were ‘Getawarayo’ and ‘Ranmuthu Duwa’ (Tissa Liyansuriya and Mike Wilson),  ‘Dheevarayo’ (M.Mastan), ‘SudoSudu’ (Robin Tampoe), ‘ Chandiya’ (Titus Totawatte), ‘Senasuma Kothanada’ (K.A.W. Perera) and ‘Seethala Watura’ (Dharma Sri Caldera).

Gamini the film maker

When I started writing ‘The Arts’ column in the Sunday Observer in 1967, I wrote: “Gamini is right on top. He has appeared in more than 25 films (in ten years) and acts in no less than five films right now. He is still the most sought after actor.”

By the time the invitation came to him to direct ‘Parasathumal’, he was a seasoned actor having gained experience under most, if not all, of the country’s filmmakers.

School teacher, poet and radio drama script-writer P.K.D Seneviratne from Hakgalla had proved himself as one who could portray authentic rural life in Sri Lanka. He was capable of challenging the themes in Indian films with genuine native stuff. His film scripts, ‘Kurulu Bedda (1961) and ‘Sikuru Tharuwa’ (1963) demonstrated that authenticity. Appearing in these two films were D.R. Nanayakkara and Punya Heendeniya who played the key roles exactly the way PKD had intended. Next came ‘Parasathumal’ which a businessman from Gampaha, Chitra Balasuriya thought to be ideal to break into film production. Gamini found the theme interesting and exciting not only to try his hand at direction but also play the lead role of Bonnie Mahattaya, the happy-go-lucky rich bachelor in the village whose life was one of wine, women and song. Playing opposite him was Punya Heendeniya as the well brought up village damsel whom Bonnie Mahattaya was eyeing. Both played their roles most convincingly.

The film was also the turning point in the career of virtual newcomer Anula Karunatilleka who showed her talents playing alongside seasoned actors like Shantilekha, Tony Ranasinghe, Joe Abeywickrema and D.R. Nanayakkara. Gamini possibly got a free hand to select the supporting players all of whom contributed their share for the success of the film.

‘Parasathumal’ was a fine example of a team effort with Sunitta Amarasinghe’s photography, Titus Totawatte’s editing, Lionel Algama’s music direction and Hemapala Dharmapriya’s art direction helping to make Gamini’s maiden effort at direction a memorable one. Two songs composed by Mahagama Sekara, one sung by Pandit Amaradeva and the other by Sujatha Attanayake summed up the theme beautifully.

“This film deals with individual desires and their un-fulfilment in societies that enforce complex social restraints”, was how Wimal Dissanayake and Ashley Ratnavibhushana described it in ‘Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema’.

Evaluating Gamini as one of the most gifted and versatile actors in Sri Lanka who had been closely associated with the artistic as well as commercial cinema, they commented on his role as a director after ‘Parasathumal’. “We next meet Gamini Fonseka as a filmmaker in the 1980s. By this time he had developed a penchant for making films with a direct political message.He was concerned to analyse such concepts as freedom, justice, equality, fair-play in a somewhat melodramatic manner. ‘Utumaneni’ made in 1980 belongs to this category. ‘Sagarayak Meda’ (1981), ‘Koti Valigaya’ (1986), ‘Anthima Rathriya’ (1988) and ‘Nomiyena Minissu’ (1994) manifest his eagerness to focus on political experiences. Although there is a certain superficial allure to these films, they fail to add up and explore cogently and in depth the contours of the political experiences that they seek to explore.”

Gamini Fonseka departed at 68 after moving away from filmmaking fairly early in life. By then he had acted in 96 films and directed nine. Eight of the nine films he directed were done between1980-98.

Sri Lankan cinema is yet to find such a gifted actor coupled with such ability in film-making.

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