History of Cinema in SRI LANKA

Historical overview

The Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C., probably from northern India. In the 14th century, a south Indian dynasty seized power in the north and established a Tamil kingdom. Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and by the Dutch in the 17th century, the island was ceded to the British in 1796, became a crown colony in 1802, and was united under British rule by 1815. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948; its name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972. Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted in violence in the mid-1980s.The government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began a ceasefire in December 2001.

History of cinema from 1896-2000

The first film to be screened in Sri Lanka (called Ceylon up till 1972) was a silent newsreel shown to Boer prisoners of war in 1901. The first cinema hall was opened in Colombo in 1903. The Colombo Cinema Society , thought to be the first Film Society in Asia, was started in 1945. There was no 'silent era' as such in the history of Sri Lankan filmmaking

Kadawunu Poronduwa (Broken Promise), made in 1947 with Sinhalese language dialogue, is accepted as the first Sri Lankan film. It was produced by S.M.Nayagam for Chitrakala Movietone in South India. After its release, more Sinhala films were produced in South Indian studios, using actors and actresses shipped over from Ceylon. These films, nurtured by Indian directors and technicians, were really South Indian in attitude, formation and presentation. Many were direct copies of South Indian films in both storyline and acting styles. The three major commercial production and distribution companies, Ceylon Theatres, Ceylon Studios and Ceylon Entertainments began to have a virtual monopoly of the cinema industry in Ceylon by the late 1940's. The audiences for imported Tamil and Hindi films outstripped those for Sinhala films.

With the granting of independence to Ceylon in 1948 and the emergence of nationalism, efforts were made to redeem the Sinhala film from Indian influences. Sirisena Wimalaweera, who opened his Navajeevana Film Studios in 1951 and produced a film - Podi Putha (Younger Son) in 1955 - is credited with giving birth to the indigenous cinema of Sri Lanka. The Government Film Unit (GFU) was established in 1948 to produce newsreels and documentaries to educate the people on their newly won independence. Noted for its 'creative treatment of actuality' and high filmmaking standards, many GFU films won international awards. It became the 'nursery' from which many of Sri Lanka's future eminent filmmakers emerged. Unfortunately, in later decades, its standards deteriorated when it became the outright tool of government propaganda.

The early Sinhalese films were all made in South India. They moved just one step ahead from the stage to the screen. Being produced in South India, they came under considerable influence of the South Indian movies in the late 1940s and early-'50s. It was a case of producing "formula films", which required a menu of songs and dances around a melodramatic story. Again, these formula films were not the actual cause of decline; it was the powerful lobby of importers and distributors of films. These group of people who were making huge profits from imported films, shown in the few cinema circuits which they owned, spent just a fraction of their profits for the production of Sinhalese films.

They had no interest from the beginning in the production of films of quality or in developing a national film industry. They financed the production of a handful of Sinhala films each year, just to keep the audiences happy. And also through this sponsorship of the Sinhalese film they kept the emerging nascent nationalism at bay.

But the situation changed somewhat in 1956, when an outburst of nationalism brought the first major change of government in Sri Lanka. The new government put a stop to the making of Sinhalese films abroad. This was the first attempt to develop a Sri Lankan film industry, at a time when the massive audiences were in the mood for the development of films of truly Sri Lankan character. The film importers and distributors who had hitherto been subsidising the production of a few films abroad, started diverting some capital to the setting up of studios and other necessary infrastructure. Sri Lankan cinema industry for the first time saw capital formation within the industry. It was the time of a great cultural upheaval in arts and culture in the country.

The Sinhalese stage led the way with highly successful productions using new trends in theatre and stagecraft. The theatre moved away from the stiff realism of the past to more experimental forms of presentation, which resulted in more lively and creative productions. It was the vintage period for Sri Lankan arts, and in keeping with the trend which threw up a man whose brilliant production become a turning point in the Sinhalese film industry. That man was Lester James Pereis, and the film he made was titled "Rekawa", 1956 (The line of fate on one's palm). It was a film that made a total departure from the formula films of the past, and the carbon copies of Indian films.

It was hailed by critics, and more importantly, was also accepted by the audiences. The enthusiasm generated by all these developments in theatre and cinema moved to the '60s. At that time there was a growing demand among the audiences for a better local cinema. The film culture was broadened with a new Sinhalese intelligentsia writing about the cinema in a more serious manner, and discussing the global masterpieces of cinema.

Lester James Peries changed the face of Sinhala cinema forever. He used amateur actors and moved outside the confines of the studio, shooting on location in natural light. For the first time, the people of the country and their environment and culture were portrayed realistically on the screen. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and received international critical acclaim for 'its poetry and honesty'. Peries' next film, Gamperaliya (The Changing Village/1963) became both a commercial and critical success worldwide. Considered a milestone in mainstream cinema, it clearly set out the path Sri Lankan Sinhala cinema was to take. It won the Grand Prix (Golden Peacock) Award at the 3rd International Film Festival of India in New Delhi in 1965.

This new interest in the cinema, and the need for a truly national cinematic tradition, translated into a demand for state intervention to supporting the development of film industry. As a result the government appointed a commission to evaluate the needs of the film industry. The commission recommended that the state to take over the import and distribution of films to ensure that it could provide the necessary funding for the development of this particular industry.

Gamperaliya set the standard and paved the way for other serious filmmakers to produce notable work in the 1960's. A few examples are Dhasak Sithuvili (G.D.L.Perera 1965), Parasathu Mal (Gamini Fonseka 1966), Sath Samudura (Siri Gunasinghe 1966) and Hantane Kathawa (Sugathapala Senerat Yapa 1969).

In 1970, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led coalition of socialist parties, which advocated centralized planning was swept into power. The film industry was nationalized under the monopolistic control of the State Film Corporation (now called the National Film Corporation - NFC). Its initial aim of protecting, preserving and developing an indigenous Sri Lankan film industry was achieved with the fostering of creative and quality film making practices in its first fifteen years. But by the end of the 1980's, its broader, long-term aspirations and expectations were not be fulfilled. Some even argue that the total monopoly of the film industry by the NFC, specially over distribution, hastened the decline in Sri Lankan cinema.

The 1970's was an important decade of experimentation, of serious writing and debate about film as aesthetic form and industry, and a period of learning from the European and Japanese avant-garde. New trends developed, and many writers and directors who understood the creative possibilities of the cinematic language emerged to make significant films. Among the directors were Mahagama Sekera, Ranjit Lal, D.B. Nihalsinghe and Dharmasena Pathiraja. The latter's ground breaking 'alternative' filmmaking techniques coupled with his style of 'social realism' introduced the concept of 'Third Cinema' to Sri Lankan audiences, seen in films like "Ahas Gauwa" (1974) and "Bambaru Avith" (1978). The 1970's also saw the debut of filmmakers who are today considered major directors in the Sri Lankan cinema - such as H.D. Premaratne with "Sikuruliya" (1975), Vasantha Obeysekera with Wesgaththo (1970) and Sumithra Peries with "Gehenu Lamai" (1978).

From 1979, there was a marked decline in the film industry. In 1975, the industry had 55.5 million viewers annually, with 364 cinema halls. By 1995 this had dropped to 23.3 million viewers and 259 cinema halls. The worsening security situation in the country added to the crisis. Late-night film exhibition was stopped, as there was no audience. There was no cinema in the entire Jaffna peninsula and most of the North, and very little in the East.

With a huge backlog of films awaiting screening, and the poor quality of film which did not bring revenue, film stars, producers, directors and technicians began to appeal to the government to assist the industry. But all the efforts failed to bring the industry back to life. The current crisis in the country's film industry is really which may easily be described as a major tragedy. Sri Lanka still has many talents and skilled people to make excellent films. Lester James Peiris, who pioneered the change in style and content of films, is one who has been justly compared to India's Satyajit Ray and even to Japan's Kurosawa. He continued to direct film classics in Sinhalese. He produced 18 feature films and 10 documentaries, all of excellent quality. In 1965 he was awarded the Golden Peacock, the highest award in the Indian Film Festival. One of his films, "Nedhanaya" (Buried Treasure), was selected for screening at the Venice Film Festival (1972).

While the established directors continued with their creative work in the 1980's, this decade also saw the emergence of two other directors of quality - Dharmasiri Bandaranaike and Tissa Abeysekera. The latter's Viragaya (1987) was arguably the film of the decade. The late 1980's and the 1990's saw the decline of the Sri Lankan film industry mainly due to the production of too many poor quality films and the restrictive distribution policies of the NFC. Investment in film production fell and technicians and artistes moved into the more lucrative world of television drama. However, a few younger filmmakers of talent emerged in the 1990's such as Prasanna Vithanage, Sudath Devapriya, Boodie Keerthisena, Jackson Anthony, Mohan Niyaz, Linton Semage, Asoka Handagama, Udayakantha Warnasuiya and Somaratne Dissanayake.

Of these Prasanna Vithanage has received the most international critical acclaim with his award winning films Pavuru Wallalu (Walls Within/1997) and Purahanda Kaluwara (Death on a Full Moon Day/1997). By January 2000, the film industry was liberalized with the ceasing of the NFC monopoly. The NFC retained its regulatory functions however. Various tax incentives for producers were introduced and the importation and distribution of foreign films opened up to the private sector. With the NFC now playing a more pro-active and competitive role among other film industry players, a bright future for the Sri Lankan cinema is promised. Peries' nomination and possible win will give the Sri Lankan film industry a much needed boost as well as international recognition, since it has been suffering through a decline since the late 1980s continuing through the 1990s. This was attributed to the over-production of poor quality films and the restrictive policies of the NFC (National Film Corporation). However, the past few years have shown some improvement with an emergence of talented filmmakers such as Prasanna Vithanage, Sudath Devapriya, and Boodie Keerthisena. Furthermore, the NFC's monopoly was put to a stop with the liberalization of the film industry in January 2000.

Despite the sour state of Sri Lankan cinema several highlights have been produced in recent years. Prasanna Vithanage is probably the most promising newcomer. His work "Purahanda Kaluwara" (1997) received some interantional acclaim telling the sotry of poor old blind man refusing to claim the compensation awarded for the death of his soldier son in the battlefields of Sri Lanka's ongoing ethnic war. He believes his son is alive and will come home soon, even though the army brought back his son's shattered remains in a sealed coffin. His latest film "Ira Madiyama" (August Sun) is set in Sri Lanka during the mid-1990s and tells three simultaneous stories against the backdrop of the country's savage civil war.

Vimukthi Jayasundera, at 26, the youngest Sri Lankan film maker to have made it to the premier international film festival at Cannes, with his short film "Vide pour l'amour",2000 (Empty for Love), is in Sri Lanka to launch on the production of his maiden full-length feature film. Calling it "The Abandoned Land", Vimukthi describes it as "the story of a village in Sri Lanka where evil nature and insanity invades and occupies human souls and bodies."

"Me Mage Sandai", 2000 (This Is My Moon), the internationally acclaimed film by Ashoka Handagama, unfolds a story of an army deserter and a Tamil girl in a border village of war-torn Nothern Sri Lanka. The film won several international prices. Sri Lankan film "Punchi Suranganavi", 2000 (Little Angel), about the friendship between two children, one from the majority Sinhala community and the other from the minority Tamil community, has won top honours at the Iranian International Film Festival. "Punchi Suranganavi", by internationally acclaimed director Somaratne Dissanayake, won the Golden Butterfly Award for its universal human interest.

Internationallly acclaimed film "Aswenna" (The Compensation), directed by Bennett Ratnayake, won the critics award at the Mumbai International Film Festival, organized by the Federation of International Cinema Critics Association, recently. "Aswesuma" depicts an old man's struggle to overcome his own guilt and his longing to correct some of the happenings for which he was responsible during his youth.

Sri Lanka's Supreme Court ordered the state to pay compensation to the makers of an award-winning anti-war film which was effectively banned by the government last year. The screening of the film "Death on a Full Moon Day" ,2002 by Prasanna Vithanage was blocked in July 2000 by a government minister because the country was on a "war-footing" following the escalation of attacks by Tamil Tiger separatists.

The vast but poor Sri Lankan cinematic landscape might change if government control and cinematic talent combine to produce quality work. The Shinhali - Tamil controverse however will block any form of true creative expression. The civil war issue contaminates the free expression of creativity as well as the freedom of the Sri Lankan population. Again the cinema is a true reflection of a country's state of being.

Trailers from SRI LANKA

name year country type trailer
Kovilpatti Veeralakshmi 2003 SRI LANKA RAM Click to Watch

Cinema links from SRI LANKA

Cinestar Foundation Site offering profiles of all Sri Lankan cinema professionals
Filmhall Claiming to be the Only official Sri Lankan Film web
Prasanna Vithanage Official site of Prasanna Vithanage
Sri Lanka Film providing information on the centre founded in 1991, 'to enhance and enrich film culture in Sri Lanka'.
Tamil Cinema Relates to the Tamil film industry, i.e.: cinema of South India and Sri Lanka. Provides news, synopses,reviews etc.
Tamil Cinema Online This longest-running S.A. festival has about 200 films from about 30 countries. It highlights African film & offers workshops with directors, etc

Lester James Peries

Asoka Handagama

Prasanna Vithanage
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