The island of Sri Lanka, influenced heavily by Buddhism and Hinduism and home to tropical forests, spices and gemstones, and a wealth of endemic flora and fauna, sits in the Indian Ocean off the southern coast of India. Also living on the island are Sri Lankan Muslims, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs, Veddas, Tamils and the Sinhalese. Not unlike many other parts of the world, towards the end of the 19th century Sri Lanka was introduced to the moving image in the spirit of the fin de siècle. The first official film screening happened in 1901, and in 1903, photographer A.W.A. Andree, of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, was the first Ceylonese to form a local film company – Coric Bioscope. Having acquired a projector from abroad and gained access to an auditorium, he began to screen silent films from Europe. A strong Euro-Ceylonese presence began to dominate Sri Lanka’s cinema, with Andreas Van Starrex, from a family of mixed Dutch-Sinhala origins, producing the first mobile cinema, bringing a whole new experience to early Sri Lankan cinema audiences. Later, Jamshedji Framji Madan, an Indian theatre and film producer, distributor and exhibitor, began building cinemas and by the 1930s he owned an expansive network of cinemas and distribution outlets through his company Madan Theatres Ltd. These venues predominantly screened Indian films and in doing so took some of the focus away from imported European films. Through the 1920s and 1930s, with technological advancements being made in the West, namely the invention of sound films, there was a growing interest in US films – in the absence of local productions, Indian and American films dominated Sri Lanka’s cinemas. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that Sri Lankan cinema made its first mark.
In 1946, Indian Tamil S. M. Nayagam made his first Tamil film, Kumaraguru and the following year he produced the very successful Sinhalese film, Kadawunu Poronduwa (Broken Promise) (1947). Based on a play, this was the very first Sinhalese film, and although it marks the birth of Sri Lankan film, it is a film made in, and largely influenced by, South India. B. A. W. Jayamanne, whose original play the film was based on, went on to produce many popular film adaptations of his plays, making stars of his regular performers Rukmani Devi and Eddie Jayamanne. Beginning with Kadawunu Poronduwa, a journey had begun towards complete independent Sri Lankan filmmaking, the next stage of which is marked by Nayagam’s Banda Nagarayata Pamine (1952). Though highly formulaic and largely based on the excessive melodrama and dance films of South Indian cinema, Banda Nagarayata Pamine was shot entirely in Sri Lanka and was very successful with the local audiences. By this time, owing to post-independence travel restrictions between India and Sri Lanka, Nayagam had moved his business to Sri Lanka and built the Sri Murugan Navakala studios.
Ten years after the release of the first Sinhalese film, a new filmmaker emerged with Rekava (1956), a documentary-style film based on an original story and featuring a predominately inexperienced cast – his name was Lester James Peries. Rekava, the story of Sena, a young boy who is presented as a miracle worker after allegedly curing his friend Anula’s blindness, gives considerable time and respect to Sinhalese village life, depicting local customs and folk beliefs. The film was a great success and garnered international acclaim after being screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Peries would go on to become arguably the most significant Sri Lankan filmmaker to date, making films such as Gamperaliya (1963), which dispensed with all the formulaic elements brought over from India and evident in the majority of films to this point. The film opened up a new world of filmmaking within Sri Lankan cinema. Its producer, Anton Wickremasinghe, went on to win a string of prestigious international awards, raising the status of Sri Lankan cinema on the global stage. Gamperaliya, moreover, inspired many filmmakers to work in a similar style, shooting outdoors and documenting the realism of village life and inhabitants. This departure from making films heavily influenced by India gained political weight when a new socialist government took power in 1971 and established the State Film Corporation, encouraging original screenwriting and withholding loans for productions deemed copies of Hindi and Tamil films. In the eyes of the state, this signalled the birth of a professional Sri Lankan film industry, which did lead to an increase in original Sri Lankan filmmaking.
Peries’ Nidhanaya (1970) demonstrated his continuing development and success as a director and also presented masterful performances from Gamini and Malini Fonseka in the lead roles of Willy and Irene. International awards came from the Venice and London film festivals, thus further elevating Peries’ position. By this time there were other rising star filmmakers who were doing interesting things with the medium, such as Siri Gunasinghe. Gunasinghe directed Sath Samudura (Seven Seas) in 1967, which portrayed the troubles of fishermen living in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. This film was an early example of a successful Sri Lankan production that placed an importance on the art of the cinematic language. D. B. Nihalsinghe was responsible for the production’s cinematography and gained much praise for his work. Another masterpiece of artistic filmmaking came when Dharmasena Pathiraja released Bambaru Avith (The Wasps Are Here) in 1978. The film focuses on a small fishing village and tells a story of disruption, exploitation and loss caused by the arrival of capitalism. Among the great early films of Sri Lankan cinema, Bambaru Avith is also noteworthy for its reflection of fears at the time pertaining to the arrival of a more capitalist government after the 1977 elections. Decisions by this government led to the removal of earlier funding guidelines for film production, thus causing a flood of poorly produced films, made badly by those without skills, and an interest in making money only. Not only did this clog the distribution system, leading to a reported five year waiting list among Sri Lankan cinemas, but it also turned audiences away and lead to a decline that continues to this day. The popularity of television and the beginning of the Sri Lankan Civil War between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also meant that cinema-goers were now staying at home.
In the decade that followed the industry’s peak in 1979, fewer films of note were made, with the exception of Peries’ Baddegama (1980), Kaliyugaya (1982), and Yuganthaya (1983), all of which continued his successful fusing of artistic techniques with depictions of conflicted characters and family life in rural Sri Lanka. It wasn’t until 1996, when Prasanna Vithanage released his second critically acclaimed film, Anantha Rathriya, that a new filmmaker of note was recognised. He became one of the most important Sri Lankan filmmakers since Peries, going on to release both Purahanda Kaluwara (Darkness on a Full Moon Day) and Pawuru Wallalu (Walls Within) in 1997 to further critical acclaim.
While the Civil War and poor governing bodies have hampered the film industry over the last two decades, great successes have nonetheless continued to emerge. Vimukthi Jayasundara has released a string of successful films, including Sulanga Enu Pinisa (The Forsaken Land) (2005), and Ahasin Wetei (Between Two Worlds) (2009), the former of which won the coveted Caméra d’Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Not only have these films played well to audiences and critics and won awards from the world’s major film festivals, but they have also tackled grittier subjects, such as social transformation, abortion, and the results of the Civil War on both families and soldiers. They also, particularly with regards to Jayasundara’s work, continue to push the boundaries of narrative, form and Sri Lankan storytelling, so although audience figures continue to decline and cinemas continue to close, the enduring presence of daring and original filmmakers prevent Sri Lankan cinema’s future from looking entirely desolate.
By Oliver Verdin