Priyankara’ s debut is first Sri Lankan film to win best actor award at a festival in the West
Priyankara Vittanachchi is juggling with too many careers. By profession he is a banker in Toronto doing a nine to five job, a partner in his family-run business in Sri Lanka and a talented filmmaker whose debut, Sameege Kathawa (Sam’s Story), brought prestige and fame to his native land by winning the Award for Best Actor for 2013 at the New York International Film Festival.
This is the first Sri Lankan film to win a best actor award at a major international festival in the West, competing against countries with well established film industries.
“I had an inkling of hope that main actor Jagath Chamila had a good chance for a shot at the best actor award,” said Vittanachchi in an exclusive interview with the Sri Lanka Reporter. “I saw all the films at the festival and no movie had a character portrayal to match Jagath’s. I told him that even if he loses the award it was OK, as he had brought to screen a great character portrayal that will be remembered for a long time to come.
When the award was announced I don’t remember what we were doing. I am not sure whether we screamed, cried, clapped or gave high fives. Whatever we did, we made the small film industry of our country reach another high in the international arena.” Vitanachchi was in the US studying economics and business administration including film making at the prestigious University of California, Los Angeles.
In 1993 he went back home and started dabbling in films and television.
“My first love is films. As a child I loved to watch highbrow Sinhala films made by such renown directors like Lester James Peiris and my uncles used to ask me whether I could understand what the film makers were trying to convey,” Vittanachchi chuckles, adding that many of his friends thought he was strange.
He went to see Lester’s Ahasin Polowata and he says that the film did something to him. When he was going home after seeing Tony Ranasinghe and Sriyani Amarasena starrer he decided to make a movie one day. Today he has achieved that dream and has joined the handful of other young Sri Lankan film makers who are giving a new lease of life to the island’s struggling film industry.
After going back to Sri Lanka in 1993 from the US he made two Sinhala teledramas, Samantha and Nikmana. Lassana, a five-minute television film he made while studying at UCLA, won an Unda, a Sri Lankan film award. Vittanachchi was inspired by the award-winning novel Sam’s Story written by Capt. Elmo Jayawardene, a story of a handicapped young man who survives against all odds.
“I am an optimist and I believe in the indomitable spirit of human being to triumph against all obstacles in life and Sam’s Story is a story created in that mould,” adds Vittanachchi.
He did not have to go too far to look for an actor to play Sam. He has worked with Jagath Chamila in television and knew about his boundless creative energy to handle any character portrayal. “I am very happy with the way he interpreted the character of Sam in the film which led him to win a prestigious international award.” Sam’s Story is about a mother’s love for her handicapped young son.
The intellectual appeal of the movie rests on its layered nuances. The theme running along the main story is the violent ethnic crisis that gripped the island nation for about 30 years and how it shaped the destinies of the Sinhala and Tamil communities. Sam’s younger brother dies in the war leaving his mother and Sam to fend for themselves; the house where Sam goes to work as a domestic help has two other Tamil servants who have become orphans in the war, and the landlord, a kindhearted rich man played to perfection by veteran Sanath Gunatilleke, dies in a Colombo bomb blast shattering the lives of everyone around him.
Vittanachchi used all his skills and what he studied in the UCLA to turn the novel into wholesome entertainment and added his own interpretations to heighten the film’s cinematic appeal.
Initially, a producer backed away from the project and Vittanachchi had to invest more of his own money to complete the film.
For example, one of the most powerful scenes of the film, Sam weeping in the hospital after his mother’s death, does not exist in the book. Sameege Kathawa was filmed in just 19 days in and around Kalutara and Piliyandala. Initially, a producer backed away from the project and Vittanachchi had to invest more of his own money to complete the film.
“Though the majority of the filmgoers were used to see commercial films in the past the audience taste is now changing. Today there is a large number of people who go to see good films. The people are coming back to films from television. While Hollywood is trying to attract the audience by offering big budget 3D movies, our small industry is trying to lure them back by offering good films. The people want a break from the monotony of TV entertainment,” says Vittanachchi adding that his film was released in February in Sri Lanka and it is now running in six theatres.
“I am planning another film but I have to recover the money invested in Sameege Kathawa to make the second one,” he says adding that he wants to make a film based in Canada if he comes across a good script. Sameege Kathawa will be screened at Albion Cinemas in Etobicoke on June 21 at 6:30 pm.