Posted on March 28th, 2023

Rohan Abeygunawardena

(The Message” that came after Line of Destiny”)

Ask Lester to come and see me”

If not for above message Lester James Peries (Lester) received from K. Gunaratnam, the film industry of Sri Lanka would have probably lost the classic work of the Master Filmmaker of the country.

Lester’s first Sinhala film Rekawa” meaning Line of Destiny in English” was certainly a line of destiny for Sinhala film industry that commenced with the screening of Kadawunu Poronduwa in January 1947.

But financially Rekawa” was a failure.

Since Rekawa, there were no films coming in Lester’s way. He was seriously thinking of going back to England and pursue his former profession, Journalism.

Then came Gunaratnam’s message. More about it later.

  • Brief History of Entertainment Industry in Ceylon

From mid 1880s the chief mode of entertainment was the performance of Drama such as Noorthi, Sokeri and Nadagam in in Sri Lanka (British Ceylon). The Nadagam which was heavily influenced by India, were prolonged affairs, sometimes going on for days. Later John de Silva changed this tradition and introduced the Noorthi form of drama for evening entertainment. 

It was in 1901 when a film (or movie as Americans call) was shown first time in Sri Lanka (British Ceylon). British governor West Ridgeway and prisoners of the Second Boer War viewed this short documentary film based on the British victory in the Boer War, the burial of Queen Victoria and the coronation of Edward VII. More English screenings followed and attracted British settlers and Anglicized Sinhalese and Tamils.

In 1925 Rajakeeya Wickremaya (Royal Adventure) became the first silent film to be made in Sri Lanka. This film was shown in India and Singapore. However, the reels got burnt before they were shown in Sri Lanka. Leader of the Sri Lankan Trotskyist political party Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), Dr. N.M. Perera, then a handsome young man, was the Indian director Guptha’s choice to play the role of the Prince.”

Paliganeema, a silent film produced and directed by W. Don Edward was screened in Colombo in 1933 (Wikipedia).

The South Indian entrepreneur, S.M. Nayagam who saw the potential of a Sinhala cinema culture decided to produce his maiden film. He approached his friend B.A.W. Jayamanne (BAW) and obtained the rights to produce a Sinhala movie based on BAW’s popular stage drama Kadawunu Poronduwa (The Broken Promise) under the same name. This was the first officially recognised Sinhala film. It was first shown on January 21, 1947 at the Kingsley Cinema, Kotahena, under the patronage of senior minister D.S. Senanayake and Mrs. Senanayake. Thereafter Sri Lanka stepped into a new entertainment industry of Silver Screen.”

In spite of a string of Sinhala films produced after Kadawunu Poronduwa, the South Indian Tamil films were popular with Sri Lankans. Beside many a Sinhala films produced in this era had the South Indian touch or formula and failed to capture the true nature of Sinhalese life or create anything uniquely Sri Lankan.

  • Silver Line of Silver Screen

Fortunately, a young man was recruited to newly established Government Film Unit (GFU). He was Lester James Peries.

When Lester was 17 years, he joined Daily News” to pursue a carrier in journalism. In 1947, Lester travelled to England to join his brother Ivan Peries who was in London on an art scholarship. Lester met a young Ceylonese Hereward Jansz. Both had similar interest in film industry influenced by the film-making taking off in the UK after World War II. There were about 400 amateur film clubs around England. The two youngsters decided to make a film. Lester wrote the script and directing, while Hereward did the filming with their limited camera equipment.

Their first effort Soliloquy” (1949), a short film, won the Mini Cinema Cup for displaying the best technical proficiency. This work was followed by three other experimental films.

Ceylon Government Film Unit (GFU) was inaugurated on September 5, 1948 with Wasan Italian as its first director and few months later Ralph Keene was appointed chief producer. Lester got an opportunity to face an interview with Keene while in London in 1952. Keene knew the young man’s talent as he was a member of a jury that selected and presented Lester, the upcoming director award. Keene suggested that he return to Ceylon to embark on a career on film making.

Lester returned to Colombo and joined the GFU Unit as Keene’s assistant.

Without our being consciously aware of it, we were being trained in the finest traditions of British documentary. In a disused Nissan hut, once a temporary cinema shed for the R.A.F. during the war, in Velona, Moratuwa, headquarters of the GFU, a group of young film-makers were to emerge, radically changing the style of documentary film-making in Ceylon. Foremost among them was Hetti,” Lester wrote in Appreciation by him on the death of his good friend and one time colleague at GFU Pragnasoma Hettiarachchi under the caption Tribute to a documentary visionary” published on October 14, 2001 in The Sunday Times.

Two major documentaries Lester helped Keene with were Heritage of Lanka and Nelungama. He also directed Conquest in the Dry Zone, a documentary on controlling malaria and Be Safe or Be Sorry, a study on errant motorists.

Around this time, a cousin, Christopher Peries (a businessman) suggested that Lester start a company to produce Sinhala films. He left Government Film Unit in 1955 and created Chitra Lanka Limited (CLL) to produce two films, of course with the help of Christopher. However CLL managed only one.  Lester’s closest colleagues at the Government Film Unit, William Blake (a cameraman of Dutch descent), and Titus Thotawatte (an editor) resigned with him and later worked together on a number of films.

Their first film was Rekava (Sinhala for “Line of Destiny”).

Few extracts from the book written by Kumar De SilvaLester by Lester as Told to Kumar de Silva.”were useful to get an insight to Lester’s mind set when he took up the challenge on producing Sinhala films. They are…

Some have wondered how an Anglo-Saxon English oriented person like me, could embark on a Sinhala film. …Language is the last thing one needed to make a film. One does not make films in Sinhala or Tamil, but in the language of the Cinema.”

Most of us in the GFU did go and see Sinhala films. We made it a point to see practically every Sinhala film that was released, just out of curiosity. I think GFU was technically making the best Sinhala documentaries and newsreels at that time.”

Film after film we saw gave us the feeling that the Sinhala cinema had been let down. In fact Asokamala (1947) was much better.”

There was a nationalist feeling behind my thinking which I think motivated me.”

The story line in Rekawa Lester developed was a simple village story. It recounts the adventures of a small village boy and a girl as follows;

A stilt-walker cum musician Miguel arriving in the village of Siriyala with a monkey that performs antics for the public. Two village thieves try to rob him and a young boy named Sena prevents the robbery. Miguel, who is also a palm reader, reads the boy’s palm and predicts that Sena will become a famous healer and bring dignity to the village. Sena and his friend Anula are flying a kite in a paddy field. Anula falls sick and realises that she is losing her eyesight. The village physician is unable to cure her but Sena touches her eyes, miraculously Anula gets her sight back. Sena develops a reputation as a boy with a magical touch and his father, a notorious money lender in the village, uses Sena’s talent to earn money. He commence organizing healing campaigns among the villagers. A rich landowner brings his son for treatment, but the son died which triggers a public outrage against Sena. Even worse, the village suffers a severe drought. Later, peace and tranquillity returns to Siriyala with Sena’s blessings.”

Lester included some of the traditional beliefs of rural people like devil dancing and rituals from the Sinhala Buddhist Culture such as Vesak celebrations to make the simple story colourful.

Rekawa” released on December 28, 1956 was considered to be the first truly Sinhala film, as it was the first to be made entirely by Sri Lankan filmmakers with a local cast and crew. The film explores themes of rural poverty, social hierarchy, and the relationship between humans, animals, and environment.

This film has deviated from the melodramatic film formula which had features of boy-girl romance, villain, fights, and comedy, generally present in Hindi and Tamil musical films as well as Sinhala films of the day. As a result, filmgoers attending theatres showing Rekawa were dwindling from the second week.

So Rekawa didn’t make money and was a financial flop.

Then came the interview given to ‘Sunday Observer’ by Austrian actress Maria Schell who has seen ‘Rekawa’ at Roxy Cinema. The headline of that interview was Rekawa should go to the Cannes Film Festival”

Pragnasoma Hettiarachchi’s charming wife Collette (a French girl) translated the dialogue of Rekava from English to French in time for the International Film Festival at Cannes in 1957. After it was shown at the Cannes and included in the main competition the film was well-received internationally.

Though Rekava was not a commercial success it got the international recognition. With that educated class in Sri Lanka looked at it favourably. And the film was regarded as a landmark in Sri Lankan cinema history even today.

Yet, there were no offers coming Lester’s way to direct a film for nearly three years.

  • Kanagasabai Gunaratnam & Cinemas Limited

A young man from Athiyadi, Jaffna, who had come to Colombo hoping to get a job in the film industry, had made his mark as a reputed producer of Sinhala films in the early fifties.

He was Kanagasabai Gunaratnam, one of the pioneers in the Sri Lankan Film Industry who established Cinemas Limited in 1950.

Gunaratnam was the youngest son born on 20th July 1917 of the merchant Manikkam Kanagasabai and Mrs. Manikkam Murugesu.

He studied at Jaffna Central College up to junior class and came to Colombo. Like other youngsters in Ceylon his dream was to get into the film industry.

Gunaratnam worked for two years as an agent for a film distribution company called Windsor Talkies.” The company was bought over by Sir Chittampalam Abraham Gardiner (a pioneer Cinema Promoter in Sri Lanka) and brought under the management of Ceylon Theatres. Young Gunaratnam was not happy working under new management and left within three months.

He took over a soft drink business at New Chetty Street and later went into an ice-cream manufacturing business known as Nelwani & Co. at the same premises. He became a partner of a film distribution company called Wallington Talkies. In 1948, he was appointed Chairman of the company.

Gunaratnam set up the ‘Vijaya Studios’ in Hendala’. Some in the film industry felt that the Vijaya Studio was the best black and white film developing unit in entire Asia. He also built and operated film halls like Gamini in Maradana, Plaza in Wellawatta, Wellington Cinema in Jaffna and several others.

In 1941 he married Padma Selvadore. However, she died untimely and later married her sister, Kamala.

He was fond of Horseback riding and also a good tennis player.  He was an active member of the Tamil Union Sports Club and the Orient Club. 

Gunaratnam asked his friend famous Indian actor and director Raj Kapoor to direct a film to commemorate 10th anniversary of Cinemas Ltd.

Raj had seen Rekawa when it competed with his movie JagtheRaho” at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia. He told Gunaratnam Why not Lester?”

  • Yes, why not Lester.”

When Willie came with Gunaratnam’s message, Lester went to see him and explained the storyline that he had in mind. He named it Sandeshaya” (The Message).

Gunaratnam told Lester to write the whole script and gave his word that he was going to back it.

Location scouting or finding a proper place to serve as the fictional locations described in the film’s screenplay was also a difficult task. Lester discovered his dream land close to Belihul Oya Rest House while taking a walk with Willie Blake, Charles Perera (production manager) and A.S. Weerakkody (art director). It was a pictorial range of mountains with a forest cover in between.

Production crew went into action once the land was obtained on lease. Weerakkody designed and built a fortress completely out of rock. It was only the façade without interior. They also built many huts with straw roofs for the village scenes and two long rooms, one for dining and the other for play games.

There were about 30 Burger youngsters and some of the European nationals visiting the country who agreed to act as the Portuguese soldiers. With the main cast and the extras for village folks there were over 150 at the site. Lester had to accommodate all of them for eight months. There was an ex American soldier who was an extremely good horse rider among them. Their main problem was the serpents and the leeches, yet, they all worked as a team and enjoyed filming.

Lester took some site photographs and showed Gunaratnam who had only a cursory glance and indicated that he would like to see the whole picture once and for all. He told Lester to go ahead and that he was free to do the needful as he pleased. That was the confidence Gunaratnam had in Lester.

  • Story Line & Filming

The Portuguese explorer and military commander Lourenço de Almeida were the first Europeans to land in Sri Lanka in 1505. Since then there had been many battles between Sinhalese and Portuguese when the latter tried to extend their control over the coastal areas as well as in the Kingdom of Kandy. Lester was keen to produce a film based on battles between Sinhalese and Portuguese. He studied the publications of the well-known historian Sir Paul E. Pieris’ on this subject.

Lester developed the story line with the help of Benedict Dodampegama and K.A.W. Perera. He took another six months to complete the script and dialogues along with K.A.W. Perera.

Basically it was a story about a fortress built by Portuguese close to a Sinhala village. The soldiers harassed the villagers on and off. A section of the Sinhala youths left their homes and form into a band of rebels led by Bandara (Ananda Jayaratne) living in the hilly and mountainous regions. They provided a guerrilla type armed resistance against Portuguese army manning the fortress at the foot of the mountain. Of course there were also villagers benefited by selling their produce to the Portuguese soldiers. Main objective of the Portuguese captain (Arthor Venlanburg) was to invade Kingdom of Kandy. 

Portuguese retain the administrative structure of the Kotte kingdom and appoint the local top officials called Mudliyars from the Sinhalese nobility loyal to them. The Mudliyars act as intermediaries between the Portuguese and the local population,

The Mudaliyars of Malwana are unhappy the way the Portuguese treating the people. They decide to send a message to the King of Kandy expressing their loyalty to him. It is in verse which has to be deciphered. It is written in an Ola leaf hidden in a Suraya” that Sinhala people wear around the neck to get rid of evil powers. A young man from a noble family disguise as a fruit vendor is to carry this Message across to Kandyan Kingdom. He has to pass through the Portuguese Fortress area.

 The messenger fruit vendor (Vincent Vass) get caught. Captain Antony Rodrigo (Arthur Van Langenberg) asks Disapathi Ekanayake or ‘Disawa’ (David Dharmakeerthi) to translate it. He bluffs though he understand the real meaning. Not satisfied, Captain tortures the fruit vendor and imprison him.

Disawa sends a message to the prisoner hidden in an artificial egg, through Yaso Hami (Iranganie Serasinghe), the egg supplier, who is a great favourite with the Portuguese soldiers. His message is, Very soon rebels will attack the fortress and rescue him.”

When Yaso goes to the fort with her basket of eggs one of the guards stop her and start eating eggs one by one. She has to pass the artificial egg to the prisoner in a cell close by. She manages to put her hand through the railing but the guard catches her. She is tried for treason and sentenced to death by drowning. Portuguese friendly Vithana Rala (Hugo Fernando) tells the Captain that Dissawa is secretly helping the rebels. Dissawa is executed.”

Lester also included a bit of romance between the guerrilla leader and his long-lost love Sumana (Kanthi Gunatunga) who came in search of him with her uncle (Eddie Jayamanne). Bandara’s deputy was Tamitha (Gamini Fonseka).

In fact, producer K. Gunaratnam was not in favour of Gamini’s selection as the deputy. He wanted someone else, but Lester convinced him that Gamini was the right choice, which was later proved correct. Gamini and Gunaratnam became best of friends, later.

There were many exciting and thrilling scenes. One was where a rebel member who had fallen out with the leader instigate the Captain to send a Portuguese contingent to raid and destroy the rebels. He accompanied the soldiers to rebel stronghold and challenged the rebels. A rebel appear all of a sudden and shoot an arrow through his former colleague’s stomach killing him instantly. When a Portuguese soldier caught up in a hysteria and started screaming, a rebel shot him dead. The rebels encircled the Portuguese contingent, got them to surrender their guns and allowed them to go.

Another moving scene was a raid on the Sinhalese village by Portuguese soldiers on horseback setting fire to the huts, killing the women, children and old men. A critic in his review wrote this scene was very much like the western cowboy film. (1960 western, The Magnificent Seven with Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson had similar scenes)

The guerrillas carry out a raid on the fortress. When the attack is on Sinhala villagers too came to support them.”

This was the scene where Gamini (as Tamitha) displayed his talent and skills prominently, fighting against the soldiers killing many of them before he was shot and killed. He drew rousing applause, reducing female members of the audience to tears.

The guerrillas manage to set fire to the gunpowder and ammunition stores to blow up the entire fortress. They rescue the prisoner and hand over the Ola Leaf” message of Malwana Mudliers given to Bandara by Dissawa.

When the hero, Bandara (Ananda Jayaratne) visits the burnt down village it is completely a moving scene.

In the final scene, the Messenger Mudliyar” visits the palace of King of Kandy and hands over the Message”.  He explains the heroic and successful attack by the rebels led by Bandara on the fortress to rescue him. Bandara’s request to grant permission for him and other remaining rebels to live in Kandyan Kingdom is granted without any hesitation by the King.”

The technical knowhow to blow up the fortress came from Sri Lanka Army using dynamite. 

Like in Rekawa, Lester brought in Willie Blake as the Cinematographer and Titus Thotawatte as the Editor. Lester also gave young Sumitra Gunawardena an opportunity to familiarise with Sinhala cinema by appointing her as the assistant director.

The lyrics, music and melody of all seven songs in the film were by Arisen Ahubudu, R. Muththusami and Sunil Shantha respectively. The Baila Kaffirinna style song Purthugreesikaraya” at the sing song and dance event of the Portuguese soldiers was sung by H.R. Jothipala and Sidney Attygalle jointly. The vocalists of other six songs, Kate Kiri Suwanda, Rena Gira Rena, Punsanda Eliyai, Ko Hathuro, Rajina Mamai and Sudata Sude were Dharmadasa Walpola, Latha Walpola and Mohideen Baig. All these songs are popular even today and one can watch the present day youths singing them at reality shows on TV.

After two years work, 12 accidents (12 were hospitalised while at the location) and facing many unforeseen obstacles such as film reels getting almost destroyed (later restored), Sandeshaya finally released on 30th March, 1960 to celebrate Tenth Anniversary of Cinemas Ltd.

At the entrance of Gamini Cinema in Colombo 10, where the film was shown, there was a huge replica of the Portuguese Fortress erected out of hardboard together with the life size paintings of the soldiers on horseback and scenes of fighting. It was a good advertising and promotional gimmick and influenced many people to watch the film.  

It was Gunaratnam who made several box-office Sinhala films and took a calculated risk by giving a film to Lester. The risk was mitigated by Raj Kapoor who recommended him.

Sandeshaya became a popular Sinhala film moving away from South Indian formula and using some aspects of western films like horse riding. Based on historical facts, it had an entertainment value, as well as high profile aspects of cinema.

Sandeshaya was a box office success and gave the producer Gunaratnam his money’s worth. The Cinemas Ltd, normally released 20 copies but due to its success, the opening had 30 copies, and they produced 132 copies over the years. Sandeshaya won a Famous Film Award” at the 1st Sarasaviya Awards in 1964.

However this was the first and the last time these two stalwarts of the Sinhala film industry came together for a film.

While Gunaratnam produced 21 Sinhala films and co-produced first colour film Ran Muthu Duwa, Lester directed 19 Sinhala films and one English film, ‘The God King’ on the life of King Kassyapa.

Unfortunately Kanagasabai Gunaratnam was assassinated by two gunmen on a motorcycle shooting him at very close range on 27th August 1989 at the age of 72 during the 1987–1989 JVP insurrection.

Lester James Peries died on 28th April 2018 at the age of 99 years.

This article is dedicated to the two legends of Sinhala Cinema, Lester James Peries and K. Gunaratnam.

Rohan Abeygunawardena

Writer can be reached at

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