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Appreciations

Pragnasoma Hettiarachchi

Those of us who were his friends and his colleagues at the Government Film Unit must have been deeply disturbed and sad to hear that Pragnasoma Hettiarachchi or HETTI, as we affectionately called him had passed away nearly three months ago in New York U.S.A. I use the word "disturbed" advisedly because we never had the chance to meet him during the years of "happy exile" as he had won the American Lottery, thus qualifying for immigrant status in the U.S.A. His leaving the country was ironical in a manner of speaking - for few if any had celebrated on celluloid, the beauty of his country with the same gentle lyricism and that deceptive simplicity that eludes most of us in our documentary films. He was the poet of the simple, ordinary folk, the traditional craftsman, the mask-makers, the dancers, the potters, the mat-weavers, the migrant fishermen as well as the heart stopping loveliness of the seascapes and landscapes of our Island home.

I first met HETTI in our editorial offices of the "TIMES OF CEYLON" London Office in Blackfriars House at the far end of Fleet Street in the early Nineteen Fifties. He was working in a photographic studio in Central London, but his heart was really in the cinema. Though I was a staff writer (we were only two on the staff - the editor and myself) Hetti had heard of my success as an amateur film-maker and he wondered whether I could help in smuggling him into a professional studio. At that time, the Film Unions were all powerful and imposed strict restrictions on foreigners joining an Industry which, as is generally the case with the British Film Industry was in a state of permanent crisis. I happened to know the Manager of MERTON PARK STUDIOS — one of the smaller studios in London — if I remember right it was a MR. WILLIAMS and through his good offices we got HETTI a Trainee Apprentice’s job.

At the time HETTI was married to a charming French girl, COLETTE. For the record, she deserves a minor footnote in the history of film-making in Sri Lanka as she was responsible for translating the dialogue of "REKAVA" from English into French in time for the International Film Festival at CANNES in 1957. I would like to think that HETTI’s job was both rewarding as practical experience - and the stepping stone to something he could never have dreamt of. Destiny has agendas for us all of which we are blissfully ignorant. Hetti had impressed the Studio Manager with his quiet unobtrusive efficiency. At the same time, the celebrated documentary director RALPH ‘KEENE had been appointed Chief Producer of the Ceylon Government Film Unit. Advertisements had appeared in the newspapers for Assistant Directors. HETTI applied backed by a superlative testimonial from MR. WILLIAMS. By one of those strange coincidences by which FATE works out her stratagems, Keene had not only worked at Merton Park Studio, but was a close personal friend of MR. WILLIAMS. Hetti was appointed sight unseen — and before long HETTI and COLETTE were on their way back to Sri Lanka.

Though KEENE was determined to get me down, mine was a very difficult choice. My six years in London were some of the happiest years of my life. JOHN-HOCKIN, my Editor was a kindly man, though like all editors, he could be very demanding, expecting total commitment on the job - reporting feature writing, news. He was even persuasive enough to have me write a gossip column in the epileptic style of Time Magazine. I was appalled at the very thought of working in a Government Department. How Keene persuaded me to abandon a profession with a reasonable Sterling salary for a paltry four hundred and four rupee job is another story. Little did I know at the time that it was the wisest decision I had ever made.

The period under the stewardship of RALPH KEENE was the beginning of a golden era of Sri Lanka’s history of Documentary film-making and HETTI, one could state with no fear of contradiction, was to emerge from our apprenticeship, under a great British Master of the documentary genre as the outstanding talent.

Without our being consciously aware of it, we were being trained in the finest traditions of British Documentary. In a disused NISSEN HUT, once a temporary cinema shed for the R.A.F. during the war, in VELONA - MORATUWA, headquarters of the G.F.U. a group of young film-makers was to emerge that radically changed the style of documentary film-making in Ceylon. Foremost among them was HETTI. Winner of the GOLDEN MERCURY twice in VENICE, his films are the finest legacy of a period during which Ceylon Documentary was on a par with the rest of the world. George Wickremasinghe’s "FISHERMEN OF NEGOMBO" produced and written by Keene himself made the shortlist as one of the 10 Best Films in the World. HETTI’S "MAKERS, MOTIFS AND MATERIALS" with Reggi Siriwardena’s superb script and HUSSEIN MOHAMED’S haunting musical score was a Multi Award Winner, so was his "Rhythms of the People" and a "Centenary of TEA". IRWIN DISSANAIKE’S "THE LIVING WILD" has rarely if ever been surpassed as a major wild life epic. Titus Thotawatte, though an apprentice, displayed a virtuosity in editing that was to turn him into a major figure in Feature Film-making. Vincent Perera replaced BOB NAVARRO as Cameraman on Keene’s own prize-winning film "NELUNGAMA" on which all three of us, HETTI IRWIN DISSANAIKE and myself worked as his assistants.

Willie Blake, Titus Thotawatta and myself left after too brief a period to have an impact on G.F.U. films. What we did learn was the professional technicalities of film-making from a master of documentary and above all, to respect and use first rate equipment when all the other studios in the country were bungling along on antiquated, second-hand rubbish imported from bankrupt studios in South India. With all its deficiencies as an architectural entity [there were no bath-rooms — only plenty of coconut trees under which the males releived themselves; the one female in the unit was rushed to the Mt. Lavinia Hotel, in case of an emergency] the G.F.U. in VELONA was one of the finest Training Institutes in Asia. It is indeed a pity that no-one has written a comprehensive in-depth study of the history of the Government Film Unit.

As a person HETTI was modest, unassuming, completely devoid of any intellectual pretentions. He never aspired to be an aesthete - it was foreign to his very nature. Not for him the complex theories of the Grierson-Rotha, School of documentary. He was incapable of verbal exposition. Once at a key interview (the new Director of the G.F.U. was to be selected). HETTI was the most senior candidate. The Chairman of the panel asked him what inspired him to create "Makers, Motives and Materials", his masterpiece. He looked around rather helplessly and said - "But I can’t say it in WORDS" - not a bad definition of cinema. He spoke in IMAGES. Their lyricism, their erocative power came from within - from his love of ordinary people, his purity of vision, his feeling for the landscapes and seascapes of our Island home. The sensibility that helped him create his best films was that of the great traditional craftsman who created things of beauty not out of a set of aesthetic principles, but almost intuitively.

Just before he retired he was appointed Director of the Government Film Unit, a position he uncharacteristically worked hard to make sure he would not be ignored the second time. But I doubt whether he was happy as an administrator. Nor did a later stint at Rupavahini quite measure up to his delicate visual sense. He was a balladeer not a purveyor of manufactured entertainment.

I always think back with an aching nostalgia, when our group of 1952, HETTI, VINCENT PERERA, documentary’s finest cameraman, Willie Blake, Irwin Dissanaike, Titus Thotawatte crammed into my little cubicle which was an apology for an office, all ASSISTANTS, meeting to dream the impossible dream of that period: of ushering in a great era of documentary and feature films for Sri Lanka. HETTI was one of that visionary band that helped those dreams to become a reality.

NOTE: PRAGNASOMA HETTIARACHCHI was 73 years old at the time of his death in a New York Hospital. He was married twice - by his first wife Colette, he had a son and daughter who live in London. He then married Cecily, a Vice Principal of a School. They had two sons - Nandana who gave an extremely effective performance as the little boy Upali in MADOL DUWA - Martin Wickremasinghe’s classic novel of childhood. He is now purser on Sri Lankan Airlines. The second son Prasanna, is with BATES Advertising Company. Nearly all were present in New York to pay their last respects. Could there be a more moving tribute to an exceptional MAN?

Lester James Peries


C. Balasingham

The demise of C. Balasingham on July 12, 2001, at age 84, marks the passing away of one of the ‘Last of the Mohicans’ of the then very prestigious Ceylon Civil Service. Born on March 10, 1917 he had his elementary schooling at Kollankaladdy Tamil School, Mahajana English High School and Jaffna Hindu College. It is a matter of pride to record these grass-root beginnings of a very self-effacing, simple and religious minded person. He passed the Cambridge Junior Examination with Honours and a Distinction in Tamil.

Having passed the Cambridge Senior Exam, he sat successfully for the University College Entrance Exhibition Exam of Ceylon. He passed his B.A. (London) Exam, offering English, Tamil and Philosophy as his subjects and obtained a Second Class with a Postgraduate Scholarship in Tamil, all this at the early age of 20. As the rules required that no candidate could offer himself for the Ceylon Civil Service Exam until the age of 22, he entered Law College and passed the First Exam for Advocates and then sat and passed the Civil Service Exam in 1939. While serving in the Civil Service he completed the Second and Final Examination for Advocates and was enrolled by the Supreme Court as an Advocate in 1942.

Balasingham’s record of service in the Civil Service was as brilliant and impressive as his academic record. As a Cadet, he served as an Additional Magistrate at Matara and Puttalam - those were the days when Civil Servants were considered adequately versatile to hold judicial appointments too. Thereafter, he served in a variety of capacities as Asst. Telegraph Censor during the War, O.A. in Jaffna and Kandy, Additional A.G.A. at Horana and created a record as the youngest C.C.S. to be appointed A.G.A. Kalutara. He served as Deputy Controller of Labour at Hatton and Colombo, Asst. Director of Land Development, Batticaloa, in charge of Galoya Development Project and then involved himself in the comparatively new organisation and methods of office of the Treasury, ending up as the Director O and M Treasury, after a scholarship training in Hague in O & M.

The Treasury continued to use his valuable services as Controller, Finance, Supply Cadres in charge of Budget Division of the Treasury until he reached the high water mark of his career as Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, when Shirley Amarasinghe C.C.S. was the Secretary to the Treasury - It is often said that the combination of Shirley and Bala in the Treasury was one of the honest from the point of view of talent and efficiency. His final posting was as Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Health before retirement in 1970.

It is interesting to note that Balasingham was the very first candidate who did not offer any of his University Degree Subjects for the Civil Service Examination but offered instead Law subjects - So much so that the Daily News Editorial, on the day after the Civil Service results were announced in 1939, commented on this rare and unusual choice of subjects.

After retirement, Bala became fully involved in religious activities. My recollection is that, with my brother Shanmuganayagam, Bala was a founder member of the Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Organisation in Ceylon. In fact, Bala organized a Reception Committee consisting of several Cabinet Ministers and religious Prelates to receive Bhagavan on his proposed visit to Ceylon in 1968 to bless our land, when Mr. William Gopallawa was President - unfortunately the planned visit which Bhagavan provisionally agreed to when Bala met him in India, did not materialize and has not up to date.

Bhagavan had thereafter not visited any foreign country in his physical form. Bala’s devotion, however, was recognized by Bhagavan when he appointed him as a member of the Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba WORLD COUNCIL, in which he served for 10 years from 1975 to 1985.

As his brother-in-law, who knew him so intimately, it is difficult for me to say more than to express our family’s good fortune to have had with us a person with such versatile qualities as erudition, humility and religious devotion - Bala was truly a Man of God.

C. Sankarakumaran


M. A. S. M. Mohideen

The picture of Mr. Mohideen entering the office with the support of his loving wife is missed by all at Ilma and this is a scene that flashes upon the inward eye of many of us at school.

We are indeed grateful to our dear principal Mrs. Mohideen, and the driving force behind her, Mr. Mohideen, the founder director of our school, for developing it, from a few classrooms and a very limited student population in 1988 into an outstanding international girls school, consisting of 1430 students in 2001- masha-allah!

Ilma International Girls School initially commenced as a private concern. However, the concern and genuine quest of Mr. Mohideen prompted him to hand over this private concern to the community. This was done in the hope of preventing the young Muslim girls from getting helplessly trapped in the vices and temptations of today’s world.

Mr. Mohideen was a very popular figure at school and all of us at Ilma, greatly regret his passing away. Our dear founder director was simple, humble, rather quiet yet, a very persevering hard worker.

He was a man regarded a jewel in the hearts of all who knew him; a jewel who will continue to be appreciated and valued by the Muslim community.

May Allah Almighty grant him ever-lasting peace in Jannathul Firdous.

Zainab Wahab
Ilma International Girls School


Al Haj M. A. Bakeer Markar

It gives me great pleasure to write a few words regarding a gentleman I had the pleasure of serving when he adored the highest seat of Parliament as the Speaker for a considerable length of time. Al Haj Bakeer Markar was a humble, kind hearted, deeply religious minded leader who loved his job. It was my privilege to come to know him very closely when I was called upon to attend to various duties entrusted to me personally by him.

In my view, as a politician his ambition was to serve the county to the best of his ability. He attended to his duties with a deep sense of responsibility and commitment. Some of these traits have been a great inspiration for all those who worked under him.

I have been very fortunate to serve him when he was the Chairman of the Committee on Public Petitions. This too was a task he enjoyed performing for the welfare of the people. I could recall instances when he was personally overjoyed particularly when he was able to grant redress for those deserving cases who came before the Committee on Public Petitions seeking relief.

Al Haj Bakeer Markar, similarly took no time in turning down appeals, when there were grounds that an appeal should be rejected. I believe, this was because he was a disciplinarian who upheld the values, who regarded rules and regulations with utmost respect. This is the man who taught me to be firm for reasons and to be courageous when you need to seek justice.

It reminds me of a few words of "Rudyard Kipling" which goes as "If you can walk with kings and queens and not lose the common touch" and Al Haj Bakeer Markar was a shining example who did not lose the common touch and was able to move with the masses with admirable humility. This quality I suppose, stood very well in him as a politician.

Al Haj Bakeer Markar had a distinct advantage of being able to be fluent in all three languages. He associated people of all classes, religions, races and was able to move happily with the rich and the poor, the educated, the non-educated etc. with ease, perhaps, because he was able to converse fluently in all the languages. As a lover of human beings, he enjoyed advising them, perhaps again due to his desire to ensure the upliftment of his fellow-beings. I have seen how he exchanged views even with Heads of States, I was able to witness the contributions he made in several international conferences both here and abroad.

He was a respected Speaker in the Sri Lanka Parliament. His simplicity, sincerity and affectionate ways were the characteristics in the man who was endeared by all who came in contact with him.

I may be failing in my duty, if I do not mention his ambition towards providing the necessary facilities, welfare activities etc., for the staff under him. He relentlessly fought for the introduction of trousers for the minor staff along with the courage and support he received from Mr. Sam Wijesinha, the then Secretary-General of Parliament.

Al Haj Bakeer Markar was full of sympathy for those who deserved sympathy of the Speaker. In my view, he developed the quality of leadership not only among the Muslim community, but also the Sinhala and Tamil communities as well. His desire to do his duties towards the people with perfection had no barriers and had nurtured these qualities to be a perfect politician with a dedication for social work.

He was always prepared to serve the mankind. I have associated him very closely, even after he left politics having completed the term in the Southern Provincial Council as the Governor. He enjoyed our presence in his Beruwala House and treated us with hospitality, who is typically a Sri Lankan.

He may have had enemies, but he never carried vengeance. He was full of humour and he enjoyed helping people and his style of benevolence had no limitations. I was able to see him as a true party man which he always said that he was proud of being a UNPer. He stood finely and never hesitated to standby despite odds which stood against him when there were hardships that befell on him.

Lacille de Silva


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