Popular film actor-politician Vijaya Kumaratunga was shot dead in cold blood on 16 February 1988. He was standing near the front gate of his Kirulapone residence on Polhengoda road and talking to an acquaintance when the assailants travelling in a two-wheeler struck.
Vijaya was shot twice in the back and fell to the ground. The gunman then got off the motorcycle pillion and walked up to Vijaya, who was lying motionless, and pumped more bullets into his head and face. Thus ended the life of a charismatic leader who may very well have altered the destiny of this nation if he was not cruelly killed at the age of 42.
Thirty years have passed since the brutal assassination of Vijaya Kumaratunga but the handsome filmstar-politico remains evergreen in the collective memory of his numerous fans and followers. In his thespian career of more than two decades, the dashing and debonair Vijaya enthralled millions of filmgoers with his scintillating screen performances.
He acted in 114 films in all. Several of his films were released after his death. Almost all of his films were financial successes. Due to the political machinations in the cinema sphere, Vijaya was seldom bedecked with laurels for his acting skills but as far as the film-going masses were concerned, he was their popular idol.
Vijaya starred mainly in run-of-the-mill movies that entertained but he did act in some films that were different and made a difference too. Like Sinhala cinema’s superstar Gamini Fonseka, Vijaya Kumaratunga too was commercially valued and artistically acclaimed as a film actor.
Acting was his accredited profession but politics was Vijaya Kumaratunga’s chosen vocation. Possessing left-leaning views and also being closely related to Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Vijaya was involved with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in his youthful days. He later joined the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and became its Katana organiser. Vijaya contested the Katana constituency unsuccessfully against Wijepala Mendis in 1977. He married into the first family of the SLFP in February 1978 by wooing and winning the hand of Chandrika Bandaranaike.
Vijaya plunged zestfully into SLFP politics and was the livewire behind the island-wide campaigns protesting the deprivation of Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike’s civic rights in 1980 and the presidential campaign of Hector Kobbekkaduwe in 1982. He was unjustly victimised by the J.R. Jayawardene regime and locked up as a suspected ‘Naxalite’ for months without a trial. In May 1983 Vijaya contested the Mahara electorate for the SLFP in a by-election and lost by a narrow margin.
In 1984 he broke away from the SLFP along with Chandrika and others like T.B. Ilangaratne and Ratnasiri Wickramanayake to form the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP). The SLMP had a broad, refreshing political perspective. Its advent on the Sri Lankan political horizon was like fresh rain pouring on dry, parched earth. In 1986 Vijaya contested the Minneriya by-election on behalf of the newly-formed SLMP. The UNP won but Vijaya came second, pushing the SLFP to third place.
An accommodative approach
Vijaya Kumaratunga had an accommodative approach towards the long festering ethnic crisis. He led a delegation to meet Tamil militant leaders in Tamil Nadu in 1985 and also Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran.
He also went to Jaffna in 1986 when the peninsula was dominated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and met with Tiger leader Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias ‘KIttu’ and his spokesperson Srikumar Kanagaratnam alias ‘Rahim’. Vijaya also welcomed the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, thereby incurring the wrath of the Rohana Wijeweera-led Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). He was killed by the JVP just four days before his tenth wedding anniversary on 20 February. As I stated earlier, the history of Sri Lanka may have been entirely different had Vijaya Kumaratunga not been cut down so cruelly in the prime of his life.
This week’s ‘Spotlight’ shines on Vijaya Kumaratunga to both denote his 30th death anniversary and also to pay tribute to this illustrious and noble son of Sri Lanka. Since the ‘Spotlight’ column is mainly devoted to films, film personalities and film-related matters, the article will avoid the political dimensions of Vijaya Kumaratunga’s life and instead focus more on his many-splendoured cinematic career. It must also be noted that Vijaya’s surname was originally spelled ‘Kumaranatunga’.It was as Vijaya Kumaranatunga that he blazed a trail on screen. Subsequently, the name was modified to ‘Kumaratunga’. I shall be referring to him as Kumaratunga in this article though he was actually known as Kumaranatunga for the greater part of his life. Also his name has been spelled as both ‘Wijaya’ and ‘Vijaya’. I shall refer to him as Vijaya.
It was in 1975 that I saw Vijaya Kumaratunga in the flesh for the first time. I had not entered journalism then. He was coming out through the gates of a private hospital on High Street (WA De Silva Mawatha) in Wellawatte in a red car. Clad in a tee-shirt and trousers, Vijaya was in the driver’s seat with strongman actor Piyadasa Gunasekara by his side. A bunch of girls going along the road had seen Vijaya in the car and surrounded the vehicle. Soon others including myself gathered around.
The giggling girls entered into good-humoured bantering with him. Vijaya gave back in style, cracking jokes effortlessly. A few got his autograph. After what seemed an eternity, Vijaya got the permission of his fans to leave. The crowd parted and Vijaya drove away waving and smiling. The girls who mobbed him were delightfully dazed. One of them remarked loudly, “Aney Bonikka vaage ney” (Oh! like a doll, no?). “Pirisudhu Muhuna(pure face),” said another. I had seen many of his films before but this was the first time I had seen him off-screen. I was impressed by his simplicity, accessibility and cheerful rapport with his “unknown” fans.
SLFP candidate for Katana
The next time I saw Vijaya was on the night of 21 July 1977. It was election day and I, as a cub reporter at the Tamil Daily Virakesari, was at the main counting centre and returning office at Royal College. The results were trickling in. Vijaya dressed in white came inside along with another Sinhala film actor (either Boniface Fernando or Roy de Silva). Vijaya was the SLFP candidate for Katana. He walked around with a smile and then seeing us journalists came over to exchange pleasantries.
1977 was the year when Tamil Nadu actor M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) was tasting political success in India as the founder-leader of the All-India Anna-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK). I introduced myself and asked Vijay whether he was the MGR of Sri Lankan politics. He laughed loud and said he wished he were MGR and replied that he had a long way to go before he could ever be compared to MGR.
As is well known, the SLFP was utterly routed by the UNP at the 1977 polls. Wijepala Mendis, who was the Katana sitting MP, defeated Vijaya Kumaratunga by a majority of 4,212 votes. Wijepala polled 23,950 to Vijaya’s 19,738. When the Katana result was announced Vijaya had left but a triumphant Wijepala Mendis remained.
After congratulating Mendis, I asked him what it felt like to defeat Vijaya Kumaratunga, the MGR of Sri Lankan politics. Mendis guffawed and said: “Aiyo, what is his experience in politics compared to me? Who is this fellow born the day before yesterday?”
Wijepala Mendis was right then but as the years progressed Vijaya Kumaratunga not only established himself as a film hero but also played a heroic role in politics, achieving great stature. In later years I got a few opportunities to meet and converse with Vijaya Kumaratunga. He was always open, frank, amiable and courteous.
Kovilage Vijaya Anthony Kumaratunga was born in Seeduwa on 9 October 1945 to Roman Catholic parents. His father Kovilage Benjamin Kumaratunga as well as his paternal grandfather Mudaliyar Jayagris Kumaratunga served as village headmen of Seeduwa. Vijaya’s mother Clara Beatrice Perera hailed from Madahamulla, a village between Minuwangoda and Divulapitiya.
St. Benedict’s College, Kotahena
Vijaya had his early schooling at Kandana and then enrolled at St. Benedict’s College, Kotahena. Vijaya excelled in singing, drama and oratory during schooldays and won gold medals frequently. He also led the college’s Sinhala debating team. When the SLFP Government of 1960-65 nationalised private schools in 1961, the Catholic Church running hundreds of schools throughout the Island protested vehemently. However, Vijaya belonged to a progressive school of thought among Catholics that welcomed the schools takeover. This created problems for Vijaya at St. Benedict’s. So in 1962 Vijaya left St. Benedict’s College and joined De Mazenod College in Kandana where he completed his secondary education.
Young Vijaya’s first love was not to act on screen but to don a khaki uniform. He wanted to become a Sub-Inspector of Police. From childhood Vijaya had wanted to be a Policeman but his family, notably his mother, objected strongly. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast in his ambition and applied for a Sub-Inspector post. He was selected for an interview but the tears and wails of his beloved mother resulted in him abandoning the idea reluctantly.
Vijaya now began to think of a career in acting. He made contact with the ‘Apey Kattiya’ drama group of Sugathapala de Silva and made himself available. He went to see almost every performance of the group. Vijaya also enrolled at the Serendib Art Centre run by Shesha Palihakkara to learn dancing. Shesha Palihakkara had co- produced several films like ‘Ran Muthu Duwa’, ‘Getawarayo’ and ‘Sarawita’. Palihakkara wanted to produce a film about the legendary warrior Puran Appu who rebelled against the British. This was many years before Lester James Peries made ‘Veera Puran Appu’ in 1979.
Palihakkara picked Vijaya Kumaratunga to play Fransiscu Fernando/Puran Appu and Wally Nanayakkara to act as Gongalegoda Banda/King David in his film. Vijaya was highly excited and went to fellow Benedictine and reputed stuntmaster cum action star Robin Fernando to learn fighting techniques and horse riding. But Palihakkara’s ‘Puran Appu’ never saw the light of day. Vijaya was sorely disappointed but was consoled when he got an offer to act and sing in a musical drama ‘Sithijaye’ for which the words were written by T. Kuruwita Bandara and the music composed by Premasiri Khemadasa. The music maestro Khemadasa Master was highly impressed by Vijaya.
T. Bawanandan’s ‘Manamalayo’
It was the Khemadasa master connection which enabled Vijaya to get his first break in films. The well-known film editor T. Bawanandan was directing a film called ‘Manamalayo’. The film starring Tony Ranasinghe, Joe Abeywickrema and Shiranee Kurukulasuriya had Khemadasa composing music. Bawanandan was looking for some new faces to act in minor roles. Khemadasa Master recommended Vijaya, who was given a small part. Finally, Vijaya got his first break in films. ‘Manamalayo’ was released in March 1967. This was Vijaya Kumaratunga’s first screen role.
Vijaya kept on trying to act in films. Once he heard that Lester James Peries was looking for a young man to act in his next film. The film was ‘Akkara Paha’ based on a novel by Madawala S. Ratnayake. Lester needed someone to play the male protagonist Sena.
Vijaya made his way to Lester’s residence very early in the morning and seated himself on the Verandah. When Lester was awake, the director was told that a young man was seated in front for more than an hour for an interview with him. Peries went out to speak to this “outstandingly handsome young man” (in Lester’s own words). Unfortunately for Vijaya, Lester had already signed up Milton Jayawardene to play the lead role Sena. Peries told Kumaratunga that he would have certainly cast Vijaya in the role but he had already signed on another actor and it was too late now. The director asked Vijaya to keep in touch with him and promised that he would consider him for another role in a new film.
Relating the incident in the book of interviews ‘Lester on Lester’, compiled by Kumar de Silva, the doyen of Sinhala film directors says: “The young man happened to be Vijaya Kumaratunga who went on to become the greatest icon in Sri Lankan cinema.”
Lester goes on to say: “In life you have things that simply slip through your fingers. I regretted not having given him (Vijaya) even a small part, even to massage my ego in saying that I ‘discovered’ Vijaya. But it is that I did not have the luck to provide him with that breakthrough role.”
Lester James Peries
So Sri Lanka’s foremost film maker Lester James Peries was not destined to “discover” Vijaya Kumaratunga and cast him in a distinctive role. That honour went to two directors who cast Vijaya almost simultaneously in their films which were released almost together.
One director was Sugathapala Senerath Yapa who made ‘Hantane Kathawa’ with Tony Ranasinghe and Swarna Mallawarachchi. The other was G.D.L. Perera who made ‘Romeo Juliet Kathawak’ with actors like Rukmani Devi, Douglas Ranasinghe, Joe Abeywickrema and Piyadasa Gunasekara. But Lester himself was to utilise Vijaya Kumaratuga’s acting skills for three of his films.
The first in 1975 was for ‘The God King’, Lester’s historical film about Kassapa of Sigiriya. The Eastman colour film in English produced by Dimitri de Grundwald had western actors like Leigh Lawson, Oliver Tobias and Geoffrey Russell playing the main roles of Kassapa, Migara and Dhatusena respectively. But Sri Lankans such as Ravindra Randeniya, Iranganie Serasinghe, Joe Abeywickrema, Douglas Wickremasinghe and Mano Breckenridge played the other roles. Vijaya Kumaratunga acted the part of Lalith in ‘The God King’, which was the only English film that he acted in.
The second of Lester’s films in which Vijaya acted was ‘Ahasin Polowata’ released in 1978. The film was based on a novel written by Eileen Siriwardene, a teacher who later became the principal of Visakha Vidyalaya in Colombo. Eileen was the wife of D.B.I.P.S. Siriwardene, one of Sri Lanka’s finest civil servants and an accomplished linguistic scholar with a double doctorate. The film had Tony Ranasinghe in the lead with Sriyani Amarsena and Vasanthi Chathurani. Vijaya Kumaratunga played second lead in the role of a doctor friend. The film was shot in 23 days.
The third and last Lester James Peries film in which Vijaya Kumaratunga acted in was ‘Beddegama’, the Sinhala film version of the Leonard Woolf novel ‘The Village in the Jungle’. The colour film was released in 1980.
‘Beddegama’ had artistes like Joe Abeywickrema, Malani Fonseka, Henry Jayasena, Trilicia Gunawardena, Nadeeka Gunasekara and Tony Ranasinghe starring in it. Vijaya Kumaratunga played the character of Babun, which was in a sense the lead role. Peries in ‘Lester on Lester’ had this to say - “Vijaya Kumaratunga played Babun. There was the famous seduction scene which is really rape by consent, which I knew that Vijaya and Malani would do. Although that particular scene was badly cut here, it was really played with hardly any clothes on.”
‘Hantane Kathawa’, ‘Romeo Juliet Kathawak’
These then were the three films of Lester that Vijaya acted in. Even though the opportunity of being launched in films by Lester James Peries was missed by Vijaya, his career did take off after the releases in 1969 of ‘Hantane Kathawa’ and ‘Romeo Juliet Kathawak’. Vijaya acted in many entertainment-oriented, commercially successful “formula films” as well as critically praised artistic films.
Directors with different film making sensibilities like Sugathapala Senerath Yapa, G.D.L. Perera, Lester James Peries, Vasantha Obeyesekere, Dharmasena Pathiraja, Sunil Ariyaratne, Tissa Abeyesekera and Titus Thotawatte, along with directors like Neil Rupasinghe, Lenin Moraes, Timothy Weeraratne, Yasapalitha Nanayakkara and a host of others helped make a successful star out of Vijaya Kumaratunga.
Movies of different genres such as ‘Ahas Gawwa’, ’Diyamanthi’, ‘Eya den Loku Lamayek’, ‘Para Dige’, ‘Bambaru Avith’, ‘Maruwaa Samaga Waase’ and ‘Kadapathaka Chaya’ as well as those like ‘Hathardenama Soorayo’, ‘Thushara’, ‘Pembara Madhu’, ’Sangeetha’ and ‘Monarathenna’ contributed in different ways to create the brand name Vijaya Kumaratunga.
After Gamini Fonseka
Gamini Fonseka was the superstar of Sinhala cinema for many years. After Gamini came Vijaya. Both were appreciated and loved by the discerning filmgoer as well as the average film fan. Nuwan Nayanajith Kumara writes of this phenomenon thus - “Prior to the arrival of Vijaya on the silver screen, Gamini Fonseka, the superstar of Sinhala cinema, had constructed the image of a brave and passionate young hero. As an alternative, Vijaya invented a carefree, debonair, romantic lover. Sinhala cinemagoers warmly embraced them both.”
Vijaya Kumaratunga blazed a successful trail in Sinhala cinematic skies for two decades. The story of the romantic action hero’s meteoric rise to fame and stardom interspersed with an account of the Chandrika-Vijaya storybook romance will be related in these columns next week.
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)