Last week I met an 86-year old gentleman. His eyes still resonate with enthusiasm. His calm voice laden with humor captivated me at once. I found out that Bandu Gunasekera was a man of many talents. In his long and rewarding lifetime he has been a banker, sailor, actor and film director. Born on July 9, 1930 in Matale, he had three other siblings. His father HD Gunasekera was a principal and notary public whilst his mother Sumana was a teacher. He recalls the happy days growing up as a child. At age nine he used to stand near the old gramophone and listen to the lyrics of popular songs, and soon began to sing to the delight of his family. Suddenly his dear mother passed away.
Bandu now feeling a great void began seeking solace in song and theatre whilst studying at St. Agnes Convent, Matale. At school he excelled in drama. He proceeded to Harasgama College. 1947 was a memorable year in his life. In old Ceylon, coming to Colombo the vibrant city, was a treat. So 17-year-old Bandu came with many expectations. He was taken to see the film ‘Kadawuna Porunduwa’ (Broken Promises) which starred Eddie Jayamane and Rukmani Devi. The young man was mesmerized. Over the next two days he returned to the cinema hall and watched the movie six times!
In the coming weeks he was able to imitate Eddie Jayamane, and impress his friends. In 1948 Bandu Gunasekera, now quite confident, enrolled into St. Thomas College, Kotte and passed his SSC (senior school certificate). Having completed school, Bandu was able to find a job at the Bank of Ceylon, with a monthly wage of 150 rupees. This in those days was an achievement. He recalls lodging at the Ratnagiri Hotel in Fort, paying 60 rupees a month for food and accommodation. The meals included rice and succulent curries.
Biscuits and cheese was served with coffee for breakfast. After work having loads of time to spare he would stroll along the ‘Galle buck’ adjacent to the Navy Station at Flagstaff street. As the sun set, Bandu recalls buying a ‘nip of stout’ for 1 rupee. It was on such an evening he bumped into a sailor named Hannan. Within an hour Hannan had convinced 20-year-old Bandu to resign from the bank and join the Royal Ceylon Navy, with promises to sail to exotic locations!
Gunasekera remembers his medical examination with Surgeon Lieutenant Balakrishnan, a strict officer. The next day he was in the Navy, and began making new friends. In a short time he was able to imitate the Commander, Captain WE Banks. After a month in the Navy he was now faced with a tough decision. He was told of a career in cinema. Bandu was under a two-year naval contract and on deciding to leave he had to ‘purchase’ his discharge by paying 200 rupees.
One sunny morning Bandu was introduced to Laddie Ranasinghe, a recognized actor back in the day. Laddie was able to make out the desire and dormant talent in Bandu and took him that very day to meet veteran producer SM Nayagam at his studio in Kandana. Later they met the Managing Director of Cinemas Ltd, Kanagasabey Gunaratnam. Within a week jubilant Bandu was airborne to India with Laddie, taking a flight from Ratmalana which cost him 60 rupees.
After settling into his new surroundings and appreciating the fine vegetarian meals Bandu began acting as a Professor in the film Radala Piliruwa, which was released in 1954. He joyfully recollects that film critique Karunasena Jayalath had written in the front page of Lankadeepa, hailing Bandu as a brilliant actor. Thereafter Bandu spent six years in India working on 11 films. Each film took about five months to complete, so two films were done every year. He says he loved the work he did for Duppathage Duka, the Sinhalese adaptation of Sir Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable). Gunasekera has been part of Surasena, Vana Mohini, Weera Vije and Anguli Mala. He also acted in Sandesaya directed by the legendary Dr. Lester James Peries.
Bandu had the privilege of meeting the golden stars of Tamil cinema including Gemini Ganeshan, K Thangavelu, Sivaji Ganeshan, TS Baliah, Chakrapani, MK Radha and Jamuna Rani. In 1954 the first colour film shot in Geva Colour, where three colours are prominent, was done in India with MG Ramachandran acting as Ali Baba.
One evening he received a surprise visit from the beautiful Nargis. She had come to ask him for a bottle of beer to be given to Raj Kapoor, as there were limitations on permits for booze! On another evening some film crew had got drunk and the Police was called and they were taken to courts. The honourable Judge found them guilty, they were charged 1500 rupees. Since then those charged remained sober until their return to Ceylon!
Bandu Gunasekera married Lalitha Padmini de Silva of Negombo in 1974. Trade Minister Illangaratne and Gamini Fonseka signed as attesting witness. He was blessed with a daughter and son. Today having lived for eight decades Bandu mentions that many films tend to cater to a commercial trend. He mildly laments that many of the negatives of films that they acted in were burnt at studios, in violent acts of vandalism during a darker chapter in Sri Lankan history. Bandu Gunasekera is one of the last remaining stars of the pioneering men of Sinhala cinema.