Story of an Island Industry
Despite many obstacles, the film industry in Sri Lanka has continued to make advances and produce some very good work.
Sri Lankan films have a long history of commitment and dedication.
The Sri Lankan film industry has seen considerable struggle and success over six decades of existence. With the first ever movie screening being a silent newsreel that was shown to Boer war prisoners in 1901, there has been no looking back. The industry witnessed the opening of its first cinema hall in 1903, followed by the establishment of the Colombo Cinema Society in 1945.
Over the years, the Sri Lankan film industry has evolved to bring to the fore topics that are
realistic and thought- provoking.
The first formal production of a Sri Lankan movie took place in 1947. Produced by S.M Nayagam of Chitra Kala Movies, Kadawunu Poronduwa was made in the Sinhalese language in a South Indian studio, becoming the movie that marked the inauguration of Sri Lankan cinema. By the late 1940s the Sri Lankan film industry started taking shape, with very few players like Ceylon Studios, theatres and entertainment dominating the cinema industry.
Most of the movies produced during this time were in the Sinhala language, produced in South Indian studios using Sri Lankan actors and having the feel of South Indian cinema. Most of the content produced during the first nine years was executed in a typical Indian format, within the confinement of studios.
After the advent of South Indian studio productions, the industry progressed on to experimenting with formations. In 1956, the Sri Lankan film industry produced its first Sinhala film
Rekava, which was shot completely at outdoor locations by director James Peries. But contrary to popular belief, it was Gambada Sundari, shot in 1950, which is unofficially considered the first Sri Lankan film to be shot outdoors.
Despite not being the first outdoor movie, Rekava bagged many “firsts”. It was the first film shot on16mm, which allowed the director to record dialogue on the spot with the help of Auricon sound on film - a feature that recorded sound optically. The film was later shifted to 35mm and premiered in Colombo in 1950.
Rekava was a revolutionary film and garnered local and internal critical acclaim. But it did not hit it off with local audiences and tanked at the box office. This did not stop Peries. In 1964, he came back with Gamperaliya which became the first Sinhala movie without songs. Gamperaliya worked like a charm, gathering massive acclaim from critics and audiences for portraying Sinhala culture. The venture was very successful and its producer Anton Wicremasinghe received the Silver Peacock at the New Delhi International Film Festival.
Growing acclaim of the Sri Lankan film industry also brought recognition to the work of acting talents who eventually became household names. These included the stars of Kadavunu Poronduwa, Rukmani Devi and Eddie Jayamanne, followed by the 1960’s heartthrob Gamini Fonseka who emerged as a star in Sandesaya, later followed by Vijaya Kumaratunga in 1969.
The 70s saw the emergence of several endowed filmmakers including Dr. D.B. Nihalsingha with
Weilkatara, Sri Lanka’s first film to be produced in cinemascope followed by Vasantha Obeysekera with his debut film Ves Gatho and culminating with Palangetiyo in 1979. Another director, Dharmasena Pathiraja, came forward with storylines that depicted the city youth in movies like
Bambaru Awith and Ahas Gauwa, while the next few decades brought a new wave of creativity with works of Nihalsingha based on the exploitation of women and this stirred quite a few conversations. Vithanage’s Purahanda
Kaluwara became one of the best movies to come out of Sri Lanka, winning the prestigious Camera d'Or for Best Film at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
Over the years, the Sri Lankan film industry has evolved to bring to the fore topics that are realistic and thought-provoking, based on subjects of family relationships, abortion and results of the conflict between the military and the Tamil Tigers..
However, after 1983 the Sri Lankan film industry has moved towards a sort of a downfall. The decline came about when the National Film Corporation opened doors of the industry to everybody and anybody, resulting in a 5 year line of films waiting to be released. With no capacity to match the increasing rise of television and the conditions of civil war, the earnings from films began to drop and the government did not make much effort to regulate and organize the film industry.
The last decade having been the worst in the history of Sri Lankan cinema has contributed to the downward spiral of film making, with only a handful of productions becoming known internationally. The reasons for this collapse are manifold. The civil war that ended in 2009 left only 168 theatres intact and the industry had to make an effort for rehabilitation. Some of the reasons can be attributed to the mechanics of the industry. Previously, prominent entities such as the National Film Corporation, which once played a pivotal role in promoting the cinema boom stopped giving out interestfree loans to budding film-makers and halted its funding completely by 2010, leaving the film-makers with no financial backing.
Additionally in 2001, the government started the process of privatization on the import and distribution of films. The privatization process led to distribution issues, making films unavailable for screening, resulting in a huge number of cinemas closing down. With very few cinemas adequately equipped for screening of digital movies, internationally renowned filmmakers like Vimukthi Jayasundara and Prasanna Vithanage found it impossible to release their works in Sri Lanka.
Another major issue that still poses a threat to the survival of Sri Lankan films is the ethnic divide of the audiences, which restricts revenue for many filmmakers. The Sinhalaspeaking audience does not turn up for a Tamil movie and vice versa.
Moreover, despite the rise of historical drama after the civil war, state censorship is wary of any cinematic work that undermines the state or the army through historical depictions, restricting many filmmakers from showcasing their work locally and abroad.
The only promise of revival of the industry is the presence of resilient filmmakers like Prasanna Vithanage, Vimukthi Jayasundara and Asoka Handagama, who despite all restrictions continue to make films that are accepted at international film festivals and win accolades for Sri Lankan cinema.