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Punya, at 80!


Punya Heendeniya and Henry Jayasena in a scene from Gamperaliya

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Punya Heendeniya has just turned 80! It is hard to believe that; it feels as if it was just yesterday that she was dominating the silver screen. May be because of her timeless performances that she remains fresh in our memories. It was at a chance meeting in Amaravati, the well-known Buddhist Monastery, at the eastern end of the Chiltern Hills in South East England, I discovered that Punya has reached this milestone.

We decided to visit Amaravati on a Monday morning, avoiding the usual weekend crowds, and started early, to ensure that we would be there in time for the lunch-time dana but, unfortunately, life is full of uncertainties. Having to overcome, not one, but two traffic-jams we were delayed over an hour on the roads. When we reached Amaravati, to our great disappointment, we found that the monks had already finished the dana. Laden with guilt, we crept slowly to the kitchen area, served ourselves some food and started eating in a corner, while looking round to see whether there were any friendly faces. What we saw were mostly Thai faces, as there was a meditation programme in Thai, on at the time. A short while later, to my pleasant surprise, my friend and relation Milroy appeared from nowhere, and said "How nice to see you Upul. We are here because Punya turned 80 last week". All I could say was "What?"

Milroy De Silva Nanayakkara, a devoted fan of Punya and a young doctor then, snatched her away from Sinhala Cinema at the peak of her career, by marrying Punya in 1968. "Mirigama Mihiraviya", as she was referred to fondly by the media, embarked on a new journey which ended up in London, through Consolidates Copper Mines of Zambia, where Milroy worked as the Chief Medical Officer. It was a journey that produced two brilliant children and five grandchildren. Their son, Anupama, is a Consultant Gastroenterologist and daughter, Purnami, a Consultant in Diabetes and Endocrinology, are helping to deliver excellent care to the British public through the National Health Service. It was no easy journey; having to educate two children in British Universities, as external students paying huge fees, while working in Zambia, was expensive business, over-stretching their finances. In the UK, Milroy ended up doing Psychiatry, retiring as a Consultant Psychiatrist some time ago.

The moment Punya joined us in Amaravati, she invited us, in the traditional hospitable Sinhala manner ‘for a cup of tea’, at their apartment in North London, 15 miles away; an invitation we could not refuse. We were glad we accepted, as a day that started with frustrations, turned out to be a brilliant one. On top of the wonderful camaraderie and catching-up, we were treated to ‘Kokis’ and ‘Kiri Dosi’ made by Punya, who excels in the kitchen department too. In fact, whenever I make ‘Vambotu-Moju’ I think of her, as I learned to cook it by watching Punya. That was a long time ago, when they lived in Grimsby and I stayed a night with them prior to a job interview. We were chatting in the kitchen while Punya was cooking and remember very well that she did not join us for dinner till she meticulously cleaned the kitchen bright.

As we were leaving their apartment, we noticed a photograph adorning the wall; Punya as the unmistakable ‘Nanda’, her best-known role in ‘Gamperaliya’. It was not a photograph, after all, and turned out to be a beautiful pencil sketch. Milroy told us that the day he went to work in Balangoda Hospital, he noticed a beautiful pencil sketch of SWRD, hanging on the wall. Taken aback by the creativity, Milroy searched for the artist and found it to be a local artist, B G Gunadasa, who opted to do a pencil sketch of Punya’s Nanda. Punya, displaying her empathy for a fellow artist, told us "He refused to take anything but we gave him a few hundred Rupees. What a talent? How rich he would have been, had he been here!"

Punya was born in picturesque Mirigama, fifth in a family of six, equally divided, all with artistic talents. Her dance teacher, the well-known Panibharatha, introduced her to the cinema, by making her take part in two dance sequences for the Sirisena Wimalaweera film ‘Asoka’ in 1953. Her first main-role was in ‘Deiyange Rate’ (1958), the famous W A Silva’s novel brought to the screen by S D S Somaratna. It was a cousin of hers, "Siri Ayya", who had recommended Punya to Somaratna. When she was asked to read a few lines from the novel in front of the director L S Ramachandran, she ‘acted’ it out so well, she was offered the main role immediately! She had to climb the steep last steps of ‘Sri Pada’ repeatedly, to get a perfect shot, to the tune of "Seetha sunil diya dahara" sung in the beautiful voice of H R Jothipala, a song popular even today, after 60 years!!

Following the trend-setter ‘Rekawa’ by Lester James Pieris in 1956, breaking the mould of copying Hindi films, a new genre of ‘indigenous’ films started and Punya performed superbly as the leading actress in Kurulubedda (1962) and Sikuru Taruwa (1963), both directed by L S Ramachandran. Punya started ‘living’ the role than acting, which persisted since, making her every performance memorable. Seeing her superb performance in ‘Kurulubedda’, Lester had approached her, through a contact, to be ‘Nanda’ in ‘Gamperaliya’; the rest is history, as they say.

It is no exaggeration to state that Lester breathed life to Martin Wickremesinghe’s trilogy depicting social changes that occurred in our society. ‘Gamperaliya’ (1963), obviously, was the most successful and Punya came out of ‘retirement’ in 1984, to act in ‘Kaliyugaya’, son Anupama joining in. After ‘Gamperaliya’, she acted in ‘Parasatu Mal’ (1966) directed by Gamini Fonseka and her last film before ‘retirement’ was another film directed by Lester, ‘Ransalu’ (1967).

Without a doubt, ‘Gamperaliya’ was a trailblazer. 'Sarasaviya,' a weekly devoted to the arts was started by Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (Lake House) in April 1963 and the annual film festival organised by 'Sarasaviya', started soon after, is still regarded as the most important event in the film industry. The first film festival saw 25 films released during the period 1960 – 63, vying for awards. Anton Wickremasinghe's production 'Gamperaliya' won seven awards including Best Film, Best Director (Lester James Peries), Best Actress (Punya Heendeniya), Best Script (Reggie Siriwardena), Best Editor (Sumitra Gunawardena), Best Music Director (W. D. Amaradeva) and Best Cameraman (Willie Blake). 'Sikuru Tharuwa'and 'Ran Muthu Duwa bagged the other awards.

‘Gamperaliya’ won the Golden Peacock at the Indian Film Festival in 1965 and was selected for the "Festival of Festivals" in Mexico the same year, winning the "Golden Head of Palenque" award. A restored version of ‘Gamperaliya’, with the French title "Changement au village" was screened at Cannes in the category of ‘Cannes Classic’ on May 18, 2008 giving ‘Gamperaliya’ a new lease of life. The entry of ‘Gamperaliya’ into the section of Cannes Classics, makes it one of the celebrated classics in the world cinema; a proud achievement for Sri Lankan cinema.

Punya is a gifted writer too. I remember her only published book ‘Brinda’ keeping me enthralled on a long trans-Atlantic flight. She donated the proceeds from this book to charity. Many a piece was written when Lester James Pieris died but none matches her tribute. She was educated in Mirigama Central College and her dexterity in English bears testimony to the excellant education our generation was fortunate to receive.

She acted only in a few films but left a huge impact, as she lived the part. She has won many awards, for most of the roles she played, and continues to do so, the last being the ‘Sarasaviya Abhimani’ (Legendary) Award in 2016. In her tribute to Lester "To Sir, with Love", this is what she states:

‘When I selected this heading, I may have been inspired by the ’60’s film classic "To Sir with love" in which the "Sir" was immortalised by Sydney Poitier. The "Sir" I am going to eulogise here is the bard, the father, the legend, and the epitome of Sri Lankan cinema Dr Lester James Peries.My film career was short, spanning just over a decade and on average I did only one film a year. Considering the brevity of my career, which I ended on my own accord to get married, I had the privilege of doing three major films "Gamperaliya", "Ransalu" and "Kaliyugaya" with the Master.’


I am sure many will admire, as I do, her concluding remarks of the eulogy:

"Yuganthaya was the final part of Martin Wickremasinghe’s trilogy, which this legendary director, masterfully transformed into celluloid. Yuganthaya symbolises with the passing away of this celebrated "Yuga Purusha" Dr Lester James Peries. This coincidentally happened on the sacred full moon day of Wesak, on the 29th of April 2018.

Many a song of praise has been sung to this master film maker who ranks with the likes of Satyajith Ray, Kurosawa, De Millle and Spielberg.He breathed cinema, talked cinema, thought cinema, dreamt cinema, produced cinema, directed cinema, he married cinema and his wife is cinema. This celebrated Master considered his creations as his offspring.

The timeless and complete oeuvre of the Master has left an indelible imprint on Sri Lankan and World Cinema. He has been my most revered guide and mentor.

‘To Sir with love.’ Goodbye. May you attain your desired realm of bliss."

Her co-star in ‘Gamperaliya’ Henry Jayasena, in his column in the ‘Daily News’, describes what happened in Mexico beautifully:

"The Resena Mundial Festival in Acapulco, Mexico was held from 21 November to 4 December 1965. Apart from the screening of award winning films from 13 countries - namely Argentina, Brazil, Ceylon, Czechoslovakia, United States, France, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Romania and the USSR, there were various seminars, information sessions, press briefings, discussions, sight-seeing tours etc. arranged by the organizers of the festival.

In fact, it was rightly called the Festival of Festivals! Each film screened was a winner of a top award at some international festival.

Before our big day on 26 November, there was a press interview and as usual Punya was asked to pose for a picture in a bathing suit. She refused the request flatly.

The press men were flabbergasted. They could hardly believe their ears. Here were so many starlets and even stars vying with each other for that kind of exposure and just one woman gives them a firm ‘NO’! "It is against my principles and even more that kind of exposure is against the traditions and culture of our country" declared an emphatic but smiling Punya. "Actually" drawled Sumithra in her particular nonchalant style, "We don’t need that kind of exposure for our film Gamperaliya, it is very much a ‘family’ film and you have rightly called it ‘Cronica Familia" When the two women turned their charm on, without resort to a show of flesh, I believe the photographers were tamed.

They were only too glad to take pictures of Punya in a lovely cloth and jacket attire. The very next morning all the local papers featured Punya in full front-page pictures, in cloth and jacket and that was a winner being quite a change from the usual cheesecake! They had given a full account of her flat refusal to appear in a bikini"

Punya has shown what matters is acting, living the role, not exposure of the flesh, to be remembered with affection, by thousands of fans. She has aged gracefully, retaining the features of the ‘village beauty’, we were so accustomed to, but no one would ever guess that she has completed four scores.

May she score another score, at least!

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