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Ranjana Thangaraja who Danced in the Carol Reed Film “Outcasts of the Islands”

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By A.D. Ranjith Kumara

The movie Outcasts of the Islands was a 1951 film directed by British filmmaker Carol Reed based on a novel by Joseph Conrad.

It was shot on location in Ceylon in 1950, and premiered on January 2, 1952.

It also went into the annals as the first British movie that was produced on location in Ceylon before being screened here and the rest of the world.

A movie critic who had seen one of its previews, writing a reveiw to the Sunday Lankadeepa had noted that the film had been enriched due to the presence of Ceylonese actors and actresses not to mention its superb black and white photography and the dancing included in it.

The movie had been screened at the Sapphire theatre, Wellawatta, in association with the Times Group of Newspapers.

Critics had also raved about the dances in the movie, performed Ranjana Thangaraja. Thangaraja has also entered the record books as the first Sri Lankan actress to have appeared in a dance in an English movie.

Breaking box office records

It is said that two of Sinhala cinema’s noted thespians, Laddie Ranasinghe and E.C.B. Wijesinghe had also acted in Outcasts of the Islands.

The film had featured predominantly a British cast in the lead roles – Robert Morley, Trevor Howard, Sir Ralph Richardson and Wendy Hiller, amongst others.

In both Sinhala and English language newspapers that were published on January 6, 1952 it was proudly announced that this film would break all existing box office records in Ceylon.

Most of the local press have also spoken highly of the dancing exhibited by Ranjana Thangaraja.

The papers had also stated that the movie had been seen by the then prime minister of Ceylon, D.S. Senanayake and the then governor of the country. In addition, the then editor of the Lankadeepa newspaper – the well-known journalist D.B. Dhanapala, had written a glowing article in his newspaper on the impact made in the film by dancer Ranjana Thangaraja and that she was the first Ceylonese thespian to have starred in a foreign-language motion picture. This review was published on December 30, 1951 with pictures of Thangaraja and her teacher, Algama Kiriganitha gurunnanse.

Ranjana’s maiden name was Ranjana Thilothamma, having hailed from Jaffna. It is claimed that she had met Saravanamuttu Thangaraja by sheer coincidence. Thangaraja, who was also born and bred in Jaffna had later studied at St. Thomas’ College, after which he had graduated from the London University.

He had thereafter taught Mathematics and Science at his alma-mater. Two of his brightest students were former premier Dudley Senanayake and former minister C.P. de Silva.

Subsequently, Thangaraja had befriended Walpola Rahula Thera who was a student, through a mutual friend.

In a book authored by the late Gunadasa Liyanage, it has been claimed that Ven. Rahula Thera had been amazed by the punditry exhibited by Saravanamuttu Thangaraja. It later transpired that Thangaraja who was tending to his mother, being unmarried then, had resided at Ranjana’s residence at Hunupitiya, Wattala.

Ranjana who was then around 13 years had impressed Thangaraja with her aptitude for dancing. Later, Thangaraja had made arrangements to send her to South India to improve her inborn talents for dancing. While based in South India, Ranjana had studied dancing under the tutelage of Rukmani Devi Arundale.

After a three-year training period Arundale had reportedly told Thangaraja that she had wished that one day Thangaraja would be able to succeed her (Arundale) at Kalakahetra.

A prolific dancer

She had subsequently trained under dance masters such as Meenashi Sundram Pillai and Valuvur Manickan Pillai. Having witnessed the arangetram presented by Ranjana Thangaraja, a Supreme Court judge of India, V. Krishna Iyar, writing a critical piece to the Times of India newspaper had stated: ‘She Came, She Learned and She Conquered.’ His review had added that Ranjana had been able to wow both males and females alike at her arangetram.

On her return home, in order to show her gratitude to Saravanamuttu Thangaraja, Ranjana had readily agreed to get married to the former despite their age difference of almost 27 years. After her marriage, Ranjana had told her husband of her desire to learn more about Kandyan dancing.

Thangaraja had discussed this with Chandraleka who had directed her to Algama Kiriganitha gurunnanse under whom Ranjana had learned that craft.

British filmmaker Carol Reed had arrived in Ceylon around this time and was looking for a female dancer to perform dance items in his latest production Outcasts of the Islands.
It is claimed that at a party Reed had told the then Colombo mayor S. Sellamuttu on his futile search for a dancer prolific in Kandyan dancing.

Afterwards Sellamuttu had told Reed of Thangaraja’s spouse and later Reed had gone to the Teacher Training School, Maharagama, to view Ranjana’s dancing. Having been impressed with the item Reed had readily consented to take her as a dancer.
A German cameraman named Eitel Lange had arrived in the country to shoot the dance items.

Going down on memory lane, the wife of Somabandu Vidyapathi, Malathi Vidyapathi recalled the past. “My father was Algama gurunananse. I can remember Ranjana studying under my father. I was around 10 years old. At the time Thangaraja was the principal of the Teacher Training School. She was not only good-looking but talented as well. Ranjana, having combined the Bharatha Natyam and the Kandyan dancing learned from my father, presented a ballet titled Vijeya-Kuweni.

“Ranjana also studied dancing under Mudiyanse Dissanayake. She was also fluent in all three languages – Tamil, Sinhala and English,” recalled Malathi Vidyapathi.

Prof. Tissa Kariyawasam claims that it was Ranjana Thangaraja who had fused the two aspects of Bharatha Natyam and Kandyan dancing for the first time in the annals of the local dancing.

It is said that Ranjana Thangaraja had visited India in 1984 and she had gone on a pilgrimage to the Rameswaram Kovil and having participated in religious observances, had taken a rest at a mountain top nearby. She had apparently falled asleep and had passed away in her sleep, said her eldest son and noted film director, T. Arjuna.

Ranjana’s beloved husband Saravanamuttu Thangaraja had died in 1994 at the ripe old age of 92.

Among the erudite monks and legendary poets who were close friends of the Thangaraja’s were Most Ven. Hewanpola Rathanasara Thera, Kotagama Wachissara Thera, Sagara Palansuriya and Wilmet A Perera.

The Thangaraja’s also had four sons and a daughter.

Their eldest son T. Arjuna having studied at Royal College, Colombo had enrolled with the London School of Film Technique in order to become a moviemaker in his own right.
Among the film’s he had produced were Sara, Wasanthe Dawasak and the Tamil production Wasanthe Oru Wanawal.

According to Prof. Tissa Kariyawasam, Ranjana Thangaraja had been instrumental in building a bridge of friendship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils of Sri Lanka through her medium of dancing.

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