Jan 21 2013. view 1713
‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ (Broken Promise) produced by S.M. Nayagam and directed by Jyotish Singh was the first Sinhala ‘talkie’ to be screened in Sri Lanka 66 years ago - on January 21, 1947.
Rukmani Devi, B.A.W. Jayamanne, Eddie Jayamanne, Jemini Kantha, Hugo Fernando, Peter Peiris, Stanley Mallawarachchi, Bertram Fernando and several other local stars played the lead roles in the film, which became an instant hit in the country.
But it must be noted that there had been several attempts to make local films in Sri Lanka prior to this endeavour. Long before the talkie era movie, a Colombo based businessman made the first Sinhala silent film in 1925.
T.A.G. Noorbhai made the silent film titled ‘Rajakeeya Wickramaya’ in 1925. The film directed by Gupta had one of our well-known political leaders Dr. N. M. Perera playing the lead role opposite Sybil Feeme – a Lankan burgher girl. The other cast members comprised N.P.D. Albert Silva, Reginald Perera, Percy Perera, Gratien Perera, Eric Weerasekara, David Manuel and N.R. Dias.
Though this film did not receive much publicity, the bold attempt by Noorbhai should be appreciated for creating the foundation on which today’s cinema probably stands. Noorbhai was a well-known businessman and a keen film enthusiast. In 1920, he built the now defunct ‘Plaza’ theatre at Wellawatte where silent movies were shown.
The final print of the film was made in India and screened in Mumbai and later in Singapore. However, the film was mysteriously destroyed in India, while it was about to be brought to Sri Lanka for screening. Thus, Lankans were unfortunate to witness the first ever Sinhala movie made in Sri Lanka.
In 1936, a well-known musician – W. Don Edward – produced and directed the next Sinhala silent film ‘Paligeneema’ which was screened in theatres from May 19 as an educational supplementary movie. N.R. Dias, Gunapala, Sriya Kantha (W. Milee Ariyawathi) played the lead roles in the film.
In the mid forties, an attempt by an ardent film fan - M.S. M. Zacky - to make a Sinhala film titled ‘Premawathi’ also failed, but Mr. Thuraisangham of ‘Shanmuga Films’ left to India with a team of Sri Lankan film stars to make a Sinhala talkie. But work on the project ‘Divya Premaya’ came to a standstill due to production problems, paving the way for S.M. Nayagam’s ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’ to emerge as the historic maiden talkie Sinhala film. Divya Premaya was later released in 1948, as the sixth Sinhala movie.
The initial Sinhala films certainly had more shades of Indian influence largely because they were produced in South Indian studios, using actors and actresses who were shipped over from Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly, these films were nurtured by Indian directors and technicians and were actually South Indian in attitude, formation and presentation.
Many of the early Sinhala films were direct copies of Indian films in both storyline and acting styles.
This was a period when imported Tamil and Hindi films were instant hits in Sri Lanka and Sinhala movies were not attracting large audiences.
It is in this backdrop that Sirisena Wimalaweera produced ‘Podi Putha’ in 1951 in a bid to redeem the Sinhala film industry from the Indian influence.
With the granting of independence to Ceylon in 1948 and the emergence of nationalism, the Government Film Unit (GFU) was established in 1948 and its products became popular among the masses for their qualitative treatment.
Eminent filmmakers like Dr. Lester James Peiris, Titus Totawatte and others emerged from the GFU, which had Ralf Keene as its chief.
Dr. Lester James Peries’ first film, Rekhawa in 1956 helped to alter the face of Sinhala cinema. He shot the film outside studios, used amateur actors and for the first time, the people of the country appreciated the beauty of their environment and culture.
Rekhawa was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and received international critical acclaim for ‘its poetry and honesty’. Dr. Peries’ went on to make several other award-winning films and his ‘Nidhanaya’ is rated amongst the best 10 in Asia or even in the world.
In 1970, the SLFP led coalition swept into power and the film industry was nationalized under the control of the State Film Corporation (now called the National Film Corporation – NFC). Its initial aim was protecting, preserving and developing an indigenous Sri Lankan film industry.
By Ramesh Uvais