Reflecting on Tissa Liyanasuriya

Courtesy of Dileepa Perera

Dileepa Perera’s biography of Tissa Liyanasuriya does more than tell a story. Full of sharp insights and historical anecdotes, it places us in a past I wished we grew up in. A product of an urban Sinhalese middle-class, Liyanasuriya lived through some of the country’s headiest years. His hometown in Borella became a centre for the British war effort in the region. With his education temporarily disturbed by World War II, he observed the world around him and took in what he saw. This proved useful for him in later years, as he shifted from his love for literature to films, documentary features, and television serials.

Liyanasuriya became a film director at a critical juncture in the Sri Lankan cinema. For so long dependent on the Indian film industry, it had taken a definitive leap after 1956. With Lester James Peries’s Rekava signalling a watershed in the industry, a whole new generation of directors, writers, and crew members took to the field. This did not, however, mean that they abandoned the commercial mainstream on which the cinema had built its fortunes; on the contrary, commercial producers began taking active part in their ventures, financing their productions and even partnering up with them. Peries had unleashed a revolution, yes, but he had also, inadvertently, breathed life to the mainstream cinema.

The films made during this period epitomised a new vigour. Though hardly artistic in the conventional sense of the term, they echoed a new social consciousness. The Sinhala petty bourgeoisie had once gone in droves to see Rukmani Devi and Eddie Jayamanne, now they savoured new faces and films, with contributions from Sinhalese cultural elites. While Lester Peries’s films, landmarks for their time, continued to win critical acclaim, a new middle of the road cinema sprang up. Such developments reflected the maturing of a Sinhala middle-class, a phenomenon which the 1956 election had laid the groundwork for.

Hailing from the same generation as Sumitra Peries, D. B. Nihalsinghe, Tony Ranasinghe, and Gamini Fonseka, Tissa Liyanasuriya became a pioneer at this juncture. Liyanasuriya’s films are hardly artistic in the way that an Antonioni or a Fellini film is, but they spoke to a new social class in a language that milieu understood very well. Delving into themes of romance, intrigue and adventure, human goodness, and adultery, Liyanasuriya’s films relate a story at the most basic level. A hallmark of the Sinhalese narrative tradition, it is this obsession with plot that makes all three of his films so popular and memorable even now.

Rohana Tissa Liyanasuriya was born in 1936, the eldest or “badapissa” of a family of six boys and one daughter. “My father,” he tells me, “spoke very little and was firm and strict in how he brought us up. My mother, by contrast, was more nondescript.” If not affluent and upper middle class, the Liyanasuriyas were better off than most. They also came face to face with the horrors of the Second World War, although as Tissa recalls, “we didn’t fear it much, not even when Japan bombed the harbour.” It was after this period that his father chose to put him into a school. The school he decided on was St Joseph’s College Maradana.

Coming from a Buddhist background, Liyanasuriya found it difficult to adjust to a Catholic school environment. He remembers St Joseph’s as being “exclusively Christian and English, with just one period for Sinhala and Sinhala literature.” Nevertheless, he made the best of his time there, befriending the likes of Upali Attanayake, Shyamon Jayasinghe, and Sidney Attygalle. “We were the driving force behind the College Sinhala magazine as well as the Sinhala Literary, Drama, and Debating Societies. School authorities paid little attention to these clubs, but our Sinhala teacher, Victor Hapuarachchi, helped us a lot.”

It was at St Joseph’s that Liyanasuriya fell in love with radio drama. Through his efforts he met a man who would become his first figure of destiny, K. A. W. Perera. Liyanasuriya remembers Perera as a dramatist “who had an instinctive feel for dialogues, as different as they were and could be from the stagey dialogues of the Tower Hall tradition.” Perera later wound up as the dialogue writer for Lester Peries’ Rekava, an opening that proved fruitful for Liyanasuriya when, a few years later, he was taken in as an assistant director (alongside Vijaya Abeydeva and Sumitra Gunawardena) onboard Peries’ Sandesaya.

Courtesy of Dileepa Perera

Peries became his second figure of destiny. Liyanasuriya is understandably nostalgic about his memories of the man. “One year working for him was enough, the equivalent of a film course. From Lester I learnt how to select shots and manoeuvre actors, how to get the best out of your team and settle for nothing less. It was certainly difficult, more difficult then than now. But Lester had a flair for detail. Nothing escaped his eye. I grew to like him very much, and in the end, once production wrapped up, he wrote a nice recommendation letter for me. I can never forget that. Along the way we discovered a common link: at St. Joseph’s I had been taught by the formidable Reverend Father Peter Pillai, who had taught Lester at St Peter’s and had tried, unsuccessfully, to get him into medicine.”

Things moved fast thereafter. In 1962 three idiosyncratic auteurs teamed up together and made Ran Muthu Duwa. The first Sinhalese colour film, Ran Muthu Duwa was bankrolled by Serendib Productions. A joint venture of Shesha Palihakkara, Mike Wilson, and Arthur C. Clarke, Serendib had been set up to oversee the making of quality popular films, charting a path for the Sinhala cinema away from its dependence on the Indian cinema. As their first project, Ran Muthu Duwa became a huge box-office hit, partly because of the story and star power (it featured Gamini Fonseka and Joe Abeywickrema), but also because it was shot in colour and featured ground-breaking diving scenes in Trincomalee.

For their second attempt the Serendib trio hired Liyanasuriya. Getawarayo, a film about a teenager from a village searching for his luck in the city, cast Gamini Fonseka in an unlikely role, as a lover who ultimately loses it all. If Ran Muthu Duwa reflected Mike Wilson’s love for diving, Getawarayo echoed his love for boat-racing. In a scene eerily reminiscent of that famous chariot-race from Ben-Hur, the story ends with the hero and the antagonist jostling each other along a lake. Sequences like this didn’t just attract audiences, they also garnered acclaim: at the 1965 Sarasaviya Awards, the film won the award for Best Film.

Serendib’s next venture, which again had Liyanasuriya as director, was Sarawita, a story about a poor but goodhearted betel seller. Featuring Joe Abeywickrema in perhaps one of his finest roles, Sarawita is a morality tale about how goodness ultimately triumphs and evil loses. In the character of the protagonist, the director tends to sentimentalise, especially in his relationship with the boy he fondly adopts as his own son. But as with Ran Muthu Duwa and Getawarayo, the Serendib trio proved that mainstream Sinhala films didn’t have to imitate Indian productions, that they could be shot in the unlikeliest settings in the country and still strike a chord with mass audiences.

Liyanasuriya’s next effort, Punchi Baba, introduced Malini Fonseka to the screen. A few years earlier the dramatist Sumana Aloka Bandara had discovered Fonseka and cast her in a play of his, Akal Wessa. On the lookout for a fresh face, Liyanasuriya and Joe Abeywickrema had spotted her at the Lumbini Theatre. Though his producers had expressed doubts about Malini, both Joe and Tissa had been adamant on casting her. Fortunately for Malini and the history of the Sinhala cinema, the two of them somehow got their way.

Narilatha, a relatively low-key effort, depicted a rather controversial theme: adultery. With a start-studded cast that included Tony Ranasinghe, Anula Karunatilake, and Sandya Kumari, the film depicted life along the railway. It performed rather well at the box-office, though not at the same level as Liyanasuriya’s other films.

By now the man was setting his sights elsewhere: a few years later he moved to the Government Film Unit, where he came under the influence of his third figure of destiny, Paul Zils. A German who had been a favourite of Goebbels, had defected to the US, and had found a home at the Films Division in India, Zils guided Tissa through a series of successful documentaries from 1969 to 1986.

Tissa Liyanasuriya officially retired from the Government Film Unit in 1991. After a series of teleplays and television serials, including an adaptation of W. A. Silva’s Siriyalatha, he retired from directing entirely in the new millennium. In 2008 he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award, the Rana Tisara, at the Sarasaviya Awards. Today the man lives with his family along Cotta Road in Borella. Happy and contented, he ended our little conversation by reminding me that, should be ever return to the cinema someday, “it would be to make films totally different and superior to what I have made until now.”

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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