Projection/débat autour du court-métrage “Unlock”, dimanche 6 mai à 18h, Grand Rex

Le court-métrage “Unlock”, réalisé par Nirmalan Nadarajah, qui sera projeté au Grand Rex ce dimanche 6 mai à 18h en présence du réalisateur et du comédien Shobasakthi.
Pour information, vous trouverez ci-joints une affiche, une bande-annonce et un lien vers la page du film

Pradeepan Raveendran sélectionné pour L’Atelier de la Cinéfondation du Festival de Cannes

L’Atelier de la Cinéfondation accueille cette année sa onzième édition et invitera au Festival de Cannes 15 réalisateurs dont les projets de film ont été jugés particulièrement prometteurs. Accompagnés de leur producteur, ils pourront rencontrer des partenaires potentiels, indispensables pour finaliser leur projet et passer à la réalisation de leur film. L’Atelier ouvre à ses participants les portes des coproductions internationales, accélérant ainsi le processus de finition du film.

Créé en 2005 pour encourager le cinéma de création et favoriser l’émergence d’une nouvelle génération de cinéastes dans le monde, L’Atelier a suivi en neuf ans le développement de 156 projets, dont 103 sont sortis sur les écrans et 40 sont actuellement en pré-production. Pour cette onzième édition, 15 projets venus de 14 pays ont été retenus, du réalisateur à ses débuts au cinéaste confirmé.

Butterfly Diaries
Paula Un Mi Kim
The Road to Mandalay
Midi Z
Birmanie / Taïwan
The Contestant
Carlos Osuna
Compte tes blessures
Morgan Simon France
Siamak Etemadi
Grèce / Iran
György Kristóf Hongrie / Slovaquie
Twin Flower
Laura Luchetti
Our Madness
João Viana Portugal / Angola
Ionuţ Piturescu
Kirsten Tan
The Tree
Louw Venter Afrique du Sud
Lands of Loneliness
Meritxell Colell
The Mother
Alberto Morais Espagne
Soundless Dance
Pradeepan Raveendran
Sri Lanka
Hilal, Feza, and other Planets
Kutluğ Ataman Turquie


Du 15 au 21 mai, des rendez-vous sont organisés avec les réalisateurs pour les professionnels intéressés par leurs projets.
Le Livre des Projets et les fiches d’inscription aux rendez-vous seront disponibles début avril sur
CONTACT : Georges Goldenstern


“Sri Lankan Tamil Cinema and the Search for a Distinct Identity” by D.B.S. Jeyaraj

TAMIL cinema in Sri Lanka, it may be argued, is yet to grow beyond its nascent stage. While thousands of Tamil films have been made in India and hundreds of Sinhala movies have been produced in Sri Lanka, the number of Sri Lankan Tamil films produced so far has not touched the three-digit mark.



Le dernier film de Kamal Haasan “Vishwaroopam” interdit en Inde du Sud, à Sri Lanka et en Malaisie

Interdit dans l’état du Tamil Nadu et à Puducherry, le film de Kamal Haasan “Vishwaroopam” (“Vishwaroop” pour la version en hindi) a été également censuré jusqu’à aujourd’hui au Karnataka, en Andra Pradesh et partiellement au Kerala. A l’étranger, il a été retiré des salles au Sri Lanka et en Malaisie. La raison ? Plusieurs groupes musulmans trouvent que Haasan montre l’islam sous un jour peu flatteur.

pour lire l’article cliquez sur ce lien:

“Cinema in mainstream and minority contexts: From Samuthayam (1960) to Ponmani (1978) The Plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil film industry” by Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin

We would like to warmly thanks Dr Vilasnee TAMPOE-HAUTIN, Senior Lecturer at université de La Réunion (France) and member of Centre des Recherches Littéraires et Historiques de l’Océan Indien (CRLHOI), to publish in our website her article intitled  “Cinema in mainstream and minority contexts: From Samuthayam (1960) to Ponmani (1978) The Plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil film industry”.

The author wishes to indicate that the titles, release years and the names of the directors of Tamil films produced in Sri Lanka still need to be verified. These inaccuracies may be explained by the very marginal character of the subject itself (so far the attention of researchers and specialists has been focused mainly on Sinhala cinema). But the ethnic war of over a quarter of a century also acted as a major deterrent to the gathering of accurate details which could form the basis of a discussion. This article is therefore based on personal research conducted during the war years, and offers a synthesis of existing studies and analyses, so far fragmented and dispersed in various periodicals or in the press. The main aim is to examine the question of the absence of a Sri Lankan Tamil film industry in the light of the eminent Tamil and Muslim contribution to the structuring of a Sinhala language cinema.


This paper focuses on the Sri Lankan Tamil-language film industry which developed in Sri Lanka during the early 1960s, and seeks to understand the reasons why its development was retarded. Such a discussion necessarily falls within the ambit of the general history of the film industry in Sri Lanka, and more particularly, the birth of a Sinhala-speaking cinema during the 1940s. Indeed, given the country’s polarized, if multicultural society, the absence of Tamil films in Sri Lanka may not come as a great surprise, but the subject becomes worthy of attention when one considers that Sri Lankan cinema pioneers were mainly non-Sinhala, and many were Tamil, or Tamil-speaking Muslims. Therefore, why the pioneers of cinema in Sri Lanka did not consider the possibility or the desirability of a local Tamil production of films is the central question this paper raises. In the wake of a twenty-six year struggle between extreme factions of ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils, it may also be pertinent to ponder the future of Sri Lankan Tamil cinema, its resuscitation, and chances of existing as a fully-fledged art and industry, either as one of the standard-bearers of the Sri Lankan nation in its new-found unity, or emblematic of its Tamil minority.

The question of Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka must be also articulated in relation to the problematic of “ethnic” cinemas and “national” cinemas, and how cinemas evolve with the dynamics of mainstream and marginal cultures. The very term “indigenous Sri Lankan Tamil cinema” needs clarification, insofar as a cinema bears the stamp of a culture or language. But then again, be it Sinhala, French, British, Tamil or Korean cinemas, how far can one consider film in terms of a “nation” or a “race”? While the issue of the cinema as an expression of national identity, or as a showcase for culture has been the focus of much academic inquiry, the question still remains as to what criteria one must use when defining a film’s “nationality” or origin. The formal and narrative conventions that derive from a specific aesthetic history? The cultural contents and language of the dialogues? The mental landscapes of the film’s protagonists or those conjured up by the director? The ethnic origins of its producer or director, or its main actors? The country in which it was produced?  The studio in which it was shot? Generally speaking, linguistic and cultural criteria carry the most weight when identifying a film, and giving it an anchorage in a particular spatial, temporal or thematic context.

The case of W.M.S. Tampoe is arresting: as a young Ceylon Tamil director living between his native country and neighbouring South India, Tampoe made his early films in the Tamil language, using Indian and Ceylonese actors and Madras resources. They were never exhibited in Ceylon. It is difficult to place these films in specific categories given the cultural proximity that prevailed at the time of the 1940s between Ceylon and India. Both these territories were under British colonial rule, and there was no restriction of movement between them. However, W.M.S. Tampoe’s later filmography, made entirely in Sri Lanka, in the wake of the 1960s ban on shooting Sinhala films in Madras[1], have been classed as Sinhala-speaking or Tamil-speaking. This is because of the location, aesthetic conventions of the film and the language of its dialogues. No copy is unfortunately available of Tampoe’s successful Ven Sangu (1968), much cited as part of the Sri Lankan Tamil filmography.

PHOTO 1: W.M.S. Tampoe, one of the pioneers of Sinhala Cinema. He made films in Tamil, shot in South India, and after the government ban on shooting Sinhala films in India, Tampoe converted to Sinhala-language films shot in Ceylon

In the same vein, between 1947 and 1960, during what is now known as the formative phase of Sinhala cinema, films were produced where crew, cast, venues and resources cut across established national, ethnic, linguistic, religious and social markers and boundaries. The ambient patriotism of the late 1950s ran so high that, despite the quasi-absence of shooting facilities and savoir faire in post-independent Ceylon, these films, today belonging to the immortals of primitive Sri Lankan cinema, were rejected by Sinhala nationalists and purists who saw in them too many “foreign”characteristics, and an undesirable cultural mix.

And yet, as argued by specialists, South Asian culture is heterogeneous enough to account for almost anything.[2] Indeed, the narrative style and aesthetic conventions of early South Asian films derived from various sources, including both folk and classical dramas of India but also European theatrical formats. Incipient Indian and Sinhala cinemas also drew from the more “modern”, 19th century Parsi theatre which developed during the British Raj, with its distinctive nurthi style, integrating Hindu and Buddhist mythology, as well as elements from Western urban culture[3]. The epic form can equally be recognized, especially in the exceptionally long duration of Asian films. Such heterogeneity calls for caution when attempting draw lines between different types of cinema in order to create categories.

During our recent colonial past, in the 1930s, a little over a quarter of a century after cinema’s invention, the same dilemma arose with regard to the celebrated “Empire films”. A clear definition of which types of films could be included under the category “British Empire Films” evaded one and all. Shot in the colonies, or in Great Britain, with mixed crew and cast, produced by Anglo-American companies, exploring grand imperial themes, Empire Films, and other “British” films made during this period, which fell, -or were made to fall, – under this arbitrary category, provoked the ire of Indian producers[4]. In today’s world where frontiers and barriers, both physical and psychological are coming down, (while others are being erected, one must concede), hybridity is the catchword and, like many other consumer items which are the outcome of a diversity of collaborations, it is increasingly difficult to frame a film’s identity with any precision. While the prospect of finding answers to such conceptual problems is remote, perhaps to a large extent, seeking solutions is unadvisable, since it would signify the end, or at least the questioning, of many established traditions such as film festivals, awards and distinctions, whose very foundations are erected on such arbitrary criteria.

Cinema has also evolved with decolonization, as more and more newly-independent nations emerged, seeking to frame their “national” identities through the cinematic art. The status of “national” cinema is frequently granted to a cinema portraying and speaking the language of the cultural and/or political majority of any given country. As such, in Sri Lanka, considering the island’s ethnic and geographical population distribution, it is no surprise that “Tamil cinema” in Sri Lanka should remain in the shadows of “Sinhala cinema”, which is the cinema corresponding to the island’s majority. Further, the deep-seated majority/minority dichotomy and the diverse conflicts that ensue from these colonial demarcations have also acted as a brake on the development of a Tamil language cinema in Sri Lanka. As was to be expected, a cinema that could have catered for Sri Lanka’s minorities naturally did not receive any support from the Sinhalese. Unsurprisingly then, the local production of films in the Tamil language, of which the first ones were released from the 1960s onwards, has been as marginal as Sri Lankan Tamil culture and language. The wavering attitude of successive Sri Lankan government authorities until recently, and a lack of a coherent, determined policy with this regard seem to complete this gloomy tableau. The total number of Tamil films produced would progress at a snail’s pace, and be kept in check for many decades for reasons that this paper will attempt to illuminate.

Sri Lankan Tamil cinema, at present, may be viewed as still defining canons of its own, and quite predictably, seeking an identity in a context of marginalization, imposed by mainstream Sinhala culture and the overpowering South Indian Tamil model of reference. Sri Lankan Tamil cinema’s association with other forms of communication and representation, such as radio plays, has been frowned upon by commentators whereas one knows only too well that cinemas inevitably display some continuities with other forms of entertainment and, generally, those that preceded film. Nevertheless, as we shall see later, Sri Lankan indigenous Tamil cinema, despite its diminutive size, ranges from the art film to the popular commercial one. But with a number of low-budget mediocre films to its discredit, Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka has not inspired sustained creativity by filmmakers, nor drawn favourable comments from film specialists. Kavaloor Rajadurai, producer of Ponmani, a highly-rated Tamil-language film directed by a Sinhalese, has compared attempts to make a Tamil film in Sri Lanka to beating a dead serpent[5], while film specialist, Professor Wimal Dissanayake, describes the predicament suffered by Sri Lankan Tamil films as simply “depressing”.[6]

In the light of such a dismal context, and given the failure of Sri Lankan Tamil cinema to emerge as a worthy art and industry, it might be relevant here to cite one of the most striking features of Sri Lankan cinema, not to say its hallmark, and that is the predominant role played by non-Sinhala minorities in establishing cinema production and exploitation for the Sinhala majority in the island. In fact, the founding fathers of Sinhala cinema were South Indian, Indo-Ceylonese, indigenous Tamils or Muslims of Sri Lanka.[7] Most of these categories were bound together by a common language and culture, Tamil.

The question raised then is why, at least, the indigenous Tamil and Muslim pioneers of the Sri Lankan film industry displayed no particular interest towards a cinema speaking their mother tongue and reflecting their culture, whereas every possibility was available to them to achieve such a goal. Curiously, even the Muslim film producers of Sri Lanka, whose mother tongue is Tamil, and not Arabic, showed no obvious enthusiasm.[8] Cinema production in colonial Ceylon entered infancy when these founding fathers collaborated with South India to encourage the birth of a “local” cinema by producing what were termed during the 1960s as  “carbon copies” of Indian films in Sinhala.[9] Even stranger is the fact that a Sinhalese, Henry Weerawansa, produced the first Tamil film in Sri Lanka and the most highly acclaimed of Sri Lanka’s Tamil filmmography, Ponmani, was signed by another Sinhala academic, Dharmasena Pathiraja. D. Pathiraja pursued a glowing career during the 1980s and 1990s in quality Sinhala cinema, but did not recommence the experience of bringing to the screen the culture of the “other”. Screen idol Gamini Fonseka’s Sinhala film Sarungale was another “first” in so far as its overriding topic was Sinhala-Tamil ethnicity.

The other significant feature is that, contrary to Sinhala films which had inherited the flamboyant South Indian style during the 1950s, the Sri Lankan Tamil film inclined towards social realism, a choice all the more unusual as this was the genre prescribed by the Sinhala intelligentsia and “cultural patriots” for  “indigenous” Sinhala films. But would the choice of realism by Tamil filmmakers be imputable to a refusal, or a reluctance to compete with the scintillating South Indian screen extravaganzas? Indeed, Sri Lankan Tamil cinema, by refraining from making entertainers, and depicting reality, and often a harsh one, can be viewed as adopting the same stance as some of the regional cinemas of India, confronted with the overpowering Hindi entertainers.

As two major poles of commercial cinema rose in Bombay followed by Madras, cinemas expressed in India’s numerous regional languages struggled to survive in a context of domination by the all-pervading, Hindi and Tamil movies, made according to formula, complete with its song-and-dance spectacle, flippant dialogues and a totally forgettable screenplay. Indeed, Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka is arguably the marginalized and regional cinema of Sri Lanka, since, in the first instance, Tamil culture occupies a minority status in the island, and in the second instance, Sri Lankan Tamil cinema is a “regional” cinema since both the culture it displays and the audience it targets, have their roots in the island’s north and north-east regions, remote from the seat of political power. As such, the relative positions of Tamil cinema and Sinhala cinema can be transposed onto a “centre-periphery” schema, at demographical, geographical, linguistic and political levels. Prior to a survey of the achievements in Tamil-language cinematography, and in order to understand the lethargy that has characterized this part of Sri Lanka’s “national” film industry, it may be useful to recall a few facts relevant to the establishment of the film industry in Sri Lanka from the late 19th century to the 1960s, notably the work of the Tamil founders of Sinhala cinema.


Two distinct phases emerge in the history of Sri Lankan cinema: from 1900 until 1928, cinema was introduced and exploited by expatriate British ambulant “animators of the image” and local photographers, such as Warwick Majors and A.W. Andree. Ceylon’s position as one of the British colonies assisted not only in exposing it to European and American cinemas, but also enabled Indian businessman J. F. Madan to expand his nascent film empires by making the most of geographical and cultural proximity of this colonial domain[10]. Subsequent to his first visit to Ceylon in 1903, Madan set up an agency of his company in Colombo, Madan Film Enterprises, with the help of Ceylonese of Parsi extraction. He also used a popular venue in Colombo, the Public Hall, to exhibit what were then some of the first films imported to Ceylon[11]. Indo-Ceylonese merchant of Bombay origin, T.A.G. Noorbhai soon joined in as a rival, establishing a film company, London Bioscope. There was no production of films in colonial Ceylon until 1925, so far restricted to distribution and exhibition. T.A.G Noorbhai has been given the credit of making the first Ceylonese film of the silent era, Royal Adventure/ Rajakeeya Wickrama (1925), equally embodying Indian efforts in this early phase of the development of cinema production in Ceylon.

From the late 1920s until the mid 1960s, a second phase of cinema establishment emerges as South Indians, Tamil and Muslims of Sri Lanka – mostly speakers of the Tamil language – take over from the first generation exploiters. They displayed a keenness to ensure that the island’s majority community should be offered a cinema that highlighted their language and reflected their imaginary. It is this second phase that is of interest to our discussion, bearing in mind that none of the promoters of cinema, mostly non-Sinhala, of either period considered developing a Tamil–speaking cinema for the island’s minority groups. The mid-20th century witnessed cinema still in its formative years in terms of its development in Western countries and in India. Given Ceylon’s multi cultural society, with a Sinhala Buddhist majority and a Tamil minority that emerged out of 19th century colonial reconfigurations of the island’s ethnic, religious and linguistic identities[12], there was every chance that, if cinema there was ever to be, only a Sinhala-speaking film industry would emerge. This is all the truer as the 1930s saw the rise of Madras as yet another nerve centre of Indian cinema, in rivalry with Bombay and Calcutta. It would not be long before South Indian Tamil cinema became popular among Ceylonese audiences. While this no doubt encouraged local participation, the niche market that Tamil Nadu carved for itself in Ceylon from the 1930s onwards, would by the same dint, hinder the eventual growth of a local Tamil cinema. Indo-Ceylonese, Tamil or Muslim businessmen set up an infrastructure geared towards the exhibition, distribution and production of Sinhala films.

S. Nayagam had declared his wish to offer his Sinhalese friends a cinema speaking their mother tongue, while another Tamil director and producer of the 1960s, Rabindra Coomarasamy Tampoe made exclusively Sinhala films working solely in the entertainer mode and was a good example of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ lack of concern for developing a cinema portraying their language and culture.[13] The popularity enjoyed by R. Tampoe’s Sinhala films at the box office also points to a fundamental reason why most filmmakers, whether Tamil or Sinhalese, opted to make films for the island’s demographic majority: they guaranteed audiences, and hence, an income.[14] But this did not prevent a few isolated attempts at non-commercial ventures, such as a cross-cultural film festival: when Tampoe organized a festival of Sinhala films in 1978 in Jaffna, a Tamil enclave, it made no waves in either the press or among officialdom, bringing to the fore the traditional wariness displayed during that period towards applauding any efforts at ethnic harmony.


Photo 2: The first Sinhala film festival organized in Jaffna by Robin Tampoe, chief guest was Mr D.B. Wijeyatunga, Minister of Posts. At the Shanghi Cinema, Jaffna 25th August 1978.


In the course of both phases of cinema, working in concert or in rivalry, the pioneers of Ceylon’s primitive cinema directed their energies to creating and reinforcing cinema infrastructure (distribution circuits, cinema halls) receiving foreign and Indian films and later, producing Sinhala films. In fact, the relationship between cinema consumers and producers is vital, since it has an impact on cinematic content. As suggested by S. Kakar, popular cinema is a “collective fantasy containing unconscious material and the hidden wishes of a vast number of people”.[15] Those Ceylonese who embarked on cinema before the 1960s, cast their choice on popular, Sinhala cinema, despite being outside this particular community, because of the high audience numbers for such films, demonstrating S. Kakar’s theory of dependence of filmmakers on healthy financial returns. This signified that they had to “ fill their moving images with the elements that viewers consciously and unconsciously seek from entertainment”.[16] It is highly probable that the non-Sinhalese film professionals entertained different “unconscious” desires and needs from their audiences (such as developing a cinema in their own language and culture), but they nonetheless sought strategies to market their products, making all the compromises necessary for box office gains. While the identification of audience tastes and needs would draw the largest number of viewers, film theorists also argue that offering a different cinema would in turn cultivate and re-orient audience tastes and create other, new needs, a principle upheld by a new generation of film directors of the mid-1960s, spearheaded by Sri Lankan film director Lester James Peries.[17]

Nevertheless, strategies deployed by local private companies on the strength of their monopoly of the film business during this mid-1960s, caused a deep rift both at ideological and ethnic levels.[18] By the early 1960s though, these film companies were accused of “perverting the tastes of the Ceylonese public”, and of being the pawns of in the hands of Western countries and India who exercised undue economic pressure and cultural imperialism on what was then Ceylon.[19] While the Royal Film Commission, appointed by the island’s Governor-General, Sir William Gopallawa, to inquire into the state of the film industry in 1965[20] had thrown new light on what was termed as a “tripoly”, the three companies retorted that the Sinhala intelligentsia, the State and the upper echelons of the film-going public were only concerned with cinema as a form of personal expression, insisting that the cinema was also an industry dependent on financial returns.

Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why Tamil language films were not a priority for anyone and the trend was towards the production of a wide gamut of Sinhala films and the importation of foreign films of considerable variety and quality. The polemical debates that mark the 1960s, spurred no doubt by the approach of 20 years of Sinhala cinema (1947-1967), indicated that Sinhala cinema was evolving and reaching a certain maturity. This was evidenced by the particular focus, not to say obsession with making only,“quality” Sinhala films  and the preoccupation of the Sinhala literati to educate the people in cinema and maintain “high” standards among audiences. It attested to the existence of a lively cinema industry, with critical sustenance provided by a body of discerning Sinhala film journalists and writers. Cinema production in Sinhalese was encouraged by a tradition of awards and distinctions, such as Deepashika Awards inaugurated by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, receiving plaudits by an enlightened public. All this prefigured what would later be termed as the “Golden Age of Sinhala cinema”, when creativity reached a peak.


 Photo 3 :Prime Minister the Hon. SWRD Bandaranaike at the inauguration of the first Deepashika Film Festival/Awards in 1957, with Sinhala actresses. On the left is seen Sirisena Wimalaweera, SInhala playwright and a pioneer in SInhala cinema. (Photo courtesy D. Wimalaweera and V. Tampoe-Hautin)


 Given this substantial participation of non-Sinhalese in a fast expanding Sinhala film industry, why was a fully-fledged Tamil cinema never part of the ambitions of the Tamil pioneers of Sri Lankan cinema? A brief survey of indigenous Tamil cinematic achievements in Sri Lanka shows that in 1987, forty years after the release of the first Sinhala film, the number of productions in Tamil had only reached some 30 films, many of which were mediocre. Tamil films were also inspired by plays or dramas acted over the radio, such literary creativity in the area of writing, dancing and theatre being consequent to the cultural renewal of the 1960s and 1970s.



Curiously, the honour of attempting the very first Tamil film in Sri Lanka goes to an ethnic Sinhalese, Henry Weerawansa who released Samuthayam/Society in 1960. But prior to this, B.A.W Jayamanne’s Sinhala film Evasive Denial/Sengavuna Pilithura (1951) had benefitted from Tamil sub-titles and a new title Kusumalatha. In fact, as film critics have argued, Samuthayam (1960), which revisits the life of up-country Tamils had only managed to inaugurate a period of average creativity with an obsession with dramatizing the way of living of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking people. Pasa Nila/ Affectionate Moon, a 16mm colour film which again attempts to recapture the life of young Tamil youths in Jaffna, was described as both “superficial and unconvincing”.[21] The Tamil director, Joe Devanand, later became a successful director of Sinhala films. Likewise, the film Kadamayin Ellai/A Limit to Duty was qualified as a « photographed stage play with a miscellany of antics and buffoonery, and a hotchpotch of outmoded dialogue derived from theatre».[22]

Notwithstanding, the mid–sixties saw the release of a number of Tamil-speaking films, including Thottakari/Estate Woman, which is presented as the first feature film 35 mm film to depict the life of a Tamil estate worker[23]. Taxi Driver (1966), directed by Chandikuti Somasekaran, on the contrary, constitutes one of the first Sri Lankan Tamil films of an acceptable standard. Critics have praised its photography and the cast of actors who had well-established reputations as stage actors and as radio announcers. Nirmala (1968) by A. Aumanayagam and Kuththu Vilakka/The Traditional Oil Lamp (1973) once more investigate the lives of ordinary people from Jaffna, a topic destined to become the ground of predilection of Tamil-language filmmakers. No doubt a reflection of the difficulties endured by the Tamil community, most of these films avoid entertainment, (though some melodramas have been made), and are inclined to stay away from the formula that characterizes Sinhala films. Thus, Puthiya Katru/New Winds and Nan Ungal Thosan/I am your friend again turn to the life of Tamil indentured labourers working on tea plantations for their topics.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few films succeeded in drawing audiences with other themes, such as Ven Sangu/ The White Conch (1968) by W. M. S. Tampoe, Puthya Kathru/New Winds, Aval Dvu Jeeva Nadhi/She is a lively stream and Kaththirupaen Unakaha/I’ll Wait for you. Others like Manjal Kunkuman, Ven Sangu, Meenava Penne/ The Fisher woman and Kutthu Vilakku, indicated that Tamil speaking cinema was consolidating its bases, though ethnic and social tensions would in fact undermine this newly acquired self-confidence. Nevertheless, a few beacons of quality do punctuate this five-decade period with the late 1970s standing out. Amongst these “jewels in the crown”, are two films, released the same year: Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Ponmani (1978) and Puthiya Katru (1978) by V. P. Ganeshan. Two years previously, S. V. Chanran made Kaththirupaen Unakaha. Vaadai Katru/Monsoon winds (1974) and Ponmani (1978) are works of quality which also concentrate on the Jaffna peninsula[24], and today rank among the best in this category of films. Director of Vaadai Katru/Monsoon winds, medical doctor, Indra Kumar received the Presidential Award for the Best Tamil Film in 1978.[25]

Likewise, Thyagarajah Arjuna, Sri Lankan Tamil producer and director, has signed a number of Sinhala and Tamil films, including Vanathaye Dawasak, also winner of nine presidential awards.[26]  Arjuna, who has been living between India and Sri Lanka since the 1980s, moreover directed Kaliyuga Kalaya, a Sinhala film, which was later dubbed into Tamil. T. Arjuna’s other production classed as a Sri Lankan Tamil film is Vasanthathil Oru Vanavil. With roles interpreted by celebrities of Tamil Nadu and of Sri Lankan origin, the film takes a compelling and graphic look at a worker who died on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and is reincarnated in Tamil Nadu.[27] With its screenplay straddling time and space, Arjuna’s film stirred some interest at the time of its release due to the subject treated.[28] Yet the film cogently demonstrated the possibilities of collaboration that existed between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.

As highlighted by some commentators, these occasional cinematographic works of art have not been sufficient to encourage a worthy critical discourse focussing on Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka.


Indeed, it took Dharmasena Pathiraja, former director of the Government Film Unit, to offer the country one of its first and finest Tamil films, Ponmani (1978). The film does not seek to probe into any ethnic issues but approaches the question of caste and exogamous relations. It dramatizes the reactions of parents belonging to the Jaffna high caste whose daughter runs away with a boy of a lower caste. As an academic appointed to Jaffna University, Pathiraja made the most of his professional situation and his exposure to life in Jaffna to shoot this film, while reputed short story writer and critic, Kavaloor Rajadurai, and M. W. Rajasingham, both Sri Lankan Tamils, provided the necessary financial and screenplay backing. The Ponmani cast was drawn from Jaffna residents, hailing from the teaching profession and the Jaffna bourgeoisie. A number of actresses were qualified as « progressive », including the wife of the Vice-Chancellor of the Unversity of Jaffna, Mme Sarvamangalam, and a colleague, Chitraleka Mounaguru.[29] The film revived much interest among the local intellectuals who had followed the trajectory of the development of European cinema, hoping that Ponmani would open the way to similar productions in Tamil. Ponmani today ranks among the classics of Sri Lankan cinema and its director recognized for having ventured beyond the traditional boundaries. There is no doubt that Pathiraja put his talents to the service of cinema, worked across cultural lines and produced a remarkable film.



 Any reflection on the state of Tamil-language cinema in Sri Lanka must refer back to the status of the Sri Lankan Tamils themselves, more particularly, the various sections of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community which participated in cinema construction: they range from Hindus to members of the Tamil Christian minority, some Catholic, others Protestant or Methodist, hailing from the traditional Jaffna bourgeoisie. Most of them have family and professional attachments both in the Sinhala-dominated southwest of the island and in India. Whatever the gamut of religions and social categories that characterize these Tamil cinema pioneers, one common feature they exhibited was their membership to Sri Lanka’s celebrated heterogeneous, anglicized bourgeoisie. Excluded by the traditional Sinhalese, not fully integrated into Indian culture, many took refuge in Western culture.

PHOTO 4 At the premier of Suvineetha Lalani : from left to right – R.C. Tampoe, the Hon. Maithripala Senanayake, Minister of Culture, and representatives of Ceylon Theatres Ltd. (Photo courtesy Mrs Rita Tampoe)


Under such circumstances, the feeling was inevitable amongst these Jaffnese that their culture and language, albeit worthy, was not one to be promoted on the screen. With the knowledge that Sinhala culture was, as all cultures go, a hybrid phenomenon, the Tamil pioneers chose to give cinematic reality to the literature, dance, art, poetry, theatre, philosophy and religion of what had emerged during the 1950s as mainstream Sinhala culture. The mid-20th century had also witnessed a cultural and religious revival, termed “the second Buddhist renaissance”, which had successfully re-iterated the hegemony of the Sinhala people. While the minority communities dominated the areas of trade and commerce, there was no desire amongst them to impose their own culture on the majority, especially in the light of overpowering South India in the shadow of which they had for so long existed, and which had become their model of reference.

In this regard, Sri Lankan Tamils, and Muslims to a lesser extent, have always occupied an intermediary position between the sub-continent and their island home. Traditional links between South Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils have been predictably difficult to determine. It is true that Sri Lankan Tamils are closer to Indians than are Sri Lankans of Sinhala Buddhist origin, but this does not mean that the allegiance of the former group lies north of the Palk Straits. They historically identify with the Sri Lankan territory.[30] The ethnic war is ample testimony to their attachment to Sri Lankan soil, which they consider their homeland. But they have also maintained socio- cultural links with the Indians of Tamil Nadu and developed a nomadic way of life since the onset of the ethnic war. However, the Sinhalese make a difference between Sri Lankan Tamil compatriots whom they call “Jaffna people” and the other minorities hailing from recent late 19th century or early 20th century migration, and who also now live permanently on the Sri Lankan territory. Despite this distinction, the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils have been paradoxically more complex than with the Indo-Sri Lankans, perhaps due to the very cultural, psychological and physical proximity that dates back to more than 2500 years.

It has also been argued that minority communities benefitted from a more favourable treatment during colonization, which alienated them from the majority (though some historians refute this theory). The British reserved places of high rank in their administration for selected groups based on ethnic distinctions, confirming the idea, without going as far as making an absolute rule of it, that British policy inclined towards reigning through division, a strategy seen during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries as ensuring social and political equilibrium.[31] A small number of Tamils managed to gain some recognition and a status within colonial society, reaping considerable economic and social benefits, that is, as far as discriminatory, imperial politics would allow them. In Jaffna, the Tamil bourgeoisie entered the judiciary, and the administrative services of the colonial regime, though they were barred from high-profile posts and key areas of political importance. Others succeeded in the liberal professions and in business, including cinema… One of the sectors where their contribution was noteworthy was Sinhala cinema, the Indo Tamil contribution becoming even a significant characteristic of Sinhala cinema.[32]

The drive exhibited by minority communities to “succeed” economically in mainstream society, (such a dynamism frequently working against them), was yet another factor that spurred their social ascension during colonial times.[33] However, the flair for business of the new Tamil entrepreneurs of Sinhala cinema would from the 1950s, rouse the opposition of conservative Sinhala forces, and more interestingly, give rise to the question of “indigenization”, by which it was meant “signalization”.[34] Whereas the new cinema producers of Tamil origin, especially the pioneer, Sir Abraham Gardiner, were proud of having wrested the industry from the hands of “a few privileged visitors”, and forging a “local and national” Ceylonese industry, their success would be ill-considered by the Sinhala majority who refused to view this as a true victory.[35] One observes therefore that the terms “local” and “national” had varying definitions according to whose point of view it was. By 1961, the government had decided to put a ban on the shooting of Sinhala films in South India, later extended to the prohibition of subtitling of foreign films in Sinhala.


PHOTO 5 : The banning of shooting Sinhala films in South India, and the dubbing of foreign films into Sinhala



For the Sinhalese, a “national” or indigenous cinema was synonymous with Sinhala-speaking cinema. Nationalizing and indigenizing the industry signified transferring all branches of cinema to the ethnic Sinhalese.[36] In the eyes of the latter, cultural autonomy and the independence of the Sri Lankan cinema could only be attained through a complete takeover by Sinhalese of the industry, backed by the State. Sinhala nationalists demanded a more authentic “indigenous” cinema, the question remained as to who would provide the capital for such films. The call for “indigenous Sinhala cinema” or jatiya sinamawa was paradoxically heeded by the Tamil entrepreneurs of cinema, displaying at the time all the aloofness of the anglized, capitalist classes, less inclined to ethno-nationalisms, and more given to serving the needs of the political majority. While the financiers of indigenous Sinhala cinema hailed from non-Sinhala English educated class, a new generation of film directors picked up the gauntlet of making films that portrayed authentic Sinhala culture. Lester James Peries is the most renowned of Sinhala film directors, groomed in the art of cinema in Europe. Other nationalist directors had received training within the precincts of another institution with a colonial resonance: the government film unit. The only exception was Sirisena Wimalaweera whose patriotic cinema would earn him an accolade or two in creativity.

Nevertheless, not before the crucial 1980s period would cinema and State develop a vital link. This came with the establishment of the National Film Corporation in 1972, pending which, the strong nationalist sentiments of Sinhala pride that swept over the country during the mid 1950s represented a powerful source of inspiration for cinema, spurred by the victory by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike over the two successive mandates of rule by a pro-Western government headed by D.S and Dudley Senanayake.[37] It is hardly a coincidence then that during this very period, Lester James Peries should offer local audiences a Sinhala film which made a remarkable break from the melodramatic tradition: the award-winning Rekawa (1956). Shot in the realist mode, devoid of the customary song-and-dance number, (though a few songs were included in it, and which incidentally drew criticism from some film commentators at Cannes), this film brought the attention of international cinema communities to Sinhala  films and paved the way for an alternative grammar of cinema.

The commercial dynamism displayed by the Tamils and Muslims of Ceylon in the domain of cinema also threw the spotlight on the presumed economic backwardness of the Sinhalese – a question that had already arisen during the latter part of the 19th century, long before cinema had developed as a local art.[38] While the early 20th century witnessed the denunciation of the mercantilism of Ceylon’s minority communities, similar issues were raised by Sinhala patriots and critics within the cinema industry during the 1950s. The 1965 report bears testimony to a crisis of unusual severity that struck the cinema industry, monopolized by three non-Sinhala film companies. While dominating the sector, the fears of the Tamil community at a wider level were not totally unfounded, confirmed by the successive waves of unrest between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, in 1958 and again in 1983. There was no question, under these circumstances, that a cinema waving the banner of Tamil culture and language should be proposed.

In fact, one might argue that the state of the Tamil cinema industry is clearly the outcome of choices made by the early cinema professionals and others active in the field. It reflects also the socio-political status of the majority of the indigenous Tamils of Sri Lanka. A parallel may be drawn between the marginalisation of the lower social classes of Tamils of Sri Lanka and the destiny of the Sri Lankan Tamil film: caught between Sinhala chauvinism and South Indian cultural domination. Seen from this angle, the development of Sinhala cinema by the well-to-do Tamils may be viewed as an attempt to integrate into a society suffering from a severe malaise: a dichotomous majority-minority divide that was tearing apart the nation. As members of the anglicized, urban-dwelling upper middle class, these non-Sinhala pioneers may also have hoped to attenuate criticism levelled against them by the increasingly vocal rural majority of non-anglophones, in view of their appurtenance to a wealthy cosmopolitan class. They were putting their privileged social and economic situations at the service of rural Buddhist Sinhala culture. R.C. Tampoe illustrates this attempt to conquer the Sinhalese population by offering them a certain type of cinema. He married a Sinhalese, elected domicile in the south of the island, took lessons in Sinhala in order to better communicate with his crew. While westernizing his name from Rabindra Commarasamy to Robin, adopting Western clothing and lifestyle (also true of most of the other Tamil businessmen of cinema), Tampoe catered to the rural Sinhalese need for escapist fare and gained in popularity. Notwithstanding, his detractors were stridently vocal about his “commercial Tamil-influenced Sinhala films”.

Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka is deficient for yet other reasons, including the linguistic factor. The Tamil spoken by the Sri Lankan Tamils has never enjoyed the same status or reputation as the Tamil of India. The social marginalization of the Tamil minority obviously has repercussions on the status of its language, considered as a dialect or a peripheral variation of the “standard” form of Tamil, which is the one spoken in South India. And yet, from a point of view of linguistics, both are qualified as Tamil since they are mutually comprehensible. The variety of Tamil spoken in the Jaffna peninsula, – a geographical, cultural and social enclave, has presumably preserved certain archaisms, and along with it, a certain “purity”, protected from the evolutions which affected the South Indian variant from which it derived. To this, one must also add the phonetic lexical variations.[39]

Other problems the Sri Lankan Tamil film industry has been beset with may also be attributed to demography; an irregular distribution pattern, with a low population of Tamils concentrated around the Jaffna peninsula and the eastern coasts of the island, affected by great poverty, in sum, living in the rural backwaters of the country. The climatic and geographical rigours of North and North East Sri Lanka could not but force the inhabitants to invest more in agriculture and fisheries rather than in poetry and art, and even less in the more costly exercise of making a film. Thus the output of artistic productivity is comparable to the island’s northern landscape: arid and marginal.

A small category of Tamils resident in Colombo and Jaffna entered the liberal professons and trade and prospered. But the majority were busy ensuring their economic survival and social recognition in an environment that had become increasingly perilous…at  least until 2009. The incessant conflicts culminating in the ethnic war of 1983-2009, led to a massive exile of Tamils seeking new pastures in Norway, Canada and the UK, further depleting an already sparse population. The large-scale migrations in the wake of the civil war reduced quite substantially Tamil participation in the film sector. Thus, many art directors and producers found themselves out of a job and out of the country.[40] Those who stayed behind, such as K. Gunaratnam and R. Tampoe, though not directors of Tamil language films, lost the greater part of their property or were victims of assassinations, which may or may not have been connected to ethnicity. R. Tampoe’s Regal cinema in Jaffna was razed to the ground as it was caught in a crossfire between the army and Tamil rebels who took refuge in the building.


 PHOTO 6 a & b : the Regal Cinema gutted by fire in 1985, caught in a cross-fire between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil separatists.

The result of political turmoil was that many reduced, or outright abandoned, their activities in the cinema industry, for lack of funds, government support and public. For those who remained, films, especially Tamil films, were no doubt the last item on their agenda. The precarious nature of the Tamil position, accompanied by political tension and social violence, did not encourage any further minority participation in cinema, or in the other arts for that matter, either to promote the culture of the Sinhala majority, or their own.

Another impediment in the development of a Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka was the quasi absence of Tamil-speaking audiences. As Wimal Dissanayake argues, only about 20% of the 17 million people living in the island speak Tamil. Sri Lankan Tamil films hardly represented an attractive product for any Sri Lankan spectators, not even the Tamils themselves. Hence producers hesitated to embark on Tamil productions due to their non-viability. Before the creation of the National Film Corporation, the three private companies, Ceylon Theatres, Cinemas Ltd and Ceylon Entertainements, had taken into consideration the ethno-demographic patterns of the Sri Lankan population in their policy of film distribution, although a certain priority had been accorded to Indo-Tamil and Hindi films. From 1972, the National Film Corporation, placed in charge of controlling these circuits, modified this configuration and created specific circuits for the distribution of Sinhala films “of quality”.

For the distribution of Tamil films produced in India or locally, a parallel circuit was created, comprising halls in regions inhabited by Tamil speaking inhabitants, but which, also coincided with a sparse population. The halls, of a smaller size, labelled as “second or third category were in bad conditions and so the frequentation was not high”.[41] The marginalization of Tamil films was indeed based on a certain ethnodemographic and economic logic, as well as on the competition posed by South Indian films with whom local films had to share the cinema halls. Thus the National Film Corporation greeted Ponmani with no obvious enthusiasm, and the film was simply confined to a circuit reserved for Tamil cinema. The distributers, for their part, also motivated by economic considerations, were hardly more cooperative.[42]

Further, from 1983, the year that marked the beginning of the civil war, – until 1987, all the cinema halls of the north and the east, (some 120 in all), located in areas subjected to terrorism, were seriously damaged. Some thirty halls were destroyed by bomb attacks; others simply went bankrupt. But irony would have it that until 1985, collections from cinemas in the Jaffna peninsula were not only substantial, but, as it has been argued, even contributed to sustaining a part of the Sinhala cinema industry.[43] Such revenues could be explained by the number of daily shows programmed in cinema halls in Jaffna, which was higher than the rest of the island – five showings a day compared to three or four in Colombo. Despite rising insecurity, Jaffna presented itself as a flourishing market for films of all genres. The cinema was one of the rare, not to say the only source of entertainment in Jaffna.  Among the lovers of cinema were members of the English-speaking Tamil bourgeoisie. In 1987, Anton Wickramasinghe, chairman of the NFC, decided to reopen some of the 90 cinema halls. It was planned that Tamil films produced before the war would be part of these first screenings. Films were to be shown not only in the affected areas with a Tamil majority but also those with a population of Sinhalese. The acquisition by the State in 1988 of rights of Tamil films for a sum of 8 million rupees was a step towards attempting to restore inter-racial harmony and an overt attempt to revive an interest in the cinema industry in war-devastated areas.[44] This policy was however slowed down by periods of war and truces.

Apart from the question of circuits, South Indian films that arrived on the Sri Lankan market benefited from a better reception because they were technically and aesthetically superior products. Cinema owners would rush to remove from their screens Tamil films of Sri Lankan origin judging them to be evident “flops”, seeking South Indian Tamil films or even American or Sinhala films. The latter were much more attractive as they generated more collections. It would seem then that the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka and the other category of Tamil speakers, i.e the IndoCeylonese, preferred to see South Indian films.[45] If the high and artistic and technical of South Indian Tamil films have worked against the possibility of developing a serious Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka, it is also subsequent to the rise of Madras as the third centre of gravity of Indian cinema during the mid 20th century, after Bombay and Calcutta. South Indian Tamil films have dominated Sri Lankan screens and become a well-liked source of entertainment in Sri Lanka, even amongst Sinhala population. Even today, they reap the benefits of a reputation established since the 1930s. Chinthamani by Y. Rao (1937) is the classic example of South Indian Tamil triumph on the screen.[46] This was followed by S. S. Vasan’s Chandralekha, released in 1948, the first Tamil film to get national distribution. Made on a massive financial budget, which would have cost $28 million today, this extravaganza was aptly described by its director as “a pageant for our peasants.” The first Tamil film to be a complete success for one whole year in Ceylon was Velaikari (1949) by A. S. A. Samy. It confirmed  the conquest by the Tamil film of even Sinhala speaking audiences.

The second quarter of the 20th century witnessed rapid urbanization and modernization leading to changes in the entertainment needs of the population, reinforced by the increase in the working population that frequented the cinema in foreign languages. This came in addition to Sinhala drama, which tried to recover its former glory. In 1939, the Tamil film, Nandakumar was released at the Elphinstone and the Tower Theatre presented Savitri, while around Colombo, other theatres also showed Tamil films.[47] Between 1960 and 1975, the films of Shivaji Ganeshan and M. G. R, occupying opposing roles in Dravidian nationalist politics, in and out of screen, were box office successes in Ceylon, drawing non-Tamil speaking Sinhala viewers. However, another category of workers, notably the port workers, spoke both Sinhala and Tamil and represented an important part of the population of cinema-goers.[48] Tamil film-goers were thus provided regularly with spectacular fare made in Tamil Nadu, such a tradition giving rise to a synonymy between “Tamil cinema” and “South Indian melodrama and fantasy”. Tamil-speaking viewers were, and possibly still are, unable to associate Tamil film culture with realism, a format which recurs in the marginalized “regional” cinemas of Tamil Nadu, expressed in Kannada, Telugu, Malayam etc. 

During the 1950s this  evolution in the taste of the Ceylonese public for « local » and foreign films, would gradually be perceived by local film entrepreneurs as auguring well for the future of this « modern » form of entertainment. A locally produced Tamil cinema then barely held any chance of consolidating its position, especially when one considers that Madras has maintained the highest production rate of any film centre in India, due to its position as home not only to the Tamil but also the Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada film industries. But it has likewise been said that even without the regional support of audiences from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala, Madras would outpace Bombay (in 1980, more Tamil, Malayalm and Telugu films were made than Hindi films)[49]. This lends credence to the rejection of their culture by the indigenous Tamils of Sri Lanka, a point raised by K. Rajadurai, according to whom Tamils of Sri Lanka have been « conditioned to identify the best of Tamil cultural products as capable of originating only from the motherland of Tamil Nadu », something admitted even by the ethnic Sinhalese. While South Indian films are no doubt of a higher standard, the rejection of their own « local » brand of Tamil culture by Sri Lankan Tamils may be viewed as a denial of their Sri Lankan homeland, tainted by Sinhala nationalism and ethno-centrism. The admiration displayed towards mother India could be part of their deep subconscious yearning to belong across the Palk Straits.

Further, the absence of worthy forms of assessment for Tamil films (festivals, awards, distinctions) has fostered apathy, and the decline of artistic levels, and by the same dint, reinforced the position of South Indian films.[50] Thus the Sri Lankan Tamil film Kadamayin Ellai/A Limit to Destiny, described as mediocre, consisted of an assembling of dialects coming from Jaffna and India, rendered in a comic style, bordering on the farce, the entire film resembling a play, from which it was in reality inspired.

If the Tamils of Sri Lanka have refrained from making artistic statements through the filmic mode, then the universal power of attraction of the South Indian film has led to the co-production of a number of outstanding Indo Sri Tankan films. Endowed with dialogues in Tamil and a cast composed of Sri Lankan and Indian stars, Pilot Premanath (1978) and Guru et Nanguram/Anchor were made with the participation of giants of the Indian Tamil screen. As such, it is difficult to include them in the list of Sri Lankan Tamil films. Pilot Premnath directed by Joe Dev Anand, starred Shivaji Ganeshan and Sinhala actress Malini Fonseka. Nevertheless, scenes shot in Sri Lanka and the presence of Sri Lankan actors were not enough for India to recognize these films as Sri Lankan.[51] On the other hand, three other films made during the 1970s were dubbed into Tamil, including the successful Hara Lakshaya/Yar Aval. Further, during the late 1990, Indian producer V. P. Ganeshan, made Nadu Potra Vazha with a female cast comprising Sinhala actresses, Swarna Mallawarachchi and Geeta Kumarasinghe. Such collaborations have also given rise to discontent, if one is to go by press reports, that « coproductions unduly favoured Tamil Nadu filmmakers », a complaint to which the NFC answered favourably by promising rectification.[52]

Coming as a reaction to the cultural imperialism of South India were the staunch defenders of Sri Lankan Tamil culture. By laying emphasis on the development of an indigenous Tamil literature and poetry, as distinct, and elevated from audiovisual creations, the Tamil literati inadvertently hindered the growth of a Tamil-speaking local cinema industry.  Their exhortations were founded on the premise that local Tamil cinema and theatre, considered as levers of Tamil identity, – prevented literary creativity. Hence, Tamil intellectuals and cinema critics joined up with Sinhala nationalists to condemn the commercialism of South Indian cinema and its influence on indigenous Tamil culture.[53] While the defence of Sri Lankan Tamil literature was an extension of the protectionist and purist policy brandished by the intelligentsia of a marginalized community, it posed a further obstacle for the development of a Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka.

The absence of a Tamil cinema and literature in Sri Lanka is also linked to the mass emigration of Tamils since the ethnic conflict, so the two modes of expression remain discreet and undeveloped among the Tamils, suffering a lack a national cohesion. In addition, the artistic production by Tamils has always been arrested by the dynamism of Sinhala creators, desirous of preserving and strengthening their culture. It is significant that Sinhalese writers developed a literature in English, and a Sinhala cinema concentrates on its own literature and a myriad other related subjects, including the civil war. Sinhala films have taken the defence of « indigenous » culture, and of late, there has been a proliferation of award winning films focussing on the conflict. Since 2000, a number of young Sinhala filmmakers have presented a sophisticated cinematography focussing on the futility of the armed conflict and the importance of inter ethnic harmony. But they have also drawn the attention of the international cinema community on the atrocities of war, and provoked the discontentment of the Sri Lankan state whose preoccupation at the time was how the nation was perceived overseas.[54] Tamils, on the other hand hardly publish in the island, nor do they make Tamil films, at least at the moment of writing. No doubt this attests to dilemmas and inhibitions of expressing themselves on a tragic situation made of uncertainty and marginalization. Therefore, prose, poetry, critical works in Sinhala largely dominate the scene over those in Tamil.[55] Whatever creativity there is, it exists in the shadow of South India, and subjected to pressure from the majority Sinhala culture.

If the austere character of the Jaffna peninsula excluded perspectives of founding a cinema proper to the Tamil community, the 1980s witnessed a flowering of Tamil literature produced outside Sri Lanka. The literary and journalistic dynamism coming from hundreds of thousands of expatriate Tamils living in the States, in Canada, in Norway, Malaysia, Singapore or Australia, is in strong contrast to the literary production of those who have stayed back in Sri Lanka.[56] Fruit of the war, born through the Internet, and propagated through the same channel, this nomadic literature was first and foremost militant, coming from the large Tamil diaspora of Sri Lankan origin.[57]  Spread over five continents, these writers come from a variegated background, ranging from university academics to fishermen on Scandinavian trawlers, their writings bringing up the idea of a separate State. The end of the ethnic war in 2009 has seen a reversal of the situation, where members of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora are returning home. As concerns cinema, the mere fact of screening South Indian films in the cinemas of Toronto or London must surely have been a way of asserting their identity and seeking an ethnic, if not national, cohesion.[58]


Even if many have considered that Indian influence over Sinhala cinema was ineluctable, there was palpable discontent during the 1960s, that Sinhala cinema and the Sri Lankan film industry should be rendered hostage to outside influences, at both the aesthetic and economic levels. The fact that minority communities exploiting cinema had given priority to the Sinhala culture did little or nothing to appease the hostilities between the two ethnic groups. Irony would have it that it was the very monopoly of cinema by non-Sinhala minorities of Sri Lanka that would strengthen the desire amongst the Sinhalese to structure a “indigenous” cinema: a call that would be heeded by both the State,….and the indigenous Muslims and Tamils. While money, energy and creativity were thrown into sowing the seeds of indigenous Sinhala cinema during the mid-1960s, and reaping benefits at international forums, Tamil language cinema was destined to a cheerless fate. In the final analysis, even the Tamils of Sri Lanka themselves had turned their backs on a cinema of their own.

In 2012, with the “healing” process on, social peace, political stability and economic prosperity are on the agenda of goals to be achieved. What chances do Tamil-language films have then of becoming one of Sri Lanka’s cinemas in the new millennium? But then again, prior to contemplating the future prospects of Tamil cinema, one might ponder the destiny of the celluloid world in general, made vulnerable by alternative modes and formats of entertainment. Indeed how far is cinema in general, as a form of personal expression and an industry, able to survive in an environment now conquered by digital technology, brought right into the living room of even the most humble abode? If the reasons and factors discussed so far can no longer be viewed as relevant or ominous, one might indeed pose here the problem of the immense popularity of television, whose ubiquity in Sri Lanka can be accounted for, in part by twenty-six years of political instability and social insecurity engendered by incessant bomb scares and curfews. For 26 years, Sri Lankans stayed away from cinema halls, as they did from public places, for fear of terrorist attacks. Tamil language cinema then might well have to adjust to changing times, and convert to the small screen, if it is to survive in the vast space offered of digital technology and television. More importantly, Tamil-language cinema will have to devise new strategies if it is to survive in a society that continues to be energized, as demographics and history would have it, by an ethnicity based on a mainstream-minority rationale.



Samuthayam/Society i1960, Henry Weerawansa,

Evasive Denial/Sengavuna Pilithura (1951) retitled Kusumalatha. B.A.W Jayamanne,

Pasa Nila 16mm, Joe Devanand,

Thottakari/Estate Woman  (?)

Taxi Driver (1966), Chandikuti Somasekaran.

Nirmala (1968), A. Aumanayagam

Kuththu Vilakka/The Traditional Oil Lamp (1973)

Mankal Kunkuman (?)

Meenava Penne  (?)

Vaadai Katru/Monsoon winds (1974)

Ponmani (1978)

Puthiya Katru/New Winds  (?)

 Nan Ungal Thosan/I am your friend  (?)

Ven Sangu (1968) by W. M. S. Tampoe

Aval Dvu Jeeva Nadh,/ She is a Lively stream

Kaththirupaen Unakan/I’ll Wait For You

Nadu Potra Vazha, V.P. Ganeshan  (?)

Co productions

Pilot Premanath (1978)

Guru  (?)

Nanguram/Anchor (?)

Hara Lakshaya/400 000 Roupies /Yar Aval (?)



CRUSZ, R., and RATNAVIBHUSHANA, A.,, « Calm beneath the Storm » in Being and Becoming: The cinemas of Asia, eds. Aruna Vasudev, Latika Padgaongar, Rashmi Doraiswamy, pp. 392-417, New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002

CHERAN  R., The Sixth Genre: Memory, History and the Tamil Diaspora Imagination, ICES, Colombo 2008

DELILKHAN, Quintus, « Chittampalam Abraham Gardiner, 1899-1960 », 50th Anniversary 1928-1978, Ceylon Theatres Ltd., (Golden Jubilee Celebrations) Colombo : 1978

DE SILVA, K.M.  History of Sri Lanka, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, 2006.

DICKEY S, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, Cambridge, 1987.

DISSANAYAKE, W., and RATNAVIBHUSHANA, A., Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, Boralesgamuwa, Sri Lanka: Asian Film Centre, 2000.

DISSANAYAKE, W.,  « The Early Phase of Sri Lankan Cinema », Asian Cinema, ed. CONRICH I., and GILLET N., Vol 19, n°2, Fall/Winter, Philadelphia: Asian Cinema Studies Society, 2008

HANSEN, K.,, « Parsi Theatre and the City: Locations, patrons, audiences », in The Cities of Everyday Life »,  Sarai Reader 2002.

JAIKUMAR, P., Cinema At the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.

JAIKUMAR, P., « More than Morality », The Indian Cinematograph Committee Interviews (1927)

JAYAWARDENE, K., Nobodies to Somebodies : The rise of the colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, New Delhi : LeftWord, 2001

JAYAWARDENE, K., Ethnic and Class Conflict in Sri Lanka, the emergence of Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness, 1883-1983, Sanjiva Books, Colombo, 2003.

MENDIS, M. R., Genesis of Sinhala Cinema, Godage Books, 2005, p. 25.

MEYER, E. Sri Lanka, entre particularismes et mondialisation, La Documentation Française, Paris 2001.

MEYER, E., Sri Lanka, Biography of an Island, between Local and Global, (trans K. Segond-Baldwinà, Viator, 2003

RAJADURAI, K., « The Context of Tamil film Production in Sri Lanka », in Framework N° 37, Colombo, 1989

RAJADURAI, K., « Towards a Sri Lankan National Cinema », Cinesith n°02, Asian Film Centre Publications, 12-14 Colombo, 2002

RAJASINGHAM-SENANAYAKE, D., “Identity on the Borderline: Modernity, New Ethnicities, and the Unmaking of Multiculturalism in Sri Lanka, dans N. de Silva (éd.) The Hybrid Island: Culture crossings and the invention of identity in Sri Lanka, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2003

REPORT of the Commission of Inquiry into the Film Industry in Ceylon », Sessional Papers II, 1965, Colombo: Government Publications Bureau, 1965

SIVAKUMARAN, K. S., « Sri Lankan Tamil Films », in Framework N° 37, p.44-47, Colombo, 1989

THYAGARAJAH, A.,  « Shaping the Future of the Motion Picture in Sri Lanka », Report presented to the Govt., Colombo, 2004

TAMPOE-HAUTIN, V.,  Last of the Big Ones, Tower Hall Foundation Institute, Colombo 2008

WICKRAMASINGHE, N., Ethnic Politics in Colonial Sri Lanka (1927-1947), New Delhi: Vikas, 1995



1939: Ceylon Observer, 8 January 1939: « Mr Abraham Gardiner Never Despairs » by J.W.A.

1940: Ceylon Observer, 7 April 1940: « Mr Gardiner Goes to Hollywood »

1948: Ceylon Theatres Ltd., « Looking Back: Twenty Years of Ceylon Theatres Ltd., (1928-1948),  Colombo : 1948.

1950: Ceylon Observer, 19 September 1950: « Death of Mrs C. A. Gardiner

1956: Ceylon Observer 25 October 1956: «Captains of Industry – (7) Sir Chittampalam Gardiner : An ‘Elder Statesman’ in Business »

1961 : Lester Peries, « The Sinhala Film…a Reply. 14 years, but still nothing good or artistic », Ceylon Observer, 30 March 1961.

1961: Ceylon Observer, 24 May 1961 : « 14 decide future of our film industry : measures to improve Sinhala productions »

1961: Ceylon Observer, 3 June 1961: « Sinhala Films Must be Made here »

1961: Ceylon Daily News, 21 June 1961: « Film Censors lay down principles, no belittling of national culture »

1966: « Unrestricted importation has perverted taste: Senator Somaratne », Ceylon Daily News, 26 April 1966

1966: Ceylon Daily News, 16 May 1966: « Serious Inaccuracies », K. Gunaratnam

1987: « Tamil Cinema in Lanka needs more backing », The Island, 7 February 1987.

1987: « The Revival of Tamil films in the North and East: a boon to the local industry », Island, 27 August 1987.

2005 Daily News 29 September 2005, 75e anniversary Ceylon Theatres Ltd.

[1] « Sinhala Films Must be Made here », Ceylon Observer, 3 June1961.

[2] S. Dickey, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, Cambridge, 1987, p. 47

[3] For more on the subject, see K. Hansen’s illuminating work on Parsi Theatre: « Parsi Theatre and the City: Locations, patrons, audiences », in  « Sarai Reader 2002: The Cities of Everyday Life », 2000.

[4] P. Jaikumar offers a thorough analysis of the question in Cinema At the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007.

[5] K. Rajadurai, « The Context of Tamil Film Production in Sri Lanka », Framework N° 37, Colombo, 1989, p. 36.

[6] W. Dissanayake, A Ratnavibhushana (ed), Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, Boralesgamuwa:  Asian Film Centre, 2000, p.92.

[7] Evidently, here “founding fathers” and “pioneers” signify financiers and not directors, though a number of prominent Tamil directors did leave their mark on the Sinhala cinematography of Sri Lanka.

[8] Nevertheless, we know that the Muslims of Sri Lanka have had to manoeuvre between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority, showing their allegiances to either group, according to the vagaries of politics. The other category of Sri Lankans of Tamil culture are the Indo-Sri Lankans recruited to work on coffee and tea plantations from the mid-19th century. They constitute a category of speakers of Tamil. Although their economic situation precluded their participation in the business of cinema, they do represent an audience market for Tamil films.

[9] K. Rajadurai, art.cit., p. 34.

[10] For more, see R.Crusz and A. Ratnavibhushana, « Calm beneath the Storm » in Being and Becoming: The cinemas of Asia, (eds). Aruna Vasudev, Latika Padgaongar, Rashmi Doraiswamy, pp. 392-417, New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002.

[11] « 75th anniversary of Ceylon Theatres Ltd », Daily News of 29 September 2005.

[12] For more on racial typologies, see D. Rajasingham-Senanayake, “Identity on the Borderline: Modernity, New Ethnicities, and the Unmaking of Multiculturalism in Sri Lanka », in (ed.) N. de Silva, The Hybrid Island : Culture crossings and the invention of identity in Sri Lanka, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association,  2003, p. 53-55.

[13]With the exception of one film, Sudo Sudu (1964), adapted from Enoch Arden’s epic poem.

[14] V.Tampoe-Hautin, Last of the Big Ones, Colombo: Tower Hall Foundation Institute, 2008, p. 76.

[15] S. Kakar (p. 12, 1981), cited in S. Dickey, op.cit., 1992, p. 56.

[16] Idem, p 56.

[17] Lester Peries, « The Sinhala Film…a Reply. 14 years, but still nothing good or artistic », Ceylon Observer, 30 March 1961.

[18] The first Sri Lankan film company, Ceylon Theatres Ltd. was established by Sir Chittampalam Abraham Gardiner in 1928. This was followed, during the mid-1940s by two other companies, K. Gunaratnam’s Cinemas Ltd and Jabir Cader’s Ceylon Entertainments Ltd.

[19] « Unrestricted importation has perverted taste: Senator Somaratne », Ceylon Daily News, 20 May 1966: « […] giving the impression that the importers of films in Ceylon have not taken an interest in the development of the local film industry », Ceylon Daily News, 26 April 1966. This drew an immediate riposte from K. Gunaratnam, Managing Director, Cinemas Ltd : « Serious Inaccuracies », Ceylon Daily News, 16 May 1966. The debate was all the more heated as Senator Somaratne was also a film producer.

[20] « Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Film Industry in Ceylon », Sessional Papers II, 1965,Colombo:Government Publications Bureau, 1965. National Archives.

[21] W. Dissanayake, A Ratnavibhushana (eds), Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, Boralesgamuwa: Asian Film Centre, 2000, p.92.

[22] K. S. Sivakumaran, « Sri Lankan Tamil Films », in Framework N° 37, 44-47, Colombo, 1989, p. 45.

[23] W. Dissanayake et A. Ratnavibhushana, op.cit., p. 92.

[24] « Tamil Cinema in Lanka needs more backing », The Island, 7 February 1987.

[25] « The Revival of Tamil films in the North and East: a boon to the local industry », Island, 27 August 1987.

[26] The President’s Award is one of the many types of prestigious distinctions that exist in Sri Lankan cinema.

[27] Thyagarajah Arjuna,  « Shaping the Future of the Motion Picture in Sri Lanka », Report presented to the Govt., Colombo, 2004, p. 36.

[28] The film starred Pratham Pothan, Charan Hassan, D. Ganeshan, Vijay and Radhika.

[29] K. Rajadurai, art.cit.,  p.13-14.

[30] For more on ethno-linguistic and religious distributions/appurtenances, see E. Meyer, Sri Lanka, entre particularismes et mondialisation, La Documentation Française, Paris 2001 and E. Meyer, Sri Lanka, Biography of an Island, between Local and Global, (trans K. Segond-Baldwinà, Viator, 2003

[31]N.Wickramasinghe illuminates differently the question of divide and rule in Ethnic Politics in Colonial Sri Lanka (1927-1947), New Delhi: Vikas, 1995.

[32] Numerous are the studies that exist on the subject of the island’s ethnic dichotomies, these include works by K.M de Silva, Nira Wickramasinghe, K. Jayawardena in English and E. Meyer in French.

[33]For more on the subject, see K. Jayawardena, Nobodies to Somebodies: The rise of the colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, New Delhi: LeftWord, 2001.

[34] R. Crusz and J. Uyangoda in Framework 37,op.cit., 1986.

[35] See Sir A. Gardiner’s own vision of « localization » of the cinema industry: 8 January 1939: « Mr Abraham Gardiner Never Despairs » by J.W.A. Other reports in the press of 1948 appeared upon the 20 years anniversary of Ceylon Theatres Ltd: « Looking Back: Twenty Years of Ceylon Theatres Ltd., (1928-1948),  Colombo : 1948 ; Ceylon Theatres Ltd, « 50th Anniversary 1928-1978 », Colombo : 1978. Ceylon Observer.

[36] « 14 decide future of our film industry: measures to improve Sinhala productions », Ceylon Observer, 24 May 1961: « Film Censors lay down principles, no belittling of national culture », Ceylon Daily News, 21 June 1961.

[37] D. S .Senanayake, independent Ceylon’s first Prime Minister would be followed by his son Dudley, cumulating a decade of rule.

[38]See research conducted on the question through pamphlets and colonial press correspondances in late 19th-early 20th century Ceylon by K. Jayawardena, Ethnic and Class Conflict in Sri Lanka, the emergence of Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness, 1883-1983, Sanjiva Books, Colombo, 2003.

[39] K. M. de Silva, History of Ceylon, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, 2006, p. 483.

[40] In July 1983, 13 soldiers were killed, an incident which many see as the beginning of the 26 year ethnic conflict.

[41]  K. Rajadurai op. cit, p. 14.

[42] W. Dissanayake and A. Ratnavibhushana, op cit., p. 94.

[43] After 1983 a number of cinemas in Jaffna closed: the Windsor (today known as the Lido), the Raj, built by S.T.R Thiagarajar located opposite the Windsor), the Haran, in close proximity to where R. C. Tampoe’s Regal once stood, the Shanthi (one of the « youngest cinema halls in Jaffna, renamed Nathan). There’s also a small auditorium within the precincts of the Jaffna Town Hall, the Rio, and was part of the Rio of Colombo. In all, the Jaffna peninsula has more than a dozen cinemas, including the Rajah, Rani, Wellington, Sridhar and Manohar.

[44] « The revival of Tamil films in the North and East : a boon to the local industry », The Island 24 August 1987.

[45] K. S. Sivakumaran, « Sri Lankan Tamil Films », in Framework 37, op cit, pp. 44-45.

[46]Y. Rao’s Chinthamani (1937) and its success among the ethnic Sinhalese is an example of the unversial attraction of the entertainer, but also testifies to the common cultural heritage that binds India and Ceylon: the film focusses on Bilwamangal,  an erudite poet and a follower of Krishna and his love for a courtisan Chinthamani. His passion leads him to abandon his spouse and take refuge in prayer and devotion to Krishna.

[47] M. R. Mendis, Genesis of Sinhala Cinema, (trans S. Wijesuriya), Godage Books, 2005, p. 25.

[48] T. Abeyesekera, interview of 18th August 2008, Colombo.

[49] S. Dickey, op.cit.

[50] K. S. Sivakumaran, « Tamil cinema in Lanka needs more backing », Island Saturday Magazine, 7 February 1987.

[51] K. S. Sivakumaran, « Sri Lankan Tamil Films », op cit., p. 45.

[52] « The Revival of Tamil films in the North and East », Island, 27th August 1987.

[53] K. Rajadurai, “Towards a Sri Lankan National Cinema”, Cinesith 2, op. cit., p. 12.

[54] Three remarkable films were released between 2000 and 2003: Saroja, Punchi Suranganavi  by Somaratne Balasuriya and Asoka Handagama’s Me Mage Sandai. The main focus is the ethnic war (1983 – 2009). They inaugurated a new period of Sinhala films on international standards.

[55]K. M. de Silva, op.cit., p. 483.

[56] In fact, Tamil emigration to Malaya began at the beginning of the 20th century. R. Cheran citing Ramasamy (1988) points out that the Tamil population in Malaysia was around 7000 in 1911 and 25,000 in 1957. This emigration enabled the development of Jaffna, as emigrants sent funds home. Sir Gardiner, cinema magnate and iconic businessman of Sri Lanka, spent his childhood in Malaysia, his parents having temporarily emigrated to that colony for economic reasons: «Captains of Industry – (7) Sir Chittampalam Gardiner : An ‘Elder Statesman’ in Business » Ceylon Observer 25 October 1956.

[57] R. Cheran, The Sixth Genre: Memory, History and the Tamil Diaspora Imagination, p.22 Cheran’s study illuminates this Tamil diaspora, and the development of a transterritorial Tamil imaginary anchored through the internet and the birth of a literature of commemoration and resistance.

[58] R. Cheran, idem, p. 3.