By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
BLACK JULY 1983 -5
The late Yasapalitha Nanayakkara was a trendsetter in the Sinhala cinema with his penchant for commercially successful film-making. Often he cast the late Vijaya Kumaratunga as his chosen hero. In the late sixties, it was becoming trendy to produce Tamil twins to the Sinhala movies.
Often, the Tamil hero was Vaithilingam Palanisamy Ganesan, also known as Sri Lanka’s M.G.R.
A commercially successful film producer and Tamil film idol, V. P. Ganesan dreamt big and was determined to take Sri Lanka’s Tamil film industry to new heights. There had been many pioneers before him, but it was Ganesan who introduced the formula for commercial success to the Tamil film industry here.
Three decades ago, the Sinhala and Tamil film makers, casts and technicians worked together. Except for the hero and comedian, often the same cast acted in both the Sinhala and Tamil versions.
“Not only were there these collective cinematic efforts, artistes worked together, influencing and nurturing the language -specific cinema. Master Rocksamy and Master Muttusamy were giants as was Vamadevan and K. Gunaratnam. But with the 1983 riots, their collective efforts as well as dreams were burnt to cinders together with their studios worth millions,” recalls Mano Ganesan, son of V. P. Ganesan.
V. P. Ganesan is the founder of the Democratic Workers’ Congress. Many believe Ganesan was the Sri Lankan equivalent of M.G. Ramachandran of Tamil Nadu. Ganesan produced and acted in three commercially successful Tamil films, Puthiya Kattru, Naan Ungal Thozhan and Naadu Pottra Vaazhgha.
Ganesan Jr. himself was a child artiste and often accompanied his father to the movie sets and premieres, absorbing the ‘essence of cinematic expression’. He portrayed the childhood of the villain in the film Puthiya Katru (new wind) produced by his father wayback in 1973.
“There was a film-going culture then. The Plaza, Eros and Sapphire were popular Tamil theatres. They were well-known landmarks of yesteryear. There is a supermarket where the Plaza was situated and Sapphire was burnt to ashes. Eros is reconstructed, but the movies shown are from Kollywood,” Ganesan says.
Following his father’s success in Tamil commercial movie-making, other commercial successes followed. Some had popular actresses, Sonia Dissanayake and Jenita Samaraweera playing the lead. One film was converted into a Sinhala commercial hit, Anjaana, starring Vijaya Kumaratunga. Tamil film producers also began investing in the Sinhala film industry and vice versa.
Many pioneering spirits
There were many pioneering spirits in the Tamil film industry at that time. Most dabbled in cinema for the love of art. But V. P. Ganesan injected commercial success to the local Tamil film industry, inspiring others to take on the challenge of producing local Tamil films. After 1974, four Tamil films were produced by others, in quick succession, as the market began to grow.
“Colombo was a prime market. There were many Tamil filmgoers. The North and the East were two big hubs. The other block was Nuwara Eliya”, recalls Ganesan.
As a kid, he once accompanied his father to Jaffna for a film premiere. Outside the Ranee theatre was a massive cutout of V. P. Ganesan. “I hadn’t been to Jaffna until then. I felt so proud. But today we only find billboards of Kollywood artistes announcing Kollywood films. Little wonder my father died a sad man, his dreams of a Sri Lankan Tamil film industry burnt along with the Vijaya Studio in Hendala,” says Mano Ganesan with a pensive smile.
In retrospect, he identifies the ‘70s as ‘an era of creativity’ when efforts were made to develop the Tamil commercial film industry. The heroes and heroines were Sri Lankan. The films had a plural identity.
Sinhala and Tamil artistes found an opportunity to cater to the ‘other’ audience. They worked together in front of the camera as well as from behind. “If fostered, that would have been the foundation of a Tamil national identity. This dependence on Kollywood wouldn’t have been there,” Ganesan opines.
Had Sri Lanka’s Tamil film industry flourished then, it would have strongly reflected a Sri Lankan Tamil identity. Kollywood reflects Tamil Nadu’s cultural expression. Though similar, it is also very different. “There wouldn’t have been a need to hinge our cultural and political identity to Tamil Nadu via Kollywood, if we had our own industry. So it is not just the destruction of an industry we mourn but also a cultural and political identity lost,” says Ganesan.
A common platform
As a politician, Mano Ganesan feels that both communities no longer have creative avenues of communication, open. For that, there needs to be an art form, a common platform.
The Tamil diaspora, he feels, is often blamed for the clamour for an identity of its own and for promoting extremism. But, there had been no effort made to attract the dollars and pounds they pour into various activities towards the fostering of a Tamil film industry which they can be proud of. “The industry is badly in need of financial assistance for it to revive,” he notes.
“Let them not be the voice of Tamil extremism. The Tamil diaspora funds Kollywood movies and Kollywood is increasingly includes Sri Lankan Tamil characters in their productions to cater to this growing market. There are Sri Lankan Tamils all over the world and they fund the film industry in Tamil Nadu”, says Ganesan, adding that those in the industry must take advantage of this existing market and the availability of funds that otherwise nurture Kollywood.
As the son of a successful Tamil film producer, Mano Ganesan understands the need for a market. The market exists, but there are no takers here. “We have artistes without livelihood support. I am proud of the fact that they did not relocate post 1983. Somebody should look into their welfare as well”.
Role of ‘cultural unifier’
Instead of divisive politics, Mano Ganesan still pins much hope on the Tamil film industry to play the role of ‘cultural unifier’.
There is continuous blaming for ‘Indian cultural flooding’. “There is no need to view Kollywood with suspicion or hate simply due to their international outreach.
“But there lies a golden opportunity to redevelop the Tamil film industry devastated in July 1983, to foster amity between communities and to promote a plural Sri Lankan identity through cinema. This would require political leadership and artistes of vision and courage.
“I am also sad that the Tamil film industry made no representations before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) about the impact on the industry, and what it holds for the future. Art forms foster reconciliation and we have overlooked this aspect,” he notes.
“A step in the right direction would be to subsidize the Tamil film industry. Design methods to attract the Tamil Diaspora funds to develop the film industry and use this opportunity post-war to promote through cinema, a plural identity.
“Take care of the artistes of yesteryear who, despite the violence experienced and properties lost, still live in Sri Lanka with the hope that the Tamil cinema would revive itself. My father’s soul will find peace then, knowing that the industry he loved and lived for finally has a second chance,” says a hopeful Ganesan. courtesy: Ceylon Today