By Dimithri Wijesinghe
This blessed country we live in often provides us with instances of humour, sometimes to our chagrin. However, in the right circumstances, the Lankan propensity for comedy can sometimes create something epic, and that’s what the ‘Operation Lanka’ web series is – an action comedy epic.
Having premiered on 30 October through social media content creators Eric and Manisha Heinrichs’ YouTube channel ‘Eric & Mani,’ the series marks the content creator duo’s directorial debut and is produced by WOW Media Production. Since the airing of its first episode on Halloween, the series has been gaining some major traction amongst Lankan audiences. The series currently boasts thousands of views and a similarly passionate engagement in its comments section, with proud Sri Lankans absolutely floored at what a tiny group of enthusiasts armed with a can-do attitude have been able to achieve.
Having watched the series ourselves, The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to series director, writer, and editor Eric Heinrichs for the story behind ‘Operation Lanka,’ which according to him is a “community-made Sri Lankan-made zombie series,” with Eric making sure to stress the importance of community and the role of collaboration in a project of this nature.
A mad scientist has infected Ceylon Tea to target people in the UK and turn them into zombies. To trace the origin of this fast-spreading ‘TEA’ virus, an American secret agent is deployed to Sri Lanka and on his journey, he meets a beautiful local girl and hijinks ensue as they encounter a host of peculiar characters and hurdles along the way.
The cast features prominent social media personalities like Chethana Ketagoda, Saasha Karunarathne, Amandha Amarasekara, and comedian Anderson Haran just to name a few. Scripted by Eric with some help from Sankha B for the Sinhala dialogue, ‘Operation Lanka’ is largely bilingual and its story is a breath of fresh air for Lankan audiences as a Sri Lankan-made zombie series is pretty much unheard of.
Thanks to social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube, filmmaking as an art form has soared and the relative ease of access to resources, however rudimentary, has allowed for creativity to flourish, particularly over the pandemic when young people opted to tell their own stories in whichever form they could.
This is true even for Sri Lanka, where there is now an entire subset of Sri Lankan-made indie films that tell deeply introspective stories that employ dynamic and fresh perspectives, all doing their absolute best to step away from the expected formula of teledramas, which is what is expected when it comes to the more traditional productions available to us on local television.
According to Eric, ‘Operation Lanka’ was their contribution to this changing new wave of art and cinema: “We wanted to say something with our film. There is so much talent here and I feel that the film industry has not honoured to its fullest potential what people in Sri Lanka really have to offer. Not that it’s intentional, but I think there is so much more talent and potential within the actors and the directors; if you watch our show, it is one dude behind the camera with an assistant and a very small amount of people on set. If we can do that with this small amount of equipment, what could we do if we had those big crews like you are seeing on commercials?”
He noted that they had set out to challenge themselves and to make an effort to show not only Lankans but also the world what Sri Lanka was capable of. “Everything you see here in this production is Sri Lankan made and we also wanted to be inclusive, to honour all the cultures,” added Eric. “We went to Jaffna for an episode and it was beautiful. For all of us, it was almost like a spiritual moment just filming that, talking about what happened there, and the loss that happened during the war.”
A community effort
“It is insane how much the community stepped in,” said Eric, as the whole thing had come together almost entirely thanks to the collective effort of friends and well-meaning strangers.
Eric shared that they had originally filmed three episodes for the series and had put together a trailer, following which they premiered the first episode in a livestream while they were still in the middle of filming. Owing to some budget limitations they were unable to film the entire series at once, and while thankfully some sponsors did step in to contribute, it was largely self-funded. He shared that he liked to think of these episodes as a Christmas present to themselves.
He noted how the production evolved following the livestream, with audience members messaging them asking to be a part of the show, to be extras and such: “We literally had people taking trains from Weligama and coming from Negombo and Galle just to be a part of it, totally enthused, just to support us. Even when it came to locations, we just sort of said, ‘Hey, we’re doing something different and unique, would you like to partner with us and let us use your locations?’ Honestly, there was just so much support from the community.”
‘Operation Lanka’ has some key highlights that really stood out to us as viewers and one notable factor was how grounded it was in Sri Lanka. Lankan to its roots, the dialogue, the setting, and the vibe of the entire show really allow for a quintessentially Lankan feel, despite being an entirely fresh and maybe even unfamiliar story concept.
This Sri Lankan-ness could likely be attributed to Eric’s fascination with Sri Lanka as an American and the team’s dedication to making the production feel as Lankan as possible. “We wanted it to feel very real and relatable to the people watching it, something everybody could connect with. Being a foreigner from the outside, everything about Sri Lanka fascinates me. I see a ‘choon paan’ and I’m like, ‘Wow, a choon paan’. I see tuk-tuks, monkeys, or isso (prawn) wade and so I wanted to put it all in.”
Referring to what we would describe as an iconic scene set in a Keells outlet, he said: “We wanted to film in a location that people see every day, but to show it in an almost different light. To evoke a sort of pride like, ‘Wow, that was in a Keells outlet, something back home in my own neighbourhood’. We wanted Sri Lankans to be a part of it.”
Looking at the YouTube comments, you can tell how beloved the show has become and Eric shared how honoured they were to have received such wonderful feedback. “To me, the quality of it is better than the numbers; to know that we have made something different, something novel, and something that will be remembered. I was more focused on greatness than on clout,” Eric said.
As the next step, there is an upcoming music video for the incredible original track which serves as the theme song for the show courtesy of Sankha B and Hibshi.
As for season two, Eric said that they were hoping to “go above and beyond” as they were looking at Netflix standards. “We want to produce it at that quality so that it can be something big. The dream would be to put the first Sri Lankan series on Netflix – that is the big dream. Even if we don’t hit Netflix, we will end up doing something that we can be proud of.”
In a box: (Not at the end, can be anywhere in the copy)
The team behind ‘Operation Lanka’
Produced by WOW Media Production
Director, Story, and Editor – Eric Heinrichs
Co-Director and Production Manager – Manisha Heinrichs
Creative Director, Director of Photography, and SFX – Nawin Kutti
Assistant Director – Niketh Athithan
First Assistant Cameraman – Pasi Vaas
Title animation – Anurudha Abeysinghe
Title song – Sankha B and Hibshi
Makeup artist – Neaha Ranasinghe