Taking Lankan movies to the world | Sunday Observer

Taking Lankan movies to the world

A scene from Nidanaya
A scene from Nidanaya

I am glad to once again get an opportunity to write about a topic that I feel so passionate about – the restoration and preservation of the best Sinhala movies in digital (and if possible, film) form. I got the cue from a recent stellar achievement of a few Sri Lankan film lovers, which should be applauded by all.

Sri Lanka’s first Cinemascope film, ‘Weli Kathara’ the debut direction by visionary filmmaker Dr. D. B. Nihalsinghe has been fully restored with digital technology and was recently screened at the National Film Corporation’s ultra-modern theatre. But that’s not all - with the digital restoration, this 1971 hit movie will be back in theatres islandwide. This is commendable, since a whole generation has grown up without seen this fine masterpiece of local cinema.

This outstanding film which is often included among the 10 best Sri Lankan films was also considered South Asia’s second Cinemascope film. Shot in Point Pedro well before the conflict erupted, “Weli Kathara” was first screened on October 27, 1971. The film revolves around a clash between local thug Goring Mudalali (Joe Abeywickrema) and newly appointed ASP Randeniya (Gamini Fonseka).

These are two of the finest actors ever to have graced Sri Lankan and Asian cinema and the action thriller became a natural hit. Scripted by Tissa Abeysekera, the film also starred Suweenitha Weerasinghe and a host of other well-known stars. The all-digital restoration was initiated by Four-In-One Institute, to which all local film lovers will no doubt be grateful. This was a long overdue step and we are glad that there are organisations interested in this kind of work.

Among the top Sinhala movies which deserve restoration are Gamperaliya (Change in the Village), Nidhanaya (Treasure), Rekhava (Line of Destiny), Sandeshaya (Letter), Golu Hadawatha (Silent Heart), Akkara Paha (Five Acres), Madol Doowa (Madol Island), Beddegama (Village in the Jungle), Ahasin Polowata (White Flowers for the Dead), Thun Man Handiya (The Junction), Gehenu Lamai (The Girls), Bambaru Avith (The Wasps are Here), Hathara Denama Soorayo (Four Champs), Ran Muthu Duwa (Golden Pearl Island/the first Sinhala colour movie) and Siripala Saha Ranmenike (Siripala and Ranmenike). There are more recent Sinhala movies such as Akasa Kusum (Flowers in the Sky) and Samanala Sandhvaniya (Butterfly Symphony) which may not need restoration per se but they need to be digitalized and preserved as soon as possible for the benefit of future generations.

However, there are several moot points that our authorities, the movie industry and restoration enthusiasts have to ponder on. Even the greatest Sinhala movies such as Nidhanaya do not appear on any of the top 100 global movies of all time lists, which really is a serious lacuna. These movies have won international awards and had been acclaimed by foreign critics. The problem seems to be that these movies have never really found an international audience.

There is only one answer to this. We need a much bigger international audience for these excellent movies, moving beyond the 21 million population of Sri Lanka. The only way to do that is through blu-ray editions and to a lesser extent, cable and satellite distribution. But this is no easy task, because we do not have the resources, the clout and the technology to make it happen.

The authorities should approach and partner with a label such as Criterion, Arrow Video, British Film Institute (BFI), Eureka Masters of Cinema, Eureka Montage or Indicator to find a wider market for the best Sinhala movies. They have the latest technology to restore both sight and sound in even the oldest movies and also to preserve them digitally. A couple of days ago, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s fully digitally restored Vertigo on blu-ray and the picture (and the surround sound) simply blew me away. The 1958 James Stewart-Kim Novak romance with a macabre twist could have been shot yesterday.

But restoring a movie to this extent is a painstaking, laborious process that could easily take a couple of years (It did, for Vertigo). Just to give an example of the kind of technology and work involved, I shall quote an example from Criterion’s restoration process for “Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying Out and Love the Bomb” which was theatrically released in 1964. This could very well be the same process for local films whose badly damaged prints could be in multiple locations here and abroad.

“Because of overprinting and damage created at the time of its theatrical release, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was nearly destroyed at the lab 50 years ago. As a result, a combination of elements, including 35mm fine-grain master positives, duplicate negatives, and prints, were used for this digital transfer, which was created in 4K resolution on an Oxberry wet-gate film scanner at Cineric in New York. Given the condition of the many elements, the fact that they represented different manufacturing generations from the original camera negative, resulting in wide variations in density and contrast; and the need to maintain the filmmakers’ aesthetic intentions, it was determined that the only way to restore the film properly was in a full 4K digital space. Daniel DeVincent, Cineric’s director of digital restoration, created lookup tables designed to optimize the scanner for each element and achieve the dynamic range of 35mm film.

Under the supervision of Grover Crisp, initial color correction was carried out by DeVincent. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed by Cineric using DaVinci’s Revival. The original monaural soundtrack and the alternate 5.1 surround mix were remastered from the best surviving optical tracks at Chace Audio by Deluxe, under Crisp’s supervision. Additional restoration was undertaken by the Criterion Collection using Pro Tools and iZotope RX4.”

This gives the reader an inkling of what it is like to restore an old movie to “as-new” condition. A movie such as Lester James Peries’ Nidhanaya would be an ideal candidate for a collector’s edition blu-ray with fully restored picture and sound (a restored copy was shown in London a couple of years ago), multi-language subtitles, commentary track by a film expert, video interviews with Lankan cinema and culture experts, documentaries, a booklet of writings on the movie, trailers and other extra materials. There is no doubt that world cinema lovers will snap up such editions of major Sinhala movies. Do not believe that physical media is about to die – streaming will never give the extras that film lovers seek.

We hope that the Government, the National Film Corporation and the people who got together to restore Welikathara will take this idea forward. It is time to take the Sinhala cinema to the world and for the world to discover its many treasures.