People of all backgrounds gathered to be entertained. One couple fell in love there. It all changed when clashes between ethnic groups burnt it all down.
The bell rang, the lights went on and Sumana and her friends left the cinema and re-entered the real world. But once they got out, they saw a handsome young man, who could have descended from the silver screen. The well-built young man, with fair skin, who was the boss of some 15 workers, as well as the son of the owner of the film hall, smiled broadly without being arrogant. The young women smiled back shyly.
“Was the show good? Don’t you work at the cooperative?” The young man asked.
“How do you know?” one woman asked.
“We see you going this way everyday,” was his reply. The other women teased her for the exchange.
“A new film is coming next week. Tell me early if you want to come. I will reserve seats.”
That was in 1978. It was not a dialogue from a film at Siththampalam’s cinema, rather a live moment near the ticket booth.
Siththampalam was the most popular among film halls back in its day, filled with laughter from youth from all three different communities, even ordinary people mixed with officials. The hall’s manager was the popular young man Selvaraja Jayaram. Sumana Suraweera was the girl who stole his heart.
A place perfect for a cinema
Siththampalam’s film hall was housed in a permanent building, fully equipped in the north central province. The history of Siththampalam goes back to 1830. At that time it was in Anurdhapura’s old town. In 1958, when the Anuradhapura new town plan was introduced, the government removed business from the old town and gave them land in the new town.
The film hall’s owner S. N. Siththampalam got his new land in a serene spot where the sacred city and the new town met.
Siththampalam’s elder brother was a professional engineer as well as the mayor of Anurdhapura. There was no fight to claim the ownership of this land then, as there is today. Nishanka Wijeratne who was the chairman of the conservation board of Anuradhapura personally showed the land of one acre and 53 perches and as a result Siththampalam happily commenced the business.
In the beginning, films from Ceylon Theaters Company were shown there. Later films of Films Corporation were screened.
“It was a beautiful time. People were united. There was no difference between Sinhalese or Tamils in this town,” recalls Jayaram, Siththampalam’s foster son.
“There were not many problems among our families with marriage. But problems later in the country gave us troubles,” recalls Jayaram, who remembered Siththampalam as a man with good qualities who associated with a large number of Sinhala friends and helped temples.
Jayaram remebered when his foster dad helped Buddhist monks by getting films free of charge from the Film Corporation, showed those at his film hall at his own expense and donated the money to the temples.
When things changed
By the 1980s when many relations between the Sinhalese and Tamils worsened, clashes affected Tamil businessmen in Anuradhapura. A violent mob stormed the Siththampalam film hall near the police station and set it on fire. Employees ran for their lives. There were not enough facilities then to douse the flames, which engulfed the screen, rows of chairs, the roof and the beautiful interior.
After Siththampalm died, the film hall was entrusted with Jayaram who now lives in a house near Siththampalam and earns his living as a farmer. He 76 years old.
For 33 years the burnt walls of Siththampalam film hall have stood in the town to symbolize the inhumanity that once took place there. They do not collapse due to the parasitic trees plants growing on them. Huge trees have grown where the stage of the silver screen was. The balconies look like a sad story. Bats lives in the box seats. Shrubs have grown inside the hall. Some who have grabbed part of the land try to ensure ownership. Sad sights of illegal buildings can be seen around the area.
Jayaram’s wife Sumana spends the day reading religious books. She goes to town only to take medicine when she is not well.
“We don’t like to turn back and look. It’s sad to remember the past,” Jayaram said. He laments that even after 33 years, he has not been helped to get back the place.
“If I get permission today, I will build the film hall from tomorrow. Before dying, again I will build a nice film hall in Anuradhapura.”
The building’s remains are looked after W. A Jayasena who used to work at the cinema when it was running. He came to the cinema hall in his childhood and he is now 65. He still waits at the location in a hut, as a bachelor, without returning to his native village in Kurunagala, until the films start playing again.
The boards with the film titles had always been written in English back then. Only Siththampalam’s film hall had its board with Sinhalese titles. Even though the cinema looks more like a forest, the letters still show through.
Jayaram and Sumana look at the letters, waiting and hoping that they will one day get back the cinema where they first fell in love.