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Versatility was the forte of Gamini Fonseka, Sinhala cinema’s undisputed superstar, who died on Thursday
By D. C. Ranatunga - Sunday Times Sep 3 2004

Gamini Fonseka dominated the Sinhala film scene for at least five decades. He was young. He was handsome. He was smart. Above all, he had talent. He was a brilliant actor. Between 1956 (when he was an 'extra' in 'Rekawa') and 1998 he had acted in 96 films.

From Malini Fonseka to Sangeetha Weeraratne, there is hardly an actress who has not starred with him. And he rarely let the filmgoers down. It was a treat to watch him on screen.

Gamini made his mark in Dr. Lester James Peries' 'Sandeshaya'. He stole the show from Ananda Jayaratne who played a more important role. We enjoyed his films from then on in the 'Mike Wilson/Tissa Liyanasuriya production Ranmuthu Duwa and Getawarayo, Lester's Gamperaliya, M. Mastan's Dheewarayo, Robin Tampoe's Sudo Sudu, Titus Totawatte's Chandiya, K.A.W. Perera's Senasuma Kothanada, Dharma Sri Caldera's Seethala Watura amidst several others within a short span of just six years - 1960 to1966.

And then came his first attempt at direction. Chitra Balasuriya got the late P.K.D. Seneviratne to write a script and picked Gamini to direct the movie Parasathumal. Gamini himself played the lead role with Punya Heendeniya, Anula Karunatilleka and Tony Ranasinghe playing unforgettable roles. Gamini was adjudged best actor at two festivals - Sarasaviya and Swarna Sankha.

When Editor Denzil Peiris decided that the English readers should be made aware of what was going on in the Sinhala theatre and cinema in the mid-1960s, we devoted several columns in the Observer Sunday edition.

Contributing to a column titled 'In Focus', in 1967, I wrote on Gamini's busy schedule: "Four films released in a row and in every one of them he plays the lead. This is the rare achievement of a top actor on the Sinhala screen, Gamini Fonseka. Two of them - Ipadune Ayi and Rena Giraw have already proved to be box office hits and the one to come, Soora Chauraya will certainly draw crowds with the stir caused by the banning of the film by the Censor Board and its subsequent release.

"Gamini is right on top. He has appeared in more than 25 films (in ten years) and acts in no less than five films right now. He is still the most sought after actor. The secret of his success is hard work. He has earned a reputation for being punctual, cooperative and prompt on the sets. His fellow players find him extremely helpful, and the cameramen find it easy to work with him." Awards just came Gamini's way. From the day he was recognized with a merit award for his role in Gamperaliya at the inaugural Sarasaviya Film Festival in 1964, he never looked back. Many an eyebrow was raised when he was adjudged the best actor for his role as Jamis Banda (local version of James Bond who was the rage of the day) in 1968. Mike Wilson had made a Sinhala version of James Bond. He called the film 'Sorungeth Soru'. The panel of judges decided his was the best role that year.

He excelled in whatever role he played.
The role as Willie Abeynayake in 'Nidhanaya' would have contributed in no small measure towards the film being selected the best among the films produced in the first 50 years of Sinhala cinema. In fact, he had played key roles in four of the first ten selected films - Nidhanaya, Gamperaliya, Welikatara and Parasathu Mal.

Sunil Ariyaratne's Sarungale brought him two coveted awards - the Presidential Award and the Sarasaviya Award in 1980. In this film he played the role of a Tamil clerical hand. He was superb in expressing emotion.

There was many an instance when we thought it was silly for a great actor like him to play certain roles. He had a different perspective. "If someone invites me to act in a film, I must give him the best. I am a professional - so it's up to me to make the best out of a role," he said.

Assessing Gamini's role as a film director, Wimal Dissanayake and Ashley Ratnavibhushana wrote in 'Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema': "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 ParasathuMal made in 1965. This film deals with individual desires and their unfulfillment in societies that enforce complex social restraints.

Fonseka displayed a good understanding of the technicalities of filmmaking, although artistically speaking, this film left much to be desired. "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, fairplay 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."

Starting as a camera assistant, Gamini came a long way - actor, film director, lyric writer - before moving into politics and becoming the Deputy Speaker and later Governor of the North-Eastern province. He quietly faded away from the cinema. Yet he was not forgotten. There were ceremonies to felicitate him even a few months back.

He was the subject of research - as Nuwan Nayanajith Kumara did recently. He was loved by his fans. And he will be remembered for a long, long time as the 'actor of our era'.

The expiry of a legend

Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake - Sunday Observer Oct 10 2004

The death of Gamini Fonseka on September 30 closes the legendary phase of the Sinhala cinema. Legendary for the reason that he more than anybody else forged and shaped almost singlehandedly the stellar quality of the infant Sinhala cinema struggling to free itself of its South Indian umbilical cord. He brought to Sinhala acting the heroic approach and his death after a relatively long withdrawal from the Sinhala cinema is a sad reminder that the heroic age too is dead. We live in more mundane times, which do not require larger than life heroes.

The contribution made by Gamini Fonseka to the Sinhala film industry can only be measured if we place it against the times. The Sinhala cinema was at best a pale carbon copy of Tamil films and although the contribution made by South Indian film directors and musicians to the early Sinhala films was technically impressive and placed these films on a sound technical footing this did not lead to the flowering of an indigenous cinema.

Gamini Fonseka was perhaps fortunate that from the early day of his career he was able to associate closely with Lester James Peries who chartered the new direction of the indigenous cinema. Gamini was also fortunate that with his education at S.Thomas' College Mt. Lavinia and his immersion in the bilingual culture of the nineteen fifties he was more than well equipped to take on the challenges awaiting the new Sinhala cinema.

Sembuge Shelton Gamini Fonseka was born to a middle class family and was bought up at Station Road, Dehiwela, where his neighbours were the late minister C. V. Gooneratne and the late Amitha Abeysekera, the humorist and caricaturist.

He was taught Sinhala at school by Arisen Ahubudu who later went on to compose the popular songs in the film 'Sandesaya' where Gamini himself made his first major appearance as Tammita, the rebel fighting the Portuguese. Although Ananda Jayaratne and Shane Gunaratne had the better roles, Gamini's appearance was noted and remarked on by audiences and was a sign of things to come.

Gamini Fonseka also gained invaluable experience in the technical aspects of film making by associating with David Lean's team, which made the film 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' on location at Kitulgala. This experience in all aspects of film making was to stand him in good stead when he went on to make his own films beginning with 'Parasathumal' and if cinema folklore is to be believed being the inspiration behind many other films done by other directors.

The measure of Gamini Fonseka's monumental role in the Sinhala film industry was that he was able to straddle the two worlds of the commercial and the artistic cinema. He was equally capable of playing the role of the popular film hero as well as Jinadasa in 'Gamperaliya' and Willy Abeynayake in 'Nidhanaya' which called for quite contrary approaches.

He took the Sinhala cinema by storm with his roles in 'Ranmuthuduwa' and 'Getawarayo' both co-directed by Mike Wilson and Tissa Liyanasuriya. Hitherto the Sinhala film hero had been a flabby, goody-goody figure cast in a South India mould.

Gamini Fonseka however shattered this mould with his clean-cut good looks and pugnacious approach to life which was in perfect consonance with the emerging society of the nineteen sixties when new emancipatory social forces had been unleashed. Among his other memorable roles were those of Bonny Mahattaya, the aristocratic philanderer in his own 'Parasathumal' and that of the police inspector in D. B. Nihalsinghe's 'Welikathara' opposite Joe Abeywickrema who gave another memorable performance.

As a film director Gamini Fonseka showed a penchant for tackling social and political themes, which was in contrast to his first film 'Parasathumal". In 'Uthumaneni he questioned the inequities of the judicial system and in 'Sagarayak Meda' the corrosive affects of unbridle political power, playing the two roles of the over-bearing cabinet minister and the doctor victimized by him with equal effect. In 'Kotiwaligaya' and 'Nomiyana Minissu' perhaps his least successful film, he probed the complexities of the contemporary ethnic conflict. The attitudes upheld by his films might have been somewhat simplistic but there was no questioning the power and the sincerity of his convictions.

Perhaps Gamini Fonseka's least successful role was as an MP and deputy speaker of the 1988 Parliament when he entered politics in the midst of the turbulence of the second JVP insurrection. As deputy to Speaker M. H. Mohammed, he presided over several stormy sessions of Parliament, where he once clashed with Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle during the latter's maiden speech and on another occasion summoned a posse of policemen to the well of the house much against the opposition of SLFP MPs such as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse who had just returned to Parliament after the break in 1977.

Gamini Fonseka was in every way a larger-than-life figure. History was kind to him and provided him with the background and opportunity to make a epochal contribution to the Sinhala film industry. He established the dignity of the acting profession and offered a new image of the Sinhala film hero.

He was the idol and heartthrob of millions of fans at the height of the Sinhala cinema's most popular age. His was the kind of life of which dreams are made and his death leaves a vast vacancy in every reach of our society.