Gamini Fonseka was the uncrowned king of Sinhala cinema for nearly three decades. He was the first and arguably the sole super star 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 on September 30th 2004 marked an end of an epoch!
In keeping with the practice of devoting at least one article in the beginning of each month to a cinema-related topic, this column focuses on Gamini Fonseka this week. As I have stated on more than one occasion, Sri Lankan Superstar Gamini Fonseka remains my favourite actor on the Sinhala silver screen since childhood.My all-time favourite Sinhala film hero was- and forever will be – Gamini Fonseka. It is in this context therefore that I write this article to commemorate his seventeenth death anniversary.
Writing about Gamini Fonseka is always a pleasant and delightful exercise for me. I have often done so before and will be revisiting some of my earlier writings to enhance this article. Gamini Fonseka was a man whom I loved as an actor, appreciated as a director, admired as a politician and above all respected as a decent human being. Gamini the actor on the Sinhala silver screen became an important part of life in childhood. This is the kind of relationship one has with actors, singers, writers and sportsmen. The impact of films and film stars in the South Asian region is phenomenal. Childhood impressions in that sense are indelible.
Belonging to a middle class Tamil family then living in Colombo, I was drawn into the world of films at an early age. The staple diet of this film fascination was naturally Tamil oriented. But I was indeed fortunate that despite my Tamilness, I was equally attracted to Sinhala movies from an early age. I consider myself lucky to have savoured Tamil, English, Sinhala and also Hindi movies from a very young age. Gamini Fonseka became a permanent part of my childhood movie memories. He remains there forever.
‘Ran Muthu Duwa’
Gamini Fonseka entered my life when I was about 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. Two to see the famed underwater scenes made possible by Mike Wilson. Gamini along with Jeevarani, Shane Gooneratne and Joe Abeywickrema starred in it. Gamini’s acting, dancing and fighting captivated me. The song sequence ‘Pipee Pipee Renu Natana’ remains fresh in memory even now.
I was well and truly hooked after seeing Gamini for the first time on screen. I never ever recovered. There was hardly a Gamini Fonseka film that I missed in the sixties of the last century. 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 regularly 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.
Gamini Fonseka became endreared to me during childhood mainly because he was an action hero on screen. Initially the main attraction was 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. A major reason for the naturalism in Gamini’s fighting scenes was due to the nature of the man himself. He was a fighter both orthodox and unorthodox. He often got into brawls but 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 own expense to Tissamaharama.
Among the many movies of Gamini was Titus Totawatte’s ‘Chandiya’ in 1965.It was a milestone in Sinhala moviedom and Gamini’s career. 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’. Titus Thotawatte who made ‘Chandiya’ and ‘Chutte’ with Gamini was later working at Rupavahini. I used to run into him often those days at a restaurant in Bambalapitiya. He would recount many stories concerning Gamini to me as I listened with rapt attention.
Gamini acting as ‘Chandiya’ – meaning tough guy – was in a way an instance of art imitating life because Gamini was in every way a ‘Chandiya’ in real life. Thomians of yesteryear speak volumes about his martial skills during school days. The benchmark of his fighting ability and pugilistic prowess however was the ‘historic’ encounter with Dehiwala’s ‘strongman’ of yore – Karthelis.
Clash with Strongman Karthelis
The clash with Karthelis had originated with Gamini’s father William Fonseka known as Willie. A friend of Gamini Fonseka was knocked down while crossing the road by Karthelis who used to drive a taxi in those days. Fortunately he sustained no injuries. Karthelis who was notorious for his rash driving had verbally abused the victim in raw filth. The man complained about this incident to Gamini’s father Willie Fonseka, who was highly respected in the area. Willie Fonseka had accosted Karthelis and chided the Dehiwala strong man in public over his deplorable conduct.
Later in the day Karthelis with a gang of 10 thugs arrived in two taxis to Willie Fonseka’s house. Willie Fonseka opened the gate and faced the gang alone. Two of the men had swords. Willie’s brothers Nelson and Garmoyle and cousin Fred ( my old schoolmate and journalistic colleague the late Prasad Gunewardene’s father) who were in the house at that time also joined in the fight.
Gamini was then eating in the kitchen. Hearing the commotion he came running. Clad in sarong and clogs, Gamini slipped and fell in his haste. Five of the thugs held him down and tried to hack Gamini with the swords. Fortunately Willie and the others came to Gamini’s rescue and seized the swords. Karthelis and his goons fled, leaving the swords behind. They were displayed as trophies in the Fonseka household for years.
Gamini himself was taken to Durdans Hospital and treated for his injuries. No complaints were made to the Police. Gamini vowed that he would teach Karthelis a lesson and challenged him to a “man to man” fight. Karthelis never accepted the challenge. Years later Gamini was driving his car on the Galle Road when he saw Karthelis standing near the Wellawatte-Dehiwala bridge. Gamini got down from his vehicle and went up to Karthelis. Then began the historic fight reminiscent of ASP Randeniya vs Goring Mudalali in ‘Weli Kathara’.
Gamini thrashed Karthelis mercilessly in the one-on-one fight duel. The Dehiwala strongman was chased across the Galle Road from one side to another and back by Gamini who pummelled Karthelis blue, black and blue. Gamini then went away telling Karthelis that he was ready for a return fight “any day, anywhere, anytime”. Karthelis was hospitalised after the fight. He never took up Gamini Fonseka’s challenge. This was the beginning of the end for the Dehiwala strongman who simply faded away after the incident.
S. Thomas’ College, Mt.Lavinia
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.
After finishing secondary school, the “tough” Gamini had first wanted to be a Policeman. He had applied for a sub-inspector post and was called up for an interview. His mother Daisy pleaded with him not to join the Police. Gamini then turned to what was his second love then – cinema. Interestingly enough the man who became one of the finest and popular actors on screen did not want a career in acting then. He wanted to be a cinematographer and a film director. Gamini had tried to get a chance with many film producers but met with little luck. It was at this juncture that the multi-talented Premnath Moraes helped him out.
Recognising Gamini’s innate talent and appreciating his enthusiasm, Premnath recommended him to Lester. Premnath described Gamini as an old Thomian and the kind of person needed by the film industry. “He is mad about films and wants to be a cameraman,” wrote Moraes. Responding positively to Premnath’s recommendation, Lester took Gamini on as a camera assistant to ace cinematographer Willie Blake. Lester’s maiden feature film ‘Rekava’ was being filmed then.
Lester James Peries
It was Lester James Peries who gave Gamini his first break in movies as an actor through ‘Rekava’. Gamini showed his face for the first time on screen in a scene in the film. He was working as a camera cum production assistant for Lester. It was Lester who made Gamini an assistant director for his second film ‘Sandesaya,’ in which he also played the second lead to Ananda Jayaratne. Three of Gamini Fonseka’s memorable character portrayals on screen were as Jinadasa, Willie Abeynayake and Saviman Kabalana in the films ‘Gamperaliya,’ ‘Nidhanaya’ and ‘Yuganthaya’ respectively. All three were directed by Lester. Gamini’s first attempt at directing was ‘Parasathumal’ in which Lester played a behind the scenes role as an adviser and guide.
Gamini’s first big break in acting came with ‘Daiwa Yogaya’ in 1959 where he played 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 that films like ‘Adata Wediya Heta Hondai,’ ‘Ranmuthuduwa,’ ‘Getawarayo’ and ‘Dheevarayo’ exploded on the screen and established Gamini as a box office draw. However he proved 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 Jinadasa.
James Bond – Jamis Banda.
Gamini reached the peak of his popularity in the late sixties and early seventies as romantic action hero. When Sean Connery won over the western world as Ian Fleming’s James Bond , Mike Wilson cashed in on the ‘007’ craze with a Sri Lankan version. Enter our own man with a license 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’ film produced in Tamil Nadu by Ramasundaram of Modern Studios. Gamini was the mainstay of the ‘Sooraya’ film series in Sinhala. ‘Soorayangath Sooraya,’ ‘Edath Sooraya Adath Sooraya,’ ‘Sooraya Soorayamai’and ‘Hatharadenaama Sooraya.’
The action films of old had a simple underlying thread that good triumphs over evil. So Gamini like MGR in Tamil films gave us a happy feeling and inspired all to greater heights. This success in action movies did not mean that Gamini was playing stereotyped roles alone. Far from it! He played a variety of roles and proved his thespian skills in many.
Two English films starring Gamini Fonseka that I have seen 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 protagonist. In this Gamini played a planter-hunter opposite Mary Tamm who also acted in Frederick 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
Other noteworthy films where his acting abilities were strikingly displayed were ‘Getawarayo,’ ‘Hulawali,’ ‘Oba Dutu Daa,’ ‘Sanasuma Kothanada,’ ‘Weli Kathara,’ ‘Sana Keliya,’ ‘Deviyane Oba Kohedha?’ and ‘Sarungale’. His performances in films directed by him were all fabulous. Gamini combined shades of Marlon Brando, Yul Brynner and Paul Newman in his acting. 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 method.
108 films and one teledrama.
In an illustrious career spanning almost five decades Gamini Fonseka acted in 108 films and one teledrama. He played the lead role in 89 films and a supportive actor role in 19 movies. Gamini directed 10 and produced two films. He has also written lyrics and stories for a few films. The only teledrama Gamini acted in was ‘Sudu Saha Kalu’ directed by D.B. Nihalsinghe. Gamini acted as ‘Kalu Mahathaya’ in the teledrama.
There have been several actor-directors who failed when directing themselves. It was a case of either underplaying or overacting. One man who performed this dual role creditably was Hindi cinema’s Raj Kapoor.Another was Hollywood’s Clint Eastwood.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 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.
Tamil clerk Nadarajah in ‘Sarungale’
Gamini gave an astounding performance acting 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. Well-known broadcaster and writer Yoga Balachandran who is also from Karaveddy 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).
Gamini himself was very proud of his role in that movie. 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. But one thing that must be emphasised in the case of Gamini Fonseka is that he was a man with absolutely no trace of communalism in him. I have had only about four or five conversations with him including an interview for the ‘Virakesari’ in 1978.Those conversations and testimonies of persons who knew him well convinced me of his bona fides in this respect.
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 has been massive. starting from pioneer S. M. Nayagam producing Kadawuna Poronduwa. Many leading producers, directors, cinematographers, Music composers, 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 was not afraid to state this publicly whenever the occasion arose. He did so publicly during the Sinhla cinema Golden Jubilee celebrations and also in several media interviews.
“Pilot Premnath”Mo vie
An unforgettable experience etched in memory is my first interaction with Gamini as a journalist in 1978. His accessibilty, simplicity, geniality and sincerity made a huge impression on me. What happened then was this .
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. Things changed with the JR Jayewardene led UNP Govt of 1977.When the UNP Govt liberalised the economy in 1977 there were many Indo – Lanka co -productions in cinema. But these co-productions ultimately crushed the nascent Sri Lankan Tamil film industry.
A journalist colleague on the “Virakesari” Anton Edward and I 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 in the newspaper.
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 Ranasinghe 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 CWC leader S. Thondaman (snr) and other prominent Indian Tamil leaders. The Indian High commission also stepped in. The “Virakesari” management also “advised” 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 for Sri Lankan Tamil films.With the 1983 July violence life changed for Tamils in Sri Lanka. So many things were lost. The Tamil film industry was totally affected. However I remain grateful for Gamini’s support and solidarity then.
Two Fonsekas – Gamini and Malani
Gamini Fonseka has acted opposite many actresses but the one with whose chemistry Gamini hit it off best was Malani Fonseka. The Two Fonsekas Gamini and Malani were a popular screen duo.In my opinion the finest joint performanceon screen of Gamini and Malani was in the Lester James Peries masterpiece “Nidhanya”.
The shooting of the film took over seven months as both Gamini and Malani being busy film stars could be available for only five days each month for Nidhanaya.Usually Lester shoots his films at a stretch without breaks but here it was not possible. Despite the breaks the continuity was maintained with great intensity by both Gamini and Malani who complemented each other.
Some of the great sequences in Nidhanaya relate to the thespian prowess of both. In the waltz sequence both had to enact the dancing steps in natural slow motion as there was no second camera available to shoot in slow motion. So both coached by Keerthi Sri Karunaratne practised the steps and then danced for the camera in exaggerated slow movements.This was a feat that required perfect coordination and both Fonsekas rose to the occasion and did themselves proud.
Another scene where Malani excelled was when Gamini suddenly slaps her and berates her. Malani acts startled and upset perfectly. What really happened was that Lester and Gamini did not reveal how the scene was going to be shot to Malani. She did not know that Gamini was going to hit and shout at her. So when it did happen she was naturally shocked and surprised. The result was a superb piece of “natural” acting.
The best actor was Joe Abeywickrema
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. Gamini also had immense respect for Tony Ranasinghe as the finest character actor. The best director who brought out the best in Gamini as director was Lester and Gamini himself.
Gamini 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. There was a time when film artistes and technicians were treated rather shabbily by the filmmakers. 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 continuously concerned about their plight. He was unhappy about the way the various regimes treated and continued to treat the film industry.
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.
I remain to this day a firm Sinhala film aficionado not only of quality films but also of those masala movies. Lester, GDL, Nihalsinha, Siri Gunasinha, KAW, Pathiraja, Sumithra, Tissa, Vasantha, Dharmasiri, Parakrama, Prasanna, Asoka and Vimukthi have over the years taken Sinhala cinema away from shackles of Mumbai and Chennai in a new direction. But for sheer entertainment one cannot forget the “popular” films of Cinemas Ltd, Ceylon Theatres Ltd and people like Yasapalitha Nanayakkara, Robin Tampoe, Lenin Morais and Joe Devanand, too.
Artistically Appreciated and Commercially Valued
Gamini straddled both these artistic and commercial cinematic worlds with ease. He was both an “arty” actor of powerful serious movies as well as a “melodramatic” star of popular cinema too. Gamini was artistically appreciated and commercially valued. He made his mark as both actor and director. The life and times of Superstar Gamini Fonseka remain inextricably intertwined with the evolution and growth of Sinhala cinema.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an updated version of the Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of Oct 2, 2021. It can be accessed here-