By Arjuna Ranawana –
Tributes for Dr. D. B Nihalsinha will come from far and wide; for he was a true giant in the movie industry, and an influential media person in Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia.
My tribute to him is part professional and part personal.
My first encounter with him was in the mid 1980’s when I was following the Diploma Course in Journalism offered by the University of Colombo. The course was taught by eminent personalities such as Dr. Nihalsingha and Prof J.B Dissanayake.
Until then, as a film buff, I had known him through his work; Welikatara was a particular favorite. His lectures for this course were not about film, but on journalism revealed the experience and in-depth knowledge he had on that subject.
In 1998 I was posted as a foreign correspondent to Kuala Lumpur. Just weeks after I moved there, my head office located in Hong Kong, informed me that they would be sending me a laptop and wanted to know if there was someone who could carry it to KL for me. I asked around and my friend and former Rupavahini colleague Rukmin Wijemanne told me that Nihalsingha and his wife Kalyani were in Hong Kong at the time and they would be able to bring the laptop with them.
I was hesitant to ask him for such a favour, since I hardly knew him. But he obliged.
A couple of days later the man himself turned up at my hotel with the laptop, handed it over and said, “let’s meet later” and disappeared.
After that brief meeting, I was fortunate to be included in a small inner-circle of Nihalsingha’s media friends from Sri Lanka who were working in the Malaysian capital. Every month we would be summoned to meet him at a restaurant of his choice and treated to food and drink. We listened to him as acolytes would – absorbing the pearls of wisdom he imparted. Nihalsingha would drink his one small beer while we ate and drank our fill. A man who observed a strict curfew, he would then drive us home.
As head of one of the most exciting media projects the region has ever known, the satellite cluster channel Astro, Dr. Nihalsingha was the few distinguished Sri Lankans in the city.
Malaysia has a long tradition of bestowing Royal titles on its prominent citizenry. One such title is Dato – akin to the British Knighthood. Given Nihalsingha’s bearing and confidence and also because we deferred to him at all times – we would playfully address him as ”Dato,” and often restaurant staff believed that he truly bore that title.
Being the head of a big time TV operation meant that Nihalsingha had hundreds of channels, including cricket, available on his satellite TV at home. However, Nihalsingha did not believe in watching live cricket on TV; he scoffed at it calling it the “the new Opium of the Masses” advising us to “go out and play” instead.
Despite that he would invite us cricket loving Sri Lankans to his home, cook his legendary Thakkali Isso curry, eat and go off to sleep leaving us to watch the game late into the night.
My third experience with Nihalsingha was when I worked at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. He was a board member and took great interest in the standards the college set in educating young journalists. He mentored and guided me with a firm hand in my role as the Director of the College. He was exacting in his standards, ensuring that students were taught the correct method from taping down cables when out covering news to copy writing and fact finding.
All of us were held to a high standard, and much was demanded of us. It made us that much better professionals.
Even as I carry out my duties today I always think of Nihalsingha and wonder whether my work would stand up to his scrutiny….So Nihal, where ever you are please note that I spell your name the way you want it– with an “a” at the end instead of an “e”.