Gamini, the unforgettable

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  By D.C. Ranatunga It’s late evening on Thursday 30 September 2004 – exactly 10 years ago. I am driving. I get a call on my mobile phone. “Have you heard the news?” a female voice at the other end asks me. “What?” is my immediate reaction. “Gamini Fonseka has died. Can you do a piece for Plus by tomorrow morning?” It’s The Sunday Times Features Editor Renuka Sadanandan. Though shaken by the news, I respond: “Shall do.” Back home I pulled out my collection of articles and notes of the Arts column I had done for the Sunday Observer and The Sunday Times. No columnist on Sri Lankan cinema could avoid writing about the country’s leading actor, review the films he acted in, and keep a tab on what his next film(s) would be, not once or twice but many times over.   Right on top “Gamini is right on top. He has appeared in more than 25 films (in 10 years) and acts in no less than five films right now. He is still the most sought-after actor,” I wrote in 1967. The trend just continued. There wasn’t another to challenge him for several more decades. Not that there weren’t others to play different roles, but there were none to match Gamini’s versatility. We did very much enjoy Joe Abeywickrema, Tony Ransinghe, Henry Jayasena, Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ravindra Randeniya, to name a few. Yet Gamini could give something more. When he made in mark in Lester James Peries’ ‘Sandeshaya’ (remembered for the song  ‘prootugeesikaraya, ratawalallannasooraya’),  Ananda Jayaratne played a more important role in the film. But Gamini was the talking point. It was the same reaction in ‘Gamperaliya’. Henry J’s was the lead role as Piyal. Gamini played Jinadasa.   Better-quality films He was fortunate that he got a series of highly-entertaining and better-quality films amidst a lot of lesser-quality stuff. ‘Getawarayo’ and ‘Ranmuthu Duwa’ (Tissa Liyansuriya and Mike Wilson), ‘Dheevarayo’ (M. Mastan), ‘Sudo Sudu’ (Robin Tampoe), ‘Chandiya’ (Titus Totawatte), ‘Senasuma Kothanada’ (K.A.W. Perera) and ‘Seethala Watura’ (Dharma Sri Caldera) were ideal to showcase his talent. These films came within the first six years in the 1960s. Young Gamini had good looks. He was handsome and smart. Above all, he was skilled enough to adapt himself and do his best to portray the different characters – exactly the way the directors wanted, often even more.   Hard work Gamini’s success was due to hard work. Once he signed the contract, he would give of his best. He was so committed. “It may not be the type of character I would like to play. Or I may feel the plot is rather silly. But if I agree, I do my best. After all, I am a professional,” he once said. I remember interviewing a beedi manufacturer from Akurana who was keen to produce a film with the best talent available. It was about a port worker. He himself had worked in the port. He wanted Gamini to play the role. Gamini was reluctant. Producer Simon Marawanagoda told him to charge any amount – he was willing to play. “I knew he was so keen. I agreed and did not want to let him down,” Gamini told me.   Another milestone A businessman from Gampaha, Chitra Balasuriya invited Gamini to direct his maiden production, ‘Parasathu Mal’ written by P.K.D. Seneviratne, a script-writer in demand for themes with a rural backdrop. Chitra also wanted Gamini to play the lead. He did both exceptionally well. Fellow artistes Punya Heendeniya, Anula Karunatilleka and Tony Ranasinghe played their roles extremely well. Director Gamini handled them well – they did their best. Sumitta Amarasinghe gave exactly what Gamini wanted from the camera. So did Music Director Lionel Algama. Gamini had broken new ground – he had reached another milestone.     Host of awards Awards just came Gamini’s way. He was first recognised with a merit award for his role in ‘Gamperaliya’ at the inaugural Sarasaviya Film Festival in 1964. That was for the Best Supporting Actor. Thereafter it was always the Best Actor Award. For several years he was the most popular actor voted in by fans. ‘Sagarayak Meda’ (1982) brought him the Sarasaviya Best Director’s Award. Irrespective of whether he won an award or not, Gamini’s performances are etched in our minds. The mere fact that he had played the lead role in four of the first 10 films selected as the best among those screened during the first 50 years of Sinhala cinema was enough proof of his versatility. The four included the best film ‘Nidhanaya’ – Lester JP’s directorial effort based on G.B. Senanayake’s short story, where he turned out a classic performance as Willie Abeynayake. The others were ‘Gamperaliya’, ‘Parasathu Mal’ and Nihalsinghe’s ‘Weli Katara’ – the first wide-screen Sinhala production. In fact, ‘Weli Katara’ pitched him against the other big name Joe Abeywickrema, who played Goring Mudalali – one of the best in his career. Set in the sandy dunes in the north, Gamini played the police superintendent’s role, trying to keep Goring Mudalali at bay. Another memorable role was in Sunil Ariyaratne’s ‘Sarungale,’ where he was the perfect Tamil office clerk. There is hardly any actress from Jeevarani Kurukulasuriya– the ‘big name’ in the 1960s – onwards right up to the 1990s who had not partnered Gamini. In many including ‘Nidhanaya’, Malini Fonseka was the leading actress. His tally of films was 96 from the time he played as an extra in ‘Rekawa’ (1956) until he quietly moved away around 1998. Researcher Nuwan Nayanajith Kumara has compiled an exhaustive volume on him. A well-deserved tribute to a great actor.   Stint in Parliament He had a stint in Parliament in the latter part of his career. Entering the second Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic (DSR) from Matara on the UNP ticket, he was elected Deputy Speaker and served from March 1989 until June 1994. He was appointed Governor of the North-East Province from June 1995 to October 1998 by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. He spent time writing lyrics leading a quiet life at Jaela in the last stages of his life. He was 68 at the time of his death.   Gamini’s role as a film director In ‘Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema,’ Wimal Dissanayake and Ashley Ratnavibhushana assessed Gamini’s role as a film director: “Gamini Fonseka is one of the most gifted and versatile actors in Sri Lanka. He has been closely associated with the artistic as well as commercial cinema. He directed a number of interesting Sinhalese films. The first was ‘Parasathu Mal’ made in 1965. This film deals with individual desires and their un-fulfilment in societies that enforce complex social restraints... “We next meet Gamini Fonseka as a filmmaker in the 1980s. By this time he had developed a penchant for making films with a direct political message. He was concerned to analyse such concepts as freedom, justice, equality, fair-play in a somewhat melodramatic manner. ‘Utumaneni’ made in 1980 belongs to this category. ‘Sagarayak Meda’ (1981), ‘Koti Valigaya’ (1986), ‘Anthima Rathriya’ (1988) and ‘Nomiyena Minissu’ (1994) manifest his eagerness to focus on political experiences. Although there is a certain superficial allure to these films, they fail to add up and explore cogently and in depth the contours of the political experiences that they seek to explore.” The unforgettable actor, film director, lyric writer has left an indelible impression and will always be remembered.