‘Rekava’ – now in digital – was different

Saturday, 28 January 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



Olu nelum neriya rangaala – Kikini handana vala ngaala…Yamu nelaville, nelaville, nelaville…


By D.C. Ranatunga

The handsome boatman sings a song as he rows his ‘oruva’ down the river. Tall trees and well-grown bushes on both sides of the river create a beautiful landscape. Young women are bathing in shallow water. Boys move out to deeper waters for a dip. Some are busy stretching out their nets to catch fish. 

A pretty village lass is washing the clothes after a bath. With her is her younger brother, who is excited seeing the boatman. The young man comes up to them and offers the fish he had caught. With the water-filled ‘kalagediya’ on her hip she heads for home as the boatman explains he earns sufficient for their livelihood after they get married.

This typical scene sums up the genuineness of rural life. It’s just one instance in the much-talked-about Sinhala film, ‘Rekava’ – the first feature film directed by Sri Lankan cinema’s doyen Lester James Peries. 

An authentic movie

Its 60th anniversary is being celebrated with the screening of the digital version tomorrow a ceremony organised by the Tower Hall Foundation. It will be shown at the Regal where ‘Rekava’ was first screened on 27 December 1956 – the year of the cultural renaissance in Sri Lanka with the start of the Bandaranaike era.

I remember Professor Asoka de Zoysa once saying that ‘Rekava’ “disturbed the audience that was sure of being entertained to at least 10 songs and dances, much melodrama and slapstick in the time limit of at least 2½ hrs to 3 hrs.”

Lester knew he shouldn’t attempt a “clean sweep” at once. But he was keen to present an “authentic movie” in Sinhala which could be enjoyed by everyone. He found room for six songs. The difference was that they suited the flow of the story. 

They had simple, meaningful words written by Fr. Marcelline Jayakody and beautiful melodies composed by Sunil Santha who shunned Sinhala film music and refused to oblige but after much discussion was convinced it was going to be a different film. He had no regrets, I am sure in being a partner of what most called “the first Sinhala film”.

At his request seasoned music director B.S. Perera was picked to handle the music. Lata Walpola, Sisira Senaratne, Indrani Wijayabandara and Ivor Dennis lent their voices. The songs continue to be popular after six decades. While most of the songs in Sinhala films at the time were mere copies of South Indian songs, here was something fresh. 

‘Rekava’ was shot entirely outside a studio scoring a ‘first’ in that it was the first Sinhala outdoor movie. Sound was recorded on a portable tape recorder on the spot. “We had our problems particularly with sound recording. Keeping crows away was one of the major hazards,” Lester once recalled. The sun’s rays replaced studio lights.

The story was his own – one that was based on village superstitions. K.A.W. Perera (the soft-spoken filmmaker who later directed a number of box office hits) wrote the dialogues in day-to-day conversational style departing from the practice by most filmmakers where the written style was preferred.




Enchanting village landscapes

In making the film Lester later wrote that he could forget the story, forget the people and allow the camera to roam at will over the enchanting village landscapes chosen as the backdrop of the story. 

“There is something about our natural scenery, the very quality of the sunlight perhaps, sensuous and glittering which can import to the most commonplace shot, a shimmering translucent quality that can cast a hypnotic spell over the spectator. As the entire story of ‘Rekava’ unfolded itself out in the open, there was, I must admit, the most awful temptation to exploit the picturesque; and one always knew that this sort of pictorial decoration can compensate for deficiencies of plot and characterisation.”

Willie Blake, the master cameraman (he quit the Government Film Unit along with Lester and Titus Totawatte, who edited the film) skilfully captured the cool, hilly climes of Bandarawela in the film’s opening scenes of the ‘boru kakulkaraya’ (Sesha Palihakkara) and his trickster monkey roaming the countryside with a gang of boys following him, the riverside scenery around Alawwa and other village settings. 

The ‘magul maduwa’ at the village wedding where food was served to the guests (with special ones being taken behind it for a ‘quick one’), women playing the ‘rabana’ in traditional style sitting around it, the sarong-clad photographer from the studio in the nearby town shooting the wedding photograph with a vintage ‘standing’ camera, were true to life situations of the times.

‘Kata vaha’, ‘es vaha’ were among the most common superstitious beliefs where some people were branded foul-mouthed or with vicious eyes. These were well-exploited in the story with Kathrina (Iranaganie Meedeniya – later Serasinghe – playing her maiden role in a film) fighting hard to save her son Sena (Somapala Dharmapriya) from being a victim of village gossip.

The boy’s playmate Anula (Myrtle Fernando – the 12-year old girl who succumbed to cancer a few months after the film) who lost her eyesight but was cured by Sena using his healing powers proving the palm reader’s prediction correct.

Near perfect cast selection

Lester’s selection of the cast was near perfect with everyone playing their part well. Romulus de Silva (the village headman) and big-made N.R. Dias (Podi Mahaththaya), were seasoned Tower Hall actors. D.R. Nanayakkara was born to act and played Sooty, Kathrina’s good-for-nothing husband, perfectly. Winston Serasinghe also moved from the stage and made his mark in cinema. 

The young couple (Nimal and Premawathie) was played by Ananda Weerakoon and Mallika Pilapitiya. Ananda is overseas. Mallika is around but moved out of the film scene. Incidentally, her son Roshan is an accomplished actor. He acted in Lester’s last feature film, ‘Ammawarune’ and is now much in demand in both films and teledramas. 

‘Rekava’ was acknowledged as the ‘genuine’ Sinhala film everyone was waiting for. But in Lester’s own words, it was “a disaster at the box-office. It was a miserable failure”. Award-winning actress Maria Schell who was in Sri Lanka at the time saw the film at a cinema in Mount Lavinia and promoted it to be invited to Cannes. (Two years earlier she had won the Best Actress Award at Cannes.) Thus a Sinhala film got recognition at an international festival for the first time.