Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka

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Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka

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SRI LANKA'S CULTURAL EXPERIENCE/ For a distinct identity

By D.B.S.JEYARAJ, Frontline, Vol. 16, No. 04 , Feb. 13 - 26, 1990

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Sri Lankan Tamil films have made little progress in quantitative or qualitative terms, but they constitute a key index of the cultural development of Tamils in the island in the post-Independence period.


TAMIL cinema in Sri Lanka, it may be argued, is yet to grow beyond its nascent stage. While thousands of Tamil films have been made in India and hundreds of Sinhala movies have been produced in Sri Lanka, the number of Sri Lankan Tamil films produced so far has not touched the three-digit mark. In qualitative terms also the genre is yet to make its mark. Nevertheless, the attempts made against the odds, by individuals concerned to forge a distinctive cinematic form and assert a separate cultural identity in the post-Independence years are quite interesting. In the context of cinema, Sri Lankan Tamils comprise indigenous Tamils, Tamils of recent Indian origin and Tamil-speaking Muslims. Some preliminary observations are relevant here.

First, the visual media - the big screen and the small screen - constitute the most popular form of cultural entertainment for Sri Lankan Tamils. Cinema, however, has not had an effect that transcended the barriers of popular culture. Tamil films have not been a vehicle of social and political change in Sri Lanka unlike in Tamil Nadu, where all Chief Ministers from C.N. Annadurai, who came to power in 1967, have been involved in cinema at some time or the other.

Secondly, it must be noted that Indian Tamil cinema has had a limited Sri Lankan Tamil connection. Thavamani Devi, a Jaffna Tamil woman, defied convention and acted as a "female Tarzan" in Vanamohini which was produced in India in the 1940s. She set off a series of controversies by acting in what were considered immodest roles. However, there has been a long line of Sri Lankan Tamils involved in Indian cinema in various capacities. Two prominent persons among them, who are active at present, are award-winning director-cum-cinematographer Balu Mahendra and producer-director V.C. Kuganathan.

Thirdly, several well-known personalities of Indian Tamil cinema have had some kind of connection with Sri Lanka: M.G. Ramachandran was born at Madulkelle in Kandy; comedian Chandra Babu spent his early years in Colombo as a student of St. Joseph's College, Maradana; actress Sujatha, whose father taught in Sri Lanka, spent her childhood in Galle; Radhika, daughter of M.R. Radha, also grew up in Wennappuwa from where her mother hails.

Fourthly, Sri Lankan Tamils have been a constructive component of Sinhala cinema right from its inception. The first Sinhala film, Kadawuna Poronduva, was produced by a Tamil, S.M. Nayagam. The pre-1983 period saw a large number of Tamils become part and parcel of the Sinhala film industry as producers, directors, cinematographers, music directors, sound directors, technicians and musicians. In fact, the owners of some of the major studios and theatres were Tamils. But with the post-1983 developments in the island, the Tamil presence in Sinhala cinema has become virtually non-existent

Despite their contribution to Sinhala cinema, very few Tamils made any worthwhile attempt to pioneer the production of Tamil films in Sri Lanka, the chief reason for this being doubts about the commercial viability of such films. Competition from imported South Indian films and the films produced by flourishing Sinhala film industry made the production of Tamil films in Sri Lanka a risky venture. Besides, the distribution of Tamil films posed a problem. The distributors were accused by Sri Lankan Tamil film-makers of discouraging local production of Tamil films.

Under these circumstances, the task of making Tamil films in Sri Lanka was left to maverick producers, who did not have adequate financial or institutional resources. The successful development of Tamil cinema in India was owing to the entrepreneurship of major studios such as Modern, Gemini, AVM, ALS, Vijaya, Jupiter, Narasus and Pakshirajah. In Sri Lanka there was no such development; there it was left to independent film-makers, who were fired by desire and determination, to try their hand at cinema. Many of them lacked an understanding of what good cinema was all about. Their purpose was to emulate within the Sri Lankan milieu films made in Tamil Nadu.

THE first Sri Lankan film in Tamil - as opposed to a Sri Lankan Tamil film - was named Kusumalatha, which was screened on December 29, 1951. It was not a film made originally in Tamil; it was a Sinhala film, Sangavunu Pilithura starring Eddie Jayamanne and Rukmani Devi, dubbed into Tamil. The voice-overs were supplied by Indian Tamil artists. So, this movie cannot be considered to be an authentic Sri Lankan Tamil film.

In that respect, the first Sri Lankan Tamil film was Samuthayam (Society), an adaptation of C.N. Annadurai's Velaikkari. This film, however, was in 16 mm and in technicolor. While the producer of the first Sinhala film was a Tamil, the producer of the first Sri Lankan Tamil film was a Sinhalese, Henry Chandrawansa. He was its director too. Samuthayam was initially planned as a 35-mm film but later the producer reverted to 16 mm because of financial difficulties.

The film was essentially a labour of love. At one stage the producer was in dire straits, and the artists were forced to raise money by soliciting donations from the public. Already in trouble, the producer faced a further shock when he was unable to find theatres to screen the film. The film was screened in 1962 at the Borella YMBA hall by special arrangement. Thereafter it toured the country and was exhibited in schools and halls of religious bodies. Finally, with the aid of Ceylon Theatres, it was exhibited in 1963 at Manel Theatre in Dematagoda. The chief guest on the occasion was Federal Party leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam.

The first Sri Lankan Tamil film in the standard 35 mm was Thottakkari (Plantation Woman). Its makers were persons who had started out on Samuthayam but broke away from the group because of professional differences. The film was plantation-oriented and included speeches by trade unionists S. Thondaman and Azeez. It was directed by Krishnakumar who also played the male lead role. Thottakkari was released on March 28, 1962 at nine theatres. The film did not exceed two weeks at the first run. It had several technical defects.

If Samuthayam and Thottakkari were the first Sri Lankan Tamil films in 16 mm and 35 mm respectively, the last Tamil film produced in Sri Lanka was Sharmilavin Ithaya Ragam (Sharmila's Melody of the Heart). Its producer-cum-associate director is a Muslim, Peradeniya Junaideen, and the director a Sinhalese, Sunil Sopma Peiris. Junaideen also wrote the screenplay, the dialogue and the songs. The film was completed in 1989 but could be screened only in 1993 because of the non-availability of theatres.

Sharmilavin Ithaya Ragam was based on a novel serialised in the Tamil weekly Chinthamani for 32 weeks. The novel was very popular and met with success in the book form too. It was written by Junaideen's wife. Junaideen had dabbled in several cinematic enterprises; he was an assistant director of the English movie Mountain in the Jungle starring Ursula Andress, which was shot in Sri Lanka. At a ceremony held in Colombo one month after the screening, Junaideen related the severe financial problems he faced (he even sold his house in Kandy) while producing the film. He broke down when he said that he was struggling to raise Rs.50,000 to dub the film in Sinhala.

Although there have been some attempts to produce Tamil movies in Sri Lanka after Sharmilavin Ithaya Ragam, they have not borne fruit; however, some telefilms have been made. So, technically, the unfinished saga of Tamil movies in Sri Lanka, which began with Samuthayam in 1962 and Thottakkari in 1963, has not proceeded beyond Sharmilavin Ithaya Ragam released in 1993. Nearly 50 Tamil films have been produced in Sri Lanka during the post-Independence period. While the quantity and quality of these films leave much to be desired, they do constitute an important index of the cultural development of Tamils in Sri Lanka during this period. Thambyayah Thevathas in his descriptive work Ilankai Thamil Cinemavin Kathai provides an exhaustive account of the birth and growth of films in Tamil. He categorises the films into four. One is the 16-mm category (Samuthayam, Pasa Nila). The second is films dubbed from Sinhala into Tamil, such as Kaliyugakaalam and Naanku Latcham. The third is Indo-Sri Lankan joint productions such as Nankooram, Pilot Premnath. The fourth is the larger and authentic category of Tamil movies, such as Thottakkari, Kadamaiyin Ellai and Vensangu produced originally in Sri Lanka.

It is the considered opinion of this writer, after having viewed almost all of the Sri Lanka-made Tamil films, that none is worthy of mention as a masterpiece either as a serious art film or as a commercial masala film. Sadly, very few of them made profit. But equally sad is the fact that none of them made an impact as an instance of good cinema. Still some films are worthy of mention as relative mileposts within the specific and limited context of Sri Lankan Tamil cinema.

Pasa Nila, made by two schoolmasters at Jaffna College in Vaddukkoddai, has been a singular achievement, with students and staff members of the institution acting in most of the roles. One of the two pedagogues, Joe Dev Anand, went on to become a successful Sinhala film-maker. Then there was Kadamayin Ellai, a film made by an English lecturer, Vedanayagam, a devotee of Shakespeare. The film was a Tamil version of Hamlet.

Nirmala was the first film to create a name for its own brand of original music and songs. Sillaikur Selvarajan wrote the lyrics and a youngster from Trincomalee, Pathmanathan, composed the music. The song "Kanmani Aada Vaa", sung by Ferdinand Lopez, was a hit, and for the first time Sri Lankan Tamils were humming a local Tamil film song. Vensangu, made by the Tampoes who had experience in the making of South Indian and Sinhala movies, was a reasonable success.

Another novelty was the advent of a trade unionist-cum-politician on the Tamil silver screen. V.P. Ganeshan of the Democratic Workers Congres was the Sri Lankan equivalent of M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu. Ganeshan produced and acted in the lead roles in Pudhiya Kattru, Naan Ungal Thozhan and Naadu Pottra Vaazhgha. He is also the only film-maker to produce three films, all of them reasonable successes.

In terms of commercial success, Rathathin Rathame stands out. But again being registered as an Indian movie and with an Indian cast - Jaishanker, Radhika, Nagesh, Asokan - it cannot be called a Sri Lankan film. However, the film was shot in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans were involved in its production. In fact, its producer and director were Sri Lankans.

The greatest commercial success after Rathathin Rathame, in Tamil films was Komaligal (Clowns). This was a remake of a popular radio drama, "Komaligalin Kummalam". The film, produced by M. Mohammed, a businessman, was directed by Ramanathan, an experienced person in the Sinhala film world. The highlight of the film was the performances of Ramadas, a Brahmin in real life, who played the role of a Muslim, and Abdul Hameed, a Muslim, who played a Brahmin role. A sequel to it, Emaligal, also met with reasonable success.

Three Tamil movies, however, stand out as having reflected Sri Lankan Tamil life in a realistic manner. They are Kuthuvilakku, Ponmani and Vadakkattru (North Wind). The first two are set in the peninsula, while Vadakkattru is set against the backdrop of the Neduntheevu island. Both Kuthuvilakku and Ponmani have the burning problem of dowry as the central theme. The heroines meet with death in both films. Vadakkattru, based on a novel by Senkai Aaliyan, deals with the tensions between migratory and indigenous fishermen. This is perhaps the best Tamil film made so far. It is produced by Sivathasan of Kamalaalayam Movies and is directed by Premnath Moraes. The screenplay and dialogue are written by Sempiyanselvan. The music is composed by Latiff. In the cast are S. Yesuratnam, K.S. Balachandran, K.A. Javahar, Vasantha Appadurai, Chandrakala, Lathis Veeramani, A.E. Manoharan, Anantharanee Rajaratnam, S.S. Ganeshapillai and Inthirakumar.

THIS then is the brief tale of Sri Lankan Tamil cinema. It is a story of a cultural industry that struggles to assert itself against overwhelming odds: on the one hand there are the Tamil films from India, and on the other there are Sinhala films. While there has been no help forthcoming from the Sri Lankan Government to promote and foster indigenous Tamil cinema, India too did not allow any access to the vast Tamil Nadu market. Thus it was left to individuals who were fired by the desire to make achievements in Tamil cinema to try their hands at it, amidst great hardship.

One of the positive aspects of the Sri Lankan Tamil film scene has been its ethnic diversity. The cruel ethnic divide was not reflected here. Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Tamils of Indian origin, Muslims - they have all been involved in its development. Almost every film has reflected the ethnic diversity of the country - in the form of the cast, technicians and musicians.

Although some of the early ventures were disasters, Sri Lankan Tamil movies have struggled to evolve their own individuality. The period between 1970 and 1977 in particular saw a cultural renaissance in the Sri Lankan Tamil literary field. The implications of this were felt in films too. Tamil film-makers realised that mere imitation of Indian Tamil cinema would not pay commercially or artistically. So they began experimenting with a new genre based on realistic portrayals of indigenous issues and themes. A more committed form of film-making aimed at striking out an independent course was emerging.

Even as this process was in progress, three calamities struck. The first was the opening up of the economy, paving the way for joint Indo-Sri Lankan productions. When prominent Indian stars came to Sri Lanka and began shooting in familiar spots, the novelty of offering to filmgoers Sri Lankan locations on screen was appropriated by these films. So, indigenous films lost a primary attraction.

The second was the arrival of television and the video cassette. Indian Tamil movies could be now viewed sitting in one's drawing room. The state, on the other hand, did not encourage the local industry by offering incentives. The adverse impact felt by Tamil films from Tamil Nadu and Sinhala films as a result of television and the video cassette was felt even more acutely by Sri Lankan Tamil cinema.

The third and most important factor that affected Sri Lankan Tamil cinema was the ethnic violence of 1983 and the continuing escalation of the conflict. Sri Lankan Tamil society itself was torn asunder and uprooted by the ongoing conflict. This led to a moratorium on all meaningful cultural activity. Internal displacement and migration to other places became the reality of life for Sri Lankan Tamils. Performers, producers and patrons of culture were all affected. In this situation, Tamil cinema faces extinction. It would require a political change to create a climate that is conducive to the resurgence of Tamil cultural forms. Sri Lankan Tamil cinema, characterised by a widespread expression of popular culture, can emerge with strength only in such a context. With cinema in Sri Lanka facing a crisis with regard to screening, there appears to be no prospect for Tamil cinema to emerge, let alone flourish.

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