Golden memories of the silver screen | Sunday Observer

Golden memories of the silver screen

The great bard William Shakespeare famously described the seven stages of man – infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon and old age. While we may be able to identify with some of these stages, there is one man who I met recently who had lived all these stages. At 89 years of age he is probably one of the last remaining unsung heroes of the Sinhala silver screen. Bandhu Gunasekera is a man full of vibrant memories from the grand era of the Sinhala cinema, having worked closely with the godfather of Sinhala cinema the late Lester James Peries. It was that era in Ceylon when people visited the theatre in their hundreds. Bandhu Gunasekera made it to fame when he starred as a rebel in the film Sandesaya (1960).

From Matale to Colombo

At his residence in Moratuwa the retired actor said “I was born in Matale. My parents died when we were young. I had a brother and two sisters. My elder brother Daya Gunasekera became the librarian of the Senate. Since I lived with relatives I was moved to seven schools, completing my studies at St. Thomas’ College, Kotte. I was 19 years when I joined the Bank of Ceylon, and was assigned to the Foreign Department as a clerk. In 1951 I suddenly decided to join the Royal Ceylon Navy. As a young man it was an adventurous experience. The naval food was excellent. One morning the Captain of the Navy, Capt. Banks visited our barracks and spoke to me. That night over a round of beer I imitated his British accent which drew thunderous applause from my fellow sailors. It was they who realized my dormant talent for acting. Soon they convinced me that I could become an actor. I had to leave the Navy before I turned 21. I was a few days away from my 21st birthday and my elder brother wrote to the Captain and secured my release.

First stage drama

I was now living at the Rathnagiri Hotel in Fort owned by G.W. Somasiri. I found a job at the Co-operative Department as an Inspector and stationed in Gampaha. During this time the Commissioner was Shelton Fernando. Along with the Deputy Commissioner Publicity, Sembukuttiarachchi they envisaged a creative idea of propagating the cooperative concept through stage drama. I got a chance to act and soon the drama was staged in every Province. I was trained by Laddie Ranasinghe. The Commissioner was a kind man and gave me permission to take leave and act in my first movie. This was a great motivation for me.”

Sandesaya

During this era one of the famous men in the local film industry was K.Gunaratnam, the Managing Director of Cinemas Ltd. Laddie Ranasinghe took me to his office in New Chetty Street, Colombo. Gunaratnam offered me the chance to work in his office doing statistics, until an acting role was available. About this time Lester James Peries had become famous for his new film Rekava based on the novel by W.A. Silva. Shortly Gunaratnam decided to produce the movie Sandesaya where Lester would be the director. I was offered the role of one of the rebels. The other prominent screen idols were Gamini Fonseka, Eddie Jayamane, Ananda Jayaratne, Kanthi Gunathunga, Iranganie Serasinghe, David Dharmakeerthi and Arthur Vanlangemberg who played the role of the Portuguese Captain. There were many other Burgher boys who acted as soldiers. The story was how the Sinhalese folk gave stiff resistance to the invading Portuguese troops.

Our filming location was Belihuloya, by the river. It was a beautiful serene location. But there were many cloudy and rainy days. The senior actors and actresses stayed at the Hotel Corporation Bungalow. We were accommodated in comfortable cabana styled huts with electricity produced by a generator. Director Lester James opted to stay in a single cabana, and we were able to associate with this doyen of Sinhala cinema. He was a good man who cared for the entire film crew. He knew everyone by name. The technical crew had built a small fortress. We were shown paths in the dense jungles- the paths we had to walk through to assault the Portuguese garrison. I remember every evening we would return to the cabana and spend about 15 minutes removing the defiant leeches. All the film crew had to do this. It soon became a routine task. But shooting on site was fun. We set off early in the morning- the cinematographer and director decided the times based on sunlight and clear skies. Belihuloya was often engulfed by grey clouds and we had to wait for the sunlight. We had our breakfast and lunch by the river. In the evenings the boys would go for a swim. There was a Burgher man who operated a bar adjacent to our accommodation. A bottle of beer at that time was only two rupees. The food was spicy and enjoyed by all. Gunaratnam our producer used to visit us once a month. Every fortnight I would go to Colombo on my trusted Royal Enfield motorbike. I had another friend named Roy Seibel from the Army. His task was to place explosives on the Fort and blow it up. Roy was called the “blow out expert”.

An elusive target

Gunasekera added “One of the key stages in Sandesaya is where Gamini Fonseka had to shoot me with an arrow- for I had committed an act of betrayal by showing the Portuguese General their hideout in the cave. I had to wear a cloth belt with a protective wooden piece. The arrow was real with a steel tip. Gamini missed four times and thankfully I was not hurt. To the delight of the director he shot me on the fifth try. I had to display great pain and drop dead. This scene was done to perfection and that night we all celebrated. Sandesaya was a wonderful experience. The film was a super hit among local fans”.

The seventh stage

The retired actor said “I have acted in Duppathage Dukka, Suraya, Vanamohini, Surasena, Weera Vijaya, Sigiri Kashyapa and Oba dutu da- based on Denise Robins’ book Unshaken Loyalty”. Bandhu Gunasekera was blessed to visit the AVM studios in India for some of these films and had the opportunity to meet screen legends such as Gemini Ganesan, Chandrababu and M.K. Radha. On a cabinet nearby is a framed proclamation of the title Kalabooshana bestowed on him by the State. He also worked as a sub-editor at the Sun newspaper. The old actor laughingly said ‘I have now completed the seven stages of life described by Shakespeare. I was fortunate to have worked in that golden era of Sinhala cinema”.

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