Face 2 Face with Robin Fernando

by Tilak S. Fernando

Robin Fernando needs no introduction. Having entered the Sri Lankan cinema-world four decades ago his face is still a common feature on the Sri Lankan television screens today as he does not seem to have retired from his much loved career - Acting. As a youngster, whose mind was hell bent on gymnastics and sports, he has made use of his skills to develop those to be famous as an action man in the Sinhala cinema. His personality, build and the height naturally complemented with each other to prop him up to the pinnacle of Sinhala cinema and to become well known and a hero among many picture goers, who particularly liked action and fighting in films. Keeping up with the present trend and moving with the times, he has been concentrating on many other serious characters of late on tele-drama. Four decades ago Robin Fernando was the hero of the author of this article, and it was a privilege, a great occasion, experience and much of a coincidence that he had the opportunity last October to be in the same film and in the same frame with Robin as a co-actor in Sriyani Amarasena's latest production Paara De` Saya ( Paradise ) which is due to be released soon on Sri Lankan television..

Q. You became very popular in the Sri Lankan cinema and you earned a reputation as being an ' Action Man', weren't you? Would you like to throw some light on that?

A Yes Tilak, there's a certain amount of truth in your statement. My first film was called, " Chandiya' directed by Titus Thotawatta. In this film I had to live up to my character as a real ' chandiya' ( street gangster).

Q. How did you prepare for such a role, that being your very first cinema encounter? Did you have to train a lot before shooting of the film?

A. I studied at St. Benedict's College, Colombo, from 1942 to 1957. During my school days I participated in a lot of extra curricular activities and sports. I was a Corporal in the Senior Cadet Corp and was heavily involved with gymnastics and boxing as well.

Q. Wasn't that a limited experience in college and was it adequate to live up to the Chandiya Character in the film in 1960?

A. Not really, but it groomed me and drove me to pursue in the area of gymnastics professionally. You see, famous American actor, Burt Lancaster, who was one of the best gymnasts during my time, was my hero. That too boosted my ego, I should say, quite a bit and led me to take a keen interest in learning self-defence courses such as Judo, Karate, boxing, fencing, horse riding etc, almost all the areas that I thought would be beneficial to become an actor. And don't forget, in the back of my mind I always wanted to be an action man, just like my hero, Burt Lancaster.

Q. So you became an action star over night after the release of the film Chandiya?

A. Well! You can say that because in 80% of the films I took part subsequently, I was given the role of an action man. I was also popular socially in Colombo circles at the time as the Public Relations Manager; in promoting the very first Sinhala Vidya (science) Magazine in Sri Lanka whose Managing Editor at the time was Karuna Ramanayake ( Bodhinayake). Being known socially also helped me a lot, I should say.

Q. Did you particularly choose daring characters or the Directors and Producers automatically assigned you to those automatically?

A. The answer to your question could be a mixture of both. But the main reason was that during my time there were not many stunt men, unlike now in the West, to have a double, to do all the nasty and dare devil acts for you, such as jumping off horses, buildings, trains or even from bridges. Every act in the film script of the chosen character had to be performed by the actor himself, so with my experience and all round training in such activities I became one of the chosen few, I should say, be in the limelight.

Q. Have you had any accidents during your action filming and injured yourself?

A. I have had quite a few accidents by falling off buildings, horses and jumping from bridges to rivers etc., but I must say I have been extremely lucky not to have sustained serious injuries throughout my acting career. Having said that I must also say that there have been one or two occasions where I had to use 'a double' (stunt man) for extremely dangerous and daring acts which I declined to perform.

Q. Have you directed any films at all?

A. I have been a Stunt Director in about 80% of the action films done during my time. I must also say that during my time there were no special training centres, workshops or colleges for thespians or anyone for that matter to pursue studies on this subject. All we had was access to the foreign films and magazines only, and it depended on one's interest and enthusiasm in trying to gather information as much as possible and to be a self-tutor.

Q. Have you been working as the main Director of any films at all?

A. I have directed and co-produced two action films - Sura Dhuthayo and Ninja - Sri Lanka.

Q. You seem you have branched off from films to tele-drama of late. Any particular reason for that?

A. I cannot pin point to a particular reason as such. I, like any other professional, have to move with the times and adapt to whatever market variations at any given time, and become a kind of a supply and demand tool.

Q. Do you mean to say that demand for films is diminishing in Sri Lanka and the teledrama is taking over the Industry, lock stock and barrel?

A. Yes, I think to a greater extent erosion (if I can use that expression) is taking place.

Q. Why do you think so?

A. The word Cost can be the common denominator here, in terms of production as well as viewing audiences are concerned. To produce a film is comparatively expensive, costs much more than producing a tele drama. Secondly for example, say for a family to go to a cinema hall to see film these days is very expensive and in many cases they simply cannot afford, taking into account transport charges, ticket money and refreshments while watching the cinema etc. In the case of viewing a teledrama at home is a different kettle of fish. The whole family can sit together and watch it free of charge! This in fact has managed to destroy our film industry to a greater degree.

Q. What are your personal views to rectify this situation and to prop up the ailing film industry, in Sri Lanka?

A. It is my firm belief that stringent rules and regulations should be the answer to this cancerous disease, and it is up to the policy makers and the politicians alike, to take an interest in our cultural aspects of Sri Lankan life.

Q. Do you think that the teledrama craze has affected the very fabric of the Sri Lankan society to some degree?

A. Definitely yes! We are increasingly becoming anti-social by day after day by gluing to the television, especially during tele drama casting times. When I say this, I must say that you cannot compare our television with that of say, for example with England. In England during winter months it is bitterly cold, snow bound, rain and the whole environment looks miserable and no one likes to go out unless one has to. In that kind of an environment a television is a must for entertainment for the homebound. Unfortunately today Children in Sri Lanka are more interested in the TV than books, which is a tragedy.

Q. Robin, when you say that England TV is much better than the Sri Lankan TV, do you not realise the fact that in Sri Lanka television only family programmes suitable for family watching are allowed to telecast, unlike in the West young have access to all kinds of adult movies and even erotic films!

A. Tilak, I must correct you here. What you have in mind is only the Sinhala Rupavahini programmes, which I admit has a control over what they telecast. But don't forget that in Sri Lanka we have access to Cable and Satellite TV also, and English soaps are not controlled here like Rupavanini Programmes! The fact remains that children or any one can watch family programmes on Rupavahini as well as other English programmes via other channels through the same box ! So what is the great idea in putting restrictions only on Sinhala teledrama ? In Sinhala teledrama one is not supposed to show drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes etc., but just by pressing a button on the remote control what can't they see ? Not only drinking, smoking, hugging and kissing but at times even worse erotic scenes and adult movies! When there is such wide and varied access through the television in Sri Lanka, is it not rather a stupid way of monitoring programmes and putting restrictions on Sinhala programmes only?

Q. Well, one might argue that the Western culture is different, as such, a kiss or a hug is harmless and what harm can they do?

A. It may be suitable for that particular culture but we should have the common sense to realise and identify cultures that are alien to our traditions which are thousands of years old. Whether it is imported from abroad, sun or the moon, our great brains should be able to think and decide whether such programmes are suitable for our society and make restrictions just and very appropriate.

Q. Let's discuss about your own tele drama field , shall we? How many have you taken part in so far?

A. If you ask me about films I can say about one hundred or so. But when it comes to teledrama its only a hand full. I got the first break to act in a teledrama in London in Sriyani Amarasena's Ira Bata Taruwa. I am grateful to Sriyani in affording this opportunity for me. Also I must convey my sincere thanks to Wimal Alahakoon and Lilani Perera in London, who were co-producers of the film, without whose help this would not have materialised. In 1999 I took part in another teledrama, which was filmed in London, called, Chandramaya, which is due to be screened shortly on Rupavahini. The late Mr. Chandradasa in London produced it. Then I have taken part in another Sriyani Amarasena's productions, filmed in Sri Lanka, called 'Hangimuttam', which is due to be telecast in the near future. For the third time I was in London last October to take part in Sriyani's third teledrama produced in London, Paradeesaya, ( Paradise ) about which I don't have to say much do I, as you and I were both involved in major roles. It is also due to be released shortly. Apart from that I have a new action series lined up for filming in Sri Lanka and already I am in a popular running series called, Damini at present.

Q. What are your future plans in this area of teledrama?

A. I would really like to direct than going into production because that is something that I had not done completely. I have few plans on the drawing board at present, with some of my very good friends in London, who are making arrangements to come down to Sri Lanka to produce tele-drama professionally and continuously. So I am very much looking forward to lot of actions in the future and keeping my fingers crossed.

Q. What is your recipe to make a tele-drama more appealing to the public ?

A. The most boring factor for the audience is to see the same old story lines being repeated in many forms. I would like to go into periodical stories although it costs a bit more than the normal. If you want to produce something good and special and out of the ordinary, you need to spend that extra bit - I'm sure you have heard the expression - output is always equivalent to the input! I like challenges in life as much as in films. When we did the film ' Haara Laxaya ( 4 Lakhs) it was a challenge all right, but we somehow succeed in doing it.

Q. As a prospective Director how would you go by in selecting your cast ?

A. I would always prefer professional actors to the novices or the inexperienced. In my book a place is always there for the talented artiste.

Q. Don't you think that at times you might run into problems in trying to tell professional actors how to do a scene or act the way you think, as opposed to what they have in mind, as they might think (of course through their ego ) that they know it all and do not want to be dictated to them !

A. A real professional will always work in harmony with the Director and will honour the Director's wishes. He or she will look at the scene and the circumstances surrounding the story and harmonise with the Director's wishes. That is why the correct selections are absolutely essential.

Q. You have been in films for forty years now. Have you ever being subjected to any scandals or tittle-tattle as such, as you know it can happen to anyone very easily especially when one is in the limelight and is always intermingling with the beautiful women all the time ?

A. I am proud and can say with my head up that there hasn't been a single scandal, gossip or involvement during my 40 year acting career. The reason for that is simple - I don't mix business with pleasure! That was one thing I was determined to do. I loved my trade and from day one I made that resolution and stuck to that. So no one in the film industry can try to sling any mud on my character and that is a thing I am very much proud about. What more I had a wonderful and a loving wife at home !

Q. Now at the age of 64 having being a popular actor and still kicking about in the cinema and television, what have you got to sit back and look and enjoy.

A. My dear Tilak, there is a vast difference between the chronological age and the functional age ! I still enjoy what I am doing at present - still learning the lines for some tele drama etc. I have a lovely wife who has been a tower of strength to me right throughout my film career. Still she is, and makes no fuss at all. I have a son, who is a General Manager of a Tourist Hotel in Colombo and a daughter, a Supervisor attached to SriLankan Airways. I enjoy my grandchildren and what more can I expect in life?

Q. I gather you have another special hidden talent and that you are a fine gourmet? How did you learn that trade?

A. In 1973 I was in London. There I had no wife or anyone to cook for me, and it was a case of trial and error at the beginning and then I took a liking to it and mastered it. I love cooking. Whenever we go film shooting I like to make some dishes for the boys and we have a grand time. Haven't you heard that the world's best chefs are men?

Q. So, Robin Fernando, you are a good cook as well, after all?

A. Well Tilak, to put in a nut shell, I am not a Cock Robin, Cook Robin or Robin Cook but you can say a versatile Robin !