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This article primarily discusses the Sinhala-language cinema in Sri Lanka. For information on Tamil-language cinema in Sri Lanka, see also Sri Lankan Tamil cinema.

Sri Lankan cinema encompasses the films made in Sri Lanka . It is a fledgling industry that has struggled to find a footing since its inauguration in 1947 with Kadawunu Poronduwa. Sri Lankan films are usually made in the Sinhalese language.

In the first nine years most films were made in South India and followed the conventions of Indian cinema. Rekava, made in 1956 by pioneer director Lester James Peries, was the first Sinhala film to be shot completely out of studio and contain a truly Sinhalese storyline. Though acclaimed by local and international critics, the film failed to find an audience in the country and was a box office failure. Films continued to follow formulaic storylines borrowed from India up through the early 60s despite such efforts as Sandesaya and Kurulu Bedda.

In 1964, Lester James Peries again contributed to the development of Sri Lankan cinema with Gamperaliya which was the first Sinhala film to feature no songs and like Rekava shot completely outside the studio. It garnered massive praise for portraying Sinhala culture in a realistic manner and was hailed by critics and audiences alike. Following this breakthrough, several artistic Sinhala films were made in the late-60s including Sath Samudura by professor Siri Gunasinghe.

During the 1970s several talents came to the forefront while commercial cinema continued to steal from Indian films. These include Vasantha Obeysekera who followed up his well-received debut Ves Gatho with a slew of successful films culminating with Palangetiyo in 1979. Another major director who stepped forward during this time is Dharmasena Pathiraja who examined the tensions of city youth in such works as Bambaru Awith and Ahas Gauwa. Artist and poet Mahagama Sekera's sole film Thun Man Handiya is also an important film in Sri Lankan cinema released in 1970. Sumitra Peries, the wife of Lester James Peries, also struck out during the '70s with work that looked at the conflicting roles of women in society. Her work include Gehenu Lamai and Ganga Addara.

Over the next few decades, artists such as Tissa Abeysekara, Prasanna Vithanage and Vimukthi Jayasundara have attempted to breathe new life into the industry. Vithanage's film Purahanda Kaluwara is widely considered one of the best movies made in Sri Lanka as is Jayasundara's Sulanga Enu Pinisa which won the coverted Camera d'Or for best first film at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

In recent years, films have begun to tackle gritty subjects such as family relationships, abortion and results of the conflict between the military and Tamil Tiger rebels in the north. Director Asoka Handagamma especially has drawn criticism for pursuing such material in his work.



A 1997 government committee identified the following 10 films as the best of the first 50 years of Sri Lankan cinema:

Rank Film title Director Year released
1 Nidhanaya Lester James Peiris 1972
2 Gamperaliya Lester James Peiris 1963
3 Viragaya Tissa Abeysekara 1987
4 Bambaru Awith Dharmasena Pathiraja 1978
5 Sath Samudura Siri Gunasinghe 1967
6 Thun Mang Handiya Mahagama Sekara 1970
7 Palangettiyo Vasantha Obeysekera 1979
8 Dadayama Vasantha Obeysekera 1983
9 Rekava Lester James Peiris 1956
10 Parasathumal Gamini Fonseka 1966
10 Welikathara D. B. Nihalsinghe 1970

Early development (1901-1947)

1901 marked the introduction of film to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) when a film was shown for the first time in the country at a private screening for the British governor West Ridgeway and prisoners of the Second Boer War. It was a short film that documented the British victory in the Boer War, the burial of Queen Victoria and the coronation of Edward VII. More English screenings followed and attracted British settlers and Anglicized Sinhalese.

Cinema in Sri Lanka became a public affair due to the efforts of Warwick Major, an Englishman who developed "bioscope" showings. These were films screened out in open areas and makeshift tents. The first permanent theaters were built by Madan Theaters in 1903. The company showed Indian films and achieved success, prompting the development of theaters by the rival Olympia.

In 1925 Rajakeeya Wickremaya (English:Royal Adventure) became the first film to be made in Sri Lanka. Dr. N.M. Perera played the lead in the film which was shown in India and Singapore. In 1933 the film Paliganeema was screened in Colombo.

During the 1920s and 1930s films with American stars like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. were popular in Sri Lanka. The Shiek and The Thief of Bagdad were especially popular. By the 1930s Indian films started to surpass English films in popularity. Bilwa Mangal set an early record for Sri Lankan box office earnings.

Inauguration (1947)

South Indian producer S. M. Nayagam played an important role in the development of the first Sri Lankan film. In 1945, Nayagam founded a company named Chitrakala Movietone and constructed a studio in Madurai, India for the purpose of making a Sinhala film. After considering several options, he decided to build the film around the historical love story of Saliya and Asokamala and held a contest to find a suitable screenplay; the winner was budding artist Shanthi Kumar. Due to disagreements however this project fell through and Nayagam broke a deal with dramatist B. A. W. Jayamanne to film his popular play Kadawunu Poronduwa.[1]

Rukmani Devi and B. A. W. Jayamanne in Kadawunu Poronduwa.

Kumar[2] determined to film his script left Nayagam's company and convinced the Ceylon Theaters group to fund his film. Faced with a more daunting task of putting together the film from scratch, the Ashokamala project began filming in Coimbatore about two months after the production of Kadawunu Poronduwa had initiated. Naygam's film would win out screening at the Mylan Theater on January 21, 1947.[3] Ashokamala was screened three months later in April 1947 at the Elphinstone Theater.[1]

Both films were popular with audiences but derided by critics who found them to be derivative of South Indian cinema.[2]

Primitive Stage (1947-1955)

Following the success of Kadawunu Poronduwa, B. A. W. Jayamanne produced a string of popular movies based on his plays. These were Kapati Arakshakaya, Weradunu Kurumanama (1948), Hadisi Vinischaya (1950, first film directed by Jayamanne; he handled the post on all his subsequent films), Sangavunu Pilithura (1951), Umathu Wishwasaya (1952), Kele Handa (1953), Iranganie (1954), Mathabedaya (1954), Daiva Wipakaya (1956), Wanaliya (1958), Hadisi Vivahaya (1959), Kawata Andare (1960), Jeewithe Pujawa (1961), Mangalika (1963) and Magul Poruwa (1967; completed after his death by another director). Jayamanne mostly adhered to a formula derived from South Indian cinema and didn't contribute to the development of artistic film.[4] Most of his films featured the couple Rukmani Devi and Eddie Jayamanne (though never as lovers on screen) which allowed them to become the first stars of Sri Lankan cinema.[1]

Following the dawn of independence, Sri Lanka instituted restrictions on travel to and from India causing Nayagam to move his business into the island to cut costs. He purchased land outside of Kandana and built the Sri Murugan Navakala studios (later known as the S. P. M. studios) which would for a time be the most developed studio in the country. His first production was Banda Nagarayata Pamine (1952) which was successful among local audiences. It was the first locally produced Sinhalese film though in technique it still remained South Indian. Nayagam followed the film with Prema Tharangaya (1953) and Ahankara Sthree (1954). Due to the low quality of the studio (Nayagam resisted buying high tech equipment), these films failed to match the standards of Bollywood imports. They were also highly formulaic based extensively on South Indian cinema (the technicians were all from India) featuring a combination of exaggerated melodrama, lowbrow comedy, scuffles and dance numbers.[1]

Of the few filmmakers interested in pursuing a truly indigenous art form in these early years, Sirisena Wimalaweera was the most prominent.[5] In his work, Wimalaweera consulted Sri Lankan history for his themes basing movies around historical characters like King Asoka, who oversaw the introduction of Buddhism to the island and Saradiel, a Robin Hood-like character.[1]

K. Gunaratnam was another major producer in this period[6] breaking into the scene with the technically skilled Sujatha made at the state of the art Modern Theaters studio in Salem, India. It was highly successful and influenced popular cinema over the following decade. It was revolutionary in its high production values and incorporation of North Indian cinema in to the accepted South Indian model. Still it failed to capture the true nature of Sinhalese life or create anything uniquely Sri Lankan.[1]

Rekava (1956)

In 1956 documentary filmmaker Lester James Peries and his fellow film technicians William Blake and Titus Thotawatte broke away from the Government Film Unit to produce what they hoped would be a truly Sinhalese film that would revolutionize Sri Lankan cinema.[7] In all facets of the creation of Rekava, the trio strayed from tradition shooting completely outside of the studio, creating an original story with no basis in literary or historical material and utilizing a mostly inexperienced cast[8] (with a few exceptions i.e. D. R. Nanayakkara).

The story paid great attention to Sinhalese village life giving equal time to marriage traditions, village customs and folk beliefs in a non obstructive documentary-esque manner. The main plot revolved around a young boy named Sena who becomes touted as a miracle worker after he is said to cure the blindness of his friend Anula. Though some viewed the plot as a bit naive due to the filmmakers being from the city and the attribution of superstition belief in an exaggerated manner to village folk, it was a critical success and was shown at the Cannes International Film Festival drawing praise from foreign critics. It is widely considered in Sri Lanka to be the birth of true Sinhala cinema.[9][10] Audiences at the time were unresponsive however and the film was a box office failure. They were unaccustomed to the documentary like nature of the film and its avoidance of common melodramatic features common in cinema of the time. The lack of a major romantic plot for example was a grievance to some.

Following in the path of Rekava (1957-1963)

Though Rekava failed to influence popular cinema which continued to imitate Indian cinema, it did draw out the efforts of some small independent filmmakers who coalesced into units. The most important group in this period, Kurulu Rana, was led by screenwriter P. K. D. Seneviratne, producer John Amaratunga and actress Punya Heendeniya.

Amaratunga in his pursuit to follow up Rekava came across Seneviratne's radio drama Kurulubedde and enlisted him to adapt it into a film. Though it maintained certain formulaic elements, the film was free of overt Indian influence and contained various elements of Sinhalese culture. Actress Punya Heendeniya broke ground in her role portraying a truly Sinhalese character in contrast with the female roles of popular films modeled after Indian actresses. It was a critical success within Sri Lanka and was praised for its realistic portrayal of Sinhala village life. The group followed up with the thematically similar Sikuru Tharuwa in 1963.[1]

Gamperaliya (1963)

In 1963, Lester James Peries with the help of producer Anton Wickremasinghe made and released Gamperaliya based on a novel by critically acclaimed writer Martin Wickramasinghe. It was a turning point in Sri Lankan cinema doing away with all formulaic elements (songs, dance, comic relief and fights) present in popular cinema and achieving commercial success.[11] It proved the viability of artistic cinema in the country and gave Sri Lankan cinema a before absent sense of prestige when it was awarded the Golden Peacock Award and the Critics' Prize at the Third International Film Festival held in New Delhi and the Golden Head of Palanque at the Eighth World Review of Film Festivals held in Acapulco, Mexico.[12]

Artistic boom (1964-1970)

The success of Gamperaliya changed the course of Sri Lankan cinema significantly. Following its release, many films attempted to adapt the realistic style of the film and took up location shooting previously shunned.

Seneviratne again emerged in this period with a script about village life titled Parasathu Mal. This time he had the support of the wealthy producer Chitra Balasooriya[13] who would not fall pray to financial difficulties encountered by Amaratunga. Balasooriya was deeply interested in creating a artistic film in the vein of Gamperaliya and enlisted Lester's wife Sumithra Peries as technical director and gave the budding actor Gamini Fonseka a chance to direct. Fonseka had served in a similar capacity on Rekawa. Also among the crew was cameraman Sumitta Amarsinghe who had trained with the GFU and was adapt at outdoor shooting.[1] The film would be a critical and popular success.[13]

Serendib Productions responded to the artistic mood in the air in 1965 with Saravita[14] starring a comedic actor, Joe Abeywickrema, for the first time in Sri Lankan cinema. It dealt with slum life and the criminal element within it and was awarded most of the national awards that year for film. Titus Thotawatte who had broken away from Lester James Peries after Sandesaya directed Chandiya the same year avoiding overt crudities prevalent in the action genre made within the country.[1]

G. D. L. Perera with his Kala Pela Society headed in a radically different way in this period dealing with contemporary city settings in Dahasak Sithuvili utilizing subjective camera and a sepiatone filter for the first time in Sri Lankan cinema.[15] Perera and his group had first came to fame with Saama, a stylized but faithful observance of village life.[1]

Siri Gunasinghe's Sath Samudura released in 1966 was the biggest critical success in the wake of Gamperaliya. The film was praised for its realistic portrayal of a fishing community and acting from a cast that included Denawaka Hamine, Edmund Wijesinghe and Cyril Wickremage. Also drawing acclaim were Gunasinghe's novel film techniques such as his extensive use of close-ups. Working close with Gunasinghe on the script and the direction was Vasantha Obeysekera. The editing and photography was handled by D. B. Nihalsinghe. Both would go on to be major filmmakers on their own.[1]

Other major films of this period include the debut directorial efforts of Obeysekera (Vesgatho) and Nihalsinghe (Welikathara), an independent student production overseen by Ranjith Lal (Nim Wallala), songwriter Mahagama Sekera's autobiographical effort (Tun Man Handiya), the maiden production of Piyasiri Gunaratne (Mokade Une) and Sugathapala Senerath Yapa's Hanthane Kathawa which introduced the to be matinee idol Vijaya Kumaratunga.

Stalled development / Individual achievement (1971-1976)

Gamini and Malini in Nidhanaya.

In 1971 a socialist government came to power in the country which sought to control the film industry by having certain prerequisites required before being allowed to make a film. In this period, the budding independent talent that had emerged earlier got brushed aside as cheap commercial films flooded the market funded by newly instituted government loans.[16]

Titus Thotawatte and Lester James Peries were the most prominent artists during this period making artistic films. Thotawatte directed such films as Hara Lakshe, Sihasuna, Sagarika and Mangala which united technical skill with themes that appealed to mainstream audiences. Lester James Peries was more successful in his work in this period creating some of his most important work despite the restrictions instituted by the government.[16]

Peries' Nidhanaya, released in 1972, is considered his masterpiece[17] and was adjusted the best Sri Lankan film of the first 50 years in 1997 by a government board. It was praised for it skillful direction by Peries' and the inspired acting by Gamini and Malini Fonseka. It was another international success for Peries' winning the Silver Lion of St. Mark award at the Venice International Film Festival and being selected one of the outstanding films of the year, receiving a Diploma, at the London Film Festival.[18] His subsequent works of the period were also critical successes, (Desa Nisa and Madol Duwa).

Dharmasena Pathiraja, who had worked on Yapa's Hanthane Kathawa[19], emerged with his debut directorial effort, Ahas Gauwa, in 1974. It served to capture the spirit of the dissolute urban youth and provided a major artistic venture for actors like Cyril Wickremage to prosper in. Obeysekera pursued a similar theme in his work, Valmathvuvo.

Resurgence (1977-1983)

With the 1977 elections a more capitalist party came to power and some of the restrictions instilled earlier were removed.

Sumitra Peries, Lester James Peries' wife, made her directorial debut with Gehenu Lamai in 1978. It examined the effects of societal constraints on a rural girl and secured some critical applaud in addition to box office success being selected as an outstanding film of the year to be presented at the London Film Festival and receiving the Jury Award at the Carthage International Film Festival. In her first film appearance, Vasantha Chathurani was praised for her restrained portrayal of the lead role.

Peries' next film Ganga Addara (1980) captured the imagination of Sri Lankan audiences becoming a huge box office hit and breaking earning records in the country. Critics were also impressed with the film as it went on to capture many of the national awards given to film in the country and was awarded a diploma at the South Asian Film Festival.

Pathiraja was most active in this period directing Eya Dan Loku Lamayek (1977), Bambaru Awith (1978), Ponmani and Soldadu Unnahe (1981). Bambaru Awith is widely held to be his pivotal work dealing with social tensions between fishing folk and city youth. Pathiraja's film Ponmani was made in Tamil intending to contribute to the development of cinema featuring that language in the country. Though well made, the film was ignored by Tamil audiences distrustful of the Sinhalese director. Soldadu Unnahe followed the dreary lives of an old soldier, a prostitute, an alcoholic and a thief intending to cast light on their plight. Pathiraja went into hiatus following the making of the film.[20]

Obeysekera made his most highly regarded film Palengetiyo in 1979. It dealt with the difficulties of urban youth. His next film Dadayama (1983) was also well received. The star of Palengetiyo, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake broke out as a director with his highly stylized debut Hansa Vilak in 1980.

Decline (1983-1990)

With the rise of television and the beginning of a civil war, film earnings began to drop as Sri Lankans took to staying at home instead of frequenting the theater.

The significant films of the era include Sumitra Peries' Sagara Jalaya Madi Heduwa Oba Sanda, Tissa Abeysekara's Viragaya (1988) and D. B. Nihalsinghe's Ridi Nimnaya (1983), Maldeniye Simiyon (1986) and Keli Mandala (1991). Nihalsinghe infused his films with his skillful technical direction.

Rise of Independent filmmakers (1990-2000)

One of the most important filmmakers of Sri Lankan cinema, Prasanna Vithanage directed his first feature film Sisila Gini Ganee in 1992 and his second Anantha Rathriya in 1995. The latter was a large critical hit being shown at several international festival and securing several awards. Vithanage's followed the work two years later with Pawuru Walalu a mature drama that featured a performance by former star Nita Fernando after a long hiatus. It was also lauded by critics. His final feature of the decade was Purahanda Kaluwara that examined how the Sri Lankan civil war affects families of soldiers. Featuring a contemplative performance by Joe Abeywickrema in the main role, the film is considered Vithanage's finest work.

Modern Era (2000-present)

Director Vimukthi Jayasundara became the first Sri Lankan to ever win the prestigious Caméra d'Or award for Best First Film at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival for his film Sulanga Enu Pinisa.[21]

Controversial filmmaker Asoka Handagama's films are considered by many prestigious names in the Sri Lankan film world to be the best films of honest response to the ethnic conflict currently raging in the country. He has Created Five films: Sanda Dadayama, Chanda Kinnarie, Me mage sandai, Tani tatuwen piyabanna, Aksharaya. Those films won awards at lots of international film festivals. He has faced lot of censorship problems with his creation; most recently his film 'Aksharaya' was banned by the Sri Lankan government. [22]

Recent releases like Sooriya Arana, Samanala thatu, Hiripoda wessa have attracted Sri Lankans to cinemas. Sooriya Arana was the highest grossing film in Sri Lankan cinema history, generating Rs.121 million at the box office. Aba, the forthcoming epic movie by Jackson Anthony will become the most expensive film produced in Sri Lanka costing over 60 million Rupees to produce. Several other countries such as China, Italy and Australia have shown interest in screening this film after its trailer was released. Among them China has shown special interest by considering dubbing it in Chinese. Aba was released on 8 August, 2008.

Leading actors and actresses

The stars of the first Sinhalese film Kadavunu Poronduwa, Rukmani Devi and Eddie Jayamanne, were the first to achieve popularity across the country. They had gained a certain fame through their roles in the plays of the Minerva group which contributed to their emergence in the film industry. They continued to star in films through the 1950s and the early 1960s.

In 1960, Gamini Fonseka emerged as a star in the historical film Sandesaya. Though the main role of the film was played by Ananda Jayaratne, Fonseka outshone the actor in his first major role. Fonseka had his next hit role in Ran Muthu Duwa where he found a popular co-star in actress Jeevarani Kurukalasooriya. Fonseka's other major films of the 1960s include Deewarayo, Adata Wadiya Heta Hondai and Chandiya.

In 1969, Vijaya Kumaratunga emerged as a star with a lead role in Hanthane Kathawa. Over the next decade he was the most popular leading actor next to Gamini Fonseka. In addition to Bollywood derived commercial films, he also acted in artistic films like Bambaru Awith, Eya Dan Loku Lamayek and Ganga Addara. His death in 1989 had a huge effect on popular cinema.

Award winning actors and actress

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Savarimutthu, Ranee (1977). On the Development of Sinhala Cinema, 1947-1967. Colombo, Sri Lanka: OCIC Sri Lanka. 
  2. ^ a b Weerapperuma, E. (2007). "Sri Lankan film industry enters diamond era - Part 4". Daily News. Retrieved 15 April 2009. 
  3. ^ Weerapperuma, E. (2007). "Sri Lankan film industry enters diamond era". Daily News. Retrieved 15 April 2009. 
  4. ^ Weerapperuma, E. (2007). "Sri Lankan film industry enters diamond era: Part 3". Daily News. Retrieved 15 April 2009. 
  5. ^ Maithripala, M. D. S. (2006). "Penchant for fostering Sinhala film industry". The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  6. ^ "Good Start for Cinema". Sunday Times. 2000. Retrieved 15 April 2009. 
  7. ^ "‘Rekawa’ release recreated at the Regal Cinema". Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.. 2006. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  8. ^ Attygalle, Radima (2007). "The nidhanaya of local cinema". The Nation. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  9. ^ Leslie, Fernando (2009). "The Father from the Temple". UK Asia Times. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  10. ^ E., Weerapperuma (2007). "Sri Lankan film industry enters diamond era". Daily News. Retrieved 15 April 2009. 
  11. ^ Abeysekara, Tissa (2003). "Some reflections on the Cinema of Lester James Peries". The Island. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  12. ^ Chandrarathne, Ranga (2008). "Red carpet welcome for Gamperaliya at Cannes today". Sunday Observer. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  13. ^ a b "Parasathumal re-screened". Daily News. 2005. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  14. ^ "A great discovery at Trincomalee". Sunday Times. 2005. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  15. ^ Waidyasekera, Wimal (2007). "‘Dahasak Sithuvili’ and the ‘subjective’ camera". Daily News. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  16. ^ a b Dissanayake, Wimal (2000). Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema. Boralesgamuwa, Sri Lanka: Asian Film Centre. ISBN 955-8008-00-1. 
  17. ^ "UNESCO honours Lester". Daily News. 2009. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  18. ^ "Nidhanaya". 2004. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  19. ^ Attygalle, Randima (2006). "‘The Stage is My Passion’". The Nation. Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  20. ^ Ginger, Edward (2006). "Dharmasena Pathiraja biography". 
  21. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Forsaken Land". Retrieved 2009-12-12. 
  22. ^ "Sri Lankan government bans local film Aksharaya (Letter of Fire)". world socialist website. 2006. Retrieved 30 may 2006. 

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