During the evolution of human food, water, shelter were the most basic requirements. Later on with the civilization of human being philosophy, literature, art and history had a great impact on humans. Among them, art is interconnected with the spirituality of humans. In the present world cinema is loved and accepted by all the people in the world despite differences. The art of acting to have introduced to Sri Lanka with local cultural festivals and religious observances. Later on, the influence of Indian cinema is noteworthy in establishing Sri Lankan cinema industry.
The beginning of Sri Lankan cinema is marked with Rajakeeya Wikramaya which is also known as Shantha and extended into different genres. Among them Buddhist films were also made in the past but was not prevalent unlike today. The main reason for this is the popularity of Buddhist literature in the country. Before Buddhist cinema came into existence stage dramas, songs etc were popular among the public. The first Buddhist film in Sri Lanka named Patachara was screened in 1964. The role of Patachara was played by popular film actress Sandya Kumari. It is important to note how the Buddhist Cinema was accepted by the people. Although the film Patachara was well received by the audience, a film named Sambudu Mahima failed to impress the audience. The film Vesathuru Siritha was produced with a huge budget which also failed to earn profit.
Even though people like to watch movies based on Buddhist literature, they tend to reject the creation if the quality of the film is in question. It should be mentioned that all the films belonging to this genre did not end up in failure. While Ajasaththa was well received by the public the film Kundelakesi in which the protagonist were the popular duo Wijaya Kumarathunga and Malani Fonseka, the film did not achieve expected success. The reason is the shortcomings in the production.
The film Angulimala was first screened by dubbing the Hindi film into Sinahala language. Although this attained high success, the Sinhala film Angulimala in which the main character was played by talented actor Ravindra Randeniya, the film did not impress the public. Actors play a major role in Buddhist films. The Buddhas character has never been played by any actor in the cinema. Not even an audio is available to symbolize the Buddha. They have not even made use of animation technology to portray the Buddha. They use aura, a statue or the sacred foot of the Buddha to symbolize the Buddha. That is because of the utmost piety the actors have on the Buddha and that they think that the Buddha’s character cannot be played by an ordinary mundane person. Although in India we have seen the role of the Buddha being played by actors. In Sri Lanka actors are willing to play the role of Prince Siddhartha and the hermit Siddharta. And we have never been able to see any Sri Lankan actor playing the role of the Buddha.
The other most important role in a Buddhist film is that of the Buddhist monk. That is a very revered role. For the first time in Sri Lankan cinema, a Buddhist monk’s role had been played by actor Herbert Jayasinghe in the film named Saradiel which was released as a black and white film. Later on Gamini Fonseka (Senasuma Kothanada / Sahanaya) Wijaya Kumarathunga ( A Tamil film named Neguram) Sanath Gunathilaka ( Sinahawa Atharin) Raveendra randeniya ( angulimala) sathischandra Edirisinghe(Koti waligaya) Dharmasiri Bandaranayaka ( Sathara Pera Nimithi) J.h Jayawardhane ( Adishtana) Jayalath Manorathne ( Sooriya Arana) W. Jayasiri ( Gamani) Buddhadasa Withanchchi ( Maharaja Gemunu /Ahalepola Kumarihami/ Aloko Udapadhi) Sampath Thennakoon ( Siri Perakum) Sampath Jayasinghe ( Patibhana) Thumidu Dodam thenna ( Sankara) Roshan Pilapitiya ( Mahindagamanaya) Pradeep Dharmadhasa ( Ammawarune) Shammu Kasun ( Aloko Udapadi) Madhu Madhawa Aravinda ( Siri Daladagamanaya) have played the role of Buddhist monks.
The most influential and unforgettable role of a Buddhist monk had been played by Dr. Thissa Abeysekara in the film named Weera Puran Appu as Kudapola Thero which was directed by Lester James Peiris. Some actors have played the villain Buddhist monk’s character such as Dewadhaththa Bhikku. Piyadasa Gunasekara in Ajasath, Palitha Silva in Maharaja Ajasath, Dineth De Siva in Bimba Devi in Yashodara played the role of Dewadattha Thera as a villain.
Although all these actors were well received by the public, some actors were not well received as have been successfully played the role of a Bhikku. D. R. Nanayakkara first played the role of a Buddhist monk in the Sarubima film. He then acted in Deviyani Oba Koheda film as a Buddhist Monk. People did not like a comedy actor like D.R Nanayakkara to play a serious virtuous and revered role of a Buddhist monk. Some criticisms were leveled at the actor Giri Raj Kaushalya who recently acted as a Buddhist monk in Siri Perakumwhich film was directed by Dr. Somarathne Disanayaka.
The role of a Bhikkuni cannot be disregarded or undermined with regard to the Buddhist cinema. The popular actress Rukmani Devi was the first female actor to have played the role of a Bhikkuni. She acted as a Buddhist Bhikkuni in the film named Airangani though in a very short scene. However, later the producers had to remove that part from the film.
Actress Subhashini Athukorala is regarded as the first female actor in Sri Lankan cinema t have shaven her head to act as a real Buddhist Bhikkuni. She acted in the film named Ransalu directed by Lester James Peiris. The notable feature of this actress is that since the release of the film, she has never grown her hair. She keeps her head bold and leads a virtuous life by being a vegetarian as a respect to the character that she played in Ransalu film as a Buddhist Bhikkuni.
Later we can see Malani Fonseka, the queen of Sinhala cinema acted as a Buddhist Bhikkuni in Kundalakesi and recently in the film named Uthpalawanna too. In addition, Neeta Fernando in Lasanda, Denawaka Hamine in Sarubima, Geetha Kumarisingha in Akke Mata Awasarai, Sangeetha Weeraratna and Sandani Welikanna in Uthpalawanna, Oshadhi Hewamadduma In Mahindagamanaya, Pallawi Subhash and Udari Perera in Bimba Dewi Hewath yasodhara and Ruwangi rathnayaka in Subha Theraniya played the role of Bhikkuni.
However, it should be mentioned that the role of Bhikkuni was not as popular as the role of a Bhikku. There were many films which carried the Buddhist theme, yet were not connected to the incidents of the Buddha’s life. The film name Sathara Pera Nimithi is an example. The film later on was subjected to censoring. Film such as Adhishtana and Sankara showed the life and the thinking on a young Buddhist monk. Yet these films were not censored.
The film named Sansare Dadayakkaraya of Prasanna Jayakodi was able to portray successfully the concepts of Karma, cycle of Sansara and the perishability of life. The film was not popularized since the film was screened under the label of ‘adults only’. This film discusses the most deep Dhamma concepts successfully than the films made under Buddhist label.
There had been a song played at the end the film praising the Buddha in almost all the films screened during 1950,1960 and 1970s. The creator of the film had made use of this song to spread his massage to the public. Such songs are still popular. The best example is the song Paramitha Bala Puritha Poojitha of Ranmuthu Duwa film which is regarded as a first coloured film in Sri Lankan cinema.
One of the prominent problems in the Buddhist cinema is that the main and the highly revered characters which are mentioned in Buddhist literature have been given to foreign actors to play. For example, Saman Weeraman and Prof. Sunil Ariyarathne brought down Indian actors Arkit Chaudry and Gagan Malik to act in the film Prince Siddhartha. In Bimba Dewi Hewth Yashodara, the main role was played by an Indian actress named Pallawi Subhash. Their justification is that the film becomes close to reality when Indian actors play the main role since the Buddha was an Indian. They are also the opinion that it is appropriate to play the important Buddhist roles by Indians or foreigners rather than letting a known actor at home whom people see very often in cinema and TV which may spoil viewers perception of the whole film. They think that when unfamiliar actors play such roles people will accept them. Although making Buddhist films became a trend in Sinhala cinema the popularity of them depend largely upon the quality of the film. And we can also expect that the true and deep Buddhist concepts and philosophy will be portrayed in future rather than simply displaying popular characters in Buddhist Literature.