Versatility was the forte of Gamini Fonseka, Sinhala cinema’s undisputed superstar, who died on Thursday
By D. C. Ranatunga
Gamini Fonseka dominated the Sinhala film scene for at least five decades. He was young. He was handsome. He was smart. Above all, he had talent. He was a brilliant actor. Between 1956 (when he was an 'extra' in 'Rekawa') and 1998 he had acted in 96 films.

From Malini Fonseka to Sangeetha Weeraratne, there is hardly an actress who has not starred with him. And he rarely let the filmgoers down. It was a treat to watch him on screen.

Gamini made his mark in Dr. Lester James Peries' 'Sandeshaya'. He stole the show from Ananda Jayaratne who played a more important role. We enjoyed his films from then on in the 'Mike Wilson/Tissa Liyanasuriya production Ranmuthu Duwa and Getawarayo, Lester's Gamperaliya, M. Mastan's Dheewarayo, Robin Tampoe's Sudo Sudu, Titus Totawatte's Chandiya, K.A.W. Perera's Senasuma Kothanada, Dharma Sri Caldera's Seethala Watura amidst several others within a short span of just six years - 1960 to1966.

And then came his first attempt at direction. Chitra Balasuriya got the late P.K.D. Seneviratne to write a script and picked Gamini to direct the movie Parasathumal. Gamini himself played the lead role with Punya Heendeniya, Anula Karunatilleka and Tony Ranasinghe playing unforgettable roles. Gamini was adjudged best actor at two festivals - Sarasaviya and Swarna Sankha.

When Editor Denzil Peiris decided that the English readers should be made aware of what was going on in the Sinhala theatre and cinema in the mid-1960s, we devoted several columns in the Observer Sunday edition.

Contributing to a column titled 'In Focus', in 1967, I wrote on Gamini's busy schedule: "Four films released in a row and in every one of them he plays the lead. This is the rare achievement of a top actor on the Sinhala screen, Gamini Fonseka. Two of them - Ipadune Ayi and Rena Giraw have already proved to be box office hits and the one to come, Soora Chauraya will certainly draw crowds with the stir caused by the banning of the film by the Censor Board and its subsequent release.

"Gamini is right on top. He has appeared in more than 25 films (in ten years) and acts in no less than five films right now. He is still the most sought after actor. The secret of his success is hard work. He has earned a reputation for being punctual, cooperative and prompt on the sets. His fellow players find him extremely helpful, and the cameramen find it easy to work with him." Awards just came Gamini's way. From the day he was recognized with a merit award for his role in Gamperaliya at the inaugural Sarasaviya Film Festival in 1964, he never looked back. Many an eyebrow was raised when he was adjudged the best actor for his role as Jamis Banda (local version of James Bond who was the rage of the day) in 1968. Mike Wilson had made a Sinhala version of James Bond. He called the film 'Sorungeth Soru'. The panel of judges decided his was the best role that year.

He excelled in whatever role he played.
The role as Willie Abeynayake in 'Nidhanaya' would have contributed in no small measure towards the film being selected the best among the films produced in the first 50 years of Sinhala cinema. In fact, he had played key roles in four of the first ten selected films - Nidhanaya, Gamperaliya, Welikatara and Parasathu Mal.

Sunil Ariyaratne's Sarungale brought him two coveted awards - the Presidential Award and the Sarasaviya Award in 1980. In this film he played the role of a Tamil clerical hand. He was superb in expressing emotion.

There was many an instance when we thought it was silly for a great actor like him to play certain roles. He had a different perspective. "If someone invites me to act in a film, I must give him the best. I am a professional - so it's up to me to make the best out of a role," he said.

Assessing Gamini's role as a film director, Wimal Dissanayake and Ashley Ratnavibhushana wrote in 'Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema': "Gamini Fonseka is one of the most gifted and versatile actors in Sri Lanka. He has been closely associated with the artistic as well as commercial cinema. He directed a number of interesting Sinhalese films. The first was ParasathuMal made in 1965. This film deals with individual desires and their unfulfillment in societies that enforce complex social restraints.

Fonseka displayed a good understanding of the technicalities of filmmaking, although artistically speaking, this film left much to be desired. "We next meet Gamini Fonseka as a filmmaker in the 1980s. By this time he had developed a penchant for making films with a direct political message.

He was concerned to analyse such concepts as freedom, justice, equality, fairplay in a somewhat melodramatic manner. Utumaneni made in 1980 belongs to this category. Sagarayak Meda (1981), Koti Valigaya (1986), Anthima Rathriya (1988) and Nomiyena Minissu (1994) manifest his eagerness to focus on political experiences. Although there is a certain superficial allure to these films, they fail to add up and explore cogently and in depth the contours of the political experiences that they seek to explore."

Starting as a camera assistant, Gamini came a long way - actor, film director, lyric writer - before moving into politics and becoming the Deputy Speaker and later Governor of the North-Eastern province. He quietly faded away from the cinema. Yet he was not forgotten. There were ceremonies to felicitate him even a few months back.

He was the subject of research - as Nuwan Nayanajith Kumara did recently. He was loved by his fans. And he will be remembered for a long, long time as the 'actor of our era'.

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