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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2731

60th Anniversary of Rekawa - Silver Line of Silver Screen

By T.K.Premadasa

1956 hails as the year of many significant historical events politically, socially , culturally that took place in Sri Lanka. The release of Viragaya, one of the best novels written by Martin Wickremasinghe and launching the world renowned stage play "Maname" of Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra in 1956 revolutionized in the field of Arts.

The release of the film "Rekawa" (The Line of Destiny) on December 28, 1956 was a revolutionized initiative stepped forward in an attempt to symbolize the Sri Lankan identity of the indigenous Sinhala cinema. Some people view it as the real beginning of National Film Industry in Sri Lanka.

Kadawunu Poronduwa screened on January 21, 1947 was the first Sinhala film in the history of Sri Lanka. It is the common view that those films produced in 40s and 50s did not appear to be of indigenous outlook. Only the cast, dialogue and lyrics of songs were Sinhala, but music acting and rest of the background etc. were merely trappings of South Indian outlook.

Sirisena Wimalaweera, a pioneer Director of Sinhala cinema who made an invaluable contribution to introduce the indigenous value of Sinhala Cinema failed in his endeavor.

In early 1950’s future father of Sinhala Cinema Lester James Peries who had a long visionary ambition in building up Sri Lankan film industry with gained experience of techniques applied by Western nations came back to Sri Lanka.

In my article - Dr Lester James Peiris, Father of Sri Lankan Cinema written in coincide with Lester’s 90th Birthday, stated that after his return to Sri Lanka Lester joined the Government Film Unit (GFU) and worked with Ralph Keene who was the Director of GFU. In the first instance Lester opted to assist Keene in making a documentary film “Nelungama” which depicted the environment of a real village in Sri Lanka. Later two documentary films of his own were produced for GFU.

It was a golden opportunity in his life to have fated to associate with Titus Totawatta and Willie Blake, the two marvelous characters of the same caliber. Encouraged by these talented friends of qualified knowledge, Lester took the lead in producing "Rekawa" the first historical Sinhala film with Sri Lankan identity.

These three musketeers Lester, Titus and Blake left GFU in 1955 aiming to create films with Sri Lankan identity. Their untiring effort opened the avenue of brighter opportunity to produce films on national value.

It was not an easy task to have launched a successful attempt in making a film revolutionizing existing pattern of Sri Lankan film industry. At the start Lester, Titus and Blake saw many challenges ahead of them. It is literally appropriate to pen a note on challenges braved in the making of this great production “Rekawa" on the occasion of its 60th Anniversary of Celebrations.

“Lester by Lester told as told to Kumar de Silva” the book gives the true picture of making the film Rekawa. Lester in his own words has explained that the Story of Rekawa came to his mind when he was working at the GFU. It was a story on a rural village. Even if certain incidents of the story were unbelievable, they have been nicely covered with traditional beliefs of rural people. He wanted this story be given indigenous value and rural style of life. It was a huge challenge to him as production of such a film would need much financial involvement.

It was only after 8 years from screening the first ever Sinhala film that they decided to engage in production of more films of national value. Regrettably, the producers were more keen on making profits than investing on new experimental films. Sri Lankan producers of yore preferred South Indian style of movies of easy attraction with popularity.

During the initial discussions among friends were in progress, Lester was so fortunate to have met Sarath Wijesinghe, a reputed wealthy estate owner in Southern Province who was interested in producing a newfangled film. Blessed by his association with high profile personalities like H.W.Jayawardana, he was able to form a group called "Chitralanka" that made contribution of investment as producer. Unexpectedly, in the midst of the film being produced Chitralanka Group halted further financing on the film caused by an internal dispute. At this crucial moment Lester and his colleagues did not give up but courageously approached Sir Chittampalam Gardiner for financial support to continue the suspended film. It makes a long story to this effect as written by Kumara de Silva in his book "Lester by Lester as told to Kumara de Silva". Encouragingly, Lester's association with reputed personalities who realized this difficult situation consented to share their support to complete the film.

The other significant disadvantage and challenge was the vacuum left behind with no facility of laboratories, studios, recording equipment and qualified technicians. Recording of Seegiri Landakage song sung by Latha Walpola in Rekawa at Radio Ceylon(SLBC) is a case in point. As the quality of recording was not acceptable for big screen Lester was compelled to travel to South India with his playback singers for recording at Vahini Studio in Madras.

Nearly 38 films have been produced since 1947 to 1956 totally inside the Studios with artificial appearance except a very few scenes outside limited to a certain extent. But Rekawa completely changed this practice and began filming outside of the studio giving fresh natural cinematic look against foresighted challenges. This was the first time that shooting of a film was taken totally in open air. The film makers who produced films inside the Studio do not necessarily go out for shooting as the Studio is equipped with required needs to create scenes artificially. But this new adventure of Lester and his colleagues opted to go out looking for suitable locations with natural attraction. Shooting was done in rural locations situated in Bandarawela, and Vewala. Rekawa crew had to live in the village moving with people facing difficulties physically and mentally.

There is an interesting story related by Lester to Kumar De Silva how he and his crew felt helpless before a certain scene. The final of the film was Mother meeting her Son under heavy rain. They were in a quandary as to when it would rain because no forecast of weather was available. At this difficult moment, Lester was fortunate to meet David Lyn, the world renowned Film Director who was in Sri Lanka for shooting of the film Bridge on the River Kwai. In realizing the grave situation, this Director with practical experience suggested to use artificial rain with the support of Fire Brigade. Accordingly, Lester selected a location closer to a river making easy for Fire Brigade to sump water for this worthy cause. Encouraged by the approval of the late President - J.R.Jayawardane, shooting took place at his estate situated close to Kelani River.

Another major challenge was playback music and songs. Previous films had been produced with playback music and songs by Indian artists. Music was totally South Indian. Even the very few films directed by Sri Lankan musicians came a cropper by the influence of South Indian music.

Having realized the importance of indigenous value, Lester determined to compose the music for this film with Sri Lankan Identity and culture. Accordingly, Sunil Shantha, a master musician was offered direction of music for the film Rekawa. Although this request was refused at the beginning, later by the influence of Father Mercelyn Jayakody, Sunil agreed only to compose melodies. Among many stories heard about music direction for these songs, it is believed that Sunil Shantha recommended music be given to B.S.Perera, the famous musician of virtuosity. Lyrics were written by Father Mercelyn Jayakody. K. A. Dayaratna, a reputed musician composed the background music.

Except Latha Walpola who had already gained reputation as a singer, all other artists as Sisira Senaratne, Indrani Senaratne, Ivor Dennis and Thilakasiri Fernando became playback singers overnight with these extremely unforgettable creations in Rekawa.

The other feature was the nature of the film. It was the first film made of a story based on children. Lester was so professional to direct child acting cast so to speak. The child artist Somapala Dharmapriya and Martel Fernando played the main roles of the film and nearly 20 to 25 children contributed their share of acting in the film.

In recalling creation of Rekawa, it should be appreciated that it was a highly successful production totally done by Sri Lankan artists, technicians new to the feature films, making a remarkable milestone in the history of Sri Lankan film industry. Such a historical success to have achieved as the beginners of the film industry is incredible. Although Lester had done documentary films, this was his first feature film. It was a collective attempt of newcomers. This created history being the first film of Lester, Titus, Blake, K.A.Dayaratna, Father Mercelyn Jayakody, Sunil Shantha, Indrani Senaratna, Irangani Serasinghe, Mallika Pilapitiya, Winston Serasinghe, Gamini Fonseka and K.A.W.Perera et al. who later became giants in revolutionizing the film industry.

D.R.Nanayakkara, B.S.Perera, Sisira Senarathna and Shesha Palihakkara had only little experience on feature films in their respective fields. Only Latha Walpola and N.R.Dias had significant experience in their relevant fields.

Rekawa did not succeed commercially as the people were more used towards films of South Indian background. But Rekawa achieved significant recognition after it was screened. At the second Deepasika Award ceremony held in 1957 Rekawa was awarded the Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress Awards. . Rekawa represented Sri Lanka at the World famous Cannes international Film Festival and Edinburg film festival. This was the first time Sri Lankan National Flag was flying high at an international film festival with great pride.

With due recognition showered nationally and internationally, people after a few years deeply felt the immeasurable value of national taste. Some critic writers like Jayavilal Wilegoda highlighted with facts the huge difference between Rekawa and other existing films. Literally these criticisms influenced production of future films with stories of national value. The directors who followed Indian nature of films turned a new leaf from Rekawa towards producing better pictures of national attraction.

"Sandeshaya" directed by Lester was a case in point as a result of a request made by those producers who preferred traditional type of commercial films. K. Gunaratnam who had previously made movies of commercial success as Sujatha, Dosthara and Duppathage Duka under South Indian background recorded an important milestone in producing historical film "Sandeshaya" with Lester. Dr. Roland A. Fernando in his book written on Sandeshaya recollects that the world renowned Indian Artist Raj Kapoor after viewing Rekawa had requested Gunaratnam to produce films with Lester.

Rekawa was the real silver line of Sinhala cinema opening a radical gateway to Sri Lankan film industry. It was indisputably proved by the films screened in early 1960s’ how Rekawa influenced future productions. Subsequently, films like Kurulu Bedda, Sikuru Tharuwa , Ganga Addara filmed in open air with indigenous face is a good example.

A.D. Ranjith Kumara wrote a book on Rekawa on the occasion of celebrating the 50th Anniversary on the birth of Rekawa. I consider it is worthwhile to conclude this note with the statement made by one of the renowned actors of yore Laddie Ranasinghe as stated in Ranjith Kumara's book. Laddie Ranasinghe paid his highest honor to Rekawa with his statement that Rekawa laid a strong foundation stone for film industry in Sri Lanka. Finally he comments as to what sort of acting they displayed behind the silver screen during their time in the past decades (40’s and 50’s) as compared to remarkable performance by Rekawa.

T.K.Premadasa- writer is the retired former Head of Corporate Affairs and Communications- Sri Lanka Export Development Board and Ex-Director of Sri Lanka Trade Center in Maldives.

- Asian Tibune -

60th Anniversary of Rekawa -  Silver Line of Silver Screen
60th Anniversary of Rekawa -  Silver Line of Silver Screen
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