20 May, 2022


My Experience With Dr. D. B Nihalsingha

By Arjuna Ranawana

Arjuna Ranawana

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.

Dr. D. B Nihalsinhe

Dr. D. B Nihalsinhe

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”.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    I had the pleasure of working with Nihalsinhe for nearly ten years in developing the highly successful Wilson Baapa TV commercial series for promoting Dulux Pentalite Emulsion Paint.

    Knowing his creative talents, I went direct to Nihalsinhe to develop Pentalite commercials. After giving him the brief, I gave him the full control of developing the Commercial. WILSON BAAPA was his creation, visiting the home of his niece (featuring Radha de Mel – his choice) with a Kiri Muttiya, carried by Wilson Baapa,in the traditional manner. The series of commercials helped me to build the Pentalite emulsion brand share to exceed sixty percent and maintain this high brand share until my retirement.

    His creative talent and attention to details was exceptional. In the 1990’s he handed over his successful business to his talented brother and focused his attention to producing successful films and Tele-dramas and excelled as a producer.

    D B Nihalsinghe is a son of D B Dhanapala, an equally talented Editor and showed that genes and the upbringing helps to develop exceptionally creative people.

  • 5

    It should also be noted that he is biracial – his mother a Jaffna Tamil, and accomplished in her own right with the founding of the teacher training college in Sri Lanka. She has also published many books on Sri Lankan culture.

    Let the love story between his Tamil mother and the Sinhala father at Shantiniketan in the early 20th century be a reminder to all those racists that we are in deed blood brothers and sisters, despite ethnic labels we carry.

    The accomplishments of both his parents and his own are testament for the ability of all ethnicities living in Sri Lanka to contribute to the betterment of our society.

  • 2

    Sinhala Buddhist,
    You have said it all so briefly ,yet so eloquently.There is indeed hope for a sunnier ,happier Sri Lanka ahead.May good triumph over evil and the light of truth dispel darkness.

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