Joe Abeywickrama the actor extraordinaire
His quintessential simplicity in appearance and the outstanding
theatrical performance have impressed almost three generations. He
splendidly represented the great tradition of Sinhala cinema and his
death left a serious vacuum in Sri Lankan cinema. During his
extraordinary lifetime of acting, his image achieved immortality in the
hearts of Sri Lankan cinema lovers. His great gift for acting, though
untrained by formal schooling of any recognised institution, carried him
to effortless victory in the field of cinema.
His fine sense of humour and surprising witticism in a number of
immortal cinema dialogues immediately raise the spirits of the most
moody and the most serious viewers. Thus, the real artiste in him was
not the outcome of any methodical training in arts but the unmistakable
product of his intuitive calibre and the campestral upbringing. He
breathed his last on September 21, 2011 and this September marks his
first death anniversary.
Gammana Patabendige Don Joe Abeywickrama was born in Lellopitiya -
Ratnapura on June 22, 1927. His father, who had been in close
companionship with John D'oyly named him John Abeywickrama as a tribute
to his friendship with John D'oyly. Later, Don John Abeywickrama became
Don Joe Abeywickrama in a more fashionable way. His profession as a
clerk at the studio "Nawa Jeewana" founded by Sirisena Wimalaweera
marked a major turnaround in his life and his ruling passion to become
The theatrical performance by Laddie Ranasinghe who was by now a
pioneer actor, greatly impressed Joe Abeywickrama and nourished his
current of thought. Accordingly, he made his bebut in the film "Deva
Sundari" by M.H.M. Munas.
By the time Joe Abeywickrama entered the cinema scene, the Sri Lankan
cinema had been invaded by south Indian trends and styles. Going against
the strong imitation of Indian actors, he showed independence in his
style of acting attitudes and total identity. That is precisely what is
special about him. His earlier roles in films were largely framed around
the typical Sri Lankan humorist and his unique acting offered him
massive image as a superb humorist. His comic acting in movies such as
"Allapu Gedara" is unquestionably ranked matchless because his capacity
for honour was fortified by social experience. He gave a pleasant rural
colour to what he was to portray.
"Shri 296" screened in 1956 and directed by Premanath Moraes feature
him as a comedian detective that won a greater applause from the
viewers. By 1960s, Gamini Fonseka had introduced realistic acting to
Asian Cinema and Joe Abeywickrama opened new dimensions in these trends.
In films such as "Allapu Gedara", "Gatawarayo" he demonstrated a unique
style of comedian that contrasted drastically with the style of
conventional Sri Lankan comedian played by Eddie Jayamanna, Hugo
Fernando or Christie Leonard etc.
In the process of acting out a certain character he was assigned, Joe
Abeywickrama drew heavily from his treasury of experiences, intuition,
nature and from close observation of ordinary men. For the first time,
film critics and audience were kept spell bound by his portrayal of
humanity peppered with humour in the film "Saara Vita". Gunahami,
immortalised by Joe, is a complex blend of humanity and humour and here
Joe fundamentally changed comic acting in Sri Lankan cinema.
His imagination easily defined the character he played because he was
the most excellent character actor in Sinhala cinema. With the self same
calibre that he displayed in acting comic characters, Joe Abeywickrama
immortalised serious characters in films such as "Purahanda Kaluwara"
(Vannihami), "Siribo Ayya (Siribohami)", "Beddegama (Silindu)", "Soldadu
Unnehe (the soldier)" and "Weli Kathara."
The film "Saravita" marks the climax of Joe Abeywicakrama's comic
acting which is probably ranked superlative in the mould of the
performance by Charlie Chaplin or Raj Kapoor in India.
His comedian first makes the spectator laugh and then reflect on the
harsh realities of life because his acting is well peppered with a
shadow of humanity. His sense of humour transparently contrasts with
that of many comic actors who often fail to take the viewer to the depth
of laughter and fun. Here Joe Abeywickrama successfully brings an
unsuspected comedic touch to his roles.
In "Welikathara" (Directed by D.B. Nihalsinha) Joe Abeywickrama
deviates dramatically from the typical comedian and portrays the anti
hero. His acting intuition and potential developed positively and found
free expression in Nihalsinha's "Welikathara". In this film he was
co-starred by Gamini Fonseka displaying equal eminence and performance
in confrontation with that of Joe Abeywickrama.
According to Dharmasena Pathiraja, Joe Abeywickrama possessed a rare
potential for being a character actor and he was ever prepared to accept
any challenge as far as complexities of a character were concerned. His
acting was so realistic that he was a real fishseller in "Bambaru
Ewith", a real villager in "Beddegama", Siribo Ayya', a real Mudalali,
in 'Welikathara' a real antihero in 'Purahanda Kaluwara'.
"Purahanda Kaluwara' directed by Prasanna Vithanage brings the climax
of Joe Abeywickrama's theatrical performance which merited an
international award. The Singapore International Film Festival (1999)
granted him the award for the best actor (Vannihami). This is the first
Sri Lankan actor on the international cinema scene. Moreover, Joe
Abeywickrama was the first actor to represent Sri Lanka at Film Fare
Festival in 1965.
Contribution to Teledrama
He acted in musical dramas such as 'Berisil (1960 Premasiri
Khemadasa), and 'Kele Kella' (1962). His intrinsic talent for acting was
brought out in another dimension when he appeared in popular teledramas
such as 'Andu Kola', 'Vanas Pathi', 'Gamperaliya', 'Sakisanda Eliyas'
and Esala Kaluwara'. He was the vocalist for the song in the teledrama
"Thahanchi|" and he even wrote lyrics for some songs.
From 1957 upto 2010 ('Tikiri Suwanda') he has portrayed varying
characters in almost hundred and seventy one films.
Furthermore, he has bagged forty awards at Sri Lankan film festivals
and has penned a novel "Maha Bambata Muhunu Dekai" (Maha Brahma has twin
Joe Abeywickrama is the non pareil actor who was expert in character
acting and has grasped different aspects of life and society to flavour
his performance. He is the actor extraordinaire who is capable of
producing multiple facial expressions within seconds.