Cinematic Magic That United Sri Lankan Communities
Locals in the northeast have fond memories of movie halls. They say the films brought Sinhalese and Tamil communities together and in some cases, even brought romance.
The many cinemas in the northeastern city of Trincomalee have seen both Tamil and Sinhalese audiences united in appreciation of the movies they screen.
“I learnt Tamil by watching Tamil films,” Ratnasiri, a fisherman who came to the city in the 1970s says. “When I came here I didn’t know a word of Tamil. But I had friends who were mad about movies and they would go to watch the films without caring whether they were in Tamil or Sinhalese.”
Later on Ratnasiri married a Tamil girl. And he says this was also due to the local movies: Their story is like a cinematic romance.
“At that time I was living at our mother’s home and most of the people there were Tamil,” Ratnasiri explains. “There was a girl there who looked like one of the movie stars and she would always smile at me but never talk.”
A new film came to the local cinema and the girl, Jenita, and her family was also there. At the time Ratnasiri didn’t know more than a few words in Tamil but he managed to speak to the attractive woman – and that, he says, is how their romance began. Eventually they too began going to movies together.
Thuwan Mohammed tells a similar story, saying that he learned to speak Sinhalese fluently just by going to the movies in Trincomalee; he used to attend the same movie two or three times and ended up learning the language that way.
Things have changed a lot since then. “When television came, the cinemas lost their audiences,” Mohammed complains now. “Now our children go to the movies only once a year. The film halls we used to go to, have become supermarkets or school halls.”
Local businessman Dayananda Jayaweera also recalls the community spirit in Trincomalee’s film halls in the 1970s fondly.
“Although we didn’t know Tamil we would go to the movies and sing Tamil songs,” Jayaweera says. “There was a book of songs released with the film. I bought it with me. But it is only now that we can appreciate how beautiful that time was. It all vanished after 1977,” he says regretfully, referring to the Sri Lankan civil war.
The most popular cinema in Trincomalee was the Nelson film hall, which showed mainly Sinhalese movies – even though the owner of the hall is a Tamil man, Skandarajah.
Asked why, Skandarajah replies that it was because of the movie stars he was a fan of. “I was devoting my life to them,” Skandarajah explains. “Inside the theatre, we built Tamil and Sinhala unity,” he boasts.