By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
(It was Ten years ago on September 30th that Sembuge Gamini Shelton Fonseka known generally as Gamini Fonseka passed away at the age of 68.The uncrowned monarch of Sinhala cinema was one of my favourite actors since the age of eight when I first saw -“Ranmuthuduwa”-a film starring him at the Gamini theatre in 1962.In later life I had the opportunity of meeting and interacting with my boyhood hero. I have written several articles about the man whom I loved as an actor, appreciated as a director, admired as a politician and above all respected as a decent human being.I am now reproducing without any changes the same article I posted on my blog on the occasion of his ninth death anniversary last year in order to commemorate the tenth death anniversary of Gamini Fonseka)
The electoral triumph of the Tamil National alliance(TNA) at the Northern provincial elections is being viewed by many as a significant breakthrough in the long struggle waged by Sri Lankan Tamils to achieve equality and justice in the Island. Despite the widely prevalent optimism this writer however is quite pessimistic at this point of time about this expectation. The hawkish manner in which the TNA conducted its campaign as well as the hostility it has evoked amidst hardliners in the South does not augur well for the positive future of the Northern provincial council. Enhancing this disillusionment further is the spectacle of an eminent ex-Supreme court judge transforming into a third-grade politician engaging in cheap politics on the one hand and responsible ministers talking of potential “nandhikkadals” in Wellawatte and Mattakkuliya on the other.
While reflecting on this sorry state of affairs in a despondent mood the descriptions ”third grade politics” and “dirty politics” keep recurring in my thoughts. Though these words have been uttered or written by many in the past my thoughts turned to an actor who has often stated so in personal conversations, public speeches and above all as part of dialogue delivered by a character he played on screen. I am of course referring to the matinee idol Gamini Fonseka!
I felt that focusing on this man whom I have great regard for would be better instead of doing a post-mortem on the provincial poll for this column as I had intended earlier. An article to honour the memory of a man whom I loved as an actor, appreciated as a director, admired as a politician and above all respected as a decent human would be appropriate at this juncture as the ninth death anniversary of this mercurial personality falls on September 30th 2013. I write therefore of Gamini Fonseka relying heavily on what I have already written about him in the past.
As stated earlier what triggered my thoughts in this direction were the oft –used derogatory references of Gamini Fonseka about the nature of politics in the country. One is however acutely conscious of the sad irony that Gamini Fonseka too had dabbled in politics at one stage. Gamini Fonseka was a misfit in politics.
Unfortunately, for Gamini, he too was sucked into politics. He began involving himself in politics during the days of Dudley Senanayake as a UNP supporter. The days of JR Jayewardena saw Gamini take a back seat. The ascendancy of Ranasinghe Premadasa saw him get back in the fray. In the face of JVP terror Gamini braved the odds and contested in Matara. He won and became deputy speaker. Soon disillusioned he wanted to quit but stayed on because he did not want to abandon Premadasa in the face of the impeachment crisis. He was an MP from 1989 -94.As deputy speaker he conducted affairs in all three languages without fear or favour.
He felt out of place in a UNP sans Premadasa and was soon attracted to Chandrika Kumaratunga’s politics. After Premadasa’s death he found himself uncomfortable in the UNP and crossed over. The mid 90s was an idealistic phase where many thought Chandrika Kumaratunga was going to usher in a new era. Gamini was one who thought so too. He was first disappointed by the national list fiasco where he was promised an MP seat and then denied it.
Amends were made by making him north-east governor. He was excited at first and had many plans to develop the areas and alleviate the suffering of the people. When Gamini was appointed Governor of the North-Eastern province by President Chandrika Kumaratunga that move was welcomed greatly by the Tamils and Muslims of the region. But he was not able to discharge his duties fairly due to “interference” by the Government on one side and the armed forces on the other. After thorough disappointment and frustrating agony he quit in disgust.
Thereafter his advice to all film artistes was not to enter active politics. At his “Rajadakma” in 2004 Gamini advised artistes to spurn politics and went on to observe “I have worked for both parties but no one has done any good for the film industry or artistes”.Had Gamini followed his own advice he may have been spared heartburn and disappointment that ultimately debilitated him. If Gamini had not entered full time politics, he would have been able to contribute much more to Sinhala cinema as a director and as an actor playing mature roles. He had turned to song writing too and may have impacted positively in that sphere too. One aspect that cannot be lost sight of is that Gamini never entered politics to make money or for position but from a sincere desire to serve the people and country.
The purpose of this tributary piece however is not to analyse the politics of Gamini Fonseka or dissect his personal life. What I hope to do is to write about Gamini Fonseka the film actor and screen idol and what he meant to me. Gamini, the actor on the Sinhala silver screen became an important part of life during my boyhood. This is the kind of personal-impersonal relationship one has from afar with actors , singers, writers and sportsmen. The impact of films and filmstars on fans in the South Asian region is phenomenal. Childhood impressions in that sense are indelible.
Belonging to a middle class Tamil family living then in Colombo I was drawn into the world of films at an early age. The staple diet of this film fascination was naturally Tamil M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganeshan, S.S. Rajendran, Ranjan, Jaishankar, Ravichandran, Anandan, AVM Rajan, Mutturaman etc. were the Tamil cine heroes who enthralled me then.
But I was indeed fortunate that despite my Tamilness, I was equally attracted to Sinhala movies from an early age. This affinity for Tamil and Sinhala films itself was viewed as something unusual at St. Thomas’ Prep or STC Mt. Lavinia where I studied in the ’60s. Few Sinhala or Tamil kids saw Sinhala or Tamil films in those schools then.They saw only English movies. But then I was indeed lucky to savour Tamil, English, Sinhala and also Hindi movies from a very young age.
As children we were enamoured greatly of action movies. ‘Fighter’ actors were relished as opposed to ‘character’ actors. So M.G.R. , Jaishnkar, Anandan, Ravichandran from Tamil movies along with Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Yul Brynner and later Clint Eastwood were my childhood favourites. As far as Sinhala films were concerned there was only one, and that of course was Gamini.
RAN MUTHU DUWA
Gamini Fonseka entered my life in 1962 when I was eight years old. The place he did so was a movie theatre in Maradana bearing his own name – Gamini. “Ran Muthu Duwa” was my first Sinhala movie. The family went to see it for two reasons. One because it was the first Sinhala technicolour film. Secondly to see the famed underwater scenes made possible by Mike Wilson and Rodney Jonklas.
Gamini along with Jeevarani, Shane Gooneratne and Joe Abeywickrema starred in it. Gamini’s acting, dancing and fighting captivated me. I was well and truly hooked. I never ever recovered. The song and dance sequence “Pipee Pipee Renu Natana” remains fresh in memory even now. I still remember the melody and some of the poetic lines like “Apey watte mal pipila meemassen wikvela” and “Rana giraw kumbura udin mal mal gamanak giya” etc.
To digress slightly, many years ago while returning from an outstation journalistic assignment in Sri Lanka the journalist fraternity in the vehicle burst into a singsong as was customary then. After regaling colleagues with Tamil songs I was asked to sing a Sinhala number. I sang the Ran Muthu Duwa song”vareng vareng”. Journalist turned press officer, Udaya Manawasinghe who was in the vehicle was very happy and told me that it was his father Chandrarathne Manawasinghe’s compositon.
My admiration and fondness for Gamini’s films grew over the years. Initially the attraction was mainly the fight scenes. Gamini brought a refreshing naturalness to those scenes as opposed to the artificiality in South Indian ones. It was later that one learned to appreciate the finer points of his acting. His facial expressions were fantastic.
There was hardly a Gamini Fonseka film that I missed in the ’60s. This was due to a woman – Mary Caroline – who was then a domestic helper at our home. She stayed with the family for about seven years. Mary was an avid Gamini fan. So I would accompany her every two weeks to Sinhala films in general and Gamini Fonseka films in particular. This was how I managed to see so many of his films in my childhood. Chandiya, Soora Chowraya and Sorungeth Soru were some of my favourites then. Thus Gamini Fonseka became a permanent part of my childhood memories. He remains there forever.
A break with Sinhala movie going came in the early ’70s when my family moved to Jaffna. I returned with a vengeance to ‘Sinhala chitrapati’ after we shifted back to Kurunegala and then Colombo. One recalls wistfully the hours of enjoyment at the Jupiter, New, Modern , New Imperial theatres in Kurunegala and Roxy, Sapphire, Elphinstone and Gamini cinemas in Colombo. Not only did I see new films but also several old ones when they were re-screened.
I remain to this day a firm Sinhala film afficianado, not only of quality films but also of those masala movies.Lester, G.D.L., Nihalsinha, Siri Gunasinha, K.A.W., Pathiraja, Sumithra, Tissa, Vasantha , Dharmasiri , Parakrama ,Asoka,Prasanna and Vimukthi have taken Sinhala cinema in a new direction away from shackles of Mumbai and Chennai. But for sheer entertainment one cannot forget the popular films of Cinemas, Ceylon Theatres and filmmakers like Yasapalitha, Tampoe, Morais, Dev Anand etc. too.
Gamini straddled both these worlds with ease. He was both an ‘arty’ actor of powerful serious movies as well as a melodramatic star of popular cinema too. He was artistically appreciated and commercially valued. For two decades and more Gamini was the uncrowned king of Sinhala cinema. He made his mark as both actor and director. In the process he helped liberate Sinhala cinema from Indian constraints and in his own way gave it fresh perspective and dynamic direction.
Gamini also elevated the standards of Sinhala cinema and provided it with integrity and self-respect. He fought for the upliftment of the industry and fellow artistes and technicians. Gamini Fonseka is inextricably intertwined with the evolution and growth of Sinhala cinema.
Notwithstanding the brilliant creators of our times who have raised the standards of Sinhala cinema, one is unable to imagine or visualise Sinhala cinema without thinking of Gamini Fonseka. Sinhala cinema is certainly not Gamini Fonseka but without Gamini Fonseka there is no Sinhala cinema either. His death nine years ago marked an end of an epoch!
My formative years as a Sinhala film fan were therefore heavily influenced and shaped by Gamini Fonseka. To me and millions of other like-minded people Sinhala cinema was personified by Gamini Fonseka for a long, long time.
Sembuge Gamini Shelton Fonseka was born in Dehiwela on March 21, 1936 as the third child of William and Daisy Fonseka. After initial schooling at a Presbyterian institution he went to S. Thomas’ College, Mt.Lavinia. He made his mark there not as a thespian but as an artist of repute. He was capable of caricaturing school masters mercilessly.
Apart from art, young Gamini also excelled in Sinhala language and literature while at college. One of his proudest moments was when he won the Sinhala literature prize when he was in the upper fourth. He received his prize from old Thomian and first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon, D.S. Senanayake.
Involved in many a schoolboy skirmish, Gamini had to cut short his secondary education early. He then entered the wonderful world of films in a technical capacity. He worked under the legendary David Lean for” Bridge On The River Kwai” and our own Lester James Peiris on “Rekawa”. His association with Lester as an assistant director on Rekawa changed Gamini’s line of destiny forever.
Gamini’s first screen appearance was in Rekawa as part of a crowd. The same man went on to become a crowd puller in later life. Gamini then acted in an English television series about the antics of an Elephant Boy filmed in Sri Lanka. He was also production assistant.
His first big break in acting came with Daiwa Yogaya in 1959 where he played a secondary role. Senadheera Kuruppu and Rukmani Devi were in the lead roles. Then came Lester’s Sandesaya where nominally Gamini played second fiddle to Ananda Jayaratna but stole the show from him with a stellar performance.
It was around this time films like Adata Wediya Heta Hondai, Ranmuthuduwa, Getawarayo and Dheevarayo exploded on the screen and established Gamini as a box office draw. He proved however that he was not a melodramatic actor- singing, dancing and fighting – alone by making his mark as a character actor in Lester’s Gamperaliya that won the Golden Peacock in New Delhi. Once again Gamini was the ‘third’ to Henry Jayasena and Punya Heendeniya but gave a performance par excellence as Jinasena.
Titus Totawatte’s “Chandiya “was a milestone. This was perhaps the first anti-hero role of Sinhala cinema. Gamini breathed and lived the part of a tough guy. Titus had a sequel, “Chutte”. It was in a way art imitating life because Gamini was in every way a chandiya in real life. Thomians of yesteryear speak volumes about his martial prowess. The benchmark of his fighting prowess was the ‘historic’ encounter where he challenged ,fought and trounced Dehiwela’s ‘strongman’ of that period.
A major reason for the naturalism in Gamini’s fighting scenes was the man himself. He was a fighter both orthodox and unorthodox. He often got into brawls, always for a good cause. One such incident was at Embilipitiya circuit bungalow when the caretaker and his cronies in an intoxicated state picked a fight with the film crew on location there. Gamini pitched in with flying fists and proved that his macho image was not confined to celluloid alone. He then moved the entire crew at his expense to Tissamaharama.
There was a time when film artistes and technicians were treated rather shabbily by the film makers. Gamini changed all that to a great extent. He fought for their rights and dignity with the filmmakers, distributors, media, Film Corporation and government. Yet he was not complacent and remained concerned about their plight. He was unhappy about the way the various regimes treated and continue to treat the film industry
Gamini reached the peak of his popularity in the late 60’s and early 70’s as a romantic action hero. When Sean Connery won over the Western world as Ian Fleming’s James Bond in Dr. No and From Russia With Love, Mike Wilson cashed in on the OO7 craze with a Sri Lankan version. Enter our own man with a licence to kill – Jamis Banda. Who else other than Gamini could do justice to the role in Sorungeth Soru?
There were other popular roles too with Sri Lankan versions of the famous Tamil “Vallavan” (Sooraya) film series produced in Tamil Nadu by Ramasundaram of Modern Studios in Salem. Gamini was the mainstay of the Sooraya film series in Sinhala. Soorayangeth Sooraya, Edath Sooraya Adath Sooraya, Sooraya Soorayamai, Hatharadenaama Sooraya etc.
The action films of old had a simple underlying thread that good triumphs over evil. So Gamini like MGR gave us a happy feeling and inspired all to greater heights.
This success in action movies did not mean that Gamini was playing stereo-typed roles alone. Far from it! He played a variety of roles and proved his thespian skills in many. Two memorable performances were in Lester’s Nidhanaya and Yuganthaya: as Willie Abeynayake and Simon Kabalana. Nidhanaya, Lester’s masterpiece is the only Sinhala film to be included in the ‘100 Best Movies Of The World’ list.
There have been several actor-directors who failed when directing themselves. It was a case of underplaying or overacting. One man who performed this dual role creditably was Hindi cinema’s Raj Kapoor (Awaraa, Barsat, Shri 420 ,Sangam etc). In Sinhala cinema Gamini was one man whose acting did not falter when directing.
Starting from Parasathumal to others like Uthumaneni, Sagarayak Medha, Koti Waligaya, Nomiyena Minissu etc., Gamini played his roles remarkably well in those films. At the same time he stamped his auterial mark as director. One cannot place him in the class of an A plus director in Sinhala cinema, but an A minus director he certainly was.
Parasathumal in particular was brilliantly directed and proved a path breaking venture. It is indeed hard to believe that Gamini was under 30 when he directed this maiden venture. I recently acquired a DVD of Parasathumal and viewed it again. Being in a sentimental haze perhaps I was astounded by the movie. Gamini as Bonnie Mahathmaya was simply marvellous.Gamini as director brought out fantastic performances from Punya, Anula and Tony!
Other noteworthy films where his histrionic skills were strikingly displayed were Getawarayo, Hulawali, Oba Dutu Daa, Sanasuma Kothanada, Sana keliya, Weli Katara ,Sarungale and Deviyane Oba Kohedha?. His performances in films directed by him were all fabulous. In my opinion the best directors who brought out the best in Gamini as an actor were Lester, Nihalsinha and Gamini himself as director.
Incidently Gamini was greatly influenced by Hollywood maestro Marlon Brando. Gamini combined shades of Marlon Brando, Yul Brynner and Paul Newman. His primary inspiration however was Brando. Though affected by Brando it must be said to Gamini’ s credit that he evolved his own fusion style and distinctive acting method.
Two English films starring Gamini Fonseka that I have seen and enjoyed are Sitadevi and Rampage. In Manik Sandrasagara’s version of the Ramayana Gamini played a modern Ravana to Bengali actress Mamta Shankar. Rampage was a Moby Dick type of man vs beast saga with an elephant as the other protagonist. In this, Gamini played a planter-hunter opposite Mary Tamm who also acted inFrederick Forsythe’s The Odessa File.
Gamini also acted in an Indian Tamil movie “Neelakkadalin Orathiley”. He had two heroines Radha Saluja the Hindi actress and Sri Priya the Tamil-Telugu star.An Indian Tamil magazine review described Gamini as a “Koluk moluk Biscuit Pappa” look alike. What it meant was that Gamini had “babyish” looks like the child models in advertisements for biscuits. Radha Saluja became a close friend and used to correspond with him for a long time.
I also believe he acted in another Indo-Sri Lankan co-production along with Indian stars Thiyagarajan (father of actor Prashanth) and Swapna. Much of the shooting was done in Kotmale. SP Balasubramaniyam and sister SP Shailaja sang most songs. I am not sure but I think the film was not completed or released due to the 1983 July anti-Tamil violence.
Another opportunity that arose for Gamini to act in a Sri Lankan Tamil film too did not work out. .When reputed writer Senkai Aaliyaan’s “Vadaikaatru” (North Wind) was filmed Gamini was approached for the “Viruthasalam” character role. Ultimately KS Balachandran played the part.
But Gamini gave an astounding performance as a Tamil in Sunil Ariyaratne’s “Sarungale”. He played Nadarajah, the Jaffna Tamil clerk in a story that highlighted both the anti-Tamil communal violence as well as the caste contradictions among Tamils.
Among places that “Sarungale” was filmed in was Karaveddy my mother’s ancestral village. The Tamil parts of the movie were filmed entirely in Karaveddy with the film unit spendimg two weeks on location there. Well-known broadcaster and writer Yoga Balachandran who is also from Karaveddy was involved with that venture.
Yoga wrote the Tamil dialogue for the film and also coached Gamini on his Tamil dialogue delivery. His diction was near perfect to the extent of even quoting a verse from “Thirukkural” (Anbitkum Undo Adaikkunthaal-Aarvalar punkanneer poosal tharum). Karaveddy residents acted for “free” in the film mainly due to the regard they had for him.
According to Yoga who refers to Gamini as “Gamini Annan” there was an idea to do a sequel which did not work out.Here is what she wrote to me –“When Gamini was the Governor of the Eastern Province Province , we had some good idea of doing a follow up of Sarungale and I met Gamini Annan at his office . However his plans were rejected by the Government . He was very sad over this and he told me “Yoga, truth shall win some day . Until such time let us be silent”.
Gamini himself was very proud of his role in “Sarungale” Once in a conversation before the film’s release he told me personally “any Sinhala man who sees this film will never lay hands on a Tamil again”. Alas! That was not to be and not many years later came Black July 1983.
One thing to be emphasised in the case of Gamini Fonseka is that he was a man with absolutely no trace of communalism in him. A notable feature of Sri Lankan film heritage – both Sinhala and Tamil – is the multi-ethnic diversity of the industry. Sinhalese, Tamils both Sri Lankan and Indian, Muslims, Malays and Burghers have all contributed to this. The contribution of Tamils to the Sinhala film industry is massive starting from that pioneer S. M. Nayagam producing Kadawuna Poronduwa. Many leading producers, directors, cinematographers, technicians, studio owners and even some artistes have been Tamils.
Gamini acknowledged and appreciated this immense contribution by the minority communities to Sinhala cinema. He has not been afraid to state this publicly whenever the occasion arose. He did so in the Golden Jubilee celebration and also in what was perhaps his last interview before death given to journalists Prasad Gunewardena and Stanley Samarasinghe.
Interestingly Sri Lankan Tamil films had a “renaissance” during the UF govt of Mrs. Bandaranaike in 1970 – 77.Import of Indian Tamil films were restricted. So more local films were produced. Both masala type as well as more realistic ones were produced.The arty ones were those like “Kuthuvilakku” “Ponmani” (directed by Pathiraja) and “Vaadaikaatu”. Then there were relative commercial successes like “Komaligal” and its sequel “Eamaligal” and the VP Ganesan trio “Naan ungal Tholan” “Puthiya kaatru” “naadu potra Vaalga” etc.
When the UNP Govt liberalised the economy in 1977 there were many Indo – Lanka co -productions. But these ultimately crushed the nascent Sri Lankan Tamil film industry. A journalist colleague on the “Virakesari” Anton Edward and myself realised that these joint ventures would ultimately destroy our local Tamil cinema and tried to start a campaign through the newspaper against it when the film “Pilot Premnath” starring Sivaji Ganesan and Malani Fonseka was being filmed in Sri Lanka.Both of us were only 24 years old then in 1978 and our campaign was ridiculed by most of the other seniors.
We went to see Gamini Fonseka and asked for his support. He spoke to us for hours and gave an interview supportive of our stance. I can never forget the endearing way in which he treated us two “podiyans” and discussed the issue in depth. Gamini also took up the matter with Premadasa who was prime minister then. Unfortunately Gamini had to go to UK shortly thereafter and was away from the action but with his assistance our campaign gathered momentum.
Meanwhile the pro – “Pilot Premnath” lobby got in touch with S. Thondaman (snr) and other prominent Indian Tamils here. The Indian High commission also stepped in. The “Virakesari” management (Indian Tamil owned) told us to stop the campaign. Thondaman who knew us both personally requested us directly to call the campaign off as it was creating bitter , anti – Indian feelings. So reluctantly we called it off. Subsequently we were proved right but it was too late.With the 1983 July violence life changed for Tamils in Sri Lanka. So many things were lost. The Tamil film industry was totally affected.
Gamini has acted opposite many actresses but the one with whose chemistry he hit it off best was Malani Fonseka. Two others who paired well with Gamini were Jeevaranee Kurukulasooriya and Veena Jayakody. According to Gamini, Sandhya Kumari was the most beautiful actress he interacted with, while Malani was the best. The best actor according to Gamini, was Joe Abeywickrema, not himself. The best character actor was Tony Ranasinghe Gamini has stated self-effacingly.
Another little known aspect of Gamini Fonseka was of his being immensely helpful to people ranging from an old schoolmaster to out of work actors and technicians. Much of his charity was done without fanfare and publicity. Some people call him proud but others have found him accessible and friendly. Gamini made it a point to attend funerals of loved ones in the industry and also visit them when ill in hospital. The genuine outpouring of grief at his death was illustrative of the esteem in which he was held by his peers.
On the morning of September 30th 2004, Gamini Fonseka arose and exercised as usual. He was then 68 years old but regularly did weight-lifting. He was suffering from a cold but had a cold shower after exercising.He had his breakfast and played with his two dogs for a while. Gamini then went upstairs to his bed room after instructing his domestic aide Jayalath to fetch his newspapers.It was his habit to lie down in bed after breakfast and read the papers.When Jayalath placed the newspapers on the stool by the bed side Gamini lying on the bed said “Mmmmmmm). Those were his last sounds heard on earth.
The hours passed and it was now lunch time. The table was set but the usually punctual Gamini did not come down on time. After a while Jayalath went upstairs and found Gamini in “deep slumber”. The newspapers were untouched.Jayalath called out to Gamini but there was no response. He then felt the master’s toes gingerly. They were icy cold.Agitated Jayalath telephoned Gamini’s son Damith Fonseka who got an emergency van to rush from a Private hospital. But it was too late. The movie maestro was no more.
The film reels have run their course. The projector has ceased humming. The curtain has rolled in. The Gamini Fonseka show ended nine years ago. The lights are on again but the light has gone out of Sinhala cinema. All that we have are fond memories of the past and copies of his available movies. The memory of this monarch of Sinhala movieland will never cease.
Thank you Gamini for innumerable hours of entertainment, pleasure and satisfaction. Thank you again and again!
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org