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Colombo Flood Protection



by N. V. Gooneratne

There were several articles on ‘Colombo flood protection’ in your newspaper and I would like to mention the following. The following fact should be placed before the public:

The Madiwela East diversion canal was constructed under the Greater Colombo Flood Control and Environment Improvement Project (GCFC&EIP) Phase 1. A little upstream of the Malabe Athurugiriya Road there was a deep excavation. For earth canals, the slope of the sides of the canal must be at least 1:1.5. i.e. for one foot vertically it should be 1.5 feet horizontally. If the earth is week, it should be 1:2 or 1: 2.5, depending on the earth. Also, in the case of deep excavations, one or two horizontal sections are required. The Consultant of the project requested sufficient land to be acquired. The officer in charge of the project gave, in writing, to construct the canal with the available land. Thus, this section was constructed with a slope of approximately 1:1. Hence, this section collapsed in a short time and the canal became ineffective. Either the required land should have been acquired or some other alternate method, such as a concrete structure, should have been constructed, in this section of the canal. I am not aware of the present condition.

In the early 1990s, a Senior Engineer decided to buy and install two 25 cusec pumps near the Elvitigala Mawatha Bridge and pump the water across the road as there was a flooding problem in the Torrington area and the pumps were bought. When the other Engineers explained that more than 50 cusecs would flow under gravity these pumps became redundant. At that time there was the problem of pollution in the canals and then the Engineer who ordered the pumps decided to install them at the North Lock at Nagalagam Street to pump water from the Kelani River to flush the canal system. For this, a gate was installed with the bottom of the gate at 6.0 feet above mean sea level when fully opened which was the designed high flood level. During the 1992 floods, the water level, at the North Lock, was about 7.0 feet above mean sea level. There were several complaints that the gate was obstructing the flow. Dr. Obeysekera, who was the Chairman, contacted a high officer in the Navy (I remember as Mr. Tissera) and instructed me to go and meet him to get the gate demolished. I went to the Navy Camp, in the Mutual area, and met the officer who sent two Navy Officers with me to the North Lock. When we went there, we observed that the water was flowing as the bottom level of the canal was 4.0 feet below mean sea level and the gate was fully opened up to 6.0 feet above sea level. However, there was an obstruction as the water level was 7.0 feet above mean sea level. As the gate was a wooden one, the two Navy Officers removed the bolts and nuts from the timber obstructing the flow, removed the timber and the water flowed without any obstruction after that. The claim that the gate was blasted is false.

There were a large number of structures in the canal system. During the 1992 floods, the salt water exclusion structure near the Havelock Road Bridge, in the Wellawatte Canal was a major obstruction. There were wide piers and less than 30% of the width of the canal was flowing when all the gates were open. The difference in water level, on either side of the structure, was about five feet. Colombo had not experienced such a heavy rainfall for a very long time and also a large extent of land had been developed increasing the discharge to the canal system. The Corporation was very fortunate that Dr. Obeysekera was the Chairman at that time. He immediately brought the Corporation machinery and staff and demolished the structure within two or three hours. This enabled the water level to be reduced considerably although it took some time for the water to discharge to the sea, as the volume of water, collected in the catchment area, was large. The Wellawatte Canal is the main outlet when it rains, at present, and it is important to maximise the discharge to the sea when it rains.

Colombo developed mainly due to the Port, and most parts of it are at a low level. Most of the rain water was earlier retained in the large marshes which have been developed mainly during the last 50 years and has resulted in high levels of water when it rains. The Parliament floor level is about 7.0 feet above mean sea level and some Committee Rooms are about a foot below that level. The Galle Road is around 30 feet above mean sea level. If you look at the water in the canal, near the Galle Road Bridge near Savoy Cinema you can see how deep it is. However, if you look at the water in the lake at Battaramulla Bridge you can observe that it is only a few feet below the bridge although there is very little difference in the water levels during dry periods. When Parliament was to be constructed, the Corporation requested, in writing, that the Parliament floor level be raised by at least two feet. At that time the Corporation was dredging the lake and the person in charge of the project rejected the request saying they only knew how to pump chocolate mud and did not know the effect of seeing the water when anyone is in the Committee Rooms. The result is that Parliament has been under water several times and a large sum of money is spent to protect the Parliament when the water level in the lake rises.

The Beira Lake is an artificial lake, constructed at 6.0 feet above mean sea level, to transport goods from the harbour to the warehouses that were constructed around the Beira Lake. Now goods are transported in containers. Hence, the Beira outlet, near the old Parliament can be used as an outlet when it rains, as the necessity to maintain the water level at 6.0 feet above mean sea level is not there. After some studies, the water level can be reduced, at least during the rainy periods, by constructing some gates at the outfall. Then by connecting the St. Sebastian Canal near, the Technical College, to the Canal, leading to the Beira Lake, the water level in the main canal system can be reduced.

When the Parliament was constructed it was decided that there should be a green belt on either side of the canals. Also the canal reservation, when the Irrigation Department handed over the canals to the Corporation, in 1979, was one chain (66 feet) in some sections and half a chain (33 feet) in some sections of the canal. However, the Corporation has reduced it to 6.0 meters (20 feet) and 3.0 meters (10 feet). Thus, there is hardly any green belt and insufficient room for maintenance.

In the report prepared for the GCFC&EIP Phase 1 it was proposed to have 980 acres of retention around the Colombo Canal System and in addition it was stated that there is 3.8 million cubic meters of retention around the Parliament Lake of which 95% should be kept for retention. The Corporation through the government acquired about 1,200 acres of which some areas were fairly high and some low areas had not been acquired. The acquisition should have been done according to some level such as those less than four feet above mean sea level.

People, whose land had been acquired, wanted them released and when they knew that more than the requirement had been acquired in an unreasonable manner the demands increased. The Corporation decided to release a maximum of 20 perches to an original owner and keep 980 acres, but people with influence obtained in acres whereas some did not get anything. Now, out of the 1,200 acres acquired there must be less than 600 acres. The land around the Parliament Lake had been acquired by the UDA and hence the Corporation did not get it acquired as the UDA, which implemented the Parliament Project, agreed to keep it. With the development that has been carried out around the Parliament Lake definitely the retention available is very much less than the requirement.

At present, the Wellawatte Canal is the main outlet and it is important to maximise the flow in the canal. The width of the canal under the Galle Road Bridge is very much less than the canal on either side of the bridge. When it rains you can see a difference in the water level on either side. The Consultants of the GCFC&EIP Phase 1 observed this but did not consider it as reconstructing the Galle Road Bridge was not allowed due to the traffic. However, after the Marine Drive Bridge Construction and the Duplication Road Bridge Construction this was possible. Similar to the Baseline Road Bridge construction, it could be done even half at a time. In 2005, after Colombo experienced some floods, the government agreed to fund it with local funds. As this bridge is under the RDA, a decision was taken at the meeting for the Corporation to prepare an estimate with the RDA. The Chairman at that time was a politician and a Board Member advised him not to get RDA involved and that the Corporation could construct the bridge on its own. Hence to date this has not been done. If anyone stands at the Galle Road Bridge and looks towards the sea, you can see that there is no reservation and how people have encroached on the canal bund. On the other side, when the Irrigation Department handed over the canals, between Galle Road and Duplication Road, the Wellawatte side was Canal reservation and there were only trees. Today, the entire section is occupied and some have even constructed buildings up to the canal with no reservation. Hence the widening of the canal by reconstructing the bridge will be difficult.

When the tunnel was constructed under the GCFC&EIP Phase 2 along 5th Lane, in Colpetty, there was a concrete structure along Duplication Road and the bottom of it was about 9.0 feet above mean sea level. The inside of the pipes used for the tunnel was 8.0 feet in diameter and with the thickness of the concrete was nearly 9.0 feet. As the tunnel had to be below this structure and satisfactory investigations had not been done before awarding the contract, at the sea outfall, the bottom of the pipe was at sea level. It would have been better if it was at least a foot higher, but could not be done. The concrete structure, along Duplication Road, is very likely to be the sewerage line from Colpetty to Wellawatte. If it is the sewerage line, it will cross Bullers Road also. I observed that a new tunnel is being constructed along Bullers Road. According to the plans displayed, it is 10.0 feet in diameter. In that case, either the outlet will be below sea level or the pipe will have to be raised and the full capacity cannot be utilised. This will be a waste of funds.

The Corporation handles only the main canals. The drains taking water to the canals are maintained by the CMC. Sometime ago a study was done and over 150 problem areas were identified and the CMC was to solve them. However, during recent rains it was observed that very little had been done. They also do not follow up when anyone creates obstructions and it is seen that more areas are flooded when it rains. In the recent past, the RDA constructed drains on either side of the Marine Drive. Some sections were rectangular drains and others were hume pipes. The drains were covered and paved for people to walk. Now the people have a nice walking path on either side of Marine Drive. However, the drains are blocked and never cleaned. When it rains, all the sea side roads, in Colpetty, Bambalapitiya and Wellawatte, are flooded. For the recent rains, people living close to Marine Drive found the roads and their gardens flooded and a few even may have had water in their houses. In addition, all the garbage bins were floating and people had to clean everything. The CMC and RDA are aware of the problem as it has happened several times, but do not clean the Marine Drive drains. The main problem is that officers are attending meetings and do not attend to the work.

Getting foreign aid and implementing projects seem to be what everyone wants. When foreign aid is given the country that gives the funds, although it is a loan, always sends their people at least as Consultants and sometimes to implement the project. Very often these Consultants have little experience and learn implementing projects here at our expense. I have seen a large number of Consultants and I am sure our local companies can do a better job for a fraction of the cost. It is only for specialised fields that we require Consultants. For the GCFC&EIP Phase 2 tunnel, at Colpetty, the Corporation had a Consultant. The Construction period was about eight or nine months. He was stationed at Thailand and during the construction he came about five times and stayed about a week each time he came. He was the only person that deserved to be called a Consultant. In the GCFC&EIP Phase 3 there was a large canal excavated at Attidiya. When this was excavated there was no access to six lands. The Consultants proposed six bridges on piles. Then a Corporation Engineer suggested to construct a 20-foot road on the other side of the canal which was implemented instead of the six bridges, which resulted in a large saving. This indicates the experience of the Consultants that we get paying large sums of money in foreign currency obtained as loans. Very often these inexperienced Consultants prepare preliminary designs for a project within one year. Thus, what is implemented is not the best solution as they are inexperienced and do not consult the local people sufficiently. In most projects, the local staff do not do sufficient checking to get a better job done.

I can write more, but will conclude here mentioning that we must carry out the drainage improvements utilising the funds carefully and implement the best solutions. It is important that all projects are monitored to see that incorrect decisions that can be avoided are not taken. We must also use gravity drainage as much as possible and avoid pumping, which is expensive and we do not have proper maintenance experience and sufficient funds which is essential for pumping schemes. Besides, all responsible authorities should see that they do not allow any organisation or person to create additional problems. When the GCFC&EIP Phase 2 was implemented it was observed that in a road off Jawatte Road a house had been built over the drain. Hence it would not have been cleaned and there was no way to improve the drain. How this has been allowed defies comprehension. Hence, it was not possible to widen the drain. Fortunately, a civic-minded resident allowed to construct a drain through his garden and divert the water.


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Ukraine War: Mother May I?



By Gwynne Dyer

“This obviously does not happen because of a thrown butt,” said British Defense Minister Ben Wallace. But the Russian Ministry of Defence insisted that the explosions that destroyed at least eight warplanes at Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea on 9 August were due to “a violation of fire safety requirements.”

The implication is that some careless Russian smoker tossed away his cigarette butt and caused a fire that set off explosions. That’s hardly a testimonial to the discipline of the Russian air force’s ground crews, but it’s better than admitting that Ukrainian missiles have reached 225 km behind Russian lines to destroy a whole squadron of Russian fighters.Moscow also claimed that no Russian aircraft had been damaged by the explosions in Crimea, although the wreckage of the destroyed fighters was clearly visible on the ‘overheads’ from satellite observations.

The Russian Defence Ministry played the same silly game in April when Ukrainian cruise missiles sank the ‘Moskva.’, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It claimed that a fire had caused munitions to explode, and that the ship then sank while under tow due to “stormy seas” (although the sea was actually flat calm at the time).And what caused that fire? Careless smokers again, presumably, because even the most damning statements about the indiscipline and incompetence of Russian sailors and airmen are preferable to an admission that the Ukrainians are really hurting Russia.

Ukraine’s Defence Ministry is having fun with this, reporting that it “cannot establish the cause of the fire [at the Russian airfield], but once again reminds of fire safety rules and a ban on smoking in unauthorized places.”

Taking responsibility for these strikes deep in Russian-controlled territory is not in Ukraine’s interest, so it’s happy for Russia to take the blame. Various anonymous defence officials in Kyiv further muddied the waters by suggesting that Ukrainian partisans were responsible, or Ukrainian special forces already operating far behind Russian front lines.

But why is it not in Ukraine’s interest to take ownership of these small but symbolically important victories?

It’s because the really decisive front in this war is how fast American and other NATO weapons systems are sent to Ukraine, and that is determined by a process that seems to be derived largely from the old children’s game of ‘Mother May I’ (also known as ‘Giant Steps’).The opening move is quite straightforward: Kyiv asks Washington for a hundred HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems so that it can counter Russia’s huge superiority in older artillery and rocket systems and drive Moscow’s forces from Ukrainian soil.

Washington replies that it can take two giant steps and a frog hop. No, wait a minute, it replies that Ukraine can have four HIMARS systems now. Once the crews have been trained and have demonstrated their proficiency in using the weapons, Kyiv can start the next round of the game by asking for more. This takes four weeks.

Getting into the spirit of the game, Ukraine then asks for only twenty more HIMARs, leaving the rest for later. Washington replies that it can take four baby steps and a pirouette – or rather, four more HIMARs now, but with the range still restricted to 70 km. and no thermobaric ammunition (fuel-air explosives). And so on.We are now in the fourth round of this game, with sixteen HIMARs promised of which Ukraine has already deployed between eight and twelve on the battlefield. At this rate, Ukraine will have the hundred HIMARs it needs to expel the Russians around April of 2024.

Similar games are being played with other badly needed weapons from NATO stockpiles like Western-made combat aircraft, modern anti-air defence systems, and longer-range missiles for attacks like the one on Saki Air Base. This is all driven by an excess of caution about such ‘escalation’ at the White House and in the National Security Council.

Washington is right to be concerned about Russia’s reactions, but it is prone to see the Russians as dangerously excitable children. They are not. They are poker players (NOT chess-players) who bet over-confidently, and are now trying to bluff their way out of trouble. The Russian ruling elite, or at least most of it, remains rational.

The Ukrainians, however, have to take American anxieties into account even when they use their own weapons, some of which have been modified for extended range, on distant Russian targets. The simplest way is just to pretend it wasn’t their weapons that did the damage.The same policy applies to the numerous acts of sabotage carried out in Russia by Ukrainian agents – and by a happy accident the Russians are willing to collaborate in this fiction. They’d rather blame the clumsiness, ignorance and incompetence of their own troops than give the credit to the Ukrainians.

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Book Review : An incisive exploration of Sri Lanka’s religiosity



Title: ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ – Innovation, shared spaces, contestation

Editors – Mark P. Whitaker, Darini Rajasingham- Senanayake and Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran

A Routledge South Asian Religion Series publication

Exclusively distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo 5. (e-mail:

Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz

This timely publication could be described as a revelation of the fascinating nature of Sri Lanka’s religiosity. It is almost customary to refer to Sri Lanka as a ‘religious country’ but it is not often that one comes across scholarly discussions on the subject locally. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, a collection of research papers put together in book form, fills this void most adequately.

Although not necessarily synonymous with spiritual development, religiosity in Sri Lanka essentially refers to the widespread prevalence of organized or institutionalized religion in the lives of the majority of Sri Lankans. What qualifies the country to be seen as religiously plural is the presence in it of numerous religions, though mainly in their institutionalized forms.

What ought to pique the interest of the specialist and that of the inquiring layman alike is the fact that though falling short of the highest standards of spirituality most of the time, religion is used innovatively and creatively by its adherents to meet some of their worldly and otherworldly needs. That is, religion is a dynamic and adaptable force in the lives of Sri Lanka’s people. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’ explores these characteristics of religion in depth and underscores the vitality of religion in the consciousness of its diverse practitioners. A chief strength of the publication is the featuring of almost all the main religions of Sri Lanka, from the viewpoint of their innovative and adaptable use by devotees.

The research papers in question, numbering 16, were presented at an Open University of Sri Lanka forum held in mid-July in 2017. The editors of the volume have done well to bring these papers together and present them in book form to enable the wider public in Sri Lanka and abroad to drink deep of the vital insights contained in them, considering that religiosity has gained increasingly in importance in post-war Sri Lanka. Fittingly, ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, is dedicated to the memory of well-known Sri Lankan social scientist Malathi de Alwis who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, but had contributed a paper at the relevant forum prior to her passing away. Her paper too is contained in the collection.

The thematic substance of the volume could be said to have been set out in some detail by co- editor Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake in her introductory essay titled, ‘Spaces of Protection, healing and liberation…’ She writes: ‘Religiosity appears as a means of coping with life’s transitions, celebrations, disappointments, diseases, conflicts and violence; and events such as birth and death, illness, exams, marriage, divorce, the sense of the sacred, the auspicious, and inauspicious (Sumangali-Amangali). Fundamentally, beyond the political, (multi-)religiosity provides an individual’s coping strategy and/or a social performance for negotiating with the perceived power, energies and structures that are greater than oneself, particularly the supernatural and transnational.’

When seen from the above perspective, the ability of many Sri Lankans to comfortably worship at multiple religious institutions and shrines, for example, while claiming adherence in the main to this or that religious belief makes considerable sense, because the average Lankan devotee is of a pragmatic bent and not a religious purist. Depending on her needs she would worship at a major Buddhist or Hindu temple, for example, and also supplicate her cause at a prominent Catholic church. Such practices speak volumes for the flexibility and innovativeness of the devotee. They also testify to her broad religious sympathies and her ability to share her religious spaces with others of different religious persuasions. A few places of religious significance in Sri Lanka that thus draw adherents of multiple religions are Adam’s Peak, Kataragama, Madhu Church and St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo.

At these places of reverence the usually restricted adherence to a single religious belief or faith is easily transcended by worshippers as apparently part of a personal or collective coping strategy to deal with multiple personal and societal pressures. ‘Kataragama Pada Yatra – Pilgrimaging with ethnic “others” ‘ by Anton Piyaratne and ‘Religious innovation in the pilgrimage industry – Hindu bodhisattva worship and Tamil Buddhistness’ by Alexander McKinley are just two papers in the collection that deal insightfully with this aspect of worshippers’ abilities to comfortably manage multiple religious identities and spaces. These habits of the average Sri Lankan devotee highlight the potentiality of religiosity, among other things, to be a bridge-builder among communities.

For instance, Mckinley sets out in his exposition: ‘Religious innovation at shared sacred sites can thus blur or sharpen the dominant ethno-religious divisions of ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and ‘Tamil Hindu’ in Sri Lanka. Saman devotion can simultaneously be interpreted as a sincere form of highland Hindu religiosity, a strategic innovation by Tamil workers to appease Sinhala pilgrims, as well as an opening for Sinhalas to either convert Tamils into Buddhists, or to cooperate with them towards common goals, such as environmental conservation’.

A conspicuous and continuing theme of the collection is the wide-ranging and often damaging impact of the Sri Lankan government’s 30-year anti-LTTE war. Quite a number of the researchers, thus, deal with its adverse impact on women, and quite rightly, because the war revealed as perhaps never before the marked vulnerabilities of Sri Lankan women in conflict situations. ‘Of Meditation, Militarization and Grease Yakas’ by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake and ‘Vijaya and Kuweni retold’ by Neena Mahadev deal quite elaborately on this subject and throw valuable light on the multi-dimensional impact the Northern war has had on women, besides focusing on the resourceful ways in which religion is used by women to cope with social and political issues.

‘Emerging innovative religiosities and what they signify’ by Selvy Thiruchandran continues with the focus on women and religiosity but introduces a wider societal dimension by bringing into the discourse the phenomenon of New Religious Movements (NRM). The researcher points to the immense popularity among mainly middle class women of two of these movements, the Satya Sai Baba cult and the growing interest in Brahma Kumaris Yoga centres, and elaborates on the roles they play in enabling women to deal with personal and societal pressures.

However, Thruchandran arrives at the thought-provoking conclusion at the end of her wide-ranging research that, ‘The old religion and the new so-called innovation that is sought in the new religions can be summarized in a well-known cliché – old wine in new bottles.’ That is, these New Religions are mainly forms of escapism. We have here a fresh perspective on issues relating to the liberation of women that calls for deep consideration. Moreover, these New Religious Movements do not help in any substantive way to change the fundamental and perennial reality of male domination over women; for, we are given to understand that some men actively discourage their wives from joining the Brahma Kumaris movement.

The role of Sri Lanka’s Christian Left in giving religion a progressive and socially emancipatory orientation in recent decades is the subject of Harini Amarasuriya’s paper titled, ‘Beards, cloth bags, and sandals – Reflections on the Christian left in Sri Lanka’. The researcher’s prime focus is on an institution of mainly Left political activism established by a Christian clergyman, Sevaka Yohan, in Ibbagamuwa, Kurunegala in the seventies decade by the name Devasaranaramaya. Besides committing itself to robust Left political activism, the latter centre possessed an indigenous cultural ethos and sought to unite the country’s cultures and religions. In other words, the institution aimed at being a shared space where religions comingled on the basis of shared values.

Accordingly, the publication of ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka…’, is a welcome development. The book sheds invaluable light on the subject of local religiosity, which is a relatively unexplored but vital area of knowledge that has important implications for nation-building in Sri Lanka. Besides the papers discussed above, there are numerous other learned and insightful research papers on religiosity in this collection that call for urgent reading. Collectively the papers constitute a treasury of knowledge that those pursuing Sri Lankan Studies could ill-afford to by-pass.

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Reflecting on Swineetha Weerasinghe



By Uditha Devapriya

One of the clearest memories I have of Welikathara is Gamini Fonseka lavishing his love and later his anger on his wife. Welikathara is the closest to a Hollywood thriller (in the classic mould) ever made in Sri Lanka, and this aspect comes through even in its depiction of the romance between the two leads. By then Fonseka had established himself as more than just a primus inter pares of the Sinhalese cinema: he had become its king. Cast opposite him, the equally great Joe Abeywickrema, along with all other cast members, could only quail before Fonseka. That was why Abeywickrema’s Goring Mudalali had to go off like a dog at the end: because no other fate would have done for anyone playing Fonseka’s foil.

There is, however, one sequence where Fonseka’s supremacy is put into question. It comes towards the end, right after Goring Mudalali makes his big revelation about Fonseka’s past. Confronted with the fact of her husband’s infidelities, his wife taunts him, asking him why he is so afraid of Goring and why he doesn’t do anything about him. Ever gentle to his wife, he refuses to say anything. This only aggravates the situation, sparking off a fuse: in an ever rising crescendo, his wife goes on to ridicule him, reminding him of the difficulties of their marriage. She then questions his manhood. That hits him badly: getting up from his bed in a fit of anger, he slaps her harshly, then dons his police uniform to go after Goring.

Cutting between close-ups of Gamini Fonseka’s and the wife’s face, the sequence plays out beautifully: it reminds you of the café sequence in Juan Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist, where the characters’ faces betray unspoken and desperate dreams and desires. In Welikathara Nihalsinghe gives us the most Americanised film to hit Sri Lankan theatres; the dialogues, written by the great Tissa Abeysekara, take you back to the films of Billy Wilder. The first encounter between Goring and the wife, and the later confrontation with Fonseka, unveil with so much tension that we feel tense watching them ourselves. Much of that has to do with the acting of its three leads. And in her encounters with the two male leads, Swineetha Weerasinghe winds up with one of the finest performances in her career.

Swineetha Weerasinghe is an enigma, an ineffable mystery. She hasn’t been in too many films. By the standard which one may use on, say, a Malini Fonseka or a Sandya Kumari, her career hasn’t been prodigious. She herself has told me that she has been selective, that she has been careful about the scripts that came her way. Perhaps. But this is just half the story. Swineetha’s life, as with her career, has certainly been colourful. I doubt she’s failed to get the recognition she deserves. Yet seeing the plaudits lavished on her peers, that recognition came rather belatedly. It came around the time I first met her, in 2014, the year she opened her life and story to writers, just before she got featured in the only programme which could have done justice to someone like her, Rupavahini’s Alakamandawa.

Swineetha hailed from a middle-class Sinhala Buddhist family. Her father, a retired Army gunman, and her mother had both hailed from Dehiwela. She was raised there, educated initially at Buddhist Girls’ College in Mount Lavinia and later at the Dehiwela Madya Maha Vidyalaya. “I liked singing and dancing,” she told me, when I asked her whether she “took to the arts” at that age. She had also played netball and had been an avid athlete, managing to complete all three stages of Kandyan dancing while at school. Yet she refuses to believe that these had a large say in her career: “I never considered any of these seriously, certainly not as my career.” She felt her vocation lay elsewhere: in medicine.

With this in mind, she eventually enrolled for a four-year course at the Indigenous Medical College. Three years into that course, however, Swineetha came across an advertisement in a newspaper. “It was for an upcoming film, and it called for aspiring actresses. Acting never figured in my scheme of things, but I decided to take a shot at it.” In my interview she noted and emphasised that last point rather strongly: “Making it out at the movies may have been at the back of my mind, but I never considered it more than a passing interest.” Her parents, for their part, had mixed feelings: her mother objected to the idea, but her less conservative father managed to convince her that it was in their daughter’s best interests.

The interview was a success; she was selected. Thereafter she met her first figure of destiny. “Robin Tampoe cast me in three of his films: Sudu Sande Kalu Wala in 1963, Samajaye Api Okkoma Ekayi in 1964, and Sudo Sudu in 1965.” Emblematic of the popular middle cinema of their time, these three films hit it big at the box-office; Sudo Sudu in particular, based on the Sagara Palansuriya poem, in itself based on the Enoch Arden legend that the Jayamanne brothers and Rukmani Devi transposed in Kadawunu Poronduwa years before, revealed and brought out Swineetha’s talents to the world. She quickly set about proving her versatility: as she implied to me, her overarching desire was to show that she could play different types of characters and to show that she didn’t want to be pigeonholed and typecast.

It was at this juncture that she met her second figure of destiny. “At the time I was working at RT Studios. Sudo Sudu was playing in every hall. At one screening I was approached by a gentle, unassuming man, who said he wanted me for his film. By then I had grown tired of playing damsels in distress. He told me that his film would be completely different, in mood and in tenor. There would be no boys chasing after girls, no good guy versus bad guy fights, and certainly no melodrama. It would be more intellectual and sophisticated. I realised that the opportunity was worth taking, and that I had to take it. So I took it.”

That gentle, unassuming man was Lester James Peries, and the film, of course, was Delovak Athara, the most exciting and least conventional Sinhala film to come out by that point. The critic Philip Cooray has called it Peries’s most intellectual work. This is an understatement. In the film’s two-hour duration there’s not a scene or a sequence where we involve ourselves in or identify ourselves with the characters, emotionally. True to Lester’s words, it was to be an intellectual and sophisticated work. And having cast an up-and-coming actress in the role of the protagonist’s university friend, he ensured a decent popular audience for the movie, while providing that actress an opportunity to diversify her career.

Delovak Athara got Swineetha to think more seriously about the cinema. “I read books. I watched films. My favourite actresses back then were people like Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Chaplin, and Rita Tushingham. They innovated on the kind of performances that had been associated with women for a long, long time. Needless to say, they inspired me to push my frontiers, to challenge myself, to take on more challenging roles.” Which is what eventually happened: from Lester Peries she would move on to D. B. Nihalsinghe (Welikathara), H. D. Premaratne (Sikuruliya), and W. A. B. de Silva (Hulavali).

These roles and films took her places, literally. “Welikathara took me to Tashkent. I met Simi Garewal, Sunil Dutt, Nargis, and Shabana Azmi there.” From Tashkent to the Krakow Film Festival in Poland, and from there to Germany and Czechoslovakia, Suwineetha felt awed at seeing Europe’s movie studios and industries. “We were obviously miles behind them, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t catch up with them.” Hulavali took her to a different kind of world: the 1976 Tehran Film Festival in Iran, where she met, among others, the Shah of Iran and Rita Tushingham, and on his last day before departure, Satyajit Ray.

When television arrived in the 1980s, Swineetha poured out her talents there also, from Dharmasena Pathiraja’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” to H. D. Premaratne’s Sandun Gira Gini Ganee. Her other film credits include Mille Soya. For a long time after Ira Handa Yata in 2010, some felt that she had retired. She put an end to such rumours with her comeback in Bandanaya, in 2017. Directed by Udayakantha Warnasuriya, Bandanaya is, essentially, The Exorcist set in some southern village in Sri Lanka. Casting has usually been one of Warnasuriya’s stronger points, and in Bandanaya he manages to secure convincing performances from Swineetha and her coplayers.

Glancing through her credits and her performances, I realise just how versatile Swineetha has been. After playing the gentle but morally grounded woman in Delovak Athara and the frustrated wife in Welikathara, Swineetha gave arguably the best performance in her life in Sikuruliya, where, as she told me very convincingly, she plays not one woman, but three. It’s a sad and sordid testament to such talents that they have not been accorded the place they deserve in the pantheon of our cinema. I remain optimistic, however: as we wrapped up our interview, she seemed optimistic too. One thing is certain, though: she’s always been one of our more avid actresses. She’s taken her job seriously. And profited by it, too.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

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