Ten years ago on 30 September the brightest light of Sri Lankan cinema went out. Gamini Fonseka, the monarch of Sinhala moviedom, passed away peacefully on that day. Gamini Fonseka was my favourite actor on the Sinhala silver screen and became an important part of my childhood. This week’s ‘Spotlight’ focuses on him on the occasion of his 10th death anniversary.
Since I have written several articles in the past about the personality of Gamini and the remarkable highlights of his successful acting career, I thought of deviating from the beaten track this time and writing this column differently. What I want to do here is to focus on the professional interaction between the actor Gamini Fonseka and the director Lester James Peries.
The Lester-Gamini “partnership”
As stated in these columns earlier, maestro Lester is the Sri Lankan filmmaker I like, admire and respect most. This article will therefore be devoted to the cinematic relationship between my favourite actor and favourite director in the sphere of Sinhala cinema. The Lester-Gamini “partnership” in movies spanned several decades and paid great dividends.
It was Lester James Peries who gave Gamini his first break in movies through his path-breaking film ‘Rekawa’ (line of destiny). Gamini showed his face for the first time on screen in a scene in the film. He was working as a camera cum production assistant for Lester. It was Lester who made Gamini an assistant director for his second film ‘Sandesaya,’ in which he also played the second lead to Ananda Jayaratne.
Three of Gamini Fonseka’s memorable character portrayals on screen were as Jinadasa, Willie Abeynayake and Saviman Kabalana in the films ‘Gamperaliya,’ ‘Nidhanaya’ and ‘Yuganthaya’ respectively. All three were directed by Lester. Gamini’s first attempt at directing was ‘Parasathumal’ in which Lester played a behind the scenes role as an adviser and guide.
Interestingly both Lester born in 1919 and Gamini born in 1936 grew up in Dehiwala during different periods. Both their fathers were friends. Both had an uncle named Seymour. The two “Seymour uncles” were known to each other and played bridge together. Yet the man who introduced Gamini to Lester was Premnath Moraes, the man of multiple talents. Premnath had worked with Lester on ‘Rekawa’ and later quit but maintained friendly relations with the director. It was Premnath Moraes who sent Gamini Fonseka to Lester James Peries with a letter of introduction.
Young Gamini had ended secondary schooling at S. Thomas’ College Mt. Lavinia and was now severely bitten by the movie bug. Ironically, the man who became one of the finest and popular actors on screen, did not want a career in acting then. He wanted to be a cinematographer and a film director. Gamini had tried to get a chance with many film producers but met with little luck. It was at this juncture that Premnath helped him out.
Premnath Moraes was himself a journalist, writer, poet, lyricist, actor, director, commentator and a silver-tongued orator. Recognising Gamini’s innate talent and appreciating his enthusiasm, Premnath recommended him to Lester. Premnath described Gamini as an old Thomian and the kind of person needed by the film industry. “He is mad about films and wants to be a cameraman,” wrote Moraes.
Responding positively to Premnath’s recommendation, Lester took Gamini on as a camera assistant to ace cinematographer Willie Blake. ‘Rekawa’ was being filmed then. It was being shot at Wewala between Alawwa and Polgahawela. Gamini stayed with Justin, another camera assistant. Shooting went on for six days a week. Only Sunday was rest day. On Saturdays Justin went to Ja-ela and brought pork. Gamini and Justin cooked it and entertained the trio of Lester, Willie and Editor Titus for a spirited dinner.
Despite the Saturday night bonhomie over a pork dinner, Willie Blake and Gamini Fonseka did not hit it off well while working. The quick-tempered Blake would lose his cool frequently. The youthful Gamini would not take the outbursts lightly. There were regular verbal duels. After about a month Gamini thought of calling it quits and informed Lester. By now the director had realised Gamini’s potential and did not want to let go of him.
Lester sounded out the production manager, Dan Dorairaj who was more than happy to take Gamini on board. So now Gamini was a production assistant. His chief responsibility was to ferry the artistes and crew from wherever they were staying to the shooting location in the morning and bring them back in the evening. While doing so, Gamini also assisted both the director and editor at times.
While the film was being shot Gamini got a chance to be an actor. According to the script, the boy Sena played by Somapala Dharmapriya was said to have healing powers. There were scenes where afflicted people came to be cured. Due to some reason Gamini had not shaven for a few days and had stubble. Deciding to shave it off on location, Gamini hung a small mirror on a tree and took out a razor when Lester passing by told him not to shave.
“Gamini, don’t shave today. We have to shoot sick patients and with that growth you look like a sick man,” Lester said. Thus Gamini faced the camera for the first time as a patient with a towel around his neck seeking a cure from Sena. Later in another shot he was a part of a crowd but the camera did not focus on him.
While ‘Rekawa’ was being filmed there arrived in the island, David Lean, to film the classic ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’. Lester met and interacted with the illustrious filmmaker through the good offices of Sarath Wijesinha, the premier financier of ‘Rekawa’. When the shooting of ‘Rekawa’ ended, four crew members got an opportunity to work for David Lean thanks to being recommended by Lester.
They were Dan Dorairaj, Sesha Palihakkara, Wijaya Abeydeva and Gamini Fonseka. Dorairaj was taken into the Transport Dept. while Palihakkara was put in the makeup section. Abeydeva and Fonseka were assigned to the local assistant directors dept. All four were provided with accommodation, transport, food and a daily stipend while shooting went on in Kitulgala. The stint at Kitulgala made possible by Lester was a tremendous experience for Gamini. He moved easily with the Western personnel and established firm friendships with some.
Despite the critical and International success of ‘Rekawa’ released in 1956, Lester languished for a three years without any film offers. Finally Willie Blake was able to convince K. Gunaratnam of Cinemas Ltd. to produce a film with Lester. Gunaratnam wanted a “prestigious” film to denote the 10th anniversary of Cinemas Ltd. Lester embarked upon a historical film ‘Sandeshaya’ (the message), based on a tale happening during Portuguese rule for Cinemas Ltd.
Meanwhile, Gamini Fonseka had gone to Bombay and acted in a film called ‘Daiva Yogaya’. It was a costume drama and Gamini played a young prince in it. When Lester commenced ‘Sandeshaya,’ one of the first things he did was to engage Gamini as his first assistant director. Since the film was going to be shot on location with a huge ensemble of actors, Lester needed a “tough, super efficient” assistant. He felt Gamini fitted the bill. Along with Gamini, there were four other assistants namely Tissa Liyanasuriya, Shane Gunaratne, Wijaya Abeydeva and Sumitra Gunawardena (who married Lester later and became Sumitra Peries).
Ananda Jayaratne and Kanthi Gunatunga played the lead roles. There was a second lead role for which Gunaratnam had suggested another actor. But Lester wanted a tough-looking, rugged person for the part. He thought his assistant director Gamini Fonseka would be ideal for the role. Gunaratnam blew a fuse. “Who is this Gamini Fonseka?” he queried. Gunaratnam was opposed to the idea saying Gamini had no acting reputation and that none had seen him on films earlier.
Lester however felt instinctively that Gamini Fonseka would be perfect for the role of “deputy”. Sumitra too felt intuitively that Gamini should play the part. So too did Willie Blake. Repeated efforts were made to persuade the producer. Finally Gunaratnam relented. When Sandeshaya with the hit song ‘Puruthukeesakaraya’ was released, it was a smashing commercial success. Gamini Fonseka got more credit and popularity than Ananda Jayaratne. Above all, there began a beautiful friendship between Gunaratnam and Gamini. The man who did not want Gamini to act in his film went on to make many films with Fonseka in the future.
In spite of Sandeshaya’s commercial success, Lester was again “filmless” for a few years. After about three years Lester began his third feature film ‘Gamperaliya’ (Changes in the Village), which won him a golden peacock award in New Delhi and gave Sinhala cinema a place under the sun.
‘Gamperaliya’ was the first novel in a trilogy by the celebrated writer Martin Wickremasinghe. Initially the author had doubts whether ‘Gamperaliya’ could be made into a film but later gave his approval after Regi Siriwardena was assigned the script writing task. Lester decided to cast Henry Jayasena as Piyal, Punya Heendeniya as Nanda, Trilicia Gunawardene as Anula and Wickrema Bogoda as Tissa.
There was also the character Jinadasa, the first spouse of Nanda who meets an untimely end in the novel. For the Jinadasa role, Lester once again thought of Gamini Fonseka. His performance in Lester’s ‘Sandeshaya’ resulted in Gamini becoming a much-sought-after actor. The success of ‘Ranmuthu Duwa’ had turned Gamini into a star overnight. It was doubtful whether Gamini would agree to play a comparatively lesser role. But Fonseka was willing and what is more opted magnanimously to be a “guest actor” without taking a cent as payment.
Lester was elated but soon there was a hitch. The author Martin Wickremasinghe had seen Gamini on screen in ‘Ranmuthu Duwa’. When he heard Gamini Fonseka was going to play Jinadasa, Wickremasinghe was aghast. The Jinadasa conceptualised by the author in the novel was a thin, weak, colourless, laidback type of person who was an incompetent failure in life. Martin Wickremasinghe had seen Gamini acting in ‘Ranmuthu Duwa’. He felt Gamini’s physique and personality was unsuitable to portray the Jinadasa he had envisaged in his novel.
So Martin Wickremasinghe contacted Lester and voiced his objection strongly. Referring to Gamini’s screen appearance in ‘Ranmuthu Duwa,’ Wickremasinghe said: “My God, Lester, that is not my Jinadasa. He is supposed to be a thin and quiet man. This one is a boxer.” Lester however was confident about his judgement that Gamini was the best choice to play Jinadasa. He assured Martin Wickremasinghe that Gamini could play any part and told the eminent man of letters from Koggala not to worry. “When it is on screen, you will see that although he (Gamini) is fatter than Jinadasa, he is not a boxer. He will be a laidback type of character you have in mind,” Lester told Martin.
When Gamperaliya was completed and released, Lester was proven right. Gamini gave off a fantastic performance and earned more kudos than Henry Jayasena. He brought the Jinadasa of the book to life as a flesh and blood character on screen. The greatest compliment however came from the author. Martin Wickremasinghe was fully satisfied after seeing the film. He told Lester that in actual fact Jinadasa was a far more vivid character than in the book. What better praise could the director and actor receive?
‘Gamperaliya’ was sent to New Delhi for the International Film Festival of India. The Italian film ‘The Young Nun’ by Bruno Paolinelli was expected to get the prestigious Golden Peacock award. ‘Gamperaliya’ was tipped to receive the International Critics Award. However, in a proud moment for Ceylon as it was known then, ‘Gamperaliya’ won the golden peacock and the Critics Award went to the Italian film. Sinhala cinema had come of age.
The director was not present in New Delhi with the producer Anton Wickremasinghe. Lester had given his ticket to Gamini instead. So it was Gamini Fonseka who basked in triumphant glory on Lester’s behalf. Gamini also got a Sarasaviya award for ‘Gamperaliya’.
Lester and Sumitra married in 1964 and went on to make more films together. ‘Delovak Athara,’ ‘Ran Salu,’ ‘Golu Hadawatha’ and ‘Akkara Paha’ were released after ‘Gamperaliya’ but Gamini did not act in them. He was now the biggest box office star in Sinhala cinema. Films like ‘Getawarayo,’ ‘Deewarayo,’ ‘Adata Wediya Heta Hondai,’ ‘Chandiya,’ ‘Parasathumal,’ ‘Sorungeth Soru,’ ‘Soora Chowraya,’ ‘Sanasuma Kothanadha?,’ ‘Seethala Wathura’ and ‘Ipadune Ai?’ had elevated him to a higher status and turned him into an extremely busy actor.
However, it was during this period in 1966 that Gamini debuted as a director. His maiden directorial venture was ‘Parasathumal’ based on a story by P.K.D. Seneviratne. Apart from directing, Gamini played Bonnie Mahathaya, a rich young playboy whose life deteriorates due to unrequited love. Gamini gave a sterling performance. His directing too won praise. Gamini relied on advice and guidance provided by Lester James Peries occasionally while directing. Lester also directed some sequences in the film for Gamini as requested by him.
It was in 1970 that Lester thought of Gamini again. The director had obtained a short story ‘Nidhanaya’ (treasure) by G.B. Senanayake. Tissa Abeysekera was commissioned to write a script for a two-hour film from the five-page story. Senanayake did not name any character in the story except the chief protagonist Willie Abeynayake. It was obvious that the story had to revolve around Abeynayake, the superstitious bachelor. Lester could not think of anyone other than Gamini Fonseka as Willie Abeynayake. Malani Fonseka was taken to play Irene the female lead.
The bulk of the shooting was done at the Obeyesekera-owned archaic mansion in Rajagiriya that had antique furniture and peacocks as pets in a cage. Lester would often go to Ratmalana and pick up Gamini and then proceed to Rajagiriya. The shooting of the film took over seven months as both Gamini and Malani being busy film stars could be available for only five days each month for ‘Nidhanaya’. Usually Lester shoots his films at a stretch without breaks but here it was not possible. Despite the long breaks in shooting, the continuity was maintained with great intensity by both Gamini and Malani, who complemented each other. About 70% of the film scenes featured both.
Some of the great sequences in Nidhanaya relate to the thespian prowess of both. In the waltz sequence, both had to enact the dancing steps in natural slow motion as there was no second camera available to shoot in slow motion. So coached by Keerthi Sri Karunaratne, both of them practised the steps and then danced for the camera in exaggerated slow movements. This was a feat that required perfect coordination and both the Fonsekas rose to the occasion and did themselves proud.
Another scene where Malani excelled was when Gamini suddenly slaps her and berates her. Malani is startled and acts as an upset woman perfectly. What really happened was that Lester and Gamini did not reveal how the scene was going to be shot to Malani. She did not know that Gamini was going to hit and shout at her. So when it did happen she was naturally shocked and surprised. The result was a superb piece of “natural” acting.
Lester and Gamini tried a similar ruse in another scene. This was the one where Gamini was to have an epileptic fit. Gamini himself had doubts whether he could act out that scene well. So at the right time Gamini suddenly started having an epileptic fit. Since only Lester knew beforehand, the other actors and technicians were all taken aback at the sight. The other in the scene actors lost their cue. The cameraman dropped the camera. As a result the entire scene had to be filmed again but Gamini was now assured he could pull it off.
Gamini Fonseka, according to Lester, was preoccupied about whether he was really acting the part in ‘Nidhanaya’ and whether people would question the credibility of his performance. Lester in the book ‘Lester by Lester’ has praised Gamini’s role as Willie Abeynayake in ‘Nidhanaya’ thus: “Outside of Gamini, I cannot think of anybody else who would have played it with the same concentration. He was such a serious player. When given a good role, he put so much into it. He reminded me of someone like Marlon Brando who almost gets a bit too involved with the role.”
The collaborative effort of director Lester and actor Gamini resulted in the film becoming a cinematic treasure. ‘Nidhanaya’ was entered for the 1972 Venice International Film Festival, where the film won the Silver Lion of St. Mark award. It also received a certificate as one of the outstanding films of the year at the London Film Festival.
‘Nidhanaya’ was also included in the global list of 100 best films to be ever made that was compiled by the Cinematheque Institute of France to mark the World Film Centenary. It also won the award at Sri Lanka’s Golden Jubilee of Independence for being the best Sinhala movie in 50 years. It has also won critical acclaim as one of the 10 top Asian films for all time.
Lester and Gamini did not work in a film for more than a decade after ‘Nidhanaya’. During this time Lester wanted Gamini to act in ‘The God King,’ but the producers wanted a Western actor. In 1982, Lester made ‘Kaliyugaya’ (The age of Kali), the second of Martin Wickremasinghe’s trilogy. The producer was Vijaya Ramanayake of Tharanga films.
Though ‘Kaliyugaya’ was not a financial success, Wijaya was keen that Lester completed the trilogy and filmed ‘Yuganthaya’ (End of an era) in 1983. It was somewhat a political novel about labour and capital clashing. Martin brought out the struggle through two protagonists – father and son. A.J. Gunawardene wrote the film script
After reading the script Lester felt that there was only one person in the country who could play the capitalist tycoon father Saviman Kabalana. The hitch was that due to personal reasons, Gamini Fonseka had withdrawn from the film world. He had announced that he would neither act nor direct a film again and retired into seclusion to his estate in the Kandyan highlands. He virtually cut himself off from society. Would he consent to change his stance and agree to act again? So Lester, Sumitra, Willie Blake and producer Ramanayake paid a surprise visit to meet Gamini without a prior appointment.
Upon being told by his security guards about the sudden arrival, Gamini welcomed his unexpected visitors heartily. A bottle of scotch was opened and a meal with wild boar curry prepared. After hours of pleasant conversation, Lester broached the subject. “Gamini, you might suspect why we are here?” Gamini replied, “Yes, you’ve come to offer me another film” and asked what it was about. Lester then told Gamini that he was the only person who could act the role of Saviman Kabalana in ‘Yuganthaya’ and asked him whether he would come. “Of course I will come, who said I would not?” Gamini responded.
Gamini then explained that he was waiting for someone to come along and offer him a big role so that he could use it as an excuse to re-enter films again. Gamini did not even inquire about the script. He was prepared to act. When producer Ramanayake touched on the delicate topic of payment, Gamini who knew Vijaya well told the producer, “Who wants to talk about money? Give me the money you have in the budget and I will come without a problem.”
When asked when Gamini would be ready to return to acting, the reply was the following week. Permission from Gamini was sought to announce Gamini’s return to films. A visibly happy Gamini said “do it with headlines”. The news was splashed in newspapers the following day that Gamini Fonseka was making a comeback with ‘Yuganthaya’ in the role of Saviman Kabalana.
Gamini kept his word. He came to Colombo and immediately was taken to the tailor where several suits were stitched for him to act as tycoon Kabalana. The shooting began with Richard de Zoysa playing the son Marlin Kabalana opposite Gamini. Gamini plunged into his role and played his part to perfection. He even directed a few scenes in the film as requested by Lester who had to be elsewhere at times. ‘Yuganthaya’ was a commercial and critical success. The role of Saviman Kabalana earned Gamini both the Sarasaviya Award for Best Actor as well as the President’s Award for Best Actor.
‘Yuganthaya’ was the final film where Gamini and Lester worked together. The long association between director and actor had been mutually beneficial. In the process aficionados of Sinhala cinema have also been treated to fabulous film-fare.
Even as Gamini Fonseka’s 10th death anniversary was commemorated last month, I would like to end this article about the Lester-Gamini duo with a paragraph from the book ‘Lester by Lester,’ in which the director talks about the actor. The paragraph sums up the working relationship between both succinctly. Here is the excerpt:
“To work with Gamini was an absolute pleasure for me. Other directors have problems because he takes over and directs himself. With me it has always been without a question. Occasionally he would ask whether to do something. Otherwise, I only tell him how the scene went. Sometimes I don’t even give him directions. He knows the scene and knows what to do. He is conscientious and the spontaneity in his acting is really remarkable.”
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at