View of the Trincomalee harbour entrance from Chapel Hill Radar station
Canine war veterans
An extract from the book ‘Read Between the Lines’
by Admiral Ravindra
(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy)
Former Chief of Defence Staff
Are you a dog lover? If not, you do not know what love is. This story is about two dogs, Rexy, a beautiful female German shepherd and Chappela a ‘Pariah dog’, (Pye-dog), a male, whose parents were not known.
Twelve years ago, my son was very keen to have a puppy. I discouraged him as I knew that looking after the dog would be my responsibility sooner or later. My wife Yamuna remained noncommittal whenever the ‘dog talk’ came up during dinner.
Someone had advised Yamuna that as our son was the only child at home it was good to have a pet for him. So, she purchased this puppy. The owners had about five puppies for sale and asked Yamuna to select one. She had said she would choose the one who came towards her first. One puppy left her mother and came towards Yamuna wagging her tiny tail. So, she was selected and named Rexy.
I was serving in Trincomalee as the Commandant of Naval and Maritime Academy (NMA) and Flag Officer Commanding Naval Fleet (FOCNF) at that time. Our Naval Base Trincomalee was under constant threats from LTTE long range weapons and suicide boat attacks from terrorists at that time (2006). The attacks came from the Southern side of the Trincomalee harbour from Sampoor and Sudaikudah. We were always alert and a bright idea was floated by then Commander Fast Attack Craft Squadron, Captain (then) Nandana Jayaratne to fix a Radar and day-night thermal camera at the top of Chapel Hill, the highest positioned the Naval Base, so that we could watch Sampoor area and Trincomalee harbour-mouth well. I volunteered to implement the project, and we fixed the required equipment at Chapel Hill. Several tumbledown buildings which had housed the First World War time Naval Signal station were renovated in double-quick time to use as accommodation for naval personnel detailed for duty, both for Radar and security of the place.
Chapel Hill is far away from main base, and to reach there, you have to trail through a jungle patch. This trail was widened and tarred.
Chapel Hill Radar Station became “my kingdom”. I ensured that very high standards and professionalism were maintained with the help of NMA Navigation School. I used to sleep there at night so in a contingency, I had the complete picture of the Trincomalee harbour, the approaches and Sampoor on radar, thermal camera and visually. It was great a observation position for safety of ships/craft entering and leaving the Trincomalee harbour, which we called as ‘Choke Point’ in our strategic terms. I very well knew that young Commanding Officers of our ships/craft had a lot of confidence and motivation when they heard my voice on their communication sets, directing them and giving details of possible threats at the harbour approaches. So, Chapel Hill became my “Chalet” in Trincomalee.
I saw a black and white puppy by the side of the road leading to Chapel Hill. It was a male left behind by a pack of dogs in jungle area. He was weak and full of ticks and fleas. I took him in my vehicle and gave him a new home at Chapel Hill. After a shampoo bath and powdering he looked very nice and healthy. He was a lovely puppy with no fear of the jungle, barked very loud. It was an ideal outdoor dog. My sailors at Chapel Hill Detachment became very fond of this puppy and they named him “Chappela”.
All our Detachments were given extra food and tea rations. So, Chappela had enough and more food. Chappela was looked after very well by my sailors.
After one month of pampering by Yamuna and our son, Rexy became very naughty. She sometimes peed on my son’s bed. At other times she would tear my son’s socks. The final warning came when she chewed the best squash shoes of Ravi junior. When I went home on leave, Yamuna allowed me to take Rexy to Trincomalee. My son was upset but Yamuna thought Rexy required some training and discipline. So, Rexy’s first transfer came to the Naval and Maritime Academy under the Commandant to be trained and disciplined.
Rexy adapted to the new environment quickly. She would join me in my morning beach run at Coral Cove. She loved roaming around on the beach. She was fed well with fresh fish by my cook, Gunawardena. Her best friend was my steward Rathnayake. She had another friend, a huge Sambar which visited my garden. She was very fond of Cadets (44th Intake) whom I trained in swimming. She accompanied me to the swimming pool and kept on barking at the cadets. In the evening, she travelled with me in my double cab. (I was driving with her in the front seat) to my Chapel Hill Chalet to spend the night. So, two puppies, Rexy and Chappela became thick pals there.
On 1st August 2006, the LTTE fired its big guns at the Naval Base in Trincomalee. Some of those artillery rounds targeted the SLN passenger ship (Jetliner) carrying 1,700 troops from Jaffna to the Trincomalee harbour. Other rounds fired at Naval and Maritime Academy killed one instructor and four trainees. It was lunch time at NMA (1230hrs). Some sailors were mustered in front of Quartermaster Lobby, and a few shells fell there killing and injuring naval personnel. I rushed to Chapel Hill in my double cab with Rexy. The competent senior sailors there, Chief Petty Officer Jayaweera and Petty Officer Ruwansiri were already on day camera and trying to locate enemy artillery guns. FACs led by Lieutenant Commander (then) Samaranayake were on escort duties of Jetliner and they ensured that Jetliner entered the Trincomalee harbour safely with troops on board. We directed our Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) at enemy positions. Rexy and Chappela were at my feet, frightened by the deafening sound of artillery and MBRLs. Air support was called and Kafirs were scrambled from the Katunayaka airport. The LTTE pulled their guns back to safe locations. We lost a golden opportunity to destroy their heavy weapons.
That night we shifted our MBRLs from dockyard grounds to a better location at the Oxford Circus (where the present-day car park of our Naval Museum is located). Army Artillery Corps MBRL Gun crews led by Captain Madugalla were briefed by me and we planned our coordination where Chapel Hill Radar station would play the role of Forward Observer.
We were not fully ready to face the LTTE artillery barrage on 1st August. Our unpreparedness cost us dear. When the LTTE fired again their artillery guns on 12th August 2006 night, we were ready with MBRLs. The MBRL firing was directed on enemy gun positions clearly visible with our thermal camera with temperature difference at night. The red-hot artillery gun barrels were clearly visible 8 km away from Chapel Hill at Sudaikudah beach. We were able to destroy enemy guns, ammo and gun crews. Our thermal camera screen blackened out due to large thermal emissions of burning guns and ammunition. Very loud explosions were heard from the Sampoor area. That was the last time the LTTE fired their artillery guns in the Eastern Province. This was the first time in Sri Lanka the thermal cameras were used to direct our MBRLs on enemy gun positions. Later, Chapel Hill Radar station played a major role in saving Naval Detachment at Muthur from enemy attacks and became an invaluable addition to our Naval Base Trincomalee.
Fall of Shots of LTTE Arty Fire
Amidst threats of another LTTE artillery barrage, Rexy got another immediate transfer to my home in Colombo. From that day she became most loved one at home. After all, she went back to Colombo as a war veteran who had faced enemy artillery attacks!
Chappela remained in Chapel Hill, guarding the location and giving support to naval personnel protecting Trincomalee harbour. He missed his friend.
Shampoo, powder and vitamins Rexy was getting were delivered to Chappela as well. Chappela always enjoyed a sea bath on Sundays at Chapel beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. (Rexy got her Sunday bath in a shower cubical at our home!) I had two responsibilities on Sundays when I was at home. The first was to clean the toilets and shower cubicles. I am a very good toilet cleaner thanks to my basic training at the Naval and Maritime Academy Trincomalee and Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth UK. We clean our toilets on board ships. When we live on board ships in an air conditioned environment, keeping toilets very clean is important. I know that I am a very good toilet cleaner.
After I finished my work, I cleaned sinks and toilet bowls, polished toilet seats and bidets, mopped floor tiles, polished showers, taps and rails, and replaced, towels and air fresheners. My son gave me the “Best toilet cleaner” award a long time ago. Yamuna hates my toilet cleaning habit, but I enjoy it.
The other job I was assigned to do on Sunday was to give Rexy a shampoo bath. Rexy loved water. If I was late, she would go and sit in the bathroom until I came. When the bath was over, it was up to Yamuna to dry her and cut her nails, apply various types of powders, clean her ears/teeth and brush her beautiful coat. Rexy loved pampering and sometimes “demanded” our love.
When my job was over, I also had a bath, and obviously I was wet after bathing Rexy.
After my bath, I sat down in my easy chair with Sunday newspapers and my steward Dissanayake would bring my glass of Cognac with ginger ale and a plate of fish fingers. Rexy would sit near my feet knowing that she would get her share of fish fingers before her healthy Sunday lunch. I would have my afternoon nap after lunch; Rexy would jump into my bed and sleep.
Yamuna treated Rexy like a child. The Navy cooks prepared our meals, but Yamuna always prepared Rexy’s meals by herself and fed her with her hand, like feeding a baby. My late father-in-law used to say we had two children. Ravi Junior was our son and Rexy our daughter. She was a such a lovely daughter.
To be continued …
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
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 email@example.com
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