Connecting cultures

Saturday, 12 March 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

THREE decades after the birth of the Sri Lankan teledrama industry, the Tamil audiences of this country are forced to make do with South Indian productions which are somewhat different to our own and not culturally in sync with the Sri Lankan Tamils, what with our Tamil culture being unique and quite different from that of India.

Why there are no Tamil teledramas being produced in this country, almost a year after the end of the war, is anyone’s guess, says acclaimed television producer and Chairman of Teleview PVT Ltd Sunil Ratnayake.

Even with the advent of television in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that saw the emergence of the Independent Television Network (ITN), followed by that of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) and the resultant boom in local productions, there was sadly never enough training or infrastructure for the production of Tamil programming of any significance. Not counting, of course, the Tamil news segments on the national networks – but then, even those were mere translations of Sinhala or English scripts, recalls Ratnayake.

“So, the Sri Lankan Television Industry had to rely on Indian films and programmes to entertain the Tamil-speaking population of this country,” he says.

It’s not that there has never been a single locally produced Tamil teledrama, however, he quickly points out. There have been several, in fact, he says.

Immediately after the inception of the SLRC in 1982, many Tamil Programme producers were taken into its fold – most of them having received their trained in foreign countries, explains Ratnayake.

“With these producers, explains Ratnayake, we were able to produce many local Tamil programmes including teledramas. But unfortunately, things have changed today, and we are still forced to sit through Indian productions,” he says.

Today, the state-run national television has its own separate Tamil channels, and currently there are about three privately owned channels operating for Tamil-speaking audiences. But all these channels telecast Indian tele-serials, mainly soaps, says Ratnayake.

As a pioneering producer and the founder chairman of the country’s leading production house, Sunil Ratnayake has time and again tried to establish a dialogue with those involved in the Sri Lankan Tamil television industry. These experts, he says, have always maintained that with the money invested in producing a half-hour Tamil TV programme, especially a teledrama, one could easily purchase four to five episodes of an Indian soap – and these soaps come with an impressive cast full of Indian TV stars.

“Quite the bargain, if you ask me,” he quips.

Also, the technical aspects of these Indian teledramas are high in standard, according to these people, he adds.

On the flipside, though, many Sri Lankan born artistes have won the hearts and minds of Indian moviegoers, says Ratnayake. He fondly recalls such illustrious personalities as Cinematographer Balu Mahendra, actors like J. P. Chandrababu, Sujatha, Radika, Pooja and S.S. Chandran who enjoy a fan-following to this day.  

“And then there was M. G. Ramachandran, or MGR as he is popularly known, yet another famous Sri Lankan born who is something of a cult hero in most parts of India.  What more proof do you need of the immense talent and potential of our Tamil community?” he asks.

The dawn of the local television industry coincided with the ’83 riots, and with that the Tamil TV industry hit rock bottom, says Ratnayake.

 “With this war environment, many talented people left this country and there was a vacuum for television artistes and producers,” he points out.

However, the situation has now changed, he says, adding that we are in a position to revive the Tamil television industry, what with the end of the three-decade-old conflict and the dawn of peace.

“A majority of the Tamil Diaspora is for local productions, and with the help of the Tamil television stations in Europe, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia, we should be able to produce more and more Tamil teledramas, documentaries and all sorts of other programmes,” he says.

Sunil Ratnayake is prepared to share his knowledge and expertise with any Tamil youngsters who might be interested in making Tamil tele-productions, of whatever form. He is now formulating plans to open up a training college in Jaffna in order to train young artistes in the field of television production, computer graphics, 2D and 3D animation technologies and other technical aspects of production.

“If we produce teledramas with our own Tamil identity, our people will accept the new industry and welcome it with open arms,” says Ratnayake, recalling how his own Sinhala teledrama productions were appreciated by the Tamil population.

With the help of the global Tamil television industry, he insists, the local Tamil teledrama industry can achieve great success, financially as well as artistically. The general television industry of the country will only stand to benefit with such a success story, he adds.