Face2Face with Sriyani Amarasena

by Thilak S. Fernando

Sriyani Amarasena needs no introduction to Sri Lankan cinemagoers. Having appeared in more than hundred films in the Sri Lankan silver screen she has established herself as one of the most popular actresses who is enjoying a continuous career. Married to a veteran journalist in Sri Lanka, Arthur U. Amarasena she says she is indebted to her husband for what she is today in the Sri Lankan film world. Apart from acting, she has been able to spread her tentacles towards script writing, film production, and direction. Sriyani became the first producer to take a bold step in producing the first ever teledrama abroad involving two countries, Sri Lanka and England, gambling with new and untapped talent from the Sri Lankan expatriate community in London. Having succeeded twice, she has embarked again for the third time, taking more risks with new talent from London, consisting of 99.5% cast for her third film. Her soothing personality and friendly nature while directing make it easier for any amateur to come to grips with an assigned role. She believes in simple stories touching day-to-day family life of Sri Lankans. In her latest film, which is being filmed in London at present, she delivers an important message to everyone how to be happy and contented and live a peaceful family life. To know what that is one has to wait until March 2002 when the film will roll on a silver screen in London as its premiere, keeping up with her traditional style.

Q. Let me come straight to the point. You are here in London doing a teledrama/film for the third time. What is it that attracts you to London so much in producing teledramas? Is it because of economies of scales or are you really looking out for Sri Lankan talent from the expatriate community in London?

A. The friendship between Sri Lanka and England goes back a long way. We have a lot in common with England, such as the English Language, behavioural patterns, mentality etc. They are very close to us as we have been conditioned to these from Colonial days and the time we were in school. England is a country that I love most. I consider it as a special reason if I can do something to strengthen the friendship further between the two countries out of such productions .

Q. You started your first London production from the teledrama Ira Bata Taruwa which became very popular among the TV audiences in Sri Lanka. What inspired you to take a bold decision in the first place, and to take chances with the UK costs and with most of the unknown actors at first?

A. It came about in a strange manner. There are few people who helped me to accomplish this task, as I could not have embarked on such a project on my own. I would like to mention Lilani Perera as the pivoting link in this venture. Also Tissa Madawela. Wimal Alahakoon assisted me in the production without which I could not have done the film in two countries. It had a good story line and the fact that it was the first ever teledrama which covered both Sri Lankan and London scenes made it so popular - needless to say without the hidden talents of the expatriate Sri Lankans I chose, it would not have been a complete success.

Q. It is established that your London Productions are hitting the top of the rating charts in Sri Lanka. Your 2nd London Production Hemanthaye Wasanthayak, which is being screened on Rupavahini these days, is on Top Ten again. What is the secret behind making your teledramas so popular?

A. Actually, my first ever production was 'Dath Kekulu Pala'. I believe that teledrama too became very popular. Similarly Ira Bata Taruwa and Hemanthaye Wasanthayak have received top ratings. I guess the secret behind all these are that they are family oriented stories, which are very close to viewer's hearts. Our whole life is based on the family structure. Sorrow, happiness, disputes, misunderstandings form an integral part of everyone's daily life .I believe that we must highlight these areas through teledrama. Simultaneously we should be able to get a message across to the audiences out of such dramatisation. Correct casting is also vital and the cardinal point is that the story should be very simple.

Q. What do you think of your latest London production, which is being filmed vigorously in London these days? Have you given a name to it yet and would you like to talk about it just yet or do you want the readers to be in suspense until it hits the TV or cinema screens?

A. Yes, that's OK., I like to talk about it. A name, of course, has not been assigned to it yet because the story is based on a very expensive necklace containing rare and valuable precious stone. The necklace is stolen and the whole plot is surrounding this necklace. From another angle, it highlights incidents pertaining to a musical group based in London. My gut feeling is that this third film will be even more popular than the previous two. We thought of calling it the 'Lost Necklace' once, but have not yet confirmed the name so far. Lilani Perera, Cecil Withanachchi and I are the producers of this film. The cast includes Sriyani Amarasena,Robin Fernando, Wimal Alahakoon, Lilani Perera, Tilak.S.Fernando, Prema Ganagoda, Nuwan Bulathgama, Diana Rajapakse,Ramesh Ekananyake,DineshEskie, Himanjali Nanayakkara,Karuni Ramanayuake(Bodhinayake),Punya and Rasika Weerasinghe and Sivali Palpita. Cameraman: Saman Sigera; Assist. Director Somadada Maldeniya: Lights and recording: by Ramesh Malinthakumara assisted by Wasantha de Alwis; Art Direction by Kanthi Alahakoon, Editing by Jagath Weeratunga. Still Photography by Nimal Navaratne at Wimalco. London Musical group is represented by Ronald Williams, Isuru Sandaruwan, Thomas Joseph Mann and Kaniksha Witharana.

Q. You have shown the Sri Lankan audiences about the London life , London and England already in two previous films. What are the new things you are going to attract the audiences this time with?

A. As you say, people have seen enough of London and the life of Sri Lankans in the past two teledramas. The message I want to send through the third teledrama is that we shall never fail or get defeated in life if we face all our day-to-day problems and obstacles that come our way in a sensible and rational manner.

Q. Through the rumour mill, I heard that you are preparing to do your fourth film in London in 2002 Spring. Is it a fact? Would you like to throw some light on it?

A. What's that?( Laughter ) May be what you have heard is about a project my husband Arthur U. Amasena is planning to execute in the year 2002. I will not be involved in that production but Wimal Alahakoon from London will be a major participant in it.. There is a possibility that Arthur may direct the film and I too taking part in the area of acting. I believe there will be a combination of actors and actresses from the UK and Sri Lanka in this. It would be Aruthr U. Amarasena's story and they hope to film this in Scotland. Although it might not appeal to those who live here, I am sure the climatic conditions, wintry environment etc.,in Scotland would appeal to the Sri Lankan audience very much

Q. You have so far been tapping the hidden talents of Sri Lankan expatriates in London. You have made one new face, if I may say so, Wimal Alahakoon, very popular in Sri Lanka from your two previous teledramas. This is very creditable on your part. Have you not thought of tapping the Sri Lankan talents from other countries as well such as from France, Italy, Germany, USA, Australia etc., as there are lot of Sri Lankan communities now living all over the world?

A. There are so many questions within one question here. If I speak of Wimal, I have to mention that he was very hesitant and nervous when I approached him for Ira Bata Taruwa film. Even the production team felt the same at first but I believe he studied the character and lived in that role which came out quite satisfactorily. I would like to mention here that he is a talented actor. As much as acting Lilani Perera projects herself vocally very effectively. Prema Ganegoda was a popular actress for some years in Sri Lanka. I am very proud to say that such talented people came to work with me and participated in my teledramas. If someone says that I have a made a popular cinema/teledrama star under my direction that would be the wonderful news I like to hear. In answer to your last question I would like to say that If I can get the same backing like in England I am ever ready to tap Sri Lankan talent from any country

Q How many Teledramas and films have you produced so far, both in Sri Lanka and in England? And how many have you appeared in?

A If we talk about films, I have taken part approximately in 100 films. As far as teledramas are concerned, I have appeared only in about five. This includes productions made in England also. In the future too, I intend to get more involved in this field.

Q. How did you get involved in an acting career at the beginning?

A. As a pupil, I loved acting, singing, and dancing. While I was studying in school, my mother foresaw my talents and gave me all the encouragement. We did not have schools and institutions as such those days to develop our talents but it was through sheer determination and by reading books and listening to prominent people who were proficient in such fields. When you have to learn in such conditions only what you learn sticks in your memory and it always helps. I appeared in Nari Bana drama at first and came to the cinema only after my marriage. Its only through experience in acting that followed, I managed to develop skills.

Q. You are a veteran in the filed of acting no doubt, but then how do you act or react when you have to take part with new comers, for example when you are producing films in London?

A. I don't believe in the theory that there are new and old actors. Some 'old' actors are still not able to deliver properly .There are new actors who project effectively from the word 'go' in their first encounter. That is what I call talent. With such talent I like to work because not only that they listen to me unlike the ' old' school actors who can some times be hesitant to change their stereotype ways thinking that they are veterans!

Q. As a Director, what do you look in a person before you decide on him or her to a particular cast?

A. In casting first and foremost, I study the person to see whether his personality blends with the appropriate character. Then whether he is able to deliver the goods. Another important aspect is the voice of the actor. The way one walks also forms part and parcel of the qualities one needs to be selected for a particular role. Most of the time, I like to choose a particular group because it helps tremendously in teamwork. I have at times chosen different caste also and in London particularly, circumstances of individuals play a major role. In Sri Lanka of course, I make it a point to select only those who are able to work with me.

Q. Do you have any memorable events or nasty experiences during your acting career so far?

A. I can recall the film Pethi Gomara where I had to row a boat and carry people across the Kelani river. Tony Ranasinghe was my lover in the film. I had to practice several days how to row a boat In the film the oar suddenly slips out from my hand while carrying my lover (Tony) and while trying to catch the oar I fall into the river and Tony had to jump and save me. We had to take several takes until we were fed up and I was furious and postponed the shooting for the next day. Following day, Tony reported sick and we had to use a stunt man with a wig etc to look like Tony.. Only later on I found out that Tony was so frightened of water that he had purposely chickened out of the scene.

Q. Have you now bid good-bye to your acting career with other producers now that you are maintaining continuity in producing films one after the other and taking part as well in every one of them?

A. I am today in the film industry because of my husband Amare. My parents were so strict and did not allow me to go for films and only after I got married to Amare that he consented and gave me an open passport to act. If he objected to my coming into the silver screen, I would not be here today. That I consider it as a worthy gift given to me by my husband. I am quite happy with our own present work load and the projects in hand. Actually I have no time to devote on outside interests.

Q. What do you have in store immediately as a teledrama to be released ?

A. I have produced a teledrama called ' Hangi Muttham' at the beginning of this year ( 2001). It was all about children. Nuan Bulathgama who is in London was my co-producer in this tele drama. It is queued up to be screened shortly through the Sri Lankan Rupavahini channel. Nuan also takes part in this as a Buddhist priest.