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Monday, August 31, 2009

Cinema i n Sri lanka

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 film making

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 GFU protégé, Lester James Peries’ first feature film, Rekawa (Line of Destiny /1956) 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.

, hastened the decline in Sri Lankan cinema.

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

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 (Sikuruliya /1975), Vasantha Obeysekera (Wesgaththo /1970) and Sumithra Peries (Gehenu Lamai /1978). Sumithra Peries went on to make films considered to be pioneering for their positive portrayal and strong characterization of women.

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.

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