Tissa Abeysekera: Tragic hero of our world of cinema


Carlo Fonseka

Born in 1939, TissaAbeysekera could not possibly be the Father of Sinhala Cinema, but he proved to be its life- blood. He wrote the screenplay of Maestro Lester James Peries’s Nidhanaya (1969) which made it to the best one hundred motion pictures ever made in the world. He wrote the dialogues of Lester James Peries’s finest film Gamperaliya (1963) which was based on the greatest novel in the Sinhala language. He wrote the screenplay and dialogues and directed Viragaya (1987) the ethereal film based on Martin Wickramasinghe’s sublime novel. Even if the only thing that Tissa had ever done for Sinhala cinema was to have made Viragaya, he would still have merited cinematic historical immortality as a Grand Master of the art. I had the poignant experience of having one last chat with Tissa the day before he died in April 2009 a few days before his 70th birthday. When I told him that his combination of attributes as a screenplay and dialogue writer and a film director made him the most complete film-maker in the world of Sinhala cinema he sighed: "Yes, but in nearly seventy years this complete film maker has made a grand total of just three films, and if anything that only certifies abject failure." "If so" I riposted, "you are the tragic hero of our cinema". "May be" my friend Tissa murmured with a smile. That was the last thing he ever said to me.

Remarkable Man

Tissa was one of the remarkable men it has been my privilege to know and I think I can claim to have known the most remarkable men in the Sinhala world of art in the 20th century. He never spoke about the fact that his father was a knight of the British Empire, Sir Arthur Soloman de Fonseka. He used to say that he was inducted into the language of Shakespeare and Milton by his upper class, ultra-conservative father and to Sinhala Buddhist culture and left-wing politics by his radical mother. The more I got to know about Tissa, the more I realized that he was something of an enigma wrapped in a mystery. His close friends, however, neither knew nor cared much about his roots. To us he was a man endowed with a sharp brain, a magnetic personality and impulsive heart. He had an undisguised contempt for everything that was phoney or pompous. As a compulsive talker and a raconteur (a retailer of anecdotes) he could be mesmerizing. His refined husky voice an impeccable diction of both English and Sinhala made him irresistible especially to women. I have watched (with envy) how the magic worked. I have reason to believe that if he wished he could persuade any nubile female to marry him!

Master of Language

Tissa could speak learnedly and brilliantly on a wide variety of subjects including cinema, literature, history, politics and music. He had a vivid imagination and could speak as brilliantly as he wrote. His English style was elegant. The highest point in his writing career came when his autobiographical novel Bringing Tony Home: a Story In Three Movements was awarded the prestigious Gratiaen Prize for creative writing in 1996. He was immensely and (pardonably) very proud of this achievement because for all his intellectual brilliance, his highest educational attainment on paper was the Senior School Certificate. As a result of this academic limitation, for most of his adult life Tissa suffered from a certain lack of confidence and needed constant reassurance. At last in 2007 the University of Colombo awarded him an honorary doctorate and Tissa became a changed personality. He rejoiced in the well-deserved title.


In politics he was consistently left-wing and was a card-carrying member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. After the galaxy of giants who led the LSSP from 1935 passed away in the fullness of time yielding place to a new order, Tissa emerged as a formidable theoretician and platform orator. He reveled in this role. His scripts were inspiring and his performances on the platform were theatrical. The crowds loved his oratory. Having been on the same platform from time to time I know that speaking after Tissa was a regular disaster for me. I carefully watched him in action and learnt a few tricks from him.

Tissa as Actor

Although Tissa had inborn dramatic ability he was not concerned to become a professional actor. He played a significant role in his film Mahagedera (1983) which he directed. The film was uniformly gloomy but it remains in my memory for the dexterous use that Tissa made of the much loved popular song called Nil AhasThale. At the time Tissa included the song in the film he did not know its creator and like many of us assumed that it was one of those anonymous community creations. So no credit was given to its creator Mr. U. D. Perera who had composed the song in the 1930s when he was a lecturer in the Teachers’ Training School. Fortunately Mr. U. D. Perera’s son, eminent gynecologist Dr. Hemantha Perera produced documentary proof of the authorship of this beautiful song and Tissa duly accepted his oversight. For me the high point in the film is the episode in which the disintegrating family becomes emotionally bonded again by singing severally and collectively Nil AhasThale, round the family piano. The lead professorial role Tissa played in Wathsala Akka (1985) was a nightmare that he struggled to erase from his memory bank. Curiously enough it was in two films, namely, Weera Puranappu (1978) and Ammavarune (2006) that my much-married friend Tissa pulled off spectacular performances as a Buddhist Bhikku. They remained indelibly etched on my memory.


Tissa was a self-taught musicologist of the first rank. In this field his insights were as original as they were creative. He was the leading authority on the music of Sunil Santha. He collaborated with his musical friend Piyasiri Wijeratne in a seminal and definitive study of the artistry of Sunil Santha’s music. His principal insight was that there was a natural and inseparable, correspondence between the phonetics of the Sinhala language and the notations of Sunil’s music. He researched the matter thoroughly and documented his findings systematically. Briefly he argued the thesis that in the history of modern Sinhala music it was Sunil Santha who created the nearest thing we have to a genre of music which is uniquely and authentically indigenous, Sinhala and modern. He consciously rejected Ragadhari North Indian music as a suitable foundation for Sinhala music.

Perhaps his enduring contribution to Sinhala musicology is his masterly exploration of our musical heritage he presented in January 2009, as a member of the National Trust. His lecture-demonstration on that occasion was titled From Meter to Melody . It is a comprehensive, authoritative and clear exposition of our musical heritage from the earliest times up to (but not including) Amaradeva. Sadly he did not live to complete the musical voyage of discovery he embarked upon.


To give just appreciation of the impact Tissa Abeysekera had on our times would require the work of a trained historian with a broad and deep knowledge of the cultural history of Sri Lanka in the 20th century. Tissa’s major impact was on Sinhala cinema and this derived from his encyclopedic knowledge of both world cinema and literature. His bilingual competence in Sinhala and English and his expository and oratorical skills contributed immensely to the impact he had. He also articulated a vision that was humanistic liberal modern and inspiring. His unconventional life added to the mystique of his persona; that he cared more for his art than for wealth or power was evident to all. I shall not see the like of him again. Of his personal kindness to me I do not speak except to record gratefully that he allowed me to piggyback on his cinematic masterpiece Viragaya to a tiny permanent niche in the history Sinhala cinema.

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