FACE 2 FACE With Wimal Alahakoon

by Thilak S. Fernando

Wimal Alahakoon¹s parents were schoolteachers. Born in Kegalle, at a tender age of seven he lost his father from a motor accident and his whole world rested on his mother thereon. Being the youngest son of a family of three, he studied at Kegalu Vidyala in Kegalle, subsequently at Stafford College, Colombo and finally graduated as a Civil Engineer from the Moratuwa University, Katubedda Campus. Just prior to leaving Sri Lanka he worked for the State Engineering Corporation as a Construction Superintendent and Bank of Ceylon buildings at Vavuniya and Monergale were erected under his command. In England, he pursued further studies in Building Surveying and obtained the Royal Charter qualifications. In London, he was drawn into one of his childhood dreams of appearing on the silver screen with his teenage film heroine and queen in Sri Lankan cinema Sriyani Amarasena. Sriyani Amarasena introduced him to the cinematic-world in her first London tele-film Irabata Taruwa filmed on location. In his second adventure he became increasing popular as an actor doing the character of a Sri Lankan doctor and an understanding modern father, again in Sriyani¹s second film,¹Hemantheye Wasanthayak¹, shot completely on location in London. He immediately received an offer from Sri Lanka for another leading role in a film to play the role of a University Professor turned politician, which he declined, as it would interfere with his demanding job as a Senior Building Surveyor. Wimal Alahakoon spoke to Face2Face in the same relaxed and calm manner with no difference to facing the camera.

Q. When your father died of a motorcar accident at a tender age of seven to what extent did you realise the impact on your life of having to grow up without a father?

A. It was a terrible blow. Yet at that moment of time it was just an incidence I suppose. However, the penny dropped only later when shock waves started to haunt me. I became much attached to my mother and she became my whole world ever since. When she died ten years ago, I was pained again to no end.

Q. You received your primary education in Kegalle and then graduated at the Katubedda Campus as a Civil Engineer. What made you decide on civil engineering, coming from a family of schoolteachers?

A. My childhood was full of dreams and I always wanted to be a doctor. I think at the time the idea came to my little mind that if I had been a doctor I could have saved my father ! I was very playful during my teens and I don¹t think I paid enough attention to studies, so the idea of being a doctor faded away. Civil engineering was not my choice but it happened to be the only available option at the time. Anyway now I am glad I did.

Q. You were working in an Executive capacity as a Construction Superintendent attached to the State Engineering Corporation in Sri Lanka. What made you leave the Corporation and come to England?

A. I got married to Kanthi (Gunasekera) in 1976. At that time she was a Nurse at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow. So I accompanied my wife and proceeded to England. Obviously this gave me an opportunity to pursue my career in a wide spectrum I joined Croydon Collage of Technology and later specialised in Building Surveying and Estimating and obtained my Royal Charter from the Chartered Institute of Building

Q Now, you are well established as a Senior Estimator/Surveyor in a reputable Construction firm in London. How did or what made you to test the waters in the Cinematic world?

A. Since my childhood, I was very fond of the cinema, stage dramas, and any type of performance Art. My favourite hobby as a child was to see every Sinhala film and never missed a single premiere show. I remember once I went to see Rukmani Devi¹s house in Negombo from Kegalle. It was like a pilgrimage to me. Another interesting thing that I did regularly was to spend the whole night relating the story to my mother, after seeing a film, sometimes physically demonstrating the actions. I still remember the way she used to laugh and enjoy it.

Q. Did you have any favourite stars or heroes in the cinematic world when you were young?

A. Oh yes, definitely, Sriyani Amarasena and Gamini Fonseka! My scrap books were full of them. My little room in Kegalle house was Œwall-papered¹ with Gamini Fonseka. I still remember the echo in my sister¹s voice when she came home from the boarding school that Œit¹s not Gamini Fonseka who will come to answer the questions in your exam paper, you should concentrate on studies and not the silver screen¹. Later I met Gamini in London and went through the memory lane over a drink. When he returned home he personally sent me his Biography.

Q. So, wasn¹t that a coincidence then at a later stages in London that Sriyani Amarasena herself picked you for a tele-film role in Ira Bata Taruwa?

A. Actually its not quite correct. Sriyani Amarasena was first introduced to me by my friend, Tissa Madawela, for which I am very grateful. Tissa brought the idea that we should get involved in this project and I straightaway jumped at the idea and agreed to it as I had this element of cinema in my blood from a very young age. Aafter all it was none other than Sriyani Amarasena who introduced to the silver screen. Lilani Perera, the London based talented actress was also introduced to me by Tissa Madawela. Later I came to know Sriyani and her husband ­ Arthur, and became very close friends.

Q. In Ira Bata Taruwa, you performed an additional role as a co-producer, which was an entirely different and new task. Without any previous experience in this field, didn¹t you take an additional risk in investing money into it?

A. I didn¹t consider it to be a risk but treated it as a fulfilment of one of my life long ambitions. When I joined ŒIra Batu Tharuwa¹ as a co-producer I didn¹t put down money as an investment or a business proposition. To me it was purely a pleasure and a sentiment, to which, I don¹t think anybody can put a monitory value.

Q. You received your on-the-job training in the cinematic world, both as an actor and co-producer. What lessons and experiences can you account for?

A. Firstly, as an actor one has to possess a well balanced head. There are lots to learn from everybody around you particularly from the experienced artists. In my opinion, to be a good actor, you should have a certain amount of intelligence, a fair amount of talent and above all, good personal qualities, such as respect towards others, kindness, willingness to learn, trustworthiness etc.,

Q. When you embarked on your first tele-drama, did you have any long-term ambitions to get heavily involved in the future?

A. Not really. I never wanted to be a professional actor or a full time producer even after hearing some good critical reviews But I may get involved from time to time, at the right time with the correct people.

Q. How did you get involved with Hemanthe Wasanthayak film? Weren¹t you also a co-producer in it?

A Sriyani Amarasena introduced me to Prema Ganegoda, whom I knew since my childhood as an award winning stage actress. I was known to Anura Hegoda for some time, but during the shooting of ŒIra Batu Tharuwa we became close friends. Anura is an interesting character and I learnt to appreciate many wonderful qualities that he possesses. Those three are the producers and they invited me to play one of the leading roles in their production ŒHemanthe Wasanthayak¹ Now to answer the second part of your question about being a co-producer, the answer is absolutely no. I know some people may think so because of my heavy involvement in organising the premiere show in the Commonwealth Institute and publicizing it. My nature is that when I become involved in whatever it is my fundamental habit to go hammer and tongs to ensure that I do my part to the best of my ability within the available perimeters.

Q. How difficult or easy is it to produce a tele-film in London? What are the trials and tribulations in your experience?

A. I think producing a tele-drama in London is not that difficult provided you have the right ingredients. The story line must be good and it should blend with London locations; financial backing is a must without saying, particularly in the form of accommodation and transport as main elements. The most critical factor is the right group of people. One has to be absolutely honest and be able to maintain that trust between one another at all times. I must say, in this respect, that, ŒHemanthe Wasanthayak¹ was a huge success as it had all these components in a meticulous form. Every participant involved in the production from top to bottom was admirable One thing I personally know is that cutting corners purely to make profit out of it never crossed producers minds. During the shooting of the film we all, both parties from Sri Lanka and London, were like happy family members meeting after a long time. It was very fascinating to see our London team taking an extra effort to make others comfortable by attending to all their needs during the period of month long filming.

Q. Let¹s talk about your role as a doctor and an understanding, modern father in Hemanthe Wasanthauyak. You appeared very relaxed and quite natural. In fact, you projected as one of the experienced actors who had been in the game for a long time. In my mind, the most difficult thing in acting is to be natural when facing the camera. What are the secrets behind your success in this particular role, especially after acting only in one film before?

A. Thank you Tilak for your kind words! Well ! I think one of the governing factors in my success is that during the shooting I was Œsandwiched between talents¹. On one side we had ŒCrowned Queens¹ in Sri Lankan films and dramas ­ Sriyani Amarasena and Prema Ganegoda , and on the other, the new generation- superstars like Roshan Pillapitiya and Kanchana Mendis. I must mention here that the Director, Rodney Widanapathirana and Sriyani were particularly instrumental in my performance. I must also say that every one in the team was excellent and we always maintained a happy and pleasant environment during and after filming. When you have a clear and happy mind and you try and live in that character your actions follow automatically.

Q. Do you think that the Producers took a heavy gamble by offering this role to you, because rise and fall is proportional to the performance of the main characters and those who play such characters?

A. You are absolutely right here. They took a heavy gamble by offering me this major role because this character had to be played with the greatest discipline, maintaining a fine balance between Œ over acting and under performing. I am glad that I didn¹t let them down. As you witnessed yourself, Lilani Perera, who played my wife in ŒIra Batu Tharuwa,¹ displayed some memorable performances in this film as my sister-in-law.

Q. What other factors do you consider for your success in this role, apart from your own talents?

A. As I said before the people around me was a great help. I think Sriyani drew up the script to suit my personality. She knew what type of father I am to my sons. During shooting I felt some similarity in the character to my own self. It was fascinating to watch Sriyani and Prema effortlessly delivering the goods in front of the camera. During the production, I found Prema Ganegoda always radiating happiness and bringing joy to people around her and that acted as a catalyst towards the ending of hard days workŠ.

Q. Do you have any memorable moments or bitter experiences while making the film Hemantheya Wasanthayak?

A. I cannot think of a single bitter experience, but many many happy moments barring one sad moment. That was at the end of the filming at Heathrow Airport when the Sri Lankan crew departed. I could not hold on to a silent tear drop that forced itself out. We hugged and kissed each other and that was a feeling which came from the very core of our hearts. Talking about happy momentsŠŠŠ. I think its not fair to take so much space in your column.

Q. What was the Sri Lankan offer you received after your performance at Hemantheye Wasanthayak? And why did you decline this offer?

A. Yes I had an offer for a leading role in a mega production in Sri Lanka. (This was for a film and not for a tele-drama). I have been told that there is a generation gap among the Sri Lankan actors at present and after seeing ŒHemanthe Wasanthayak¹ , perhaps during the editing process in Sri Lanka; one of the well-known Film Directors approached me. The proposed character was to play the role of a University |Professor who later turned into a politician in the governing party. It tries to portray how power and money changes the very character of this professor-turned-politician, and how he later starts to practise entirely contrary to what he preached !. Even though I was fascinated with the offer I had to decline due to the fact that with my busy professional life I found it difficult to spare a few weeks or perhaps months to be spent in Sri Lanka, right now and also it could be politically explosive!

Q. Do you intend becoming a professional actor or a producer in the future?

A. Certainly not. It will be only as a hobby and if at all on random basis

Q. You said after your first involvement in Ira Bata Taruwa that you have no intentions to be a professional actor or producer, but within a matter of months you appeared again at Hemathaye Wasathayak. When you repeat the same words here and again now, how serious are you in your statement?

A. Tilak, I congratulate you for having a good memory. I remember you asked that question probably more than a couple of years ago at the Commonwealth Institute. Anyway my position remains unchanged that I do not intent to be a professional actor or a producer, but I will get involved from time to time, only with some selected people, not as a profession but purely as a hobby.

Q. While I was speaking to Sriyani Amarasena after the premiere show of Hemanthaye Wasanthayak, I gathered that she had some idea of making a few more films outside Sri Lanka. Are you going to be part of her projects in the future?

A. Not in every production. But there are a couple that I will get involved. One will be filmed entirely in Australia and I found that to be very interesting as it will be filmed on location in and around Sydney, particularly in Opera House, Harbour Bridge, and Blue Mountains. This will be towards the end of the year. The other one may be in the next year, in the UK, but certainly not in London. We are thinking of Scotland or Wales. This is very much on the drawing board at the moment.

Q. Recently we have been hearing a lot about the problems of getting down cinematography-teams from Sri Lanka, especially because of the British entry visa problems some producers have encountered recently. Do you think such obstacles might hinder the future London productions, and what are the cardinal points or areas one has to remember in this connection and be guarded against when sponsoring film artistes from Sri Lanka?

A. Yes I know what you are referring to. Unfortunately I do not wish to comment on this specific incident as I am not involved and I consider it to be none of my business. However in broad general terms, if any cinematography-team coming to London from Sri Lanka, abuses British Engtry Visa privileges and breaches the trust, it indeed is bad news for the industry. I am glad to say that every one who was involved in Hemanthe Wasanthayak fulfilled their obligations to the fullest satisfaction of the producers and we are quite satisfied with them. I must say that Sriyani is very captivating in selecting the right people for the job.

Q. What are the main reasons behind the current trend of producing and shooting tele-films in the UK? Some might say it has somewhat become a vogue in London or others might call it just Œ keeping up with the Jones¹s. What are your viewpoints in such criticism?

A. I think there is a great demand for tele-dramas made in London, as this is a novelty to our Sri Lankan audiences. But once the novelty wears out the demand too will decline. You always need new ideas and locations to keep up with the trend. That¹s why we select Scotland and Wales for our next productions. Another by product is that our Sri Lankan artists get an opportunity to explore Europe.

Q. In producing a tele-film in London, what factors one has to consider carefully? Having had experience as a co-producer what advice, would you like to give to prospective producers of such films?

A You must never enter into a production just because somebody else is doing or merely to be competitive with others. You must act on your own convictions and have a desire for your own success rather than competition. It is equally important that you need to be absolutely honest with yourself as much as with your team members . You must never engage in tittle-tattle behind one¹s back while pretending to be friendly. Personal qualities of all the people involved in a production team will undoubtedly contribute towards the ultimate success of that production.

Q. I have seen your wife, Kanthi, singing on London stage on several occasions in Sri Lankan performances. Why have you not thought of projecting her in your films, especially when you had the opportunity of being a co-producer?

A. She has performed a role in Œ Ira Batu Tharuwa¹ and she sang a song in ŒHemanthe Wasanthayak¹ with Roshan Pillapitiya. In fact I was told by Roshan that this was the first time in a Tele-drama incorporated a live recording of a song. Kanthi is rather hesitant to go into acting., but she has always been busy behind the scene. In fact she is the one who created all the decorations and make ups for the wedding scene in the film. She has completed an advanced course in flower arrangement and decorations. Her contribution to our future projects will be enormous.

Q. You are a family man. Would you like to talk about your family?

A. Whenever I find time I love to spend time with my wife and two sons. My elder son Dhilum is a Discovery Scientist in Oxford, and younger son Julian is reading Law at Kings Collage, London. We have been married for 25 years and our greatest achievement is two sons and they both possess wonderful qualities in life and we are a closely knitted family. Isn¹t there a saying called: ³There is a lady behind every successful man?², This is absolutely true in my case. I believe I am qualified to confidently modify the saying to add, Œ not only behind , some times in front too, especially ¹ in my case with Kanthie. I love cooking during weekends. Which is my way of unwinding after a stressful working week.

Q. Once, I remember you telling me that you are a happy man and you have achieved everything what you wanted in life in material terms. This is the first time that I have ever come across a contended human being of that magnitude. What makes you say so, are you inclined toward spiritualism?

A. I am certainly not entering into spiritualism. Not yet anyway! I am leading a very comfortable life to Œmy own set standards¹ and in general terms I have achieved every thing that I wanted in life. Furthermore I am surrounded by some really good friends anyone in the world would wish to have. And I have a sister whom I adore.

Q. If you have achieved everything in life so far, there¹s nothing much I suppose I can expect you to say about your future plans in life. However, I would like to make this a routine question and see what you have to say about your plans.

A. I have achieved my targets, true, but I do have some less Œambitious¹ plans! I am well established here in London. My two sons are grown up. My commitments are now diminishing. Even my heart is overhauled with a guardable by-pass. I hope to retire perhaps within next two years and spend more times on holidays and some film production work and occasional acting.