Gamini combined shades of Marlon Brando, Yul Brynner and Paul Newman in his acting. His primary inspiration however was Brando. Though affected by Brando it must be said to Gamini’s credit that he evolved his own ‘fusion’ style and distinctive method
He has acted opposite many actresses but the one with whose chemistry Gamini hit it off best was Malani Fonseka. Two others who paired well with Gamini were Jeevaranee Kurukulasooriya and Veena Jayakody. According to Gamini, Sandhya Kumari was the most beautiful actress he interacted with while Malani was the best. The best actor according to Gamini was Joe Abeywickrema – not himself
Gamini became endeared to me during childhood mainly because he was an action hero on screen. Initially the main attraction was the fight scenes. Gamini brought a refreshing naturalness to those scenes as opposed to the artificiality in South Indian ones. It was later that one learned to appreciate the finer points of his acting. A major reason for the naturalism in Gamini’s fighting scenes was due to the nature of the man himself…
Gamini Fonseka was the uncrowned king of Sinhala cinema for nearly three decades.He was the first and arguably the sole super star of Sinhala cinema. Notwithstanding the brilliant creators of our times who have raised the standards of Sinhala cinema, one is unable to imagine or visualize Sinhala cinema without thinking of Gamini Fonseka. Sinhala cinema is certainly not Gamini Fonseka but without him there is no Sinhala cinema either. His death on September 30, 2004 marked an end of an epoch!
In keeping with the practice of devoting at least one article in the beginning of each month to a cinema-related topic, this column focuses on Gamini Fonseka this week. As I have stated on more than one occasion, Sri Lankan Superstar Gamini Fonseka remains my favourite actor on the Sinhala silver screen since child hood. My all-time favourite Sinhala film hero was- and forever will be – Gamini Fonseka. It is in this context therefore that I write this article to commemorate his seventeenth death anniversary.
Writing about Gamini is always a pleasant and delightful exercise for me. I have often done so before and will be revisiting some of my earlier writings to enhance this article. He was a man whom I loved as an actor, appreciated as a director, admired as a politician and above all respected as a decent human being. Gamini, the actor on the Sinhala silver screen became an important part of life in childhood.
Belonging to a middle class Tamil family then living in Colombo, I was drawn into the world of films at an early age. The staple diet of this film fascination was naturally Tamil oriented. But I was indeed fortunate that despite my Tamilness, I was equally attracted to Sinhala movies from an early age. I consider myself lucky to have savoured Tamil, English, Sinhala and also Hindi movies from a very young age.Gamini Fonseka became a permanent part of my childhood movie memories. He remains there forever.
‘Ran Muthu Duwa’
Gamini entered my life when I was about eight years old. The place he did so was a movie theatre in Maradana bearing his own name Gamini. ‘Ran Muthu Duwa’ was my first Sinhala movie. The family went to see it for two reasons. One reason, because it was the first Sinhala techni-colour film and the other, to see the famed underwater scenes made possible by Mike Wilson. Gamini along with Jeevarani, Shane Gooneratne and Joe Abeywickrema starred in it. Gamini’s acting, dancing and fighting captivated me. The song sequence ‘Pipee Pipee Renu Natana’ remains fresh in memory even now.
I was well and truly hooked after seeing Gamini for the first time on screen. I never ever recovered. There was hardly a Gamini Fonseka film that I missed in the sixties of the last century. This was due to a woman Mary Caroline who was then a domestic helper at our home. She stayed with the family for about seven years. Mary was an avid Gamini fan. So I would accompany her regularly to Sinhala films in general and Gamini Fonseka films in particular. This was how I managed to see so many of his films in my childhood.
Gamini became endeared to me during childhood mainly because he was an action hero on screen. Initially the main attraction was the fight scenes. Gamini brought a refreshing naturalness to those scenes as opposed to the artificiality in South Indian ones. It was later that one learned to appreciate the finer points of his acting. A major reason for the naturalism in Gamini’s fighting scenes was due to the nature of the man himself. He was a fighter both orthodox and unorthodox. He often got into brawls but always for a good cause.
One such incident was at Embilipitiya Circuit bungalow when the caretaker and his cronies in an intoxicated state picked a fight with the film crew on location there. Gamini pitched in with flying fists and proved that his macho image was not confined to celluloid alone. He then moved the entire crew at his own expense to Tissamaharama.
Among the many movies of Gamini was Titus Totawatte’s ‘Chandiya’ in 1965. It was a milestone in Sinhala moviedom and Gamini’s career. This was perhaps the first anti-hero role of Sinhala cinema. Gamini breathed and lived the part of a tough guy. Titus had a sequel ‘Chutte’. Titus Thotawatte who made ‘Chandiya’ and ‘Chutte’ with Gamini was later working at Rupavahini. I used to run into him often those days at a restaurant in Bambalapitiya. He would recount many stories concerning Gamini to me as I listened with rapt attention.
Gamini acting as ‘Chandiya’ – meaning tough guy – was in a way an instance of art imitating life because Gamini was in every way a ‘Chandiya’ in real life. Thomians of yesteryear speak volumes about his martial prowess during school days. The benchmark of his fighting prowess however was the ‘historic’ encounter with Dehiwala’s ‘strongman’ of yore – Karthelis.
Clash with Strongman Karthelis
The clash with Karthelis had originated with Gamini’s father William Fonseka known as Willie. A friend of Gamini was knocked down while crossing the road by Karthelis who used to drive a taxi in those days. Fortunately he sustained no injuries. Karthelis who was notorious for his rash driving had verbally abused the victim in raw filth. The man complained about this incident to Gamini’s father Willie Fonseka, who was highly respected in the area. Willie had accosted Karthelis and chided the Dehiwala strong man in public over his deplorable conduct.
Later in the day Karthelis with a gang of 10 thugs arrived in two taxis at Willie’s house and the men had swords. Willie’s brothers Nelson and Garmoyle and cousin Fred, (my old schoolmate and journalistic colleague the late Prasad Gunewardene’s father) who were in the house at that time also joined in the fight.
Gamini was then eating in the kitchen. Hearing the commotion he came running. Clad in sarong and clogs, Gamini slipped and fell in his haste. Five of the thugs held him down and tried to hack Gamini with the swords. Fortunately Willie and the others came to Gamini’s rescue and seized the swords. Karthelis and his goons fled, leaving the swords behind. They were displayed as trophies in the Fonseka household for years.
Gamini himself was taken to Durdans Hospital and treated for his injuries. No complaints were made to the Police. Gamini vowed that he would teach Karthelis a lesson and challenged him to a “man to man” fight. Karthelis never accepted the challenge. Years later, Gamini was driving along Galle Road when he saw Karthelis standing near the Wellawatte-Dehiwala Bridge. Gamini got down from his vehicle and went up to Karthelis. Then began the historic fight; reminiscent of ASP Randeniya vs Goring Mudalali in ‘WeliKathara’.
Gamini hammered Karthelis mercilessly in the one-on-one fight duel. The Dehiwala strongman was chased across the Galle Road from one side to another and back by Gamini who pummeled Karthelis blue, black and blue.
Gamini then went away telling Karthelis that he was ready for a return fight “any day, anywhere, anytime”. Karthelis was hospitalized after the fight. He never took up Gamini’s challenge. This was the beginning of the end for the Dehiwala strongman who simply faded away after the incident.
S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia
Sembuge Gamini Shelton Fonseka was born in Dehiwela on March 21, 1936 as the third child of William and Daisy Fonseka. After initial schooling at a Presbyterian institution he went to S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia.
After finishing secondary school, the “tough” Gamini had first wanted to be a Policeman. He had applied for a sub-inspector post and was called up for an interview. His mother Daisy pleaded with him not to join the Police. Gamini then turned to what was his second love then – cinema. Interestingly enough the man who became one of the finest and popular actors on screen did not want a career in acting then. He wanted to be a cinematographer and a film director. Gamini had tried to get a chance with many film producers but met with little luck. It was at this juncture that the multi-talented Premnath Moraes helped him out
Recognizing Gamini’s innate talent and appreciating his enthusiasm, Premnath recommended him to Lester James Peiris. Premnath described Gamini as an old Thomian and the kind of person needed by the film industry. “He is mad about films and wants to be a cameraman,” wrote Moraes. Responding positively to Premnath’s recommendation, Lester took Gamini on as a camera assistant to ace cinematographer Willie Blake. Lester’s maiden feature film ‘Rekava’ was being filmed then.
Lester James Pieris
It was Lester James Pieris who gave Gamini his first break in movies as an actor through ‘Rekava’. Gamini showed his face for the first time on screen in a scene in the film. He was working as a camera cum production assistant for Lester. It was Lester who made Gamini an assistant director for his second film ‘Sandesaya,’ in which he also played the second lead to Ananda Jayaratne. Three of Gamini Fonseka’s memorable character portrayals on screen were as Jinadasa, Willie Abeynayake and Saviman Kabalana in the films ‘Gamperaliya,’ ‘Nidhanaya’ and ‘Yuganthaya’ respectively. All three were directed by Lester. Gamini’s first attempt at directing was ‘Parasathumal’ in which Lester played a behind the scenes role as an adviser and guide.
Gamini’s first big break in acting came with ‘Daiwa Yogaya’ in 1959 where he played secondary role. Senadheera Kuruppu and Rukmani Devi were in the lead roles. Then came Lester’s ‘Sandesaya’ where nominally Gamini played second fiddle to Ananda Jayaratna but stole the show from him with a stellar performance. It was around this time that films like ‘AdataWediya Heta Hondai,’ ‘Ranmuthuduwa,’ ‘Getawarayo’ and ‘Dheevarayo’ exploded on the screen and established Gamini as a box office draw. However he proved that he was not a melodramatic actor-singing, dancing and fighting-alone by making his mark as a character actor in Lester’s ‘Gamperaliya’ that won the Golden Peacock in New Delhi. Once again Gamini was the ‘third’ to Henry Jayasena and Punya Heendeniya but gave a performance par excellence as Jinadasa.
James Bond – Jamis Banda
Gamini reached the peak of his popularity in the late sixties and early seventies as romantic action hero. When Sean Connery won over the western world as Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Mike Wilson cashed in on the ‘007’ craze with a Sri Lankan version. Enter our own man with a license to kill – Jamis Banda. Who else other than Gamini could do justice to the role in ‘Sorungeth Soru’?
There were other popular roles too with Sri Lankan versions of the famous Tamil ‘Vallavan’ film produced in Tamil Nadu by Ramasundaram of Modern Studios. Gamini was the mainstay of the ‘Sooraya’ film series in Sinhala. ‘Soorayangath Sooraya’ ‘Edath Sooraya Adath Sooraya,’ ‘Sooraya Soorayamai’ and‘Hatharadenaama Soorayo.’
Other noteworthy films where his histrionic skills were strikingly displayed were ‘Getawarayo,’ ‘Hulawali,’ ‘Oba Dutu Daa,’ ‘Sanasuma Kothanada,’ ‘WeliKathara,’ ‘Sana Keliya,’ ‘Deviyane Oba Kohedha?’ and ‘Sarungale’. His performances in films directed by him were all fabulous. Gamini combined shades of Marlon Brando, Yul Brynner and Paul Newman in his acting. His primary inspiration however was Brando. Though affected by Brando it must be said to Gamini’s credit that he evolved his own ‘fusion’ style and distinctive method.
There have been several actor-directors who failed when directing themselves. It was a case of either underplaying or overacting. In Sinhala cinema Gamini was one man whose acting did not falter when directing. Starting from ‘Parasathumal’ to others like ‘Uthumaneni,’ ‘Sagarayak Medha,’ ‘Koti Waligaya,’ ‘Nomiyena Minissu,’ etc., Gamini played his roles remarkably in those films. At the same time he stamped his mark as director.
Tamil clerk Nadarajah in ‘Sarungale’
Gamini gave an astounding performance, acting as a Tamil in Sunil Ariyaratne’s ‘Sarungale’. He played Nadarajah, the Jaffna Tamil clerk in a story that highlighted both the anti-Tamil communal violence as well as the caste contradictions among Tamils. Among places that ‘Sarungale’ was filmed in was Karaveddy, my mother’s ancestral village. The Tamil parts of the movie were filmed entirely in Karaveddy. Well-known broadcaster and writer Yoga Balachandran who is also from Karaveddy wrote the Tamil dialogue for the film and also coached Gamini on his Tamil dialogue delivery. His diction was near perfect to the extent of even quoting a verse from ‘Thirukkural’ (Anbitkum Undo Adaikkum thaal-Aarvalar punkaneer poosal tharum).
Gamini himself was very proud of his role in that movie. Once in a conversation before the film’s release he told me personally “any Sinhalese man who sees this film will never lay hands on a Tamil again”. Alas! That was not to be and not many years later came Black July 1983. But one thing that must be emphasized in the case of Gamini Fonseka is that he was a man with absolutely no trace of communalism in him. I have had only about four or five conversations with him including an interview for the ‘Virakesari’ in 1978.Those conversations and testimonies of persons who knew him well convinced me of his bona fides in this respect.
A notable feature of Sri Lankan film heritage – both Sinhala and Tamil – is the multi-ethnic diversity of the industry. Sinhalese, Tamils Sri Lankan and Indian, Muslims, Malays and Burghers have all contributed to this. The contribution of Tamils to the Sinhala film industry is massive. Gamini acknowledged and appreciated this immense contribution by the minority communities to Sinhala cinema. He was not afraid to state this publicly whenever the occasion arose.
An unforgettable experience etched in memory is my first interaction with Gamini as a journalist in 1978. His accessibility, simplicity, geniality and sincerity made a huge impression on me. What happened then was this.
Sri Lankan Tamil films had a “renaissance” during the UF govt of Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1970 – 77. Importing of Indian Tamil films were restricted. So more local films were produced. Things changed with the JR Jayewardene-led UNP Govt of 1977.When the UNP Govt liberalised the economy in 1977, there were many Indo – Lanka co -productions in cinema. But these co-productions ultimately crushed the nascent Sri Lankan Tamil film industry.
A journalist colleague on the “Virakesari” Anton Edward and I realized that these joint ventures would ultimately destroy our local Tamil cinema and tried to start a campaign through the newspaper against it when the film “Pilot Premnath” starring Sivaji Ganesan and Malani Fonseka was being filmed in Sri Lanka. Both of us were only 24 years old then in 1978 and our campaign was ridiculed by most of the other seniors in the newspaper.
We went to see Gamini Fonseka and asked for his support. He spoke to us for hours and gave an interview supportive of our stance. I can never forget the endearing way in which he treated us two “podiyans” (Young fellows) and discussed the issue in depth. Gamini also took up the matter with Ranasinghe Premadasa who was Prime Minister then. Unfortunately Gamini had to go to UK shortly thereafter and was away from the action, but with his assistance our campaign gathered momentum.
Meanwhile the pro – “Pilot Premnath” lobby got in touch with CWC leader S. Thondaman (snr) and other prominent Indian Tamil leaders. The Indian High commission also stepped in. The “Virakesari” management told us to stop the campaign. Thondaman who knew us both personally requested us directly to call the campaign off as it was creating bitter, anti – Indian feelings. So reluctantly we called it off. Subsequently we were proved right, but it was too late for Sri Lankan Tamil films. With the 1983 July riots, life changed for Tamils in Sri Lanka. So many things were lost. The Tamil film industry was totally affected. However I remain grateful for Gamini’s support and solidarity then.
108 films and one teledrama
In an illustrious career spanning almost five decades Gamini Fonseka acted in 108 films and one teledrama. He played the lead role in 89 films and a supportive actor role in 19 movies. Gamini directed 10 and produced two films. He has also written lyrics and stories for a few films. The only teledrama Gamini acted in was ‘Sudu Saha Kalu’ directed by D.B. Nihalsinghe. Gamini acted as ‘Kalu Mahathaya’ in the teledrama.
He has acted opposite many actresses but the one with whose chemistry Gamini hit it off best was Malani Fonseka. Two others who paired well with Gamini were Jeevaranee Kurukulasooriya and Veena Jayakody.
According to Gamini, Sandhya Kumari was the most beautiful actress he interacted with while Malani was the best. The best actor according to Gamini was Joe Abeywickrema – not himself. Gamini also had immense respect for Tony Ranasinghe as the finest character actor. The best director who brought out the best in Gamini as director was Lester and Gamini himself.
Artistically Appreciated and Commercially Valued
I remain to this day a firm Sinhala film an aficionado not only of quality films but also of those masala movies. Gamini straddled both these artistic and commercial cinematic worlds with ease. He was both an “arty” actor of powerful serious movies as well as a “melodramatic” star of popular cinema too. Gamini was artistically appreciated and commercially valued. He made his mark as both actor and director. The life and times of Superstar Gamini Fonseka remain inextricably intertwined with the evolution and growth of Sinhala cinema.
D .B. S. Jeyaraj