“It is with pride and pleasure, Chitrakala presents to the four million Sinhalese of Ceylon, a picture in their own language for the first time.” was the special message issued by Chitrakala Movietone Ltd the producers of of “Kadawunu Poronduwa” when it was first screened on January 21st 1947. ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ meaning Broken Promise in English was no ordinary film. It was the first-ever Sinhala “talkie” meaning a film where the characters on screen spoke and sang in the Sinhala language. Until then films shown in the island were in languages like English, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil or Telugu but not in Sinhala.
The evolution and growth of cinema had seen frozen images becoming soundless moving images and then having sound added. Initially films with moving images were called silent films. Western nations particularly the USA focused more on the moving images. Therefore films were generally called movies in those countries. In the Asian region particularly South Asia, the emphasis was more on sound, songs and conversation. Thus films with sound tracks were referred to as talkies. It was against this backdrop that ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ was welcomed and hailed as the first Sinhala talkie. The message issued by the movie producers at the first screening highlighted this aspect effectively.
The livewire of “Kadawunu Poronduwa” was BAW Jayamanne who had written the story, screenplay and dialogues for the talkie. BAW Jayamanne known popularly as Aloy Jayamanne also played the lead male role in the film. Among those who acted in the film were Rukmani Devi, Eddie Jayamanne, Gemini Kantha, Rupa Devi, Peter Peiris, Miriam Jayamanne, Hugo Fernando and Stanley Mallawarachchi. While the cast was Sri Lankan, the film making crew was Indian.
The film shot in India was directed by Jyotish Sinha a Bengali film maker . The cameraman and editor were K.Prabhakar and Pakeer Saleh respectively. Music was composed by Narayana Aiyer. There were twelve songs in the film which were sung by the Minerva Singing group, Rukmani Devi, Eddie Jayamanne, Gemini Kantha, Peter Peiris, Hugo Fernando and Stanley Mallawaratchi known as the Talat Mahmood of Ceylon then. Hugo Fernndo known as Hugo Master was the lyricist. Incidently the well-known music composer Muttuswamy Master then in India was part of Narayana Aiyer’s orchestra for this film. Following the film’s release Muttuswamy came over to Sri Lanka and blossomed into a polular music director.
Sundaram Pillai Madhuranayagam
The producer of the film was Sundaram Pillai Madhuranayagam generally known as S. M. Nayagam. He was the chairman/proprietor of Chitrakala Movietone Ltd on behlf of which “Kadawunu Poronduwe” was produced. S.M. Nayagam, who originally hailed from Madurai District – in what was known as the Madras presidency during British rule – was an industrialist manufacturing soaps and perfumes. He had factories in India and Sri Lanka. Nayagam set up the Swadeshi manufacturing facility in Kandana eighty years ago and marketed exotic soaps with Sandalwood and Neem/margosa fragrance.
Despite being an industrialist, it is as the pioneering producer pf the first Sinhala talkie that SM Nayagam is remembered. What made a Tamil hailing from Mdurai in India produce the first Sinhala film? S.M. Nayagam himself went on record in a newspaper interview explaining why he produced the film. What Nayagam said was: “You may be wondering why on earth a Tamil person came forward to produce a Sinhala film. You may want to know the reason. My answer is very simple. I have noted that a good number of my Sinhala friends enjoy Tamil and Hindi films. I wanted to find out why do they love and appreciate those films and in the reasoning ,I came to realise that my friends were sad that they did not have films in their own language while there was a lot of resources and talent here. This was the reason that led me to do a Sinhala film using the talents of the local actors and actresses”
74 years ago ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ (Broken Promise) premiered at the Kingsley Theatre in Colombo on 21 January 1947. The Chief Guest was D.S. Senanayake, Minister of Agriculture and Lands under the State Council system of governance during the penultimate stages of British rule. Senanayake went on to become the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known then, within a year of this premiere.The presence of Senanayake, who was also then the leader of the House, at the first screening of a film denoted the importance of the event. The making and screening of ‘Broken Promise’ was indeed of historic importance and this was duly acknowledged by the country’s most senior Minister and future Prime Minister’s presence as Chief Guest at the first screening.
Premiere on 21 January 1947.
Sinhala filmgoers of the Island did receive the first Sinhala talkie enthusiastically. Only five prints of the film were made for screening initially. The first print was used for the premiere at Kingsley Theatre on 21 January 1947. Thereafter it continued to be screened at the rate of four shows daily in the Kingsley Theatre for 127 days at a stretch.
The second print was screened on 22 January 1947 at the Gintupitiya Talkies in Colombo. This theatre was later re-named as Murugan Talkies. ‘Broken Promise’ ran for 42 days at this theatre in Colombo. The third print was screened on 23 January 1947 at the Mylan Theatre in Colombo. The film ran for 28 days at the Mylan. In addition to these three theatres, the film was also shown once daily at 10 a.m. at the New Olympia Theatre in Maradana. The same print shown at Mylan was screened in the mornings at the New Olympia. Thus ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ had a remarkable run in the capital city being shown simultaneously in four theatres in Colombo.
The fourth and fifth prints of the film were screened on 24 January 1947 at the Panadura Talkies Theatre and Chandra Talkies in Avissawela. ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ ran for 28 days at a stretch in Panadura and 35 days in Avissawela. After the screenings in these theatres ended, the film was shown in other suburban and outstation theatres like Quinlon – Nugegoda, Kelani Talkies – Kelaniya, Nadarajah – Negombo, Chandra – Moratuwa, Bharatha Talkies – Ratnapura, Imperial Talkies – Kurunegala, Modern –Badulla and Nadarajah – Trincomalee. ‘Broken Promise’ ran for several weeks at these theatres. Thereafter the film was shown in other theatres in various parts of the island. Record crowds were present for many, many weeks.
In Kandy a makeshift “tent” theatre was set up at the Bogambara grounds. Called ‘Bogambara Theatre,’ it was constructed with the sole purpose of exhibiting ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’. According to newspaper reports of the day, huge queues had formed at 6 a.m. itself for the first show scheduled at 10 a.m. Many tough guys in Kandy town had a field day by elbowing out patrons and buying up tickets in bulk and re-selling them at ‘black market’ prices. People from various parts of Kandy and Matale District hired buses and vans to visit Kandy town in groups and see ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’. Seeing the film became a community-oriented family event.
Success at the Box- Office
The film was also a smashing success at the box-office. Subsequently three additional prints were made to cater to the demand. This was followed by four more prints being made. The film though in Sinhala was screened in Jaffna and Batticaloa too. The film was intermittently screened at many cinema halls for nearly 30 months.
The remarkable thing about the widespread popularity of the film was that it had succeeded with the masses despite a strongly critical Sinhala press. Most reviews of the film were negatively written in Sinhala newspapers and journals. It was criticised as being overtly “Indian” in content and form and not authentically “Sinhala”.
The well-known Sinhala film critic Jayawilal Wilegoda in reviewing the film had a pithy comment. He said that South Indian Cinema which speaks in 12 languages has added one more language – Sinhala – to their list. What Wilegoda implied of course was that ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ though a Sinhala film was in reality another Indian film.
Despite this negativity on the part of the Sinhala intelligentsia, the ordinary people were thrilled at the prospect of seeing a film on screen where the characters spoke dialogues and sang songs in Sinhala. In their own simple way the people grasped the significance of the first Sinhala talkie and responded positively. ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ being the first Sinhala talkie had struck a responsive chord and touched their hearts! In that sense a Tamil film producer had created history by making the first Sinhala talkie.
Dr.NM Perera in ‘A Royal Adventure’
Though S.M. Nayagam is acknowledged as the producer of the first Sinhala talkie, he was not the pioneer in producing the first-ever Sinhala film. The credit for that goes to Noorbhai of Eastern Film Company. It was however a silent film without a sound track. The film was a costume drama ‘Rajakeeya Wickramaya’ titled ‘A Royal Adventure’ in English. The dashing young man who played the lead role was a 20-year-old student named Nanayakkarapathirage Martin Perera who was to serve as Finance Minister in later years. N.M. Perera was then a student reading for his London BA degree at the University College in Colombo. He later went to the UK and obtained a double doctorate, entered politics and became as Dr. N. M. Perera, the Leader of the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP).
NM’s leading lady in this Royal adventure film was a Eurasian beauty named Sybil Feeme. Others acting in the film were N.P.D. Albert Silva, Reginald Perera, Percy Perera, Gratien Perera, Eric Weerasekara, David Manuel and N.R. Dias. The Director was a Bengali named Hari Dasgupta. ‘Rajakeeya Wickramaya’ was filmed in Bombay in 1925. It was first screened in Singapore. Apparently only one print was made. Thereafter it was brought to Bombay for making more copies to be screened in Lanka. There was a ‘mysterious” accident at the studio laboratory and the whole film was destroyed. The film never saw the light of day in Sri Lanka.
The course of events that led to an Indian Tamil entrepreneur producing the first Sinhala feature film is by itself an interesting saga worthy of recounting in depth. I shall therefore relate the circumstances under which SM Nayagam produced “Kadawunu Poronduwa” relying to some extent on an earlier article written by me about the making of this film. I also hope that this narrative would shed some light on the multi-ethnic contribution to Sinhala cinema.
Advent of Commercial Cinema
The advent of commercial cinema in the early years of the 20th century became a global phenomenon impacting on many countries. People began going in large numbers to theatres or halls screening movies and talkies.The ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean” too could not remain immune from this new form of entertainment.Ceylon or Sri Lanka though tiny when compared to its giant neighbour India began evolving into a lucrative market for commercial cinema.
During the silent films era an Englishman A.W. Andrew began importing and screening US, British and other European films in Sri Lanka. His son Laurence Andrew followed in his father’s footsteps and set up a company named Warwick Bioscope Ltd. (bioscope was the name of projectors used to screen films in that era. The term bioscope was commonly used to describe all films then). Later on the Warwick Bioscope company obtained a license to import and screen Indian silent films also in the Island. Soon this European monopoly was challenged by entrepreneurs from the Indian sub-continent.
J.F.A. Madan hailing from the dynamic Parsee community in Bombay (now Mumbai) had started the Elphinstone Bioscope Company in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and begun screening and also producing films in India. His son J.J. Madan expanded further by exhibiting films in the Malayan states including Singapore, Burma and also Sri Lanka. A network of theatres more commonly called cinema halls were set up under the aegis of Madan Theatres Ltd. In Sri Lanka Madan theatres teamed up with G.D. Hendrick Seneviratne, the legendary founder of Tower Hall. In 1932 Tower Hall was converted into a movie theatre.
Another Indian from Gujarat, T.A.J. Noorbhai, also entered the field of screening films by forming the Eastern Film Company in 1924. He was followed by a Jaffna Tamil businessman Sir Chittampalam Abraham Gardiner who established Ceylon Theatres Ltd. in 1928. Apart from these major exhibitors, there were a number of minor film exhibitors with smaller film companies.
The market for screening films in Sri Lanka began to develop rapidly in the twenties, thirties and forties of the 20th century. Though the films were in non-Sinhala languages, a very large number of Sinhalese, particularly in urban and semi-urban areas, began flocking to cinema halls to see films. Tamil and Hindi films were increasingly relished by Sinhala audiences. This phenomenon gave rise to the opinion that the time was ripe for producing and screening original Sinhala films without having to depend on Western or India made films.
Desire To Produce a Sinhala Film
The 2nd world war years (1939- 1945) saw films from India and the west being extensively screened in Sri Lanka. These films in English,Tamil, Telugu,Urdu and Hindi ran successfully for lengthy periods minting money for the exhibitors. This further impelled the desire to produce a Sinhala film and potentially make more money. The rationale was that if films made in languages other than Sinhala could be lapped up by Sinhala audiences, then how much more would be the reception for talkies made in the Sinhala language. So when the war ended in 1945 and conditions for film making became more conducive, there was a spurt of activity in the direction of producing Sinhala “talkie” films.
The war years saw a lull in attempts to produce Sinhala films but films from India screened in Lanka ran successfully for lengthy periods minting money for the exhibitors. This further impelled the desire to produce a Sinhala film and potentially make more money. The rationale was that if films made in languages other than Sinhala could be lapped up by Sinhala audiences, then how much more would be the reception for talkies made in the Sinhala language. So when the war ended in 1945 and conditions for film making became more conducive, there was a spurt of activity in the direction of producing Sinhala “talkie” films.
Two such persons who in 1945/46 embarked eagerly on projects to make Sinhala talkies were an Indian Muslim and a Jaffna Tamil based in Colombo. M.S.M. Zacky was the advertising manager of the Imperial Mobile Cinema Company. Zacky himself wrote the story and screenplay for a film titled ‘Premawathi’. He had dialogues written by Sinhala playwrights for it. Armed with a written script Zacky went to Madras (now Chennai) and made efforts to film ‘Premawathi’ with Indian actors. However Zacky was duped by some personnel he enlisted to make the movie. He was ejected from the project and others tried to film ‘Premawathi’ on their own. Zacky returned to Colombo a dejected man. The attempt to film ‘Premawathi’ by others too fizzled out. ‘Premawathi’ suffered an early death.
The Jaffna Tamil who tried to shoot a Sinhala film in 1946 was S. Thuraisingham who had earlier been the Distribution Manager at Ceylon Theatres owned by Sir Chittampalam Gardiner. Thuraisingham, a film buff, had been fascinated by the Persian film ‘Layla and Majnu’ made in 1937 by the great Iranian Film Director Abdolhossein Sepanta. This film was about the famous star crossed lovers Laila and Majnu in Sufi Islam literature. Thuraisingham adapted the story into Sinhala and formed the ‘Lanka Mohini Films’ in 1945 to produce the tale of Layla-Majnu.
‘Divya Premaya’ / ‘Divine Love’
Thuraisingham went to Madras with the script to make the film. It was named ‘Divya Premaya’ or ‘Divine Love’. Accompanying Thuraisingham was the great thespian E.C.B. Wijeysinghe of ‘Ralahamy’ and ‘He Comes from Jaffna’ fame. Other actors in the film were the Tower Hall artistes C. Weerasekara, C. Wijenayake, Simeon de Silva, O. Rodrigo, T. Senanayake, Leela Gunasekera and Wimala Kantha.
Filming started in Madras and there was much publicity in film journals about the first Sinhala talkie ‘Divya Premaya’ being produced. Unfortunately for Thuraisingham, the company ran out of funds as persons who promised cash infusions did not do so. Complicating matters further was E.C.B. Wijesinghe falling sick and returning to Sri Lanka. The film was aborted. Had it succeeded as planned ‘Divya Premaya’ and S. Thuraisingham would have made history as the first Sinhala talkie and its producer respectively. It was destined perhaps that the honour should go to ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ and S.M. Nayagam.
However Thuraisingham did manage to produce ‘Divya Premaya’ a few years later. He formed a new production company, Shanmugam Films, in partnership with businessmen P. Ramalingam and M. Muttiah and made the film. N.P. Javeri directed the movie while H.R. Padmanabha Shastri composed the music. Actors such as Luxman Rajapaksa, Srimathi Karunadevi, Robert Perera, Simon Silva and Peter Siriwardena starred in the movie. ‘Divya Premaya’ premiered on 22 May 1948 at the Gintupitiya ‘Murugan’ Talkies in Colombo. The film that could have been the first Sinhala talkie became the fourth Sinhala talkie. Interestingly enough ‘Divya Premaya’ was release one year before the Telugu-Tamil film ‘Layla-Majnu’ starring A. Nageswara Rao and P. Bhanumathy was made in 1949. This film was later dubbed into Sinhala as ‘Manaprayathanaya’.
Sri Murugan Navakala Ltd
The industrialist SM Nayagam too decided to enter the film world as a producer. He set up a company to produce films and also established a film studio for that purpose in India. The production company named Sri Murugan Navakala Ltd. had an office in Madurai town. The studio named Chitrakala Movietone was located at Thrupparankundram, about six miles away from Madurai. Incidently Thirupparankundram is famous for a Murugan temple. It is regarded as one of the ‘Arupadai Veedugal’ or six abodes of Lord Muruga. Nayagam’s studio was about one mile away from the temple.
Before embarking on a Sinhala film producing venture, S.M. Nayagam involved himself in Tamil films. He produced his own Tamil films and also rented out floors for shooting other films at his studio Chitrakala Movietone in Thirupparankundram near Madurai town.
Among the films he produced was a mythological movie ‘Kumaraguru’ released on 6 September 1946. The film was directed by Jyothish Sinha from Calcutta. Later when Nayagam produced ‘Broken Promise,’ he had the same Bengali filmmaker Jyothish Sinha direct it. Among the artistes acting in Kumaraguru were Krishna Iyer, Vidwan Mani, Thanjavoor Mani, Jayabala and Radha.
Another Tamil film shot at the Chitrakala studio was ‘Thaai Naadu’ starring the swashbuckling action hero ‘Battling Mani’. The film was directed by T.S. Mani while R. Narayana Iyer composed the music. It was the same Narayana Iyer who composed music for ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’; also ‘Thaai Naadu’ meaning ‘Motherland’ which was released on 15 August 1947, India’s day of Independence from the British. The film was a smashing box office hit. ‘Vichitra Vanitha,’ a comedy made by K. Subramaniam, the father of illustrious dancer Padma Subramaniyam, was also filmed partly at Nayagam’s studio.
A Historical Film in Sinhala
Nayagam, tasting success as a producer of Tamil films in India, now began thinking of producing a Sinhala film. Initially Nayagam wanted to produce a historical film in Sinhala. He first wanted to make a film on Kannusamy Nayakkar who took on the name Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe and reigned as the last king of Kandy from 1798 to 1815. Nayagam procured a script written on the subject by D. V. Seneviratne and undertook a feasibility study. He found that the budget would be rather high to make an elaborate costume drama or period movie about Kandy’s last king. Being a shrewd businessman Nayagam was not sure whether the unexplored ‘virgin’ Sinhala film market territory could yield sufficient profits to cover the cost of production.
Nayagam then went into discussions with Sinhala dramatist Sirisena Wimalaweera. Nayagam and Wimalaweera decided to do a film on the historic character Utuwankanda Sura Saradiel (1832 -64), the legendary bandit known as the ‘Robin Hood’ of Sri Lanka. Wimalaweera wrote a screenplay about Saradiel but also wanted to direct the film. Nayagam refused saying he wanted the film to be directed by an Indian director. The brief partnership ended but Wimalaweera did not abandon Saradiel. Wimalaweera, who later set up the Nawajeewana Studio in Kiribathgoda, produced and directed the film ‘Saradiel’ in 1954. The film ‘Saradiel’ for which Hugo Fernando composed music was released under Wimalweera’s Nawajeewana films banner.
With these attempts to film a history based talkie in Sinhala ending in failure, S.M. Nayagam hit upon a novel idea. He announced a competition for film scripts to make a film in Sinhala. There was a huge response. The winner was Shanthi Kumar Seneviratne who wrote a screenplay about the romance between Prince Saliya and commoner Asokamala. The film was to be named ‘Asokamala’. Again there was a clash of wills. Shanthi Kumar wanted to direct the film himself but Nayagam was unwilling. So the move by Nayagam to film ‘Asokamala’ ended in failure.
Negombo Minerva Theatre Group
Nayagam however persisted with his efforts to produce a Sinhala film. He now had a different idea. Many Tamil dramas and folk plays had been turned into films in India. Nayagam too thought of selecting a popular Sinhala drama and making a film out of it. One of the most popular Sinhala dramas at the time was staged by the Negombo Minerva theatre group run by the Jayamanne brothers Aloy and Eddie. BAW or Aloy Jayamanne wrote a series of plays beginning with letters of the English alphabet. The first was “ A-Apparition (Avatharaya’ in Sinhala) and the second was “ B-Broken Promise”(kadawunu Poronduwa) while the third was ‘C- Changing Fate’(Peralena Iranama’).
‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ or ‘Broken Promise’ was then the most popular play of the Minerva group. It had been staged over 800 times in various parts of the island.SM Nayagam obtained the rights to make a film out of this play. Nayagam’s close relative Ramanathan negotiated the deal with the Jayamanne brothers.
Once the rights were secured, Nayagam formed a new company- the Chitrakala Movietone Ltd . He diversified the board of directors at Chitrakala Movietone Ltd to include Sri Lankans . The board comprised S. Madhuranyagam (chairman and Managing Director), Robert Parakrama Senanayake, Susantha de Fonseka, R.F. S de Mel, Sathiyalingam Ramanathan, V. Subramaniam and S.Savundararajan.
The Minerva theatre group artistes led by BAW Jayamanne proceeded to the South Indian city of Madurai in 1946 to shoot the film. ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ was filmed entirely at the Chitrakala Movietone studio in Thirupparankundram- Madurai. The studio consisted of a front office for administration, two large halls serving as studio floors to construct sets, warehouses for storage and several sheds.
The Sri Lankan artistes numbering 23 were lodged at two huge houses in Madurai town. One was for the men and the other for women. Some Indian crew members also stayed with them. They were taken daily from Madurai to the studio at Thirupparankundram in a bus and van. Some rtistes thought the filming would be over in two weeks. But with rehearsals the shooting dragged on for many months. Some actors playing minor roles were able to return early after their shots were over. The pre- production, production and post-production phases took a litte over six months.
Meanwhile there was competition to produce the first Sinhala talkie. As stated earlier the move to film Shanthikumar’s “Asokamala” had not been fruitful as Nayagam wanted an Indian directoe whereas Shanthikumar wanted to direct it himself. Shanthi Kumar eventually teamed up with Sir Chittambalam A. Gardiner of Ceylon Theatres as producer to direct “Asokamala”. The film was being shot at the Central Studios in Coimbatore in Madras/Tamil Nadu state. There was neck to neck race between SM Nayagam and Sir Chittambalam Gardiner to produce the first Sinhala talkie. Finally Sir Chittmbalam was pipped at the post by SM Nayagam. “Kadawunu Poronduwa” released on Jan 21st while “Asokamala” was screened on April 9th 1947.
“Kadawunu Poronduwa” while creating history also earned money. It was estimated that the film made at a cost of 250,000 rupees (a princely sum those days)had a fourfold return. The highlights of the film were the comic scenes between Eddie Jayamanne and Gemini Kantha and the acting-singing performance of Rukmani Devi whose real name was Daisy Rasammah Daniels. Though elated by “Kadawunu Poronduwa”s success, Nayagam was in for a rude shock. His studio at Thirupparankundram was burnt down in what was suspected to be a conspiracy by some of his business associates.
“Banda Nagarayata Pemineema “
The indefatigable Nayagam acquired more land in Kandana and re-established the Sri Murugan Nava Kala studio there. It later became known as SPM Studios. Prior to this Nayagam had set up the Sundara sound studio in Kandana. “Banda Nagarayata Pemineema “(Banda Comes to Town) was the first film made by Nayagam in his Kandana studio. It was directed by Raja Wahab, Kashmiri and co-directed by.A. Bhaskar Raj both of them Indian nationals. Nayagam who made cinematic history by producing the first Sinhala “talkie” ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ in 1947 made history again in 1952. ‘Banda Nagarayata Pemineema’ released on My 4th 1952 was tthe first Sinhala movie to be filmed completely in Sri Lanka. Nayagam also published a film journal for many years.
Nayagam continued to produce films at his Kandana studio. Some of these films were “Prema Tharangaya”, “Puduma Leli”, “Ahankara Sthree’, “Mathalan”, “Ramyalatha”, “Sohoyuro” and “Nalangana”. Though commercial successes they were all remakes of popular Indian Tamil or Hindi films. The directors were also Indian nationals like A. Bhaskar Raj, AS Nagarajan and LS Ramachandran. With the SLFP Governments of SWRD Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bndaranaike imposing restrictions on Indiaaan Nationals working in Sri Lankan films, Nayagam too stopped making films. SM Nayagam however will be forever remembered as the producer of the first Sinhala talkie.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This is an Enhanced Version of an Article Written for the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” appearing in the “Daily Mirror”of May 29th 2021. It can be accessed here: