9 December, 2021


Sumudu Sudu Mutu Thalawe: I Came To Worship Siri Gunasinghe & Found Dhammi

By Renuka Satchithananthan (Mendis)

Renuka Satchithananthan (Mendis)

Siri Gunasinghe passed away this week. I have never met the man but knew him through his work Sath Samudura. Denawake Hamine, Cyril Wickramage. They inhabited my conscience through the years. If not for horrible sites like You Tube that flout copyright rules or un-rules these memories would die with folks like me.

It’s not every day, while living in a Western metropolis, albeit one that is arguably the most mixed culturally given its state as a beach of sorts where people from everywhere wash up like dead cats, rusty tokens or debris, that you go – let me go look for an old Lester James Peiris film on You Tube or Siri Gunasinghe’s work. The rough and tumble, the silences and rusty noises of living in a purportedly Western metropolis on stolen lands soaked in blood and lies and the day to day grind and survival keep us away from the truths resident in these hidden works although they are out on full view on You Tube. Except for Sath Samudura.

Sath Samudura is not available on You Tube. I remember vignettes of the film well from the etchings on my heart. I was but a child and my parents did not miss a Lester James film in those days except this was not him. We all went. Often for the late film – the childhood beginnings of my late night inhabitations. The fearsome ocean where brave men plunge on sea craft made of wood or coconut trunks. So strong and wiry like the men themselves. Even the women. In search of fish to make a small living on the edge of a precipice of abject poverty. Waiting to be gobbled by the monster that is the sea. The waiting, the storms the hungers and wild madnesses of the ocean that is a devil and a giver of bounty. Lives tied to the sea and the stories of those lives tended like torn nets on the beach under the burning sun or the moon’s light.

Prof. Siri Gunasinghe

Mahagama Sekara‘s words and music in Amaradeva’s voice. Speaking and painting the truths in our hearts. Truths created by a culture fed to us through the cinema and music so resonant of the sensibilities many of us grew under. The desperation of the poor that many looked the other way from. These are some of the things I remember but mostly what Denawake Hamine told us. What Cyril Wickramage portrayed. I was hungry last night to see them again. Except for song clips on You Tube, there’s no film. This is not a manifesto for incursion into copyright laws (or not) however a cry out for the hunger of a few hours in time at Elphinstone cinema in the sixties.

Scene from Sath Samudura. Director, Siri Gunasinghe

I have this bad habit of emoting memories when you hear when someone in the arts has died. More rarely in politics. Regretting why we did not value the person and his/her works while they were still on earth. What point in going on when they’re dead I said in arrogant cynicism. But isn’t that the whole point that their works will live for ever. Death a time of celebration of what one single human life can achieve. Isn’t that it?

First seen when about ten or eleven at the Elphinstone, if my memory serves right. Then and now. Here I am sitting at home on an off day in early summer/ late Spring in Toronto with bits of the film reel flashing across my brain and heart in celluloid. Isn’t that the point? Especially in cinema. The unsung cinema of Ceylon then, Sri Lanka now.

Not having found Sath Samudura, and a little dejected but this mad heart yearns hungry for the truths.  Yesterday. It was a rough day of facing truths. Living here in Toronto. Lies told about diversity while the power is still held by, you know, those in power. Hard to watch some days. Then I come home to Siri Gunasinghe’s death and Sath Samudura and what it taught screaming at me, pulling at my clothes, grabbing my knees, wailing for attention like a crying child.

Except for one paid site which I was in no mood to share my banking information with, I could not find the film. Nowhere. A friend promised to locate it for me and in the interim the heart had to be fed last night. Gamperaliya was before my time but not Golu Hadawatha. While I stand to be corrected, Siri Gunasinghe created only one film but his other life works are out there for all to see. My interest is cinema. I often say that line – The Cinema is my Temple. My parents fed me that much.

Punya Heendeniya in Gamperaliya. Director: Lester James Peiris

What to do. While I’ve watched You Tube clips of Gamperaliya with Punya Heendeniya in full Southern Sinhala female regalia and the very European sensibility (let us not get started on the influence of French new wave on the likes of Peiris and Jayasena) of Henry Jayasena I had never got around to see the full film. Last night I did. The pot vendor weaving his way through a dangerous rocky seaside terrain can be a metaphor for a lot of our lives, here, there and everywhere. But at the end of it I was still hungry.

What I remember of Golu Hadawatha is not what I saw last night. My memory is of Anula Karunathilake and Wickrema Bogoda holding hands and walking through a rubber tree grove possibly formed more by the song, Golu Hadawatha (sung by Indrani Wijebandara and Sisira Senaratne) which was not part of the film. Time tends to meld things together. The film Ransalu also dampened things evidently. Sometimes faultily.  This is where I digress from Siri Gunasinghe’s work to the impact of film stars like Anula and Punya on Sinhala femininity.

Sandhya Kumari was bad. Anula and Punya were good. In my girlhood and youth these were important markers of who was a good girl and who wasn’t. For a lot of us before the age of the internet, globalization and the purportedly free market, Ceylon and then later Sri Lanka was insulated from the rest of the world. Even from India in the sense of the cinema one might argue.

Anula Karunathilake and Wikrema Bogoda in Golu Hadawatha, in one of its many classroom scenes.

It was this womanhood that we, and I can only speak for myself, the Royal we, were programmed to embrace and later struggle with in places like Toronto. Not Hollywood or even old Bombay Talkies. The Dhammi I embraced was heavily coloured by what was filtered through to me as a girl. That Dhammi who I had carried with me across the globe is not the Dhammi in the film.

Last night I came to You Tube to cry for and to celebrate Siri Gunasinghe but I am here to celebrate Dhammi. In Golu Hadawatha the story of Dhammi only comes to us after the fact. Long after Sugath had turned to the bottle and isolation in what seems like rough lodgings somewhere in Colombo. Sugath and Dhammi our Romeo and Juliet. The story of Dhammi as it unfolds during school days is the story seen mostly through Sugath and the cinemagoer. A love story. It is after you hear Dhammi’s side of the story after the love story is seemingly long long dead one realizes this.

Tissa in Gamperaliya is the same Wickrema Bogoda who grows up to be Sugath and there are echoes of Tissa in him. But that Dhammi’s romance with Sugath during school days is an act of agency where she circumvents what family rules and Sinhala mores had put in place for her; had entirely evaded me all my life. Dhammi transcends all the rules entirely. While the erotic is definitely hidden the romance is culminated in several scenes where they hold hands under the rubber trees; and on the oruwa on the beach. The fondest for cinemagoers is the veralu scene; never to be forgotten. Dhammi in her role flowers in full womanhood. Her sparkling anger a result of her caging by the mores of the time, and still are, which come into full display when she tells her story; as a woman, later.

Anula Karunathilake and Wikrema Bogoda in Golu Hadawatha, where Dhammi tells her story to Sugath. She goes looking for him. This is at Sugath’s place. A scene that would have broken every rule for married or unmarried women in that time in 1969 Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Even Nanda in Gamperaliya has parallels that are equally strong. I still fear the womanhood Vasanthi Chathurani of Peiris’s Ganga Addara displays is not what I saw in Dhammi. Especially Dhammi. The Dhammi that is radiant like the Poya full moon, the white uniform displaying purity, but most of all an agent of her own fate for a magical time while still in school where she takes her fate in her own hands.

How many school love stories do we know of over time growing up in Ceylon and later Sri Lanka which crashed on the metaphorical rocks of a Colombo breakwater when the realities of life and parental and social rules crashed down on our daughters and sons? Why. Colombo’s old laneways, cafes and matinee cinema screenings are our silent witnesses. Not to mention Galle Face Green.

Dhammi. A sparkling light of the womanhood and girlhood that we were not allowed to have. A beacon across time and place. Forever.

We are all Dhammis, except for the agency part. We were mostly cowards or fumbled in the darkness trapped and fighting with false bridges and chasms built for us. The threats and reality of violence for transgressors. Some of us won and many lost. But Dhammi’s story continues because we leave Sugath and Dhammi mid-life if not earlier. Should we have a Golu Hadawatha II?

But Regi Siriwardena is dead. And where is Willie Blake? Can someone please ask Lester James Peiris to give me a call. Let us leave Vasanthi Chathurani and Sandhya Kumari for another day.

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Latest comments

  • 7

    Ms . Satchithananthan
    Great piece of writing which brought back a flood of memories. Thanks .

  • 8

    Now most of the suburban upper middle class parents don’t have to worry about so called ‘unsuitable’ affairs. They have their kid (only one ) fed with self centered advice from childhood, they choose a partner with whom they can start a family beginning with a Big wedding, albeit a moneyed one. They get divorced later when they realize that money won’t make love. Somewhere in the piece they migrate. After that they are in heaver RIP. Parents get a skype call Or a Visa right in time for a Birth of a child. Lotus eaters everywhere.

  • 7

    Cyril Wickremage was my Sinhala Literature teacher at a school in Gampaha. That is immediately after his epic acting in Sath Samudura. He used to give me money to buy him a bottle of soda and a packet of “Four Aces” cigarette. This was a daily routine. As young students we were all following him – his hair style, his brand of cigarette etc blindly as he was loved by all of us. I know that he is old as I am also an old man. I wish him good health and happiness at all times. I would love to have his contact details.

    • 0

      … Sugath thawamath adarei.

  • 0

    Thank you ever so much for your generous comments. Mr. Silva, your Four Aces and soda bottle story is a pure gem. It so happens Cyril Wickremage taught with my mother at a school in Kotahena. Probably in the 70s. He was very reserved but in a very cool and artistic way. I was too young and very dumb to understand these things at the time.

    Some of you will thoroughly enjoy this conversation between him and Gemunu Jayantha. Based on this programme Cyril Wickremage lives in Mt. Lavinia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBfct50WSSs


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