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The JRJ Cabinet and Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel



It would be fair to say that JRJ had the most competent Cabinet of Ministers of modern times. As usual the new Prime Minster (he was elected PM in 1977 before he became president via a constitutional amendment a year later: ed) had been very thorough in his decision making. He first accommodated all the seniors who were Cabinet ministers in previous UNP governments. Premadasa, M.D.H. Jayawardene, Montague Jayawickreme, E.L. Senanayake, Mohamed and Hurulle were all thus accommodated.

He also brought in party seniors who had helped him like Mathew, Hameed, Festus Perera, Jayasuriya and Wijetunga. Having secured that flank he chose two technocrats Ronnie de Mel and Nissanka Wijeratne, both ex-CCS, to man key ministries – Finance for de Mel and Education for Wijeyaratne. Last, he inducted two young stars of the party, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali. They too were given plum portfolios. Everybody could see the logic of the leader’s decisions and there was little of the heartburn that usually follows the selection of cabinet ministers.

Another key factor was that JRJ was clearly ‘Primus inter pares’. While he acknowledged that the victory was a combined effort, ministers knew that he was supreme, having brought the UNP to a historic and unprecedented win which would have been unthinkable under the Senanayakes. He also made it known that he would not brook any underhand maneuvering which had been a regular feature of Sri Lankan party politics.

Later on, we will see that there was some dissatisfaction among his senior colleagues – M.D.H. Jayawardana, Gamini Jayasuriya and E.L. Senanayake. JRJ showed no mercy to them in asking for their resignation from their ministerial positions when disagreements came to the surface. But both sides stuck to the rules and the transitions took place in a civilized manner with JRJ writing to them to thank them for services rendered.

While the cabinet ministers were able and willing, several of them were highly ambitious and had no doubts about their fitness to succeed the Old Man who in his own words had “climbed to the top of the greasy pole” at the ripe age of 72. He was fighting fit and unfailingly followed every morning, a rigorous exercise regime tailored for the Canadian Air Force, but that did not prevent several of his Ministers nursing ambitions of succeeding him one day.

Their hopes were raised even before the 1977 election when JRJ, with no warning, held a straw poll to form a 10-man committee to manage the election campaign. Premadasa came first by a small margin. The surprise was Gamini Dissanayake’s performance coming a strong second, thus fueling his already vaulting ambition. Ronnie de Mel and Lalith Athulathmudali also made it to the group. It sent a clear signal to Premadasa and the party seniors that they would not have a cakewalk to the top. It also created a sense of competition among the front runners which simmered right through JRJ’s two terms and blew the party apart after Premadasa donned the mantle.

While this competition helped in running an efficient administration it must be recognized that it exacerbated tensions among the front runners. JRJ gave ear to them all and while not discouraging them did not overtly back any one of them either. He was a master at giving each of them hope, while not showing his hand in any way. To complicate matters there were two others outside this ring who believed that they had JRJ’s blessings to go to the top.

One was Anandatissa de Alwis, a party grandee who managed both the political and personal entanglements of Sir John Kotelawala. He was the kingpin of the UNP youth league in the early days and had been recruited by JRJ as his Permanent Secretary in the 1965 Dudley-led administration. They were close friends and the leader’s unilateral decision to make him Speaker of the House did not please Ananda who wanted to be a Minister, preferably in charge of the old ministry of JRJ’s (State) he was Permanent Secretary. The other was Upali Wijewardene, JRJ’s cousin who had emerged as a clever and ambitious business magnate.

He wrapped himself in the mantle of a hero of the south because his mother and the source of his wealth came from a prominent family in the southern heartland. ‘This was a direct affront to Ronnie de Mel, who also was burnishing his southern credentials as the representative for Devinuwara, the abode of Vishnu – the guardian god of the South. Vishnu is believed to be the only god who did not run away when the Buddha was threatened by Mara.

Ronnie de Mel

The JRJ administration of 1977 was chiefly marked by its radical change of the country’s economic policies. By 1977 the previous administration led by Mrs. B was hated by the general public.It was an era of shortages and stagnation. The inward looking policies of the PM and her Finance Minister N.M. Perera, had failed and had created immense difficulties for the public in its wake.

So much so that a wing of the SLFP led by Felix and Anura Bandaranaike, began to publicly criticize NMs socialist policies. They drew attention to the epochal changes that were shaking up western economies and driving hard bitten communist regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe to extinction. The new free market economy which spelt doom for socialist economies was led by President Reagan in the US and Prime Minister Thatcher in the UK. Their USSR counterpart Gorbachev was also taking the first steps ‘along the capitalist road’ as the Chinese leaders described it.The world was entering a new economic cycle of free markets and globalisation. Who would be best to help JRJ to transform the moribund economy? The President unhesitatingly chose Ronnie de Mel. “Cometh the hour; cometh the man”.

Though the JRJ Cabinet had many clever Ministers, the crucial post of Minister of Finance was given to the best qualified person- Ronnie de Mel. In a sense this appointment was waiting for him since he entered politics late in life. The SLFP which was his first party of choice had many envious seniors who prevailed on Mrs. B not to offer him a portfolio. The SLFP was a one man or one woman show and it placed greater store on loyalty than on talent.

Ronnie was a brilliant scholar who had refused the offer of a research assignment in Cambridge or Oxford as a historian based on his examination performance. He chose the CCS and was ear-marked from the start as an outstanding public servant. He had socialist leanings and was a favourite official of Philip Gunawardena when he was Minister of Agriculture in 1956. As with many CCS colleagues of his time he married into a wealthy family. Like JRJ he was without money worries but did not show off like the new rich who were now coming into politics under the SLFP. His wife Mallika was a dynamic and capable lady who undertook the responsibility of nursing her husband’s electorate as he was not a “hail fellow well met” type of politician.

In that he shared many personality traits with JRJ who looked upon him as a very valuable colleague. Both had an abiding interest in looking after the poor and underprivileged though they did not resort to popular gimmicks. Both JRJ and Ronnie came from a strong Anglican background and had an intellectual approach to Buddhism which did not view popular Buddhism and ritual with favour. Even when Ronnie was a fierce critic of the UNP, JRJ decided to woo Ronnie and playing on Mrs. B’s inability to accommodate him, slowly won him over to his side.

Ronnie was so important to the President that when he lost the Devinuwara seat in 1983 when JR sought re-election and the Referendum that followed, he was brought in on the national list of the UNP. Ronnie was so well accommodated in the UNP that he also brought along his friend and CCS colleague Nissanka Wijeryaatne, who was smarting under Mrs. B’s rejection of him for daring to contest her uncle Paranagama for the post of Diyawadana Nilame and beating him. Nissanka contested the Dedigama seat and became the Minister of Education. The luring of this duo of talented SLFPers was a feather in JRJ’s cap and presaged the trouble that was in store for Mrs. B in the 1977 election.

The opening of the economy in 1977, under the directions of JRJ, was implemented by Ronnie. It was a ‘tour de force’ which showed great skill and intelligence. De Silva and Wriggins in their biography of JRJ summarize the reforms envisaged in Ronnie’s first budget of 1977. “He asserted that the principal objective of the Budget was the establishment of a free economy after more than 20 years of controls and restrictions which had hampered economic growth….The budget marked a fundamental shift in Sri Lanka’s monetary and fiscal perspectives, through liberalized economic policies which emphasized great reliance on the market mechanism, liberalization of trade and payments and a large increase in external finance.

Most direct controls on prices, imports and external payments were dismantled, government operations in processing and distribution of basic commodities were reduced if not removed, and attractive incentives were provided to producers. There was also the unification of the exchange rate at a depreciated level and the introduction of a flexible exchange rate policy.” [P335] The rupee exchange rate was brought to its market value. All governments before that had artificially kept the rupee below its real value thereby distorting the country’s economy. It led to a black economy and the energies of the Government was diverted to catching currency racketeers as in Felix’s time. The next step was to deal with subsidies, particularly the rice subsidy – a major factor in electoral politics. Under the JRJ regime the subsidy for rice was restricted to those who earned under 300 rupees a month.

In order to cushion this poor segment from rising food prices it was decided to give a cash allowance in lieu of the rice ration. We in the Ministry of Information under Anandatissa put our heads together to fashion an Information strategy to popularize the cash grant. Together with Irvin Weerakkody of Phoenix Advertising we created a ‘Salli Potha’ or cash book as an alternative to the ‘Ration book’. The poor citizen could use the cash coupon to buy commodities of his choice subject to the ceiling imposed on the grant. This became so popular that the opposition which was still licking its wounds could not respond. Later they printed fake rice ration books to show that they too provided relief in their time. This was clearly illegal and the “fake ration book” trial dragged on in the courts for a long time.

By that time Ossie Abeygunasekere, the main accused in the case, had crossed over to the Premadasa camp and the matter was hushed up. Another prong of the Government strategy was to create a welcoming approach to foreign investment. The Board of Investment (originally called the ‘Greater Colombo Economic Commission’) was set up under Upali Wijewardene and a special investment zone was established in Katunayake.

At the same time the modernization of the Colombo Port with Japanese aid and the Mahaweli scheme with multiple foreign assistance was launched. With so many of the projects off the ground it was Ronnie who kept a tight leash on the funding with JRJ’s support. This financial control was not to the liking particularly of the PM Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali but they had no option but to accept the overseeing functions of the Finance Ministry.

There were also turf wars regarding funding for the accelerated Mahaweli project. But JRJ backed Gamin Dissanayake’s efforts to seek funding and he and Ronnie worked together fairly cordially. Ronnie established the “Aid Sri Lanka Club” of donors under the umbrella of the World Bank. This donors’ meeting was held annually in the World Bank and OECD Office in Paris. A well prepared ‘laundry list’ of projects approved by the Finance Ministry were discussed with high level representatives of the donor countries as well as representatives of multilateral institutions.

Once agreement was reached on funding it was included in the national budget for the following year which was presented to Parliament. This meeting also reviewed progress of the foreign funded projects then underway. All in all, these arrangements which were coordinated by Ronnie smoothed the way for a rapid take off and was later copied by many developing countries at the urging of the World Bank.

Ronnie depended very much on his civil service colleagues like Chandi Chanmugam, J.V. Fonseka, Chandra Fonseka, Gaya Kumaratunga and Akiel Mohammed who formed the bedrock of the divisions of the Finance Ministry. He also reached out to the Central Bank and co-opted officials from there – which had become the practice by that time. Illangaratne as acting Finance Minister of the 1970 cabinet had earlier inducted the `Kandyan twins’ – Kelegama and Karandawela, from the Central Bank and the practice has persisted with all subsequent Finance Ministers.

In addition the President used the services of Raju Coomaraswamy who had retired from the UN and returned to Sri Lanka, as his special envoy. When relations with the World Bank deteriorated to such an extent that JRJ wanted to close down its Colombo Office it was Raju who urged caution and got the Bank to support the Mahaweli project. JR had a special affection for Raju as he was part of his team when he was Minister of Finance in the DS Cabinet. He was thinking of fielding Raju as a candidate for a seat in the North and a Cabinet assignment, when the latter died of a sudden heart attack.

Raju’s son – the popular and capable Indrajit was seconded from the Central Bank to be Ronnie’s assistant and dogsbody. It must be mentioned here that subsequent Ministers of Finance, particularly CBK did not handle the ‘Aid Club’ very well. Her trips to Paris were not so productive. In fact she took a number of her ministers along with her. They were clueless about the purpose of the meeting and concentrated on the social events including a farewell party at the Crillon.I can reveal that it was a misunderstanding between CBK and S.B. Dissanayake whom she had taken along to Paris, that began the rupture that led to SB’s defection and the fall of her Cabinet in 2001.

Right along Ronnie had a special concern for the underprivileged. He served for a long time as a senior official in Philip Gunawardena’s ministry and was held in high regard by Philip. Ronnie, then in the prime of his life, naturally harbored ambitions of advancement. Premadasa, Athulathmudali and Upali were suspicious of his motives as the latter two hankered to be Minister of Finance. This led to much tension in the Cabinet which sometimes flared out as criticisms of the Finance Ministry.

But JRJ, who had been a Finance Minister himself, backed Ronnie. Much later at the tail end of his career JRJ was disappointed when Ronnie offered him only lukewarm support for the Indo-Lanka agreement and remained in his Geekiyanakanda estate, not even returning the President’s telephone calls. I had a close relationship with Ronnie and facilitated his rapprochement with President Wijetunga in 1993.Later I played ‘broker’ in getting him into CBK’s Cabinet in 2000. CBK always had a good rapport with him and Ronnie returned as a senior Cabinet Minister for a short duration which I shall describe in volume three of my autobiography.

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My father, the unforgettable Premnath Moaraes



Birth centenary fell on Jan. 31

by Pradeep Moraes

Singer, Songwriter, Lyricist.

Actor, Film Director, Scriptwriter, Producer.

Weightlifter, Wrestler, Footballer, Cricketer, Athlete, Gymnast

Journalist, Sports Editor, Creative Head & Copywriter.

Commentator, Compere and Silver tongued Orator,

Believe me, the list goes on.

Renaissance Man? , Bohemian Artist? Yes to both, but to me, most importantly, the gentlest human being one could hope to meet, and the most devoted husband to my mother and loving father my sister Rehani or I could ever have hoped to have .

Premnath Joseph Moraes – born Joseph Peter Moraes Fernando on January 31, 1923, was of solid middle class stock, who carried his simple and devout Catholic faith right through life.In many ways he epitomized the essence of the very best of the Benedictine trademark ,with traits and talents that wove a rich tapestry of Arts, Sports, Humanity, Simplicity and a Christianity that was lived rather than preached.

Abundantly blessed with talent and versatility, he was however trusting to a foolish degree and unfailingly gullible so as to be a target for exploiters and worse, resulting in the vicissitudes of economic circumstances. So it was not his largesse that begets the incredible goodwill he has left as his legacy to his family, but rather a tribute from people of all walks of life to Premnath the man.

Talking of all walks of life, my father trod many paths; a short outline of which I hope will make good reading.

Joining the Police force soon after school , he was seconded to the CID and later advised to leave by a senior police officer after having spoken openly at the funeral of a colleague who had been gunned down when leading an unarmed raid on a den of vice.

Thereafter he sought and secured a position as a reporter with the Times of Ceylon after an interview with its Editor, Frank Moraes ( later Editor of the Times of India and father of the poet Dom), who reminded him that “the coincidence of our surnames will remain just that! “

Leaving the Times of Ceylon building , Premnath was almost knocked down by a vehicle driven by his friend Sangare Sellamuttu (later Mayor of Colombo ) with whom he got chatting and informed him of the job he had just landed . “What nonsense ” said Sellamuttu , “with your looks you should be in films . Let me introduce you to Sir Chittampalm Gardiner. ” Good looks he had, no doubt about it, but rather than me being accused of understandably favourable bias let me quote an excerpt from a long , eloquent and emotional appreciation by the late, great Gamini Fonseka:

“On those extra broad shoulders

rested that handsome head

of a barrel chested man

with a wasp like waist

His features stirred envy

In the hearts of “stars” of his day. “

The shoulders were actually very broad prompting the late T.B. Illangaratne (author and later Govt. Minister) to describe the hero in one of his books (in Sinhala) as having a moustache like Ronald Colman, and shoulders like Premnath Moraes.

Getting back to Sir Chittampalan (also an old Ben) , the great man was too busy to see my father that day and instead told him “meet me in Madras on Monday morning” (this was Friday) leaving the young applicant to find his own fare – perhaps a test of mettle.

Young Premnath (a name he then assumed ) was signed on as an actor and thus started a romance with the film industry which lasted over 50 years ( from 1947 to 1998 , from starring in ” Kadawanu Poronduwa “ (also known as Broken Promise) the second Sinhala film to be produced, to Demodara Palama, circa 1997. Warada Kageda and Kapati Arakshakaya in the late forties were followed by several others .

This was followed by a stint in Shanthiniketan the Centre of Arts north of Calcutta , the stay which was undertaken for purely aesthetic reasons, gave my father the most pleasant memories among which was seeing and hearing Maestro Ravi Shankar perform for over a hundred cumulative hours.

The long visitation was in the company of his close friend Shanthi Kumar Seneviratne (Star and Director of Ashokamala – the first Sinhala film). Though they both learned classical dance in Shanthiniketan, my father unlike Shanti was never a fan of ballroom dancing – much to the chagrin of Rani , my mother.

From Shanthenikitan, Premnath moved to Bombay where he was in the famed Raj Kapoor/Nargis circle , and was close friends of Dilip Kumar (Mohamed Yusuf Khan), and closer still to one of the most beautiful Hindi actresses of the time, whose gift to him – a gold , Universal Genève watch , I wear to this day.

Back to Ceylon , and the man took up to singing, was contracted to the HMV label (His Masters Voice) , recorded solo, and with Latha (Walpola) and Chitra (Somapala), of the many recordings perhaps the most famed are “Sri Lanka Rani Meniye” ( the de facto Catholic anthem of Sri Lanka) and “LakDeepe” .

Mellifluous to a high degree, his voice had the unusual combination of mellowness and power, in fact we have a photograph of my father recording “5 ths” in a studio a full 20 ft away from the “mike”.

Here, permit me to express a son’s view albeit emotionally flavoured ; I truly believe that no one could sing Olu Pipila or Kokilayane Kolila Nade, better . Incidentally the great Sunil Santha who immortalized these songs was also a Ben .

The Sri Lankan Nightingale Rukmani Devi once told me that she and her husband Eddie Jayamanne (both of whom were very close to him) used to badger my father to sing the 1939 classic “Over the Rainbow ” at every possible opportunity, and redoubtable fellow Benedictine Ben Navaratne ( argued to be the best wicketkeeper Sri Lanka or Ceylon ever produced) used to always ask my father to promise to sing ” O Danny Boy ” over his grave; very poignantly Ben Navaratne and Premnath Moraes are buried within yards of each other at the Jawatte Cemetery.

On to 1953. Production Assistant (titles were not grandiose in those days ), and Second Unit Director for Elephant Walk , directed by William De Telle , the son in law of the legendary Cecil B De Mille ( of Ten Commandments Fame ) .

Starring Vivien Leigh, Peter Finch and Dana Andrews – all Oscar Winners – (Peter Finch and Dana Andrews later, Vivien had already won hers for Streetcar named Desire). Living at the Galle Face Hotel for a full nine months, interspersed with long stays at up country locations, my father enjoyed close interaction with the best acting talent the world had to offer, with the huge bonus of frequent visits from Laurence Olivier, probably the most acclaimed Thespian and Actor who was obliged to check on his wife Vivien, who succumbed to a nervous breakdown within the shooting period. Many were the occasions when the “master” himself was coerced to perform Hamlet to a private audience,

What is remarkable (given that this was 1953) is that Vivien’s condition was recognized , possible inability to proceed was anticipated, and EVERY scene was shot twice, one with Vivien Leigh, one without. So upon Vivien being unable to proceed with the film, the images of Elizabeth Taylor were superimposed – without her ever having visited Ceylon. Not bad for 1953!

Two short stints as Second Unit Director for United Artists “Captain’s Table” and “Purple Plains” which starred Gregory Peck , on to India where he was Production Manager at Gemini Studios in Madras, where most of the Sinhala Films at the time were edited, dubbed and produced. Coincidentally his uncanny look alike, the Tamil film star Gemini Ganeshan, got his eponymous name through association with this studio.

Wide varied and versatile though my father’s exposure to the celluloid world, in my opinion his single most significant to the Sinhala Cinema were his unremitting efforts to get Gamini Fonseka into it, culminating in a successful introduction to Lester James Peiris who brought Gamini into Rekawa in a non starring role. The rest – to use a cliché – is history!. Gamini never lost an opportunity to credit my father (whom he referred to as his “guru “) with his entry to films, and Lester has also endorsed the fact over the years.

Many are the others whom Premnath introduced and inducted into the Film world, stars, cameramen, sound artists, script writers, editors , music directors et al, and many are the pioneering developments he introduced to Sinhala cinema.

A classic example is Sri 296 which he directed in 1959, wherein he provided Henry Jayasena , Joe Abeywickrema and Punya Heendeniya with their first “starring ” roles (all had played small roles earlier), introduced the very beautiful Zeena Valencia to whom he attributed the screen name “Sumitra” (a name she retained for life) who then went on to marry Gamini Fonseka.

Sri 296

is considered a watershed in Sinhala Cinema with the introduction for the first time of an all Ceylonese crew (film crew up to that point were from India) and also for the introduction of two full colour sequences under the mastery of cameraman A.V.M . Vasagam

Sigiri Kashyapa

followed circa 1961 with Gamini in the starring role and Shane Gunaratne as Migara. Scenes from the filming of this film form some of my earliest, distinct, memories with sword fighting being practiced in the main hall of our home at Colpetty (this house had previously been perhaps Ceylon’s only synagogue and an extremely large mosaic floored circular hall). And the equestrian escapades of the horsemen who were trained by Ranjith Dahanayake , later of Hermes International fame . Space does not permit a fair recording of his film career but mention might be made of his roles in Kathuru Muwath, Priyanga (where he played Vijaya Kumaratunga’s father ) and Hitha Honda Minihek where he at Gamini’s insistence played a virtual real life role as Gamini’s “finder” and mentor.

Association with Tyronne Fernando (Minister) and Manik Sandarasaga led to my father writing and scripting the rather ribald Colomba Sanniya (Coming Sweet). He also was the “ghost writer of the Hollywood Production of God King , and to use the term employed by that great Ben, Ravindra Randeniya who was the star of the film – “the de facto director” of much acclaimed Kalu Diya Dahara .

Ironically, given his long involvement with Sinhala cinema, Premnath won the most kudos , and international and local acclaim for directing the Tamil Film “Vaadai Kaatru” in the seventies, shot on the arid dunes of Pesalai. As recently as on September 26, 2015, that redoubtable and insightful journalist , DBS Jeyaraj referred to Vaadai Kaatru as “probably the best Tamil Film” ever made in Sri Lanka .

(To be continued next week)

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National Day and news from across the oceans



Cassandra has groused, groaned and suffered, yes suffered both emotionally and in mere existence by the stubbornness with which the National Day parade and all that will take place tomorrow. She is joined by almost the entire population of Sri Lanka. We are greatly angered by the expense of 200 million rupees on a pointless, useless, far too extravagant celebration with no feeling of freedom or democracy enjoyed. This grand show is on (almost solely for Ranil’s W R’s benefit) while officials circumvent the globe with the begging bowl; us Ordinaries suffer privations; and many almost starve in this land which is bountiful and kind but for the craft, corruption and sheer incompetence of government leaders down the years.

Cass never fails to watch the February 4th celebration at Galle Face Green, Independence Square or in front of Parliament by the Diyawanna. She is involved emotionally: impressed by the dignified splendour of the event; bursting with pride when the Lion Flag is hoisted, getting all teary at the sight of the young girls and boys in three types of national dress singing the Country Anthem, Jayamangala Gatha and the blessing. During the Yahapalana era, tears were doubled in her eyes, compounded with the sense of justice and non-racialism that was evident when the National Anthem was sung both in Sinhala and Tamil. This year only two events to earn reluctant kudos: singing the N Anthem is two languages, which is hoped will be the order of the day, and garlanding the Father of the Nation. This last has a canker in the flowers; its stupendous cost was questioned by the President. So, the native cunning must have crept in the quotation with money slipping into private pockets and not only to the florist.

A letter writer to the Editor of this newspaper classified Ranil W. as a deaf, unseeing, uncaring, stubborn President; also vain. Cass endorses this characterisation; many of the traits thought originally to be alien to this man of good family, good school, good education and good principles –THEN.

It’s Wednesday as Cass writes this Cry and so far she has not heard the practicing jet planes fly past overhead. Has that been cancelled as a compromise to protests? Jolly good if it has as that part of celebration is a fuel guzzler and thus adding tremendously to the cost. Also, doubly unfair as Capt Elmo Jayawardena pointed out in an article last Sunday in the sister paper that “The F7 fighter jets in this aero-ballet burn 40 litres of fuel a minute at low level. And we minions of Paradise loiter in snaking queues down below with our QR codes to get 20 liters for one week.” Do hope at least this crit was taken.

If I were Prez – my speech

An appropriate, non-insulting, above-board video clip is making its rounds. Dr Rohan Pethiyagoda with excellent inunciation of British English gave voice to the speech he would have made if he were President of this country. Cass adds here that zoologist par excellence, knowledgeable scientist with pragmatism and sincere humane being that Rohan P is, he should thank his stars he is not the Prez of present day Siri Lanka – vilified and thought so little of by the general public and puppet-stringed by a person who should live in his adopted country, not here.

Rohan, speaking as a pretend politician, addressing his Fellow Citizens, traced the history of Sri Lanka succinctly from the prosperous Polonnaruwa period -16th C, through colonialism to Independence Day February 4, 1948, when Ceylon was the most prosperous country in Asia and definitely of S Asia. India before colonialism was at its apex of prosperity; export oriented with manageable population. Over here post-independence, in 16 years from living amicably multi-racially and multi-religiously, we were fractured. First the Burghers migrated, then Tamils and now Sinhalese and all Sri Lankans where possible. While in 1955 we had a surplus of rice and a dollar cost less than Rs 50.00, things changed for the far worse. The pretend Prez Rohan blamed politicians but “you, the citizens” more for the rapid downfall. There were the pluses: free education, free health services, free rice, but then the minuses: the Diyaw Diyaw demand of the populace and elections becoming a lottery – biggest bidder and greatest giver winning votes. Hence nationalisation and giving pensionable jobs to most. Gotabaya comes along and destroys agriculture; many in power are thugs, criminals and morons. Again, the politico blames us the people and tells us to look in the mirror to see the bigger faulters.

No truer words were said. No blacker can our mood be; no streaks of light in the bleak future. For how long will this dark spell last, we ask?

Blots overcome by tennis’ No. I

It was an excellent diversion from our sea of troubles and darkness of tunnel we travel through with no glimmer of redeeming light at its end, to watch the Australian Open tennis. Relief was great when Novak Djokovic won the finals in a nail biting three sets. Cass invariably reprimands herself for getting worked up over a match played by, to her, unknown persons, but she does get stressed watching the finals.

She missed seeing Djokovic’s wife and kids who are normally in the area of seats allocated to him. This time noticeably absent. He mentioned, after the semis win, his ten-year-old son as playing good tennis with him and hoped one day he’d compete in the men’s double as a team of father and son. Cass googled to see whether the family is together. They are. Maybe the children’s schooling or whatever kept them away.

A minor upset was his father being banned from witnessing the men’s semifinals because Djokovic had been seen in a video with Vladimir Putin fans on the tennis grounds in Melbourne and Russia is now anathema to the Australians and many others. In fact, the Russian flag was banned from the meet such that against Daniil Medvedev’s name on the score board, there was a blank space where the country flag would be displayed. However, Craig Tiley, manager of the AO – lifted the ban on him for the finals and permitted attending the finals in the Rod Laver court. He absented himself. These would have been troubling Novak who is very family oriented but he won his 10th title in Australia beating Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas and equalling Nadal’s number of wins.

See you after the celebration of independence and nationalism, hoping there will not be massive walkouts of workers protesting the tax hikes.

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Why Neighbours (AsalWasiyo) should be considered an exemplary piece of Sri Lankan drama



By Charith Gamage and Gem Taylor

With the doorbell ring echoing through the house, Mrs. Josephine, living in the suburbs with her three unmarried daughters, gets excited as she realises someone has come to inspect her vacant annexe house. In the next scene, the face of the sturdy woman (wearing an old patched dress) soon disappoints after seeing her potential rental tenant – a married couple! They have fulfilled all the typical qualifications, such as financials, and are okay with higher rent, but Mrs Josephine turns them down without much consideration. Although Mrs Josephine should only be concerned about receiving a smooth higher rent – all she needs as a landlord – it is not necessarily her expectation through renting out her annexure house.

The answer to the strange behaviour of Mrs Josephine lies in the thirteen dramatic episodes of AsalWasiyo First aired in 1989 in Rupavahini and directed by the veteran director Bandula Vithanage (with assistant direction by Wimalarathna Adikari), the format of the drama can be considered as something that single-handedly challenged the face of Sri Lankan teledrama in the 1980s. Many Sri Lankan viewers still love the drama, proving that it also stood the test of time to become a timeless art piece that can exemplify a quality drama. Although it talks about profound themes and socio-economic issues in that period of Sri Lanka – a mother’s sacrifices, the housing crisis, and even dowry – the director preserves the dramatic quality rather than giving an explicit socio-economic or socio-political tone. In addition, among other reasons, the drama’s unpredictable nature, high-quality comedic elements, realistic acting, and music also make it stand out and intriguing to watch.

As the drama unfolds, it shows Josephine’s circumventing strategy in searching for marriage partners for her daughters. She rents out her annexe house to people whom she thinks have affluent backgrounds so that her daughters build relationships with them. The middle-aged widower Paul, who is going through a housing issue, meets Josephine after seeing her newspaper advertisement. Paul’s family, with his two unmarried sons, seemingly matches Josephine’s dream tenant perfectly, except that he only boasts about himself and his sons without having the qualifications Josephine is looking for. Despite not having the desired qualifications, Paul who just worked for a lawyer for some time introduces himself to Mrs Josephine as a lawyer. Meantime, his younger son is introduced as an Engineer when he is a casual employee at a motor garage.

As Paul’s family lives in their false identity about their status, drama develops with subsequent clashes from Josephine’s family entertaining revenge when their true identities are revealed. Although one may classify it as a comedy, from a socio-economic standpoint, the drama also depicts a segmental view of the lower-middle-class and middle-class life of Sri Lanka at that time. It shows how hopes of solving one problem can lead to a bigger problem, bringing them back to square one.

What does the drama structure tell us?

AsalWasiyo has a simple but rich storyline, making it an excellent blueprint for those who want to study quintessential family dramas which depict wider Sri Lankan society. The show follows a climactic plot structure similar to as laid out in Fig 1, which offers plenty for viewers to analyse. In drama, a climactic plot structure is a term used for when we witness a rise in action throughout the storyline before we eventually witness a dramatic climax and subsequent fallout. The drama initially shows Paul searching for accommodation, while at the same time, Josephine is desperately searching for wealthy tenants to match her taste and needs. As their lives – and the lives of their various children – intertwine, the show’s writer (Somaweera Senanayake) and director bring multiple (character-wise) storylines together, which leads to a dramatic and humorous climax.

The climax in the drama comes when it is revealed that not only is Paul’s son not an Engineer – but he also loses his garage job for using clients’ vehicles to maintain his status. Similarly, as a father, Paul considers himself a master planner throughout the show – and he insists on the annexe house as a dowry to approve the marriage between his son and Josephine’s second daughter. However, his plans fail when he and his sons are exposed. Lastly, viewers watch as Josephine and her daughters go through the full circle of making friends with Paul and his family, building relationships with them initially, and trusting them in their lives and home – only to learn that they were being deceived the whole time. Overall, the climactic plot structure allows audiences to enjoy the tension of these two mismatched families coming together and trying to impress each other – as well as the drama of their secrets being exposed in the climactic finale.

How much Shakespearean influence have helped?

Before directing AsalWasiyo, Vthanage had significant exposure to Shakespearean theatre, particularly through Merchant of Venice in 1980. Shakespeare is undoubtedly a formative force in theatre for blending tragedy and comedy, presenting a powerful genre in his plays. In addition, Shakespearean comedies sometimes end with marriage or reuniting. In AsalWasiyo, Shakespeare’s trait of combining tragedy and comedy is visible, except that the drama does not insist on a marriage or reunion. The elements of Shakespearean comedy, such as mistaken identity, reason versus emotion, and idyllic settings, can still be seen in this drama. Paul’s impersonation of a higher-status professional depicts a mistaken identity. In addition, Josephine’s second daughter, led by emotion rather than reason, is similar to A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Hermia, who disobeys her father, and chooses to pursue a romance with Paul’s second son. She insists on the romance even after he is exposed, regardless of Josephine’s approval. Finally, idyllic settings are common in Shakespearean dramas like the mysterious island of Illyria in Twelfth Night. Idyllic settings depict perfection, like having a house when there is a housing crisis for others and having a professional bachelor in the family when there is a demand from middle-class mothers as prospective husbands for their unmarried daughters.

How have characters been used, and how has their acting helped?

Characters and actors in a play as primary communicators help the director to interconnect and deliver the intended plot to the audience. It starts with Elan Silvester, who keeps the motion of the story going through her portrayal of the protagonist, Josephine. Although Josephine seems humorous, she is tough inside, suppressing all her agonies. Elan’s quick facial changes and ability to shift from amusing to serious emotions are remarkable on this front. On the other hand, Paul (portrayed by Hemasiri Liyanage) thinks about his image and likes to show off. The character’s use of mixed Sinhalese-English dialogues, which boosts his perceived identity by thinly veiling the true one, is a significant feature in the drama. The scenes, such as his English dialogues with an innocent lady who supplied them with dinner at the beginning and knowing she had no idea what he was talking about, are examples. This character (Paul) shows less emotion than Josephine and blends well with Josephine’s psychological expectations of a wealthy potential in-law, as he cannot meet their expectations in his real identity.

Besides the leading characters, other characters also show more realistic passion, improving the drama’s quality that could grab the audience’s attention. Priya Ranasinghe, Samantha Epasinghe and Thamali Peiris play Josephine’s first, second, and youngest daughters, depicting their distinct personalities in the drama. Samantha gives life to Josephine’s second daughter and realistically contributes to more funny and dynamic scenes. Her performance contributes considerably to the drama in filler scenes, from hiding under a bed to evade Josephine, getting attacked by a curry in a pot by the eldest sister in defending her boyfriend, and a series of beatings by her mother for passing Paul’s message of dowry requirement.

On the other hand, how the youngest daughter’s character is architected in the drama shows similarities to how such characters can be used in successful productions. Like Zazu from The Lion King and Ron from Harry Potter, she is knowledgeable, diplomatic, and usually a sidekick of the main character. In addition, she does not shy away from expressing brutally honest opinions with humour, even if the recipient is offended. Quotations such as “Now, do we put this rental ad in the rental section of the newspaper or the marriage proposals section?” in response to the mother’s draft, and “They won’t stay here for long if they have to eat what you [eldest sister] cook.” are examples. She also shows characteristics of “Ingénue characters”, the female characters with a virtuous and adorable appeal that make them immediately inspire great affection in the viewers. In addition, Suminda Sirisena and Sriyantha Mendis, who played Paul’s two sons, are also notable for building up the drama with their contrasting character traits under the influence of their father. Overall the drama has carefully selected those elements and coordinated them to get the audience to connect with the plot.

What does the overall evaluation tell us?

The play is a solid effort on the dramatic front, even with the paucity of technology breakthroughs and resources at the time. Times have changed with the formats of Sri Lankan dramas and technology, but the basics of this drama remain valid for present and future drama enthusiasts. These include careful use of direction and script writing to build up characters; employing natural vocal intonation that matches the acting; and good use of music in supporting character emotions and plotlines. In particular, the music by Premasiri Kemadasa helps build the director’s desired atmosphere while setting up the next scene. Efforts made by the camera relative to the 80s to preserve cinematography are also helpful on this front. Finally, William A. Ward once said (paraphrased) the well-developed sense of humour is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope in achieving your goals. The drama depicts a tragedy, but its use of comedic overlay is very effective as a refresher, keeping the audience’s interest (possibly making the scenes memorable) and carrying them to the director’s desired destination effortlessly with the intended message passed. With everything explained, the drama shows the characteristics of a timeless creation, with elements that can still be used as a stencil for young Sri Lankan enthusiasts in drama.

Charith is an Assistant Lecturer attached to Monash University, Australia. Gem is a UK-born theatrical artist (actress) from Atlanta, USA, with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) focused on theatre. Authors would like to thank Wimalarathna Adikari for helping for the article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. Email:

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