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Action hero Gamini Fonseka was the first superstar of Sinhala cinema

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‘Spotlight’ beams this week on Gamini Fonseka, the first superstar of Sinhala cinema. I had begun preparing this article many months ago to mark the 80th birth anniversary of Sembuge Gamini Shelton Fonseka who was born on 21 March 1936. My old schoolmate and journalistic colleague Prasad Gunewardene had been extremely keen that I should write about his Gamini “Mama”. Prasad’s paternal grandmother was Gamini’s father Willie Fonseka’s eldest sister. Prasad has regaled me over the years with several anecdotes and tit-bits about Gamini.

Due to unavoidable reasons the planned article on Gamini Fonseka was not written then as intended. Furthermore Prasad himself passed away suddenly at the end of March this year. It was a terrible blow as the late Ajith Samaranayake, Prasad and I formed a “friendship triangle” when we worked together at ‘The Island’. Now only I am left of that trio.

This week while searching for an old mail, I came across the final e-mail sent by Prasad to me dated 30 March. I never replied that e-mail as by the time I read that mail I had come to know of Prasad’s demise. Now I re-read his last mail. It was short: “Machan did you write on my uncle Gamini? When did it appear?” Prasad. Obviously Prasad had eagerly awaited the article on Gamini and was disappointed. It is against this backdrop therefore that I write about Gamini to honour his memory as well as that of his nephew and my friend Prasad. “No Machan, I didn’t write it in March but I will do so now in December”.

Writing about Gamini Fonseka is always a pleasant and delightful exercise for me. I have often done so before and will be revisiting some of my earlier writings to enhance this article. Gamini Fonseka was a man whom I loved as an actor, appreciated as a director, admired as a politician and above all respected as a decent human being. Gamini the actor on the Sinhala silver screen became an important part of life in childhood. This is the kind of relationship one has with actors, singers, writers and sportsmen. The impact of films and film stars in the South Asian region is phenomenal. Childhood impressions in that sense are indelible.


Sole superstar of Sinhala cinemauntitled-2

My formative years as a Sinhala film fan were heavily influenced and shaped by Gamini Fonseka. To me and millions of other likeminded people, Sinhala cinema was personified by Gamini Fonseka for a long, long time. Notwithstanding the brilliant creators of our times who have elevated the standards of Sinhala films, one is unable to imagine or visualise Sinhala cinema without thinking of Gamini Fonseka. Sinhala cinema was certainly not Gamini Fonseka but without Gamini Fonseka there was no Sinhala cinema either. He was the first and arguably the sole super star of Sinhala cinema.

Gamini Fonseka entered my life when I was about eight years old. The place he did so was a movie theatre in Maradana bearing his own name Gamini. ‘Ran Muthu Duwa’ was my first Sinhala movie. The family went to see it for two reasons. One because it was the first Sinhala technicolour film. Two to see the famed underwater scenes made possible by Mike Wilson.

Gamini along with Jeevarani, Shane Gooneratne and Joe Abeywickrema starred in it. Gamini’s acting, dancing and fighting captivated me. The song and dance sequence ‘Pipee Pipee Renu Natana’ remains fresh in memory even now. I still remember the melody and some of the poetic lines like ‘Apey watte mal pipila meemassen wikvela’ and ‘Rana giraw kumbura udin mal mal gamanak giya,’ etc. I later learnt that the lyrics were written by Sri Chandraratne Manwasinghe whose sons Prabath and Udaya were working as press officers during the period I worked as a journalist in Colombo. Maestro W.D. Amaradeva composed the music.

I was well and truly hooked after seeing Gamini for the first time on screen. I never ever recovered. There was hardly a Gamini Fonseka film that I missed in the sixties of the last century. This was due to a woman Mary Caroline who was then a domestic helper at our home. She stayed with the family for about seven years. Mary was an avid Gamini fan. So I would accompany her every month to Sinhala films in general and Gamini Fonseka films in particular. This was how I managed to see so many of his films in my childhood. ‘Chandiya,’ ‘Soora Chowraya’ and ‘Sorungeth Soru’ were some of my favourites then.


An action hero on screen

Gamini Fonseka was my hero during childhood mainly because he was an action hero on screen. Initially the attraction of was mainly the fight scenes. Gamini brought a refreshing naturalness to those scenes as opposed to the artificiality in South Indian ones. It was later that one learned to appreciate the finer points of his acting. A major reason for the naturalism in Gamini’s fighting scenes was due to the nature of the man himself. He was a fighter both orthodox and unorthodox. He often got into brawls but always for a good cause.

One such incident was at Embilipitiya Circuit bungalow when the caretaker and his cronies in an intoxicated state picked a fight with the film crew on location there. Gamini pitched in with flying fists and proved that his macho image was not confined to celluloid alone. He then moved the entire crew at his own expense to Tissamaharama.

Among the many movies of Gamini was Titus Totawatte’s ‘Chandiya’ in 1965.It was a milestone in Sinhala moviedom and Gamini’s career. This was perhaps the first anti-hero role of Sinhala cinema. Gamini breathed and lived the part of a tough guy. Titus had a sequel ‘Chutte’. Titus Thotawatte who made ‘Chandiya’ and ‘Chutte’ with Gamini was later working at Rupavahini. I used to run into him often those days at a restaurant in Bambalapitiya. He used to recount many stories concerning Gamini to me as I listened with rapt attention.


The Karthelis fight 

Gamini acting as ‘Chandiya’ – meaning tough guy – was in a way an instance of art imitating life because Gamini was in every way a ‘Chandiya’ in real life. Thomians of yesteryear speak volumes about his martial prowess during school days. The benchmark of his fighting prowess however was the ‘historic’ encounter with Dehiwala’s ‘strongman’ of yore – Karthelis.

I had heard many versions of the Karthelis fight in Dehiwela. When I was preparing this article in March I asked Prasad Gunewardene to give me a detailed description of what had exactly happened. Prasad who was a small kid at that time provided some interesting facts.

The clash with Karthelis had originated with Gamini’s father William Fonseka known as Willie. A friend of Gamini Fonseka was knocked down while crossing the road by Karthelis who used to drive a taxi in those days. Fortunately he sustained no injuries. Karthelis who was notorious for his rash driving had verbally abused the victim in raw filth. The man complained about this incident to Gamini’s father Willie Fonseka, who was highly respected in the area. Willie Fonseka had accosted Karthelis and chided the Dehiwala strong man in public over his deplorable conduct.

Later in the day Karthelis with a gang of 10 thugs arrived in two taxis at Willie Fonseka’s house. Willie Fonseka opened the gate and faced the gang alone. Two of the men had swords. Willie’s brothers Nelson and Garmoyle and cousin Fred (Prasad’s father) who were in the house at that time also joined in the fight. Gamini was then eating in the kitchen. Hearing the commotion he came running. Clad in sarong and clogs, Gamini slipped and fell in his haste. Five of the thugs held him down and tried to hack Gamini with the swords. Fortunately Willie and the others came to Gamini’s rescue and seized the swords. Karthelis and his goons fled, leaving the swords behind. They were displayed as trophies in the Fonseka household for years.

Gamini himself was taken to Durdans Hospital and treated for his injuries. No complaints were made to the Police. Gamini vowed that he would teach Karthelis a lesson and challenged him to a “man to man” fight. Karthelis never accepted the challenge. Years later Gamini was driving his car on the Galle Road when he saw Karthelis standing near the Wellawatte-Dehiwala bridge. Gamini got down from his vehicle and went up to Karthelis. Then began the historic fight reminiscent of ASP Randeniya vs Goring Mudalali in ‘Weli Kathara’. 

Gamini thrashed Karthelis mercilessly in the one-on-one fight duel. The Dehiwala strongman was chased across the Galle Road one side to another and back by Gamini who pummelled Karthelis blue, black and blue. Gamini then went away telling Karthelis that he was ready for a return fight “any day, anywhere, anytime”. Karthelis was hospitalised after the fight. He never took up Gamini Fonseka’s challenge. This was the beginning of the end for the Dehiwala strongman who simply faded away after the incident.


Entry into cinema

According to Prasad, Gamini had first wanted to be a Policeman. He had applied for a sub-inspector post and was called up for an interview. His mother Daisy pleaded with him not to join the Police. Gamini then turned to what was his second love then – cinema. Interestingly enough 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 Moraes helped him out

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. Lester’s maiden feature film ‘Rekava’ was being filmed then. 

It was Lester James Peries who gave Gamini his first break in movies as an actor through ‘Rekava’. 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.

Gamini’s first big break in acting came with ‘Daiwa Yogaya’ in 1959 where he played a secondary role. Senadheera Kuruppu and Rukmani Devi were in the lead roles. Then came Lester’s ‘Sandesaya’ where nominally Gamini played second fiddle to Ananda Jayaratna but stole the show from him with a stellar performance. It was around this time that films like ‘Adata Wediya Heta Hondai,’ ‘Ranmuthuduwa,’ ‘Getawarayo’ and ‘Dheevarayo’ exploded on the screen and established Gamini as a box office draw. However he proved that he was not a melodramatic actor-singing, dancing and fighting-alone by making his mark as a character actor in Lester’s ‘Gamperaliya’ that won the Golden Peacock in New Delhi. Once again Gamini was the ‘third’ to Henry Jayasena and Punya Heendeniya but gave a performance par excellence as Jinadasa.


Romantic action hero 

Gamini reached the peak of his popularity in the late sixties and early seventies as romantic action hero. When Sean Connery won over the western world as Ian Fleming’s James Bond in ‘Dr. No’ and ‘From Russia With Love,’ Mike Wilson cashed in on the ‘007’ craze with a Sri Lankan version. Enter our own man with a license to kill – Jamis Banda. Who else other than Gamini could do justice to the role in ‘Sorungeth Soru’?

There were other popular roles too with Sri Lankan versions of the famous Tamil ‘Vallava’ film series starring Jaishankar and Manohar produced in Tamil Nadu by Ramasundaram of Modern Studios. Gamini was the mainstay of the ‘Sooraya’ film series in Sinhala. ‘Soorayangath Sooraya,’ ‘Edath Sooraya Adath Sooraya,’ ‘Sooraya Soorayamai,’ ‘Hatharadenaama Sooraya,’ etc. The action films of old had a simple underlying thread that good triumphs over evil. So Gamini like MGR gave us a happy feeling and inspired all to greater heights. This success in action movies did not mean that Gamini was playing stereotyped roles alone. Far from it! He played a variety of roles and proved his thespian skills in many. 


His acting did not falter when directing

There have been several actor-directors who failed when directing themselves. It was a case of either underplaying or overacting. One man who performed this dual role creditably was Hindi cinema’s Raj Kapoor (Awaraa, Barsat, Shri 420, etc.). In Sinhala cinema Gamini was one man whose acting did not falter when directing. Starting from ‘Parasathumal’ to others like ‘Uthumaneni,’ ‘Sagarayak Medha,’ ‘Koti Waligaya,’ ‘Nomiyena Minissu,’ etc., Gamini played his roles remarkably in those films. At the same time he stamped his auterial mark as director. One cannot place him in the class of an A plus director in Sinhala cinema. But an A minus director he certainly was.

Other noteworthy films where his histrionic skills were strikingly displayed were ‘Getawarayo,’ ‘Hulawali,’ ‘Oba Dutu Daa,’ ‘Sanasuma Kothanada,’ ‘Weli Kathara,’ ‘Sana Keliya,’ ‘Deviyane Oba Kohedha?’ and ‘Sarungale’. His performances in films directed by him were all fabulous. Gamini combined shades of Marlon Brando, Yul Brynner and Paul Newman in his acting. His primary inspiration however was Brando. Though affected by Brando it must be said to Gamini’s credit that he evolved his own ‘fusion’ style and distinctive method.

Two English films starring Gamini Fonseka that I have seen are ‘Sitadevi’ and ‘Rampage’. In Manik Sandrasagara’s version of the ‘Ramayana,’ Gamini played a modern Ravana to Bengali actress Mamta Shankar. Rampage was a Moby Dick type of man vs. beast saga with an elephant as protagonist. In this Gamini played a planter-hunter opposite Mary Tamm who also acted in Frederick Forsythe’s ‘The Odessa File’.

Gamini also acted in an Indian Tamil movie ‘Neelakkadalin Orathiley’. He had two heroines, Radha Saluja the Hindi actress and Sri Priya, the Tamil-Telugu star. An Indian Tamil magazine review described Gamini as a “Koluk moluk Biscuit Pappa” look alike. What it meant was that Gamini had “babyish” looks like the child models in advertisements for biscuits


Astounding performance in ‘Sarungale’

Gamini gave an astounding performance acting as a Tamil in Sunil Ariyaratne’s ‘Sarungale’. He played Nadarajah, the Jaffna Tamil clerk in a story that highlighted both the anti-Tamil communal violence as well as the caste contradictions among Tamils. Among places that ‘Sarungale’ was filmed in was Karaveddy, my mother’s ancestral village. The Tamil parts of the movie were filmed entirely in Karaveddy. Well-known broadcaster and writer Yoga Balachandran who is also from Karaveddy was involved with that venture. Yoga wrote the Tamil dialogue for the film and also coached Gamini on his Tamil dialogue delivery. His diction was near perfect to the extent of even quoting a verse from ‘Thirukkural’ (Anbitkum Undo Adaikkunthaal-Aarvalar punkanneer poosal tharum). Karaveddy residents acted for ‘free’ in the film mainly due to the regard they had for him.

Gamini himself was very proud of his role in that movie. Once in a conversation before the film’s release he told me personally “any Sinhala man who sees this film will never lay hands on a Tamil again”. Alas! That was not to be and not many years later came Black July 1983. But one thing that must be emphasised in the case of Gamini Fonseka is that he was a man with absolutely no trace of communalism in him. I have had only about four or five conversations with him including an interview for the ‘Virakesari’ in 1978.Those conversations and testimonies of persons who knew him well including Prasad convinced me of his bona fides in this respect.

Gamini elevated the standards of Sinhala cinema 

Gamini elevated the standards of Sinhala cinema and provided it with integrity and self-respect. He fought for the upliftment of the industry and fellow artistes and technicians. There was a time when film artistes and technicians were treated rather shabbily by the filmmakers. Gamini changed all that to a great extent. He fought for their rights and dignity with the filmmakers, distributors, media, Film Corporation and government. Yet he was not complacent and remained continuously concerned about their plight. He was unhappy about the way the various regimes treated and continued to treat the film industry. 

In an illustrious career spanning almost five decades Gamini Fonseka acted in 108 films and one teledrama. He played the lead role in 89 films and a supportive actor role in 19 movies. Gamini directed 10 and produced two films. He has also written lyrics and stories for a few films. The only teledrama Gamini acted in was ‘Sudu Saha Kalu’ directed by D.B. Nihalsinghe. Gamini acted as ‘Kalu Mahathaya’ in the teledrama.

He has acted opposite many actresses but the one with whose chemistry Gamini hit it off best was Malani Fonseka. Two others who paired well with Gamini were Jeevaranee Kurukulasooriya and Veena Jayakody. According to Gamini, Sandhya Kumari was the most beautiful actress he interacted with while Malani was the best. The best actor according to Gamini was Joe Abeywickrema – not himself. Gamini also had immense respect for Tony Ranasinghe as the finest character actor. The best director who brought out the best in Gamini as director was Lester and Gamini himself.

I remain to this day a firm Sinhala film aficionado not only of quality films but also of those masala movies. Lester, GDL, Nihalsinha, Siri Gunasinha, KAW, Pathiraja, Sumithra, Tissa, Vasantha, Dharmasiri, Parakrama, Prasanna, Asoka and Vimukthi have today taken Sinhala cinema in a new direction away from shackles of Mumbai and Chennai. But for sheer entertainment one cannot forget the “popular” films of Cinemas, Ceylon Theatres and people like Yasapalitha Nanayakkaea, Robin Tampoe, Lenin Morais and Joe Devanand, etc. too.

Gamini straddled both these worlds with ease. He was both an “arty” actor of powerful serious movies as well as a “melodramatic” star of popular cinema too. He was artistically appreciated and commercially valued. For many decades Gamini Fonseka was the uncrowned monarch of Sinhala cinema. He made his mark as both actor and director. In the process he helped liberate Sinhala cinema from Indian constraints and gave it fresh perspective and dynamic direction. Superstar Gamini Fonseka is inextricably intertwined with the evolution and growth of Sinhala cinema. He passed away at the age of 68 on 30 September 2004.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com.)

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