By: Bernadine Rodrigo
Photos: Lalith Perera
“Kadira Divyrajya” was recently released in Sri Lanka. The movie was directed by local director Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne, who constantly finds himself deeply submerged in the stories derived from the Sri Lankan culture and folklore. However, although his story is one that may sound familiar to the Sri Lankan ear, his two main actors were two that we haven’t indeed set eyes on before.
This is because the two of them were from India. They played the roles of Lord Kataragama and his lover Walli Matahawa and portrayed the story of their love in a colourful and rather awe-inspiring rendition of the tale. The entire movie, although shot in Sri Lanka, had one vital factor according to the director’s beliefs which required foreigners to take the place of the leading roles – the fact that they had to play a god and goddess who are actually worshiped by the local people here today. “This would have caused some stigma against them in the industry,” said Prof. Ariyaratne.” “After having played deities, it would have made it difficult to get other smaller roles.” Hence, he decided he should go about finding actors from a country where the people look like us Sri Lankans, but also look different in a way that when we behold them on the screens of our televisions, we are able to differentiate ourselves from them so that we are able to perceive them as gods.
Prof. Ariyaratne did the same with one of his last movies where he portrayed the life of Yashodara Devi, the wife of Prince Siddhartha who became whom we all know today as Lord Buddha. Therefore, he went with his team to Mumbai where he held auditions for a number of days with the help of a film coordinator there. “There is huge competition amongst the people of Mumbai when it comes to acting. A lot of them hope to get into the filmmaking industry and become actors,” observed the director. So they auditioned about 50 people aspiring to make it big and get their big break in the island of Sri Lanka, playing the roles of heavenly deities. Most of the individuals who auditioned weren’t ones that took part largely in movies but rather were common sites on television series and commercials. This exposure too, was one factor which caused Prof. Ariyaratne to look towards India to find his perfect actors; those with some dramatic experience but not too Bollywood, which may not have blended well with Sri Lankan theatre.
After finding the two perfect actors, Sonakshi Ravan and Samir Virman, the production team was met with a task more difficult than the making of the movie itself. They had to get these actors to speak in Sinhalese for a movie which was to be in the Sinhalese language. How they began to get the actors into character was by translating the entire script into Hindi which they were very well versed with for obvious reasons. Then they had to begin to teach them to say the same thing, but in perfect Sinhala so that the movie would be accepted by the people who would watch the movie in Sri Lanka. Since they lacked the necessary time to get the actors to actually learn Sinhalese as a language, they had to focus on getting their pronunciation and flow of the language right. The words were introduced to the actors through the writing of the Sinhalese words in Hindi so that they would be able to read them. Then, when it came to working on their pronunciation, the production team worked for 40 days with a team led by Prof. Upul Hevawitharana, who is an expert in lip movement.
Besides getting over the challenge of enabling these actors to recite the script in Sinhalese, Prof. Ariyaratne said that there was no challenge at all when it came to the rest of the cast getting along with the two foreign hires. “The knowledge of English helped us stay united,” said the director. He says that everyone got along quite well and that most times it felt like there was no barrier at all – especially a language barrier. Further, it was not too difficult to inculcate the local qualities in regards to the storyline as the people of Mumbai adhere to the Hindu culture of worshipping these gods anyway. “To them, the most important god is Lord Ganesh, who is Lord Kataragama’s brother,” explained Prof Ariyaratne, who himself spent years submerged in that culture. Hence, it was not all difficult for these actors to learn the required respect and values needed to portray these holy characters; indeed, they needed no teaching at all.
It seems largely appropriate that Prof. Ariyaratne would choose Indians to play the roles of these characters when one looks at how he was inspired to create the film in the first place. He received his first proper knowledge of Lord Murugan – which is another name of Lord Kataragama – when he was studying the language of Tamil, in Tamil Nadu as a student. He was introduced to an institute which focused solely on studying about Lord Murugan known as the Murugan Research Institute. There he learnt many things about the god which he did not through the common folklore of Sri Lanka. He saw that the story of this god was truly one worthy of being recorded through cinema. “It’s a very dramatic story,” he said.
He then fell in love with doing this kind of research and gaining more and more knowledge about the Buddhist and Hindu cultures of Sri Lanka. His affection towards the characters of these legends are seen very clearly when he pronounces their names with deep respect and thoughtfulness. Through the things that he learnt, he also learnt that the importance of the temple in Kataragama is not simply that of being a popular worshipping site.
“Many people don’t know this but the sacred Bo Tree there, is one that actually comes from a part of the original Bo tree brought by Sanghamitta Theraniya to King Devanampiyatissa,” said Prof. Ariyaratne. He shows that through his movies, regardless of the cast, there is so much more to know about Sri Lanka in a historical sense. However, if one does not like to go through history, Sri Lanka can always offer great, theatrical epics, such as Kadira Divyrajya for our people to not only gain knowledge, but also heartily enjoy.