Sinhala cinema’s pioneering director Lester James Peries is the Sri Lankan filmmaker I like, admire and respect most. The master movie maker’s 102nd birth anniversary falls on April 5. Sri Lankan Superstar Gamini Fonseka remains my favourite actor on the Sinhala silver screen since childhood. The movie-monarch’s 85th birth anniversary was on March 21.
I have written extensively on both in the past. I intend focusing this week–drawing from some of my earlier writings–on the professional and personal bonds between my favourite actor and favourite director in the sphere of Sinhala cinema.
From this April onwards I hope to write an article in these columns about a cinema-related topic on the first week of each month.
The Lester-Gamini ‘partnership’ in movies spanned several decades and paid great dividends. It was Lester James Peries who gave Gamini Fonseka his first break in movies through his path-breaking film Rekawa.
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. Gamini’s first attempt at directing was Parasathumal in which Lester played a behind the scenes role as an adviser and guide. Three of Gamini Fonseka’s memorable character portrayals on screen were as Jinadasa, Willie Abeynayake and Saviman Kabalana in the films Gamperaliya, Nidhanaya, and
All three were directed by Lester.
Interestingly, Lester, born in 1919 and Gamini born in 1936, grew up in Dehiwala during different periods of time. Their fathers were friends. Yet, Lester and Gamini were not acquainted with each other.
The man who connected Gamini with Lester was Premnath Moraes, the man of multiple talents. Premnath had worked with Lester on Rekawa and later quit but maintained friendly relations with the director. It was Premnath Moraes who sent Gamini Fonseka to Lester James Peries with a letter of introduction.
Young Gamini had ended secondary schooling at S. Thomas’ College Mt Lavinia and was bitten by the movie bug. Ironically, 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 Premnath helped him out.
Premnath Moraes was himself a journalist, writer, poet, lyricist, actor, director, commentator and a silver-tongued orator. 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.
Rekawa (Line of Destiny)
Responding positively to Premnath’s recommendation, Lester took Gamini on as a camera assistant to ace cinematographer Willie Blake. Rekawa was being filmed then. It was being shot at Wewala between Alawwa and Polgahawela. Unfortunately Willie Blake and Gamini Fonseka did not hit it off well while working together. The quick-tempered Blake would lose his cool frequently. The youthful Gamini would not take the outbursts lightly. There were regular verbal duels.
After about a month Gamini thought of calling it quits and informed Lester. The director who had realised Gamini’s potential did not want to let go of him. Lester sounded out the production manager, Dan Dorairaj who was more than happy to take Gamini on board. So now Gamini was a production assistant. His chief responsibility was to transport the artistes and crew from wherever they were staying to the shooting location in the morning and bring them back in the evening. While doing so, Gamini also assisted both the director and editor at times.
It was while the film was being shot that Gamini got a chance to be an actor. According to the script, the boy Sena played by Somapala Dharmapriya was said to have healing powers. There were scenes where afflicted people came to be cured by him. Due to some reason Gamini had not shaven for a few days and had a stubble beard. Deciding to shave it off on location, Gamini hung a small mirror on a tree and took out a razor when Lester passing by told him not to shave.
“Gamini, don’t shave today. We have to shoot sick patients and with that growth you look like a sick man,” Lester said.
Thus Gamini faced the camera for the first time as a patient with a towel around his neck seeking a cure from Sena. Later in another shot he was a part of a crowd but the camera did not focus on him.
Despite the critical acclaim and the International success of Rekawa. released in 1956, Lester languished for a three years without any film offers.
Finally Willie Blake was able to convince K. Gunaratnam of Cinemas Ltd. to produce a film with Lester directing. Gunaratnam wanted a ‘prestigious’ film to denote the 10th anniversary of Cinemas Ltd. Lester embarked upon a historical film Sandesaya (The message), based on a story that reportedly happened during Portuguese rule.
Sandesaya (The Message)
When Lester commenced Sandesaya, one of the first things he did was to engage Gamini as his first assistant director. Since the film was going to be shot on location with a huge ensemble of actors, Lester needed a “tough, and super efficient assistant.”
He felt Gamini fitted the bill. Along with Gamini, there were four other assistants namely Tissa Liyanasuriya, Shane Gunaratne, Wijaya Abeydeva and Sumitra Gunawardena (who married Lester later and became Sumitra Peries).
Ananda Jayaratne and Kanthi Gunatunga played the lead roles. There was a second lead role for which Gunaratnam had suggested another actor. But Lester wanted a tough-looking, rugged person for the part. He thought his assistant director Gamini Fonseka would be ideal for the role.
Gunaratnam blew a fuse. “Who is this Gamini Fonseka?” he scoffed. Gunaratnam was opposed to the idea saying Gamini had no acting reputation and that none had seen him on films earlier. Lester however felt instinctively that Gamini Fonseka would be perfect for the role of Dhammitha.
Sumitra too felt intuitively that Gamini should play the part. So too did Willie Blake. Repeated efforts were made to persuade the producer.
Finally Gunaratnam relented. When Sandeshaya with the hit song Puruthukeesakaraya was released, it was a smashing commercial success.
Gamini Fonseka got more credit and popularity than Ananda Jayaratne. Above all, there began a beautiful friendship between Gunaratnam and Gamini. The man who did not want Gamini to act in his film went on to make many films with Fonseka in the future.
Gamperaliya (Changes in the Village).
In spite of Sandesaya’s commercial success, Lester was again ‘filmless’ for a few years. After about three years Lester began his third feature film Gamperaliya (Changes in the Village).
Gamperaliya was the first novel in a trilogy by the celebrated writer Martin Wickremasinghe. Initially the author had doubts whether Gamperaliya could be made into a film but later gave his approval after Regi Siriwardena was assigned the script writing task.
Lester decided to cast Henry Jayasena as Piyal, Punya Heendeniya as Nanda, Trilicia Gunawardene as Anula and Wickrema Bogoda as Tissa.
There was also the character Jinadasa, the first spouse of Nanda who meets an untimely end in the novel. For the Jinadasa role, Lester once again thought of Gamini Fonseka.
Meanwhile Gamini’s performance in Lester’s Sandesaya had resulted in Gamini becoming a much-sought-after actor. Furthermore the success of Ranmuthu Duwa had turned Gamini into a star overnight.
It was doubtful whether Gamini would agree to play a comparatively lesser role. But Fonseka was willing and what is more opted magnanimously to be a “guest actor” without taking a cent as payment. Lester was elated but soon there was another hitch.
Author Martin Wickremasinghe had seen Gamini on screen in Ranmuthu Duwa. When he heard Gamini Fonseka was going to play Jinadasa, Wickremasinghe was aghast.
The Jinadasa conceptualised by the author in the novel was a thin, weak, colourless, laidback type of person who was an incompetent failure in life. Martin Wickremasinghe had seen Gamini acting in Ranmuthu Duwa. He felt Gamini’s physique and personality was unsuitable to portray the Jinadasa he had envisaged in
So Martin Wickremasinghe contacted Lester and voiced his objection strongly. Referring to Gamini’s screen appearance in Ranmuthu Duwa, Wickremasinghe said:
“My God, Lester, that is not my Jinadasa. He is supposed to be a thin and quiet man. This one is a boxer.”
Lester however was confident about his judgement that Gamini was the best choice to play Jinadasa. He assured Martin Wickremasinghe that Gamini could play any part and told the eminent man of letters from Koggala not to worry.
“When it is on screen, you will see that although he (Gamini) is fatter than Jinadasa, he is not a boxer. He will be a laidback type of character you have in mind,” Lester told Martin.
When Gamperaliya was completed and released, Lester was proven right. Gamini gave off a fantastic performance and earned more kudos than Henry Jayasena. He brought the Jinadasa of the book to life as a flesh and blood character on screen.
The greatest compliment however came from the author. Martin Wickremasinghe was fully satisfied after seeing the film. He told Lester that in actual fact Jinadasa was a far more vivid character than in the book. What better praise could the director and actor receive?
Golden Peacock Award
Gamperaliya was sent to New Delhi for the International Film Festival of India. In a proud moment for Ceylon as it was known then, Gamperaliya won the prestigious Golden Peacock award. Sinhala cinema had come
Thus Gamini faced the camera for the first time as a patient with a towel around his neck seeking a cure from Sena. Later in another shot he was a part of a crowd but the camera did not focus on him
The director was not present in New Delhi with the producer Anton Wickremasinghe. Lester had given his ticket to Gamini instead. So it was Gamini Fonseka who basked in triumphant glory on Lester’s behalf. Subsequently Gamperaliya won several awards at the Sarasaviya Film Festival.
Lester and Sumitra married in 1964 and went on to make more films together. Delovak Athara, Ran Salu, Golu Hadawatha and Akkara Paha were released after Gamperaliya but Gamini did not act in them.
He was now the biggest box office star in Sinhala cinema. Films like Getawarayo, Deewarayo, Adata Wediya Heta Hondai, Chandiya, Parasathumal, Sorungeth Soru, and Soora Chowraya, had elevated him to a higher status and turned him into an extremely busy actor.
However, it was during this period in 1966 that Gamini debuted as a director. His maiden directorial venture was Parasathumal based on a story by P.K.D. Seneviratne. Apart from directing, Gamini played Bonnie Mahathaya, a rich young playboy whose life deteriorates due to unrequited love. Gamini gave a sterling performance.
His directing too won praise. Gamini relied on advice and guidance provided by Lester James Peries occasionally while directing. Lester also directed some sequences in the film for Gamini as requested by him.
It was in 1970 that Lester thought of Gamini again. The director had obtained a short story Nidhanaya (Treasure) by G.B. Senanayake. Tissa Abeysekera was commissioned to write a script for a two-hour film from the five-page story.
Senanayake did not name any character in the story except the chief protagonist Willie Abeynayake. It was obvious that the story had to revolve around Abeynayake, the superstitious bachelor.
Lester could not think of anyone other than Gamini Fonseka as Willie Abeynayake. Malani Fonseka was taken to play Irene the female lead. The bulk of the shooting was done at the Obeyesekera-owned archaic mansion in Rajagiriya that had antique furniture and peacocks as pets in a cage.
Lester would often go to Ratmalana and pick up Gamini and then proceed to Rajagiriya. 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 long breaks in shooting, the continuity was maintained with great intensity by both Gamini and Malani, who complemented each other. About 70% of the film scenes featured both.
Some of the great sequences in Nidhanaya relate to the Thespian prowess of both the Fonsekas.
Peries, in the book Lester by Lester has praised Gamini’s role as Willie Abeynayake in Nidhanaya.
“Outside of Gamini, I cannot think of anybody else who would have played it with the same concentration. He was such a serious player. When given a good role, he put so much into it. He reminded me of someone like Marlon Brando who almost gets a bit too involved with the role.”
Silver Lion Award
The collaborative effort of director Lester and actor Gamini resulted in the film becoming a cinematic treasure. Nidhanaya was entered for the 1972 Venice International Film Festival, where the film won the Silver Lion of St. Mark Award.
It also received a certificate as one of the outstanding films of the year at the London Film Festival.
Nidhanaya was also included in the global list of 100 best films to be ever made that was compiled by the Cinematheque Institute of France to mark the World Film Centenary. It also won the award at Sri Lanka’s Golden Jubilee of Independence for being the best Sinhala movie in 50 years. The film also won critical acclaim as one of the 10 top Asian films for all time.
In 1982, Lester made Kaliyugaya (The age of Kali), the second of Martin Wickremasinghe’s trilogy.
The producer was Vijaya Ramanayake of Tharanga Films. Though Kaliyugaya was not a financial success, Wijaya was keen in 1983 that Lester complete the trilogy and film Yuganthaya.
It was somewhat a political novel about Labour and Capital clashing. Martin brought out the struggle through two protagonists – father and son. A.J. Gunawardene wrote the film script.
Yuganthaya (End of an Era)
After reading the script of Yuganthaya (End of an era), Lester felt that there was only one person in the country who could play the Capitalist tycoon father Simon Kabalana.
The problem was that due to personal reasons, Gamini Fonseka had withdrawn from the film world. He had announced that he would neither act nor direct a film again and retired into seclusion to his estate in the Kandyan highlands. Would he consent to change his stance and agree to act again?
So Lester, Sumitra, Willie Blake and producer Ramanayake paid a surprise visit to meet Gamini without a prior appointment. Upon being told by his security guards about the sudden arrival, Gamini welcomed his unexpected visitors heartily. A bottle of Scotch was opened and a meal with wild boar curry prepared.
Outside of Gamini, I cannot think of anybody else who would have played it with the same concentration. He was such a serious player. When given a good role, he put so much into it
After hours of pleasant conversation, Lester broached the subject.
“Gamini, you might suspect why we are here?”
“Yes, you’ve come to offer me another film” and asked what it was about.
Lester then told Gamini that he was the only person who could act the role of Simon Kabalana in Yuganthaya and asked him whether he would come.
“Of course I will come, who said I would not?” Gamini responded.
Gamini then explained that he was waiting for someone to come along and offer him a big role so that he could use it as an excuse to re-enter films again. Gamini did not even inquire about the script. He was prepared to act. When producer Ramanayake touched on the delicate topic of payment, Gamini who knew Vijaya well told the producer:
“Who wants to talk about money? Give me the money you have in the budget and I will come without a problem.”
Permission from Gamini was sought to announce Gamini’s return to films.
A visibly happy Gamini said “do it with headlines”. The news was splashed in newspapers the following day that Gamini Fonseka was making a comeback with Yuganthaya.
When asked when Gamini would be ready to return to acting, the reply was the following week. Gamini kept his word. The shooting began with Richard de Zoysa playing the son Marlin Kabalana opposite Gamini as
Gamini plunged into his role and played his part to perfection. He even directed a few scenes in the film as requested by Lester who had to be elsewhere at times. Yuganthaya was a commercial and critical success. The role of Simon Kabalana earned Gamini both the Sarasaviya Award for Best Actor as well as the President’s Award for Best Actor.
Yuganthaya was the final film where Gamini and Lester worked together. The long association between director Lester and actor Gamini had been mutually beneficial. In the process aficionados of Sinhala cinema have also been treated to fabulous film-fare.
Director Lester on Actor Gamini
I would like to conclude this article about the Lester-Gamini duo with a paragraph from the book Lester by Lester, in which the director talks about the actor.
The paragraph sums up the working relationship between both succinctly. Here is the excerpt:
“To work with Gamini was an absolute pleasure for me. Other directors have problems because he takes over and directs himself. With me it has always been without a question. Occasionally he would ask whether to do something. Otherwise, I only tell him how the scene went. Sometimes I don’t even give him directions. He knows the scene and knows what to do. He is conscientious and the spontaneity in his acting is really remarkable.”