I thought of writing this note as I am one of the few survivors from the halcyon days of the nineteen seventies when Father Ernest Poruthota nurtured a small group of young middle class urbanites who were breaking into the hitherto exclusive preserves of Sinhala theatre and film.
Many of these young men came from the ‘’Catholic Belt’’ which extended from Colombo North to Wennappuwa and had many good bilingual schools. They were managed by distinguished Catholic missionaries from Italy, France and Belgium.
Among their accomplishments was the promotion of acting and hymn singing which prepared some of their students, among them Tony Ranasinghe, Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ravindra Randeniya to think of a future on stage and screen.
These Catholic students were all in thrall to the Minerva Players of Negombo which gave star billing to Rukmani Devi and her husband Eddie Jayamanne. Their mansion ‘’Jaya Ruk’’ in a suburb of Negombo [sold when the glamorous pair fell on bad times] was the cynosure of all eyes and confirmed to ambitious young aspirants that the arts could pave the way to riches as well as fame.
But the man who cracked the whip, both metaphorically and in real life as we now know, was B A W Jayamanne, Eddie’s elder brother, who was playwright, producer, financier, actor and manager of the Minerva Company.
Their only competitior was Sirisena Wimalaweera whose studio equipment was breaking down. Also he was fast running out of willing young, and old, actresses. The BAW productions had a Catholic religious ambience with frequent praying before the cross and Rukmani lamenting in song before a gravestone in a Catholic cemetery and addressing the deceased ‘’Aiya’’ who had ascended to the Catholic ’Swarga Rajjaya’’.
The Catholic iconography was unmistakable and the familiar mix of sex, sadism and religion kept the audience spellbound. It is ironic that the nationalist songs and dances which have now become a staple ingredient in Sinhala popular cinema ,was introduced by two Tamil film personalities Gunaratnam and Somasekeram who could quickly recognize a goldmine when they saw one.
Father Poruthota’s initial contacts were with ‘’Ape Kattiya’’ whose ideologue was Cyril B Perera. Cyril’s upbringing was a tribute to the Catholic priests of St. Mary’s College, Kegalle, who provided for him and gave him a bilingual education which put him in an unassailable position among the leading lights of the ‘’Kattiya’’. A voracious reader of English literature and criticism he had a splendid imagination and could take the organization into territories that had not been explored before. For instance ‘’Ape Kattiya’s” plays had a suggestion of homosexuality. Wickremaratne’s ‘’Ran Thodu’’ dealt with premarital sex. Their favourite western dramatist was Tennesee Williams whose plays “A Street Car named Desire’’ and ‘’Cat on a Hot tin Roof’’ were translated into Sinhala and produced for the local stage by the ‘’Kattiya ‘’ group.
The other strong Catholic presence was of Ralex Ranasinghe and later his brother Tony who had actually planned to join the Catholic priesthood. They were all attracted to Father Ernest Poruthota who was on the same wavelength as them and a far cry from the reactionary missionaries who looked down on their efforts.
Poruthota not only encouraged them but also, to the best of my knowledge, allowed them to train in his parish premises. Since he was located in and around Colombo the ‘’Kattiya ‘’ could meet him often and get his help. Father Poruthota was in the tradition of Father Marcelline Jayakody who indegenized the rituals and language of the Church. His strength was that he could do all this in a non- confrontational way unlike priests like Father Tissa Balasuriya who attempted to shake the foundations of the ‘’Rock of the ages’’. This was a time of anxiety and trauma for the church in the pre Pope John Paul era when there was a clash of viewpoints in Rome itself.
Poruthota also turned his attention to the cinema. It is clear that the two meta narratives -The Catholic Church and Communism, looked on the Cinema as an ideological tool. Both were historically involved with the written word by way of the Bible and the Communist manifesto. They also depended on the spoken word by way of sermons and party orations.
In the early days of the Russian Revolution the Cinema of Eisenstein and Pudovkin was held up before the world as examples of socialist art by revolutionary thought leaders like Bukharin and Zinoviev only to be squashed by Stalin and his cultural Commissars.
Similarly Rome set up a Papal Commission to study and sponsor mass media interventions on behalf of the church. Thus the church established Radio Veritas based in the Philippines. Special attention was paid to Cinema and an organization called OCIC for Catholic cinema promotion was established. Father Poruthota was the first local representative of this organization and he managed very skillfully to direct its resources for the betterment of Sinhala cinema.
His great advantage was that he did not take a narrow and partisan view of the functioning of the OCIC. He drew on local resources without seeking petty advantage. While he encouraged tireless foot soldiers like Neil I Perera and Ashley Ratnavibushana he also reached out to critics like Gamini Hattotuwegama and Cyril B Perera. It was OCIC that started the practice of reading out citations and giving reasons for the selection of award winners at its annual film award ceremonies.
I remember that most of these early citations were penned by Gamini and was highly acclaimed. He was able to position the OCIC as a major Film organization in the country which backed high quality film making as against the popular cinema. Poruthota helped many of our young film makers to enter international film festivals and even win prizes in them. Many do not realize the amount of time consuming details that have to be attended to in entering these competitions. OCIC made matters easy for them. When we were planning to introduce Television to the country OCIC welcomed this development and arranged many seminars to popularize the new medium.
With the death of Father Ernest Poruthota at the ripe age of 88, we ring down the curtain on a cultural icon of his time and an engaging personality whom we have been privileged to have as a friend.