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2. Histories of Space, Spaces of History
III/Interconnecting histories

Blurring boundaries: early Sinhala cinema as another Adam’s Bridge between Ceylon and India (1948-1968)

Vilasnee TAMPOE-HAUTIN

Résumés

Cette réflexion propose d’examiner la part qui revient au septième art dans les rapprochements politiques et culturels entre deux espaces de l’océan Indien, l’Inde et le Sri Lanka. Je m’efforcerai d’éclairer les divers réseaux, constellations et activités qui se sont produits de part et d’autre du Détroit de Palk. De quelle manière le cinéma était-il dès les années 1930 un terrain de convergences faisant écho à ce que Marshall MacLuhan qualifierait en 1962 de “village global” ? Cela dit, alors que d’un côté, le cinéma a effacé les frontières traditionnelles et renforcé la mobilité d’idées et d’individus à travers les limites établies par le pouvoir colonial, on constate le renversement de cette situation dès les années 1950, période qui suit l’accession à l’indépendance de l’Inde et du Sri Lanka. C’est alors que les mouvements ethno-centristes touchent de plein fouet le domaine culturel, dont le cinéma. Ainsi nous aborderons le phénomène cinématographique comme reflet des divisions ethniques au Sri Lanka. Au coeur de ce débat se trouve les revendications par les “patriotes culturels” cinghalo-bouddhistes pour une culture cinématographique reflétant l’imaginaire du people cinghalais, fondé sur la prémisse que les Marchands de Rêve indiens et anglo-saxons exerçaient un impérialisme économique et culturel par le biais du cinéma. Enfin, il s’agit de présenter la manière dont le sentiment de menace, réel ou imaginé, vécu par le peuple cinghalais mène à une politique protectionniste pro-cinghalaise mise en place par l’état Sri Lankais dès 1960, preuve de l’efficacité du cinéma comme vecteur des malaises socio-ethniques qui ne cessent d’accabler ce petit Etat insulaire de l’océan Indien.

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1. Introduction: the two cultural and political spatialities of Sri Lanka

  • 1 The term “Sri Lanka” has been the official name of the island since 1972. While the term “Sri Lanka (...)
  • 2 Adam’s Bridge is a chain of islands about 50 kilometres long, linking the south-eastern shores of T (...)
  • 3 Sri Lanka’s population is composed of a number of ethnic groups (self-defined according to the iden (...)

1While it is true that India and Sri Lanka, (formerly Ceylon)1 have a common cultural and social heritage dating back to pre-colonial times and beyond, the two countries have likewise faced each other across a gaping chasm on many grounds, pointing to the impossibility for inhabitants of Asian societies to be united in politics, language and culture. Within the complex historical framework of Indo-Sri Lankan cultural and political relations, oscillating between amity and suspicion, this paper seeks to probe the question of cinema as a cultural and political articulation, between these two spatialities during the period corresponding to decolonization and post-independence (1940-1960). I will address the question of how and why cinema succeeded in joining up colonial, political and geographical entities, and enhancing social economic and cultural flows across borders. How did cinema become a cultural Adam’s Bridge2 across these two countries, blurring conventional frontiers, overriding caste, class, religion and language criteria? This paper will trace colonial and post-colonial itineraries of cinema professionals, and argue that cinema became a treading and trading ground for inhabitants of India on the one hand, and what was then Ceylon on the other, despite what Eric Meyer qualifies as the traditional anti-Indian stance that has always characterized Sri Lanka/India relations. If, however, nascent cinema coalesced these spaces into one whole, one cannot in this paper circumvent the impact of such inter-regional and cross-cultural collaborations on Sri Lankan society over the given period. In fact, while the establishment of cinema followed a smooth course during the colonial era with the Indo-Ceylonese spatialities becoming one, the opposite is true of the period that followed independence in 1948. The 1950s paved the way for an interesting, if unstable, decade in the history of Sri Lanka when nationalist movements for the supremacy of the Sinhala people, encompassing politics but also culture, would rapidly spill over to the cinema industry.3

2Indeed while uniting citizens from Europe, the US, India and Sri Lanka around the assembly line of filmmaking, from production to distribution and exhibition, India’s flamboyant and upcoming cinema industry also raised fears of a threat – either real or hypothetical – to the Sinhala language, religion and culture. Ethno-nationalist movements of the post-independent period, in a predictable move, attempted to put a brake on this inter-connectivity.

3The way the film industry articulates Sri Lankan and Indian ethnicities will therefore be a relevant issue in this paper, in particular the sense of endangerment to Sinhala culture that gripped a part of the island’s majority. How did the rural or lower-middle class Ceylonese react to the domination of the animated image by individuals who, despite different cultural backgrounds, hailed from the upper classes? At the core of the discussion will be the call made in the 1950s by Sinhala “cultural patriots” for a more authentic Sinhala-speaking cinema, based on the premise that India, the United States and Great Britain were exercising economic control and cultural imperialism over the island’s population through cinema, which was in reality the consequence of a wider socio-cultural and political movement to safeguard the hegemony of the Sinhala people.

4Finally, I will argue that the imposition of a pro-Sinhala legal framework for cinema and the official sustenance afforded by the Sri Lankan State to ethnic Sinhalese directors to develop a film culture more articulate of the Sinhala people’s traditional way of life refer back to how the film industry brings into sharp focus the socio-ethnic and economic malaises that have incessantly borne upon Sri Lanka’s cultural history.

2. Early cinema in British Ceylon: constellations and inter-connectivity

  • 4 N. Wickramasinghe’s Metallic Modern (2013) offers a fascinating look at how the sewing machine tran (...)
  • 5 Marshall MacLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy The Making of Typographic Man (1962).

5When the Lumière Brothers and Thomas Alva Edison breathed life into a static image, they rounded off an array of inventions that had sparked off the technological revolution in the mid-19th century, with machines and tools, such as the photograph, the bicycle, the revolver and the electric bulb, some of which made their way to the colonies, and transformed the lives of ordinary people (Chanan 19). They narrowed existing spatialities, compressed time and brought down barriers, propelling both colonizer and colonized into the “modern world” of glass and metal.4 Discoveries in photographic techniques acted as a springboard for cinema. Photography was part of what Michel Foucault described as a “frenzy for the image” which had already gripped the 19th century (Leutrat 12). A century of expression on wood, metal, canvas, paper or glass thus gave way to photography in whose wake came the moving image. As “modern” machines came out of the workshops of the fin de siècle geniuses, the camera and projector, in the hands of Thomas Edison, Warwick Majors and Charles Urban to name but a few, became an international phenomenon. Riding on the waves of colonization, animators of the moving image from Asian and Western societies worked in close concert, to promote the new art form. Cinema pioneers were in fact inhabitants of what Marshall MacLuhan would later term as a “global village”, when he referred to information technology5. At a time when internet, e-mails and DVDs belonged to the realm of science fiction, cinema represented at once an avant-garde technology and a modern means of communication, an art, an industry, spurring “constellations and inter-connectivity” at colonial, trans-national and trans-regional levels. From ambulant “reels on wheels” to the elegant “theatres” with names resonating imperial grandeur (Majestic, Empire, Regal…) that sprang like mushrooms across the British colonial space, cinema became the great symbol of “togetherness”, uniting not only Indians and Ceylonese but also Europeans and Americans.

6Any discussion on the history and evolution cinema in Sri Lanka must be articulated in relation to the ambiguous relationship that she has entertained with India, oscillating between conviviality and conflict. Cinema development in Sri Lanka would no doubt have taken a different turn from the end of the 19th century had certain individuals hailing from North India not poured their energy and their money into expanding the film business in the Indian Ocean area, including Sri Lanka. It is also useful to recall here the ease with which the filmic mode took root in India from the early 20th century, after the Lumière Brothers’ historic first screening at the Watson’s Hotel in Bombay in July 1896, barely 6 months after the Parisian exhibition.

7As argued by Joel Fargès, a perfect symbiosis occurred between Hinduism and the animated image, cinema scoring an astounding victory on the sub-continent as a new art form, a means of entertainment for the masses, and more significantly as a source of income. India equally benefitted from Britain’s rich colonial domain comprising Burma, Ceylon, Malaysia and Singapore, which helped resourceful entrepreneurs to build a vast empire of cinema production and distribution. As elsewhere in Asia, poverty, geographical remoteness, and high costs of transportation encouraged the establishment of mobile cinema in Ceylon. Andreas Van Starrex, a Ceylonese of Dutch extraction, made pioneering incursions into ambulant cinema in Ceylon during the 1930s, after purchasing Ceylon’s first ever projector from a resident European. Van Starrex followed in the steps of Manek Sethna and his Touring Cinema Company which initiated mobile cinema in British India at the beginning of the century, and Swamikannu Vincent, an engineer with the Indian railways who set up a roaming entertainment business around 1905 in South India (Thoraval 5-18). By 1930, both sedentary and nomadic cinema in India had grown into a gigantic industry reaching as far as Germany, Great Britain and the United States.

Illustration 1: Reels on wheels

Illustration 1: Reels on wheels

1920: a rare photograph of Van Starrex’s tent cinema in the vanni (Jungle area in north-central Ceylon)

Private collection (author)

8The three main sectors of early cinema in British Ceylon thus owe their existence to the energies deployed by the mercantile communities of North India; film importation, distribution and the construction of cinema halls being part of their activities. Contrary to India, there were no locally produced films in Ceylon at this time, but Indian entrepreneurs included the island in their international distribution network.

3. The first generation of Ceylonese filmmakers

  • 6 Statistics testify to the rapidity with which Madan’s company reached the top: 50 halls in 1920, 85 (...)
  • 7 These include the Criterion Hall in Colombo which he renamed the Olympia.
  • 8 For more on Noorbhai, see Wright (2008).

9One of the early pillars of cinema infrastructure in the colony was Parsi magnate from Bombay, Jamshedji Framjee Madan (1856-1923).6 J.F. Madan, having inherited a love of theatre by virtue of his Parsi origins, is the most striking example of how individuals with a spirit of adventure and business acumen compressed space and accelerated time. After setting up a temporary tent cinema in Calcutta in 1917, Madan founded the eponymous film company, Madan Theatres Ltd., which extended its activities to Colombo and Rangoon. In 1926, the Elphinstone cinema was built by Madan, which still operates today. Between 1920 and 1940, J.F. Madan and later his son, J.J. Madan, contributed to the Americanization of the cinema market in the Indian Ocean, at the same time creating a demand for Indian melodramas inspired by the American Broadway productions (Tampoe-Hautin 2011a 55-59). A Ceylonese of Indian origin, T.A.G. Noorbhai, hailing from the Borah community living in Ceylon, entered film production and distribution during the mid-1920s, building a number of cinema venues in the island.7 Noorbhai, unlike J.F. Madan, inaugurated the era of film production in Ceylon with Royal Adventure/ Rajakeeya Wickrama (1925), the first silent film to be shot in the island using local and Indian resources (Dissanayake and Ratnavibhushana 14). Noorbhai was followed by S. Nayagam (1907-1979), another Indian businessman who had settled in Ceylon. Nayagam further pushed the frontiers of Ceylon’s cinema beyond her shores by producing the first Sinhala “talkie”, Broken Promise/Kaduwunu Poronduwa (1947) shot in South India, again using local cast and mixed crew. Both T.A.G. Noorbhai and S. Nayagam were part of the Indian diasporas in the region, belonging to families that had migrated to Ceylon during the 19th century from India while retaining their original Indian identities. As most cinema exploiters of that time, these pioneers were merchants from India. They are illustrative of not only multiple ethnic appurtenances, but also vocations, engaging in trans-regional business activities, like shipping, textile manufacturing, import-export, of which cinema. Living between India and Ceylon, they emblematize the frontier-free colonial space that existed during the British Raj, devoid of customs and visa formalities. As Indo-Sri Lankan British subjects, straddling numerous geographical and cultural entities, they render difficult and hazardous any attempt at precise ethnic or cultural identification.8

  • 9 Confirming the conquest of Ceylonese audiences by the Tamil film were Y. Rao’s Chinthamani (1937) N (...)
  • 10 A category of the urban proletariat, the Colombo port workers, who were bilingual in both Sinhala a (...)
  • 11 Madras has maintained the highest production rate of any film centre in India, due to its position (...)

10The rise of Madras during the 1930s as the third centre of gravity of Indian cinema after Bombay and Calcutta would also have a profound impact on Ceylon’s nascent film industry, making for more cinema constellations. By the 1940s, India’s flamboyant Tamil-language cinema was reaping the benefits of a well-established reputation, having captured the imagination of all segments of the Ceylonese population, including the conservative Buddhist Sinhalese.9 The period between the two World Wars had witnessed rapid urbanization in Ceylon, leading to a change in the needs of entertainment. Traditional Sinhala theatre (kolams, nadagam, nurth) only barely managed to retain its popularity as Ceylon’s working classes exhibited an increasing interest in cinema, even if this signified watching films shot in foreign languages.10 It therefore came as no surprise that from the 1940s, the first generation of Ceylonese filmmakers should turn to South India for their productions, by now a major centre of film production on the sub-continent.11 Between 1945 and 1965, in the wake of the first Sinhala talkies, several collaborative projects brought together producers, directors, actors and technicians from both sides of the Palk Straits.

Illustration 2

Illustration 2

1962. Sound Recording by Ceylonese crew in South India

Private collection (author)

Illustration 2bis

Illustration 2bis

1963. Ceylonese film crew on location

Private collection (author)

  • 12 16 Gardiner’s success has to be viewed within the framework of the socio-economic progress accompli (...)

11After 1950, local studios were built by the Ceylonese film companies geared to meet the filming needs of the island. The year 1948, when Ceylon gained independence, coincided with the rise of a number of Ceylon Tamils to cinema prominence, notably W.M.S. Tampoe (1905-1986) and Chittampalam A. Gardiner (1899-1960)12.

Illustration 3

Illustration 3

Film pioneer Sir Chittampalam A. Gardiner

Private collection (author)

  • 13 By the end of WWII, Gardiner’s company established a studio in Madras, known as the “Madras Unit”, (...)

12Laying the first stones in the edifice of Ceylon’s “local” film industry, Tampoe began an import-export film partnership with South Indian cinema magnate T.S. Sundaram, while Gardiner acquired Noorbhai’s cinema business in 1928 and established the first film company in Ceylon, Ceylon Theatres Ltd.13 In what might seem a contradiction, such partnerships enabled Ceylonese of Tamil and Muslim origins to join forces with South Indians, based on the strength of their cultural and linguistic affinities, maintain the existing links with British and U.S. film companies, but also take a significant step towards cultural autonomy in the wake of political independence gained on the 4th of February 1948.

  • 14 Gemini Studios, Golden Studios, Vahini and Neptune Studios, Barani Studios, The Central, Pakshi Raj (...)

13Replete with songs, dances, and fights, excessive theatricality and predictable scenarios, early Sinhala productions were hybrid, heavily imprinted with the characteristics of the South Indian melodrama and Parsi theatre (nurthi), pointing not only to the vital links between theatre and cinema, but also to the cultural affinities that bound the inhabitants of Sri Lanka and India. S. Nayagam and Sinhala dramatist B.A.W Jayamanne are credited with having shot the first Sinhala film, Kadawunu Poronduwa/Broken Promise (Jan. 1947) in Madras (now Chennai), a screen version of Jayamanne’s Parsi-inspired play bearing the same name. Containing numerous songs, recorded for the first time in Ceylon on Paralaphone discs with more than 100,000 copies sold, Broken Promise kept other promises so to speak, with four months of continuous screening. B.A.W Jayamanne was director of The Minerva Dramatic Group, a theatrical troupe performing Parsi-inspired Sinhala plays. While Parsee performances had drawn hundreds of Sinhalese audiences throughout the island, the advent of cinema had encouraged Minerva members to branch out into the world of film, with the assistance of Tamil and Indian financiers. From 1948 onwards, more Sinhala films were produced in various studios of South India.14 Gardiner’s Asokamala (April 1947), the second Sinhala talkie, was shot in Coimbatore by a mixed Indo-Ceylonese team.

Illustration 4

Illustration 4

1947 Asokamala, Ceylon’s second Sinhala “talkie”

Private collection (author)

  • 15 Based on a Hindi film Bari Bahen (1949), Sujatha was shot in the exuberant theatrical style typical (...)
  • 16 Shanthi Kumar, Joseph Seneviratne, B.A.W. Jayamanne, Rukmani Devi and Prem Moraes were frequent vis (...)
  • 17 These were usually family dramas with the song-and-dance spectacle, fights and a happy end (Conrich (...)

14Interestingly, Kannadasan and Karunanidhi, celebrated leaders of Tamil nationalist movements (and later Heads of Tamil Nadu state governments) wrote screenplays for Sinhala films of this formative phase, including the box-office hit, Sujatha (1953).15 South Indian filmmaker and studio owner T. R. Sundaram, of the Modern Theatres Ltd., inspired some of the first generation of Ceylonese directors. Resolutely in favour of the scintillating entertainer, Sundaram catered to the insatiable appetite for movies exhibited by India’s vast multilingual population by shooting multiple versions of the same film in different Indian languages…including Sinhala. Such initiatives quickly elicited objections from the Sinhala literati that Sinhala cinema had become hostage to South India, and reduced to being a part of India’s already existing wide gamut of films. Notwithstanding, India continued to be the model of reference and led a number of aspiring Ceylonese, of both Sinhala and Tamil origin, to travel to Tamil Nadu to gain training in cinema techniques.16 As Ceylon Tamils producing Sinhala films, W. M. S. Tampoe (1905-1986) and his son Rabindra Coomarasamy Tampoe (1930-2000) likewise illustrate cross-cultural cinema collaborations across the Palk Straits. Non-Sinhala pioneers of Sri Lanka’s film industry promoted only a Sinhala-speaking cinema, or at least, their genre of Sinhala cinema, i.e. the commercial feature entertainer, shot according to a standard formula.17

4. Cinema and nationalist politics in Sri Lanka: “indigenizing” the film industry

15The burgeoning film industry in Ceylon included the import and exhibition of Tamil and Hindi films in the island. India’s diversity of languages and cultures had consecrated the practice of dialogue substitution. The 1940s witnessed a peak in multi-lingual versions of the same film being offered to India’s massive cinephile population. Dubbing and sub-titling of Indian films into Sinhalese again compressed the cultural and linguistic distances not only within the Indian market, but also brought the Ceylonese closer to their gigantic neighbour. W.M.S. Tampoe distributed Indian films in colonial Ceylon some of which were rendered in their dubbed Sinhala versions: Manaprayatnaya (1947); the first Indian film dubbed from Telugu to Sinhala, Laila Majnun (Ratnavibhushana and Mansoor 130); and Naga Mohini (1958), shown to Ceylonese audiences in Sinhala as Naga Champa (1958). Tampoe had been quick to see the potential that lay in this technology for the Sinhala-speaking component of the Ceylonese population. These practices, while connecting individuals and ideas were evidently strategies to increase audience numbers and, as such, financial gains. As we shall discuss later, the 1960s will witness a complete reversal of such trends with the imposition of a prohibitive protectionist legal framework to protect Sinhalese, the language of Buddhism.

Illustration 5

Illustration 5

Poster of the first Indian film dubbed into Sinhala by W.M.S Tampoe: subtitling and dialogue substitution and increased proximity

Private collection (author)

16Robin Tampoe’s works likewise take on some significance when one considers that he is one of Sri Lanka’s rare Tamil directors and producers who made films for the island’s Sinhala-speaking audiences. Tampoe took lessons in the Sinhala language to bridge the communications gap with his Sinhala associates and employees, his trilingualism and exposure to both British and American film cultures later proving to be an asset in his career.

Illustration 6

Illustration 6

1962. Between East and West. Sri Lankan film pioneers attired in coat and tie (R. Tampoe, A. Page and M Hulugalle) flanking the Minister of Culture, Hon. Maithripala Senanayake, dressed in the traditional ariya suit, at one of Tampoe’s film premieres

Private collection (author)

17It was precisely the presumed “foreignness” of Sinhala films as well as the proliferation of commercial films imported by private companies from Europe, the United States and India that led to demands for radical changes to be made within the industry. Indeed, by independence, Ceylon had become a flourishing and captive market for Indian and American film companies. The cinema industry had brought to the fore, in the eyes of Sinhala cultural patriots, if not the general public, the commercial dynamism of a class of citizens who were perceived as making astute use of the remnant colonial network, as well as their own exposure to the West, to make money on the backs of the Sinhala majority. They had allegedly taken over from the colonial “oppressors” and were continuing to uphold foreign values and cultures through film. Indeed, the newly established local film companies applied Western models of reference, such as the studio and star systems, and worked in partnership with the U.S. Majors and British film companies. Cultural patriots equally condemned the private film companies for offering cheap commercial film fare to the Sinhala public, hindering the development of “quality cinema” in the country (“Unrestricted importation has perverted taste”).

18Irony would then have it that while the Tamils and Muslims of Ceylon congratulated themselves on having succeeded in “indigenizing” the film industry, the Sinhalese saw in this transfer a mere status quo, considering the Tamil and Muslim ethnic minorities as “outsiders”. Yet, the Ceylon Tamils and South Indians working in the cinema industry were far from forming a cohesive and united community (Tampoe-Hautin 2008). Robin Tampoe’s decision to start his own cinema business pointed to internal dissensions that existed even within the Tamil community of cinema entrepreneurs, giving the lie to the generally accepted notion amongst ethnic Sinhalese that there existed a Ceylonese and South Indian Tamil bloc working against the Sinhala people, retarding the growth of a “true” Sinhala cinema. However, it may be pointed out that non-Sinhala pioneers of Sinhala cinema had at least provided the Sinhala majority with a cinema of their own.

19Between 1947 and 1948, the country passed from colony to nation, headed by D.S. Senanayake’s pro-western government, leaning towards a mimetic culture influenced by Europe (de Silva). This ruling elite would quickly alienate itself from the other social categories of citizens, including the increasingly vocal, if landless, rural-based Sinhala Buddhists. By the mid-1950s however, the safeguarding of the rights of the Sinhala people became a major issue, with a campaign headed by the Buddhist clergy, Sinhala schoolteachers, ayurvedic doctors and peasants (Savarimuththu 17). The year 1954, corresponding to the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s illumination, prefigured a social fracture, as the gap widened between provincial Sinhala Buddhists and urban-dwelling, Westernized Ceylonese of diverse ethnic origins, more inclined to western ways of living and modes of thinking. In 1956, the election of S.W.R.D Bandaranayake as Prime Minister would accelerate the movement to “indigenize” Sinhala cinema which would also find sustenance in the xenophobic discourse elaborated by a group of film journalists, spearheaded by Jayavilal Vilegoda (Tampoe-Hautin 81). As argued by J. Uyangoda in his study of indigenous Sinhala cinema, they would decide on what was “true” cinema, signifying a cinema that projects the imaginary of the Sinhala “race”, and frames the identity of the new nation (37-43). Generic choices made by the Ceylonese directors thus belied other more deep-seated issues. While the majority of Ceylonese directors were non-traditionalist and continued to adhere to the entertainer, whose dazzle and sparkle were associated with Indian culture, a number of Sinhala directors drew from neo-realism and the documentary format, perceiving in these two genres a grammar of cinema more adapted to bringing Sinhala culture to the silver screen (Peries). Further, patriotic directors set themselves the goal of obtaining the sponsorship of the State, considered as capable of providing sustenance to what was an expensive art and trade, and of curbing foreign participation in the sector.

20By the early 1960s, cinema was further drawn into the orbit of nationalist politics with the rise to power of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranayake, after the assassination of her husband, S.W.R.D Bandaranayake. The 1961 law banning the production of Sinhala films in South India was further extended to dubbing and subtitling Sinhala films in Indian languages (Ceylon Daily News 24 May, 3 June, 21 June 1961). These prohibitions were made in a bid to encourage the use of local resources, and lessen, if not eradicate, South Indian influence in the sector. Thus barriers came up on what was once an open space.

  • 18 Its findings were published in 1965 in a seminal document: “Report of the Commission of Inquiry int (...)

21A conference organized the same year looked into what was perceived as a profound malaise that had beset the Ceylonese cinema industry. It was followed by the appointment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the cinema industry, under the auspices of the Governor-General, Sir William Gopallawa.18 The commission, on the basis of more than three hundred interviews carried out over a period of two years, concluded that the local film industry was suffering from over-commercialization, internationalization as well as ethnic discrimination. The commissioners recommended State intervention as a solution to end what was termed as the Tamil “tripoly” of the three branches of cinema (Wickramasinghe 7).

22This period also witnessed the rise to excellence of a number of nationalist filmmakers of Sinhala origin: D.B.Nihalsingha, Tissa Abeyesekara, Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries, aspiring to go into realist cinema. During the mid-1960s, the government also ceased to renew the resident visas of South Indian directors and technicians living in Ceylon, based on the argument that the local film industry could now largely be sustained by the available local skills (“TRP’s Out”).

5. Conclusion

  • 19 Nihalsingha was film director and former chairman of the State Film Corporation and played a vital (...)

23Despite the protectionist rules and recommendations, the film industry in Ceylon continued to thrive well into the 1970s, founded on the strength of alliances established previously between Tamil-owned private film companies and their Indian and US counterparts. Sinhala and Tamil films were distributed through a circuit of more than three hundred auditoriums scattered throughout the island. Only in 1972 would the cinema industry be brought under government control with the creation of the State Film Corporation. Notwithstanding, as indicated by its chairman D.B. Nihalsingha, the nationalization of the Sri Lankan film industry enjoyed only a partial success, the 1980s witnessing the return of Sri Lankan film to the private sector and open to the world (Nihalsingha).19 Tamil, Hindi and Sinhala films shot according to formula continued to maintain their attraction for the Ceylonese public. The triumph of Indian films retitled in Sinhala – Manushwathiya and Naga Champa and a multitude of other entertainers which broke records at the box-office – bear ample testimony to the strength of India’s popular film culture which had endeared it even to the monolingual Sinhala public.

24The final paradox in the study of cinema in Ceylon is the high percentage of cross-cultural frequentation. Statistics reveal that the entertainment potential of a film, whatever language or culture it conveyed, carries more weight for the viewer than the intellectual, religious and ideological barriers put up by conservative opponents of popular cinema (Uyangoda; Gunawardena 103-109). This remains a reality even today.

25Finally, despite having spurred the post-independent move backwards to introversion and entrenchment, Sri Lanka’s forerunners of picture animation and commercialization, hailing from a diversity of cultures, would also have been the perfect “connecters” of space, throwing bridges across cultural, political, colonial and ideological entities. This they achieved through century-long efforts combining sufficient ingenuity, with a flair for business, to make cinema one of the most ubiquitous, economically viable and popular modes of expression, subsistence and entertainment, not to say an engaging object of academic inquiry.

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Notes

1 The term “Sri Lanka” has been the official name of the island since 1972. While the term “Sri Lanka” relocates the debate within the current context, “Ceylon” and “Ceylonese” are more consonant with both colonial and post-independence times. They offer a finer translation of the atmosphere and spirit of the period under reference. In this paper, I have decided to use “Ceylon” and “Ceylonese” for the colonial and post-colonial period, up to 1972, and “Sri Lanka” and “Sri Lankan” to refer to the subsequent periods, as well as for general references.

2 Adam’s Bridge is a chain of islands about 50 kilometres long, linking the south-eastern shores of Tamil Nadu, India and the north-western coast of Sri Lanka. This island bridge is a remnant of a former land connection between the two countries.

3 Sri Lanka’s population is composed of a number of ethnic groups (self-defined according to the identity markers of language and religion) of which the Sinhalese (around 70%) and the Tamils (18%) form the two major communities. To these one must add two smaller minority groups, Muslims and Burghers (Sinhalese of Dutch and Portuguese descent). The questions raised in this paper need to be framed within this demographical configuration, with the added knowledge that the Sinhalese and the Tamils have been locked in battle since the 1950s. The Sri Lankan cinema industry too reflects the country’s deeply scarred socio-political and ethnic landscape. Film production in Sri Lanka has nevertheless been surprisingly prolific from the post-colonial period, considering that this is a nation that has been constantly challenged by many years of political instability with a national cinema that has existed within the shadow of the Bollywood movie industry. More surprising is the fact that Sri Lanka has made more films than most other Commonwealth nations and, yet, it has remained relatively unstudied outside of the country itself.

4 N. Wickramasinghe’s Metallic Modern (2013) offers a fascinating look at how the sewing machine transformed the lives of people in India and Ceylon.

5 Marshall MacLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy The Making of Typographic Man (1962).

6 Statistics testify to the rapidity with which Madan’s company reached the top: 50 halls in 1920, 85 in 1927 and 126 in 1931 (Fargès; Bose 42-66).

7 These include the Criterion Hall in Colombo which he renamed the Olympia.

8 For more on Noorbhai, see Wright (2008).

9 Confirming the conquest of Ceylonese audiences by the Tamil film were Y. Rao’s Chinthamani (1937) Nandakumar and Savitri released in 1939 and S.S.Vasan’s Chandralekha (1948). The first Tamil film to be a complete success for one whole year in Ceylon was A. S. A. Samy’s Velaikari (1949). Again, between 1960 and 1975, the films of Shivaji Ganeshan and M. G. R were box office successes in Ceylon (Mendis 25).

10 A category of the urban proletariat, the Colombo port workers, who were bilingual in both Sinhala and Tamil, represented a significant part of the population of the 1940s cinema-goers.

11 Madras has maintained the highest production rate of any film centre in India, due to its position as home, not only to the Tamil but also the Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada film industries.

12 16 Gardiner’s success has to be viewed within the framework of the socio-economic progress accomplished by Ceylon’s minorities in the mid-20th century, encouraged by the colonial regime (“Knight Pleads for English”).

13 By the end of WWII, Gardiner’s company established a studio in Madras, known as the “Madras Unit”, destined for Ceylonese production teams to shoot films (“Captains of Industry: (7) Sir Chittampalam Gardiner”).

14 Gemini Studios, Golden Studios, Vahini and Neptune Studios, Barani Studios, The Central, Pakshi Raja and Citidal. Only one Sinhala film, Daiva Yogaya (1959) directed by S. K. Oja, was made in North India.

15 Based on a Hindi film Bari Bahen (1949), Sujatha was shot in the exuberant theatrical style typical of the Indian feature entertainer, for which the Ceylonese public displayed an increasing interest. Sada Sulang/Whirlwind (1955) was another box-office hit of that time.

16 Shanthi Kumar, Joseph Seneviratne, B.A.W. Jayamanne, Rukmani Devi and Prem Moraes were frequent visitors to India or sojourned there for long periods. These examples once again indicate the attraction for Indian cultures displayed by Ceylonese, regardless of their ethnic origins.

17 These were usually family dramas with the song-and-dance spectacle, fights and a happy end (Conrich and Tincknell).

18 Its findings were published in 1965 in a seminal document: “Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Film Industry in Ceylon”.

19 Nihalsingha was film director and former chairman of the State Film Corporation and played a vital role in the structuring of the Sri Lankan film industry from 1965 until his demise in 2016.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Illustration 1: Reels on wheels
Légende 1920: a rare photograph of Van Starrex’s tent cinema in the vanni (Jungle area in north-central Ceylon)
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5862/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 460k
Titre Illustration 2
Légende 1962. Sound Recording by Ceylonese crew in South India
Crédits Private collection (author)
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5862/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 828k
Titre Illustration 2bis
Légende 1963. Ceylonese film crew on location
Crédits Private collection (author)
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5862/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 4,1M
Titre Illustration 3
Légende Film pioneer Sir Chittampalam A. Gardiner
Crédits Private collection (author)
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5862/img-4.png
Fichier image/png, 1,1M
Titre Illustration 4
Légende 1947 Asokamala, Ceylon’s second Sinhala “talkie”
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5862/img-5.png
Fichier image/png, 288k
Titre Illustration 5
Légende Poster of the first Indian film dubbed into Sinhala by W.M.S Tampoe: subtitling and dialogue substitution and increased proximity
Crédits Private collection (author)
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5862/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,3M
Titre Illustration 6
Légende 1962. Between East and West. Sri Lankan film pioneers attired in coat and tie (R. Tampoe, A. Page and M Hulugalle) flanking the Minister of Culture, Hon. Maithripala Senanayake, dressed in the traditional ariya suit, at one of Tampoe’s film premieres
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5862/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 284k
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Référence électronique

Vilasnee TAMPOE-HAUTIN, « Blurring boundaries: early Sinhala cinema as another Adam’s Bridge between Ceylon and India (1948-1968) », E-rea [En ligne], 14.2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2017, consulté le 21 juillet 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/5862 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.5862

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Auteur

Vilasnee TAMPOE-HAUTIN

Université de La Réunion
Vilasnee@gmail.com
Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin is Associate Professor at the University of La Réunion. Her research focuses primarily on the cultural and colonial history of Sri Lanka in relation to questions of identity, with a special focus on cinema, its genesis and evolution during the mid to late British colonial periods. She also investigates the socio-cultural and political movements of XIXth century Ceylon. Her recent publications include the monography Ethnicity, Politics and Cinema in Sri Lanka (1900-1967). From global to gama, casting a celluloid mould from Sinhala cinema (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Tower Hall Institute Publications, 2015).

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