The history of Sinhala cinema | Sunday Observer

The history of Sinhala cinema

21 November, 2021

At the time when the first Sinhala film “Broken Promise” was screened, it was inevitable that South India should serve as its motherland. These films were better known as ‘Formula Films”. In other words, the South Indian studios had been made accessible to our film producers. Our Sinhala cinema followed the Sinhala Natakas based on the Parsi and Baliwala Nurtis of North India. Perhaps, you might be aware of lengthy dialogues in classical Sinhala, artificially fabricated background scenes and North Indian songs in our early films. In a way, such films can be regarded as an extension of the Sinhala Nataka.

Another common fact is that these films had been woven around caste conflicts, marriage and feminine fidelity, drunkenness, the nobility of the poor and the meanness of the rich. Another dominant characteristic was the tendency to weave the theme around the eternal love stories. Fight and comic sequences and songs were used to enliven the film. In the golden era, we had iconic roles such as Rukmani Devi as the Nightingale of the Silver Screen, Mark Samaranayake as the Villain of the Sinhala Silver Screen and Eddie Jayamanne as the King of Comedy.

What was the remarkable cinematic creation was “Banda Comes to Town” produced in 1952 because of its technique. Suffice to say that our Sinhala cinema was thriving under the South Indian influence. The Government Film Unit which was established by European technicians made several documentaries devoid of the South Indian influence. These documentaries depicted the glories of the country and activities of the government well.

Two studios

Many years ago we had only two studios led by S.M. Nayagam and Sirisena Wimalaweera. It was evident that films produced by S.M. Nayagam at his Sundara Sound Studio were derived from South Indian influence. But on the contrary, Sirisena Wimalaweera made his own films based on his own stories at his Nava Jivana Studio. However, the plots of both producers’ films were identical in their melodramatic concoctions. Sirisena Wimalaweera wanted to localise his films. However, sadly, the Sri Lankanness which had not been embedded either in the plot or in the interplay of characters was confined only to dialogues and sequences. As a result, Sirisena Wimalaweera failed to bring out the Sri Lankanness through his films.

Back in 1965 Sirisena Wimalaweera made a film titled ‘Podi Putha’. This film was released by his Lanka Nava Jivana Film Company with the following preface. “This time Sirisena Wimalaweera presents to you the film ‘Podi Putha’ in order to convey by means of an exemplary story, the fire that burns is the heart of a father who strives for his son’s wellbeing, the suffering he undergoes, the warmth and intensity of his tears and the cruel fate that he finally succumbs to on account of his son, along with a host other dark blotches in the social scene.”

Our film producers continued to gain inspiration from Indian films. B.A.W Jayamanne decided to make a film based on W.A Silva’s “Kele Handa.” Significantly, the film “Kele Handa” went a long way in proving that a novel can be converted into a film successfully. Back in 1953, another film “Sujatha” was released.

K. Gunaratnam’s contribution

K. Gunaratnam wanted to make a film by using the new techniques of foreign films. He adapted the plot of the Hindi Film “Bari Behn” into “Sujatha” which had contained a variety of sequences such as the hugging scenes, half exposed costumes, and the good natured poor maiden, rich and educated people. J.D.A. Perera found the film to be the best film ever produced. As mentioned by the Targore Society of Ceylon, it was a great production. Speaking of the films dubbed in Sinhala, “Aiyai Mallli”, “Salli Era” and “ Manussatvaya” are believed to be prominent.

Rekhawa (The Line of destiny)

It was Dr. Lester James Peries, who took the camera to the outside world. He did not confine the camera to a studio. However the significance of his film “Rekhawa” could be realised only by a handful of people. Dr. Lester James Peries had his training in England and made several films. Most importantly, he made another film titled “Sandeshaya” which was released in 1960. This film was enriched with all cinematic qualities.

Needless to say that “Ranmuthu Duwa” was the first Techni-colour film. The film was directed by Mike Wilson and produced by Shesha Palihakkara, Mike Wilson and Arthur C. Clarke.

In this film Gamini Fonseka portrays the character of Bandu. Undoubtedly underwater scenes, fight scenes between Bandu (Gamini) and Renga and songs such as “Galana Gagaki Jeewithe”, “Paramitha bala pujitha” and “Pipi pipi Renu Natana” written by Sri Chandrarathna Manawasinghe held the audience spellbound.

Gam Peraliya

“Gam Peraliya” was directed by Dr. Lester James Peries and was released in 1963. The film represented the first attempt at filming a Sinhala novel. Significantly, the younger generation was interested in “Gam Peraliya” film.

The international award that the film “Gam Peraliya” earned was a tribute to the Sinhala film’s endeavour to assert its independence. In spite of this International award, this film had to face opposition from the ordinary film lovers.

“Gam Peraliya” did not lack a love theme but the conventional romantic story. The embryonic love shaping itself in the hearts of Nanda or Piyal sought on outlet in song.

In addition, films such as “Parasathu Mal”, “Sama”, and “Delovak Athara”, Sath Samadura “and “Ran Salu” represents giant attempts at getting away from the clutches of the Indian Cinema. Speaking of the above mentioned films, it is evident that there had been a kind of rivalry between two types of films.

One held the sacred type of plots, characters, techniques that Sinhala cinema had inherited from India. Some films were not woven around such themes.

For instance, Bonny Mahattaya in “Parasathu Mal”, Nissanka in “Delovak Athara” and Sarojini in “Ransalu” cannot be confined to black and white characters.

All in all, sadly it should be pointed out that at present, there is a collapse in our Sinhala cinema.