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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Zu­fah An­sari The writer is an un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent with in­ter­est in cul­ture and so­ci­ety.

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.

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