Gamini Fonseka offered rugged good looks at times. He then sported a mischievous
convincing smile that enticed his opposite character on the screen. His magnetic presence attracted fans. He possessed an incomparable voice that was unparalleled in the annals of the Sinhala film industry. Above all he was a
When he reached the age of 60 in 1996, seated with him in the salubrious climes of his beautiful garden at Ekala, Ja-ela, I asked him the best role he played in his long spanning career. Lighting another cigarette with eyebrows moved upwards, he replied, ‘You want to know the best role I played? Then take it, it’s my own life, the role that none could emulate’. ‘What better role could Gamini Fonseka play to take the cinema forward’, he asked.
In Gamini we saw somebody, a glamorous figure, who in his time took the country by storm. And, the poignant nature of his silent death is even more carved in our hearts. It was in such a backdrop Gamini Fonseka earned his well deserved rest. Gamini Fonseka is widely accepted as a progenitor of the popular Sinhala silver screen. He earned many accolades as a pointer to that fact during his lifetime. It was Gamini’s inborn talent and contributions that advanced and expanded the Sinhala film industry. That was the stream he represented most colourfully. Films directed by Gamini in the Sri Lankan theme touched many fans to emerge into a national consciousness. He was self-taught in acting and was the pioneer who introduced method acting to Asia.
On the screen and outside, Gamini was a giant among the first generation of actors in this country. He possessed a man within himself, who did not lose faith in his creed, when everything around him tumbled down and lesser men fled the scene. Unrepentant to the last, he was ready to face challenges to uplift the film industry, the profession he loved more than his wife, as once described by him. The passing away of this great actor was another sad epiphany to the film industry.
The sad epiphany that arose with the passing away of Gamini drove us to sense that the film industry and the country at large lost a man with a quality of leadership that could never be replaced. He was also a fearless politician who placed public good over personal considerations. He demonstrated that public office should be held on trust and it was an obligation to be discharged by the people and not a bounty to be freely enjoyed by individuals. The apotheosis of Gamini Fonseka certainly merits a chapter not only in the film and political annals of Sri Lanka but also in the socio-cultural saga.He covered himself with glory in his lifetime and dismissed fantasy. Gamini embraced the national bosom of all
communities to become a fitting folk hero and a national icon. His film – Sarungale was ample testimony, in which he played the lead role as Nadaraja Mahattaya, a story based on a country tragically flawed by a self-induced communal problem.
Through his versatile film creations, Gamini drove sense to prove that he belonged to a just-minded generation that stormed the citadels and bastions of the established elitist order. He revealed and demonstrated the monopoly and the corrupt minds of the old established elitist.
That was the challenge he threw from his creation – “Sagarayak Meda”. From that film, it was displayed that elitist hold was irremediably broken. And today people from all walks of life have found freedom in every congenial sphere.
Gamini was an emblem of the oppressed class and smaller communities in his country.
Through his creations, he was a unifier at sight in a country desperately trying to heal the wounds inflicted by a fratricidal strife. Gamini’s heart was in the right place of authentic patriotism, a period of time, when so much of the fake and counterfeit was the order of the day by merchants of the political black market, who fought a war without proper political leadership and direction. That was why he took the floor in Parliament as Deputy Speaker in the Premadasa administration to lambast his own government over the step motherly treatment afforded to the soldiers fighting the terrorist war. There was pin drop silence in the Chamber that day as Members from both sides attentively listened to his patriotic contribution.
The phenomenon of this great actor in politics was passion and idealism. He was not a politician who came out of assembly lines,
well-shaved and groomed, trained by PR agents and ‘witch doctors’ of the Western backed media, to smile at nonsense and crack words to please his political leaders. He never gave offence to any in politics. But, spoke the truth and never took away the passion out of national debate. He wanted the people to watch a vigorous political debate and not a “Punch and Judy” show.
Gamini knew that there were ‘Spin Doctors’ not only in the Western backed media but also in the Western film industry, who thought there was ‘cheap labour’ in the Asian film market. Once a German film director visited Gamini in Colombo, and invited Gamini to play the lead role in a German sponsored English film that was to be shot in Germany. This German had earlier viewed Gamini’s English film –
“Rampage” in which Gamini played the lead role with British actress Mary Tamm. Their discussion came to decide on figures, and Gamini placed his figure on the table.
The visibly shocked German confessed, “This figure is even higher than that of Marlon Brando”. “It should be, because Sri Lanka’s Gamini Fonseka could well do much better than Marlon Brando and Sri Lankan actors are not cheap as those in the West”, shot back Gamini. A dejected German took the next available flight back to his country. He never believed to copy or to depend on fashion images that ended up in bromides. Nor did he ever want to play the role of a ‘Blair’ to look and sound like ‘Clinton’. In flash and light, he never wanted to be a great dandy. Gamini was a serious actor. That was why his adventures in films formed a saga of it’s own, as he progressed into more complex textures. That was the colour and glamour in the characteristics of legendary Gamini Fonseka.
His quality was tasteful from all corners to the centre stage. I was one of his closest favourite nephews. When I met him the week before his untimely death and was about to take my leave, he gazed at the blazing sky and said, “There’s somebody waiting up there for me, I think my time is up”. I dismissed his statement and asked him not to be hypothetical. He shot back quoting Pluto on Socrates to recall – “I respect Socrates, yet I respect the truth more”- and added, “When the call comes I must go”. And, four days later on 30 September 2004, the call came during his customary morning sleep after breakfast. His silent death brought the curtain down on an era, an era of true innocence.
(This tribute is written to mark his 80th birth anniversary which falls on March 21)