Ti mahattaya established art of dubbing in Sri Lanka - Athula Ransirilal | Sunday Observer

Ti mahattaya established art of dubbing in Sri Lanka - Athula Ransirilal

24 October, 2021

The late veteran film maker, editor and the pioneer in television dubbing art in Sri Lanka, Titus Thotawatte's 10th death anniversary fell on October 15. As the Director of Film and Dubbing Unite at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, he could present iconic tele-series such as Oshin, Kung Fu, Monkey, Robin of Sherwood, Malgudi Days as dubbed works. There are hundreds of dubbed tele-dramas, films, cartoons and documentaries he brought for viewers. The Sunday Observer spoke to Athula Ransirilal, a pupil of Thotawatte and the Director of Film and Dubbing Unit at the Rupavahini Corporation, to discuss Titus Thotawatte's service to the Sinhala television dubbing art.


Q: First, tell us how you met Titus Thotawatte?

A: I met him at the Rupavahini Corporation in 1984. At the time, I worked under Madawala S. Rathnayake at the Documentary Unit. Those days, there wasn't a Film and Dubbing Unit. One day, I heard that Ti mahattaya (we affectionately called him Ti mahattaya) was going to start cartoons in Sinhala at Rupavahini. We all were excited about that. We got to know that he was searching for children who were capable of singing, to dub his cartoon-songs. I was working at the Sambuddha Jayanthi Sunday school as a teacher in Sri Sunandaramaya, Kalubowila.

As there was a children's chorus in this school which came first every year at the all Island singing competition, I introduced them to Ti mahattaya - among the chorus, there were now prominent names such as Deepika Priyadarshani Pieris, Ravindra Munasinghe and K.W. Janaranjana. In this way, the Sinhala dubbed cartoons were started at Rupavahini with our children's singing. Ti mahattaya was much satisfied with the young chorus. He kept them as a permanent chorus for his cartoons. The music producer of them was Somapala Rathnayake.

This was how a companionship between Ti mahattaya and I developed. People at Rupavahini were afraid of Ti mahattaya. Rarely, they went up to him, because he was strict. As a result, I was one of a few who associated Ti mahattaya. One day, he asked me to move to his Dubbing Unit. But he stressed that I should be able to work from morning to night. This was the first half of 1985. I took the challenge and got transferred from the Documentary Unit to the Dubbing Unit. From there on, I had been working with him for more than 10 years.

Q: What are the memorable occasions with him?

A: I especially remember how we produced Dosthara Honda Hitha. The original movie for the cartoon was Doctor Doolittle which was produced from 16 mm negatives. While the movie was being played, I had to note down the dialogues. Ti mahattaya was a radical character.

He dared to reject the original story and add a new story to the movie if he was not satisfied. I sometimes saw he changed the story from the beginning to the end. This was a great experience to me, because I learned how to change an original story to suit our society or to create a powerful story.

Ti mahattaya came to office at 5 A.M. He continued his work until 11 P.M. He taught us how to commit ourselves for a work. He never undertook all the work, he divided them among us so that we could also learn them. Under his direction, I had to copy the story. I did that after I went home.

Q: Titus Thotawatte thought dubbing was an art, not a mechanical work?

A: He practically showed it. All the dubbing works of him attest to this fact. When he was into a dubbing work, he focused on every bit of it. He included most suitable lyrics and dialogues. He also needed to establish the story in this soil. For instance, when he produced the cartoon 'Ha ha hari hava', though it was a cartoon from America, he edited and recreated it to fit for our society: he made use of Cumarathunga Munidasa's poem 'Ha ha hari hava' for its theme song, and used Deepika Priyadarshani's voice and Somapala Rathnayake's music.

When you look at the dubbing artistes he moulded, you see how talented they are: Gemunu Wijerathne, Parakrama Perera, Saman Athaudahetti, Karunathilake Handuwala, Lesli Ramanayake, Rathnavali Kekunawala, Nethali Nanayakkara, Kusum Peiris and Chitra Vakishta. He had the skills to identify suitable artistes, language, music, and appropriate cartoons as well.

He was a bilingual person. He could translate original versions in English into Sinhala correctly.

Q: Did Thotawatte translate the tele-series Kung Fu?

A: Of course. Not only that, he also translated and subtitled the 'Robin Hood' (Robin of Sherwood) tele-series. 'Robin Hood' was the first tele-series in Sri Lanka which subtitled in Sinhala, while 'Dosthara Honda Hitha' was the first dubbed cartoon in the country. After these early programs, the Dubbing Unit became popular. With that success, we could make more programs. For instance, on February 4, 1986, we produced first live tele-drama in Sri Lanka as 'Watath Niyarath'. For this work, Anura Madawa, U. Ariyawimal and I joined with Ti mahattaya. We did that in studio.

Q: Thotawatte was the one who established the Dubbing Unit at the Corporation?

A: Yes. At first, we hadn't all the facilities to dubbing at the Corporation. Hence, we had to go to a studio at the Government Film Unit, Polhengoda for that task. We needed a dubbing studio at the Corporation. Then, Ti mahattaya wanted to set up a studio at the Rupavahini Corporation in 1989. Now, this has been named as Titus Thotawatte Handa Keveem Mediriya (Titus Thotawatte Dubbing Studio).

With the new studio, he produced more dubbing and subtitling programs. The film Le Miserable, based on a novel by Victor Mari Hugo came as 'Manuthapaya' because of this.

There are other classical films he produced as dubbing works. Among them, Man in the Iron Mask (Yawes Lu Minisa), Hunchback in Notredam (Notredamaye Kuda), A Count of Monte Christo (Monte Christo Situwaraya), Jesus in the Nazareth (Nazatethhi Jesus) are more prominent. 'Little Elephant', 'Little Hedgehog', 'Malgudi Days' and 'Oshin' are some other classical works he brought forward. The first tele-series dubbed at the new studio was 'Malgudi Dawas', while the first most popular tele-series dubbed in Sinhala was 'Oshin' in the new studio.

Q: Thotawatte directed some tele-dramas as well?

A: While he was working at Rupavahini, he produced a tele-drama as Hiru Noseleddee. He produced a tele-drama titled Kora saha Andaya. It was after this that he became paralysed which accounted for his death. I remember the night Sujatha Thotawatte, his wife, called me and said Ti mahattaya was sick. She said he would not speak too. At the time, he was writing the script of 'Robin Hood' for its dubbing.

Q: He created a unique language through his subtitles?

A: Definitely. But, at first, some people opposed for subtitles. They began to reproach that the subtitles were disturbance to watch the drama. Their reluctance was reasonable, because it was not familiar with them. If subtitles were used at the time, it was for films which were expected to show foreigners. Therefore, he did a research on how to present subtitles in a tele-drama or film.

First, he selected a certain font and a font size, and sought viewers' reactions. He tested many fonts and font sizes for subtitling. He put those subtitles at the most suitable places on the screen so that they wouldn't disturb the viewers.

Ti mahattaya created a unique language when he subtitling. His elder brother was Eeliyan De Silva who was a member of the Hela Haula language movement, pioneered by Munidasa Cumaratunaga.

His language was built from his brother's influence. Most words were produced by his elder brother. As a result, he could present many Sinhala words for dubbing. Upasirasiya (Subtitle), Handa Dekavi (Dubbing), Nipayu (producer), Adiyuru (Director), Dasun Musuva (Vision Mixture), Handa Musuva (Sound Mixture), Ru Lakara ('Make-up'), Sakili Ru (Cartoons), Atha Ru (Muppet) are some of them. It is more correct to say that he created a separate language for Sinhala subtitling.

We produced a program titled Ganithaya Uganimu'.It was made from the original 'Milestoning Mathematics'. This was produced by Eelien De Silva, who was an engineer.

Once he made a program titled Guttilaya which was a collage art. He reserved many apparatuses at the Dubbing Unit for the use of future journalists.

There is an interesting anecdote relating to the cartoon Pissu Pusa: one day he brought a half rim of a film discarded in a sack when he came to the studio. It was the cartoon film 'Top Cat'. He said that it was so bad as to throw it into the dustbin. By editing and dubbing, he produced a nice cartoon as Pissu Pusa. All the characters in that cartoon – Pissu Pusa, Gnavva, Puru Purus, Mas Katta - as with his other cartoons were named by him.

Q: He could get Premakirthi De Alvis to write down the lyrics for his cartoon-songs?

A: Premakirthi De Alvis was the pioneer who helped build up a cartoon literature with lyrics. All the songs in the cartoon Dosthara Honda Hitha were written by Premakirthi. He maintained a close relationship with the Dubbing Unit. He worked at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, and was at the 'Serisara Studio'. If Ti mahattaya needed a lyric or something, he would scribble an idea and send it to him through me or Anura Madawa. When we gave it to him, he would read it and say, Waren ban passe! (Hey, come other time).

He would postpone the task until before the last day that was going to record. Then, he suddenly starts to type the lyrics – he has no time to write and type them. Unfortunately, Premakirthi was no more when we produced the cartoon Pissu Pusa. Because of this, lyrics for its theme song were written by Ti mahattaya himself.

Q: You said that he came to office at 5 AM and left the office at 11 PM?

A: Ti mahattaya was a person who hadn't any debt to the National Rupavahini. He worked more than he was paid. As I said earlier, after his tele-drama Kora saha Andaya, he got ill – he was paralysed.

But the following day, he called me and said, Waren… Waren… Awilla weda karapan! (Please come and do your work!) When I heard those words, I was amazed, because at the time he was hospitalised. No time to wonder, I readied my documents and rushed to the hospital. There, I saw he was leaning to the bed, but one side of his was paralysed. I sat down by his side and began to write the script of the 'Robin Hood' that he narrated. He was such a person.

Not only that, after he began to come to the office in spite of his illness, he used to say in joke to his colleagues, Hari wede, peththak giyane! (Hey, friend, one side of me paralysed!) He had been working for years despite his ill health.

Q: Thotawatte worked at a government media. Did he face any political interference?

A: It is interesting. He never pursued political favours and on the other hand, he never had any interference or pressure from political authority. The administration at Rupavahini only praised his work. He was brought to the Rupavahini Corporation by M.J. Perera, the first Chairman of the Rupavahini Corporation.

Q: Could you recall the first cadre of Rupavahini?

A: Dhamma Jagoda was the chief in the Drama Section. Salaman Fonseka was the head of the Children's Section. Ti mahattaya first worked at the Children's Section with Salaman Fonseka, as there wasn't a Dubbing Section. It was during this time he produced two tele-dramas as Raja Kumaraya saha Hansaya and Mano Pubban Gama Dhamma. He produced a popular tele-drama as Ran Kahavanu starred by Shriyantha Mendis and Menike Attanayake.

After this, he received a scholarship from the Transtel media institute in Germany for further studying the television media. He went there and studied dubbing and subtitling. It was after his return that he established the Dubbing Unit at Rupavahini. He had to write to the administration about the significance of the dubbing section to receive permission.

Q: How did he select dubbing artistes for work?

A: He first sought the resemblance between the artiste's voice and the character in the tele-movie. Then, he had an intrinsic knowledge that this voice is ideal for this. For instance, I was the one who introduced Rasadaree Peiris to Ti mahattaya.

The moment he heard Rasadaree's voice, he said Meyawa nam hari yanawa. (Hey, she was fine). He had a good artistes' voice bank in his mind. Whenever he saw a character in a movie that he was going to dub, he would remind the particular dubbing artiste.

Q: What was his art of dubbing and art of subtitling?

A: After he wrote the script, he started to write its screen story. He did the both. He had an extraordinary memory about his shots and dialogues. While directing dubbing, he had a sole authority to give orders and directions to his subordinates. Even the cameramen and the lighting artistes obeyed him. Not only he gave orders them, but pointed out how to do them, because he had such a vast experience.

I never saw he complained against anyone. If someone did wrong, he would advise them, never complained against them. During the early period at the Dubbing Unit there were people such as Anura Madawa Jayasekara, S. Churchil, Shiela Katugampala and Ranjith Silva. Then came Kelum Palitha Maheeeathne, Chandana Senevirathne, Sanath Senani Gunasekara and Sidney Chandrasekara. All of them obeyed and respected Ti mahattaya.

Q: Why do some people blame you that you have degraded the standard that Titus Thotawatte established at the Dubbing Unit by dubbing crime tele-series? They especially mean Korean tele-dramas.

A: I don't hear such blame from anyone. If someone reproaches me, I ask them to call me directly. But I want to list out some of the classical works that I produced as dubbed works. Satyajith Ray's films, Shyam Benagal's films, Adur Gopal Krishnan's films are some of them. I could present dubbing tele-dramas such as Robinson Anadaraya'and Pan Pasinduwan.

The X-Files tele-series was subtitled by me which was a difficult one. Next, I subtitled more than two-thousand Discovery programs as the Director of Film and Dubbing Unit. I could also subtitle classical movies such as Titanic, Gandhi as well. If you watch these works, you will never blame me saying I degraded the standard Ti mahattaya established.