Anula Karunatilake

Dhammi in real life

By Usha Perera
Sh..sh.. sh.. Sugath lifts his head when he hears the sound and he sees Damayanthi looking at the direction where he is seated and studying, through the classroom window. He thinks she is trying to attract the attention of someone else and continues with his work.
Sh..Sh..s… again the same sound and this time he realises that she is trying to speak to him and so he looks straight at her face.

She stretches out her arm with the fist clenched and asks him, “Do you want?” He loses courage to ask her what it is and instead gets up and stretches out his hand. She puts four veralu fruits onto his palm. As she does so, he feels her fingers fleetingly touch his palm.
Much later in the book, with the backdrop of a rough sea, and with her hand clenched in his hand, Sugath asks her, “Dhammi, shall I write to you occasionally?”
She looks at him and with a heavy heart and utters, “Sugath… you will never possess me… Sugath… from before I even met you… I loved someone else.”
He suddenly feels as if someone has plucked out his eye. “D….D…Dhammi, do you mean to tell me that you never loved me”?
“Yes Sugath, I never loved you…”

When Karunasena Jayalath penned these words in his novel Golu Hadawatha in 1962, he perhaps would not have anticipated that it would win the State Literary Award for the best novel that year, and also that in 1968, Sri Lanka’s foremost filmmaker Lester James Peries would make a film of the same novel that would result in giving face and form to Sugath and Dhammi and make them a perennially favourite couple that would also result in winning many awards including the best film and best actress that year.

While reading the book, the reader feels anger towards Dhammi who leads Sugath on to think that she loves him while never really uttering so, but dumps him at the end of the school term which results in him becoming a drunkard. But while watching the film it was impossible to feel the same way about on-screen Dhammi because of the endearing portrayal of the character by the much loved actress Anula Karunatilake who despite the fact that she has acted in many other films which in the opinion of many reviewers had much more to convey cinematographically, she is still identified by her fans and colleagues as Dhammi of Golu Hadawatha.
The Nation met Anula Karuanatilake who despite the fact has been in the film world for many years, still has not lost the appealing personality that brought Dhammi to life many years ago, in order to get some insight of her career which is nearing half a decade.
“Yes, it is true that even though I have acted in many different films, people still identify me as Dhammi. This is also because Karunasena Jayalath’s novels have that lasting appeal through the generations even though he wrote them almost forty years ago, and also of all of them, Golu Hadawatha is among the best novels that are read by almost all teens”, says Ms Karunathilake.
Reminiscing about her entry into the film world, she becomes nostalgic as fate had it that simultaneously as she faced the camera, she also met the man who would be her husband with whom she had a very happy married life for almost thirty five years until his death ten years ago.

“It all happened when my sister decided to send my photograph to a beauty queen contest conducted by the ‘Dawasa,’ newspaper in 1962. It was totally her idea even though she asked me whether to do it. So she took a photograph wearing a cloth and jacket took a photograph at home and sent it to the paper. When they published the photos that had been sent in the paper, my photo was not among them, so my sister said that we should go and collect the picture as she said why should it be with them. So one day, she, my father and I went to the Dawasa newspaper office and when we conveyed the purpose of our visit to the reception, we were told that only the person in the picture to go upstairs to meet the editor and ask for it. So I went upstairs and when I met the editor, he pointed me to some photographers and said that the photographs were in their possession and to go and ask them for it. When I did one person came forward and said that he had it and then he started saying, I have seen you somewhere. I was so young then that I felt a little bit angry and shy at the same time and I said ...but I have never seen you and without waiting to collect the photograph ran downstairs. He then followed me and as I went to where my father and sister was, he came up to us and said that the picture we sent was not of good quality to print and that he could take a good photograph instead, but wanted us to come the next day. We agreed to it and went back the next day and then he took a photograph which was subsequently published and from the votes, I was among the top six favourites and I was the youngest among them,” she recalls.
The person who took her photograph ultimately became her husband and the photograph resulted in her becoming an award winning actress.

Ms Karunatilake said she remembers that on the day the beauty queen contest was held, Sumitra Pereis who was Sumitra Gunewardene at the time and Tissa Abeysekera were among those seated in the front row. “They were looking at the photographs in the paper and when the contestants came on to stage they were comparing the pictures with the actual contestants.

“A week later Sugathapala Silva and G. W. Surendra came to our house and met my father and me and said that on the day the pageant was held Sumitra Gunewardene and Tissa Abeysekara had seen me and that currently Lester James Peiris was looking for someone to play Nanda in the film Gamperaliya and that there was an interview at his house and asked whether I would like to come for that. So even though my father was not very happy about me acting in movies, since it was to be made by Lester James Peries who had built a good reputation at that time, my father agreed for me to go. When I went to his house with my father and sister, as soon as he saw me he said, “Oh you are too small.”

“But then he said never mind we will do an audition with you and asked me to act a scene with Gamini Fonseka. He was so nice and friendly and was trying to put me at ease as he realised that I was so very very nervous and I still remember the dialogue that I had to act out with him,” she laughs.
“At the end of the audition Mr. Peries said that I had performed well at the audition but since I was so small they couldn’t take me as Nanda but instead casted me as Liza the servant girl. So Gamperaliya was my first film. Sadly the new copies have been edited so that there is only one scene of me now in the current copies of the film”, she adds.
She was only 16 years when she acted in her first film in 1962. Subsequently in 1963 she acted in a play acted by “Ape Kettiya” that included G. W. Surendra, Tony Ranasinghe and others named “Ran Thodu” directed by Dharmasiri Wickremaratne.

“That same year Tony and I won the awards as the best actress and best actor at the state literary awards that created quite a furore at that time. During the same period Titus Thotawatte had been looking for an actress for his film “Chandiya”, and after I won the award for best actress for the stage play, the production manager of Chandiya came and said that Mr. Thotawatte was interested in taking me for the lead role ‘Sumana’ in the film with Gamini Fonseka”, she reminisces. “Even though I was only 17 years at that time I had to act the role of a mature woman and the character spanned through young womanhood to a mother. Although it was difficult it was made easy by the support I had from Gamini and Thotawatte. There were several times that they had to do retakes because my acting was not adequate at times and each time Gamini who had acted well in those scenes agreed to the retakes which showed what a gentleman he was. In the present time it is difficult to find actors with such good qualities,” she says.
Subsequently Ms Karunatilake acted in several films with Gamini Fonseka including his landmark film Parasathumal in which she made an unforgettable performance as a woman who loved a man who loved another woman. Despite such unforgettable character performances, it was the role of Dhammi that brought her into the spotlight.

“The film Golu Hadawatha received such a response from the people mainly due to the fact that at the time the film was produced, Karunasena Jayalath’s book was a favourite among teens and young people. Also it speaks of love spoken or unspoken which is universal and was also due to the fact that it is in a school setting which is part of everyone’s experiences, and the love among Sugath and Dhammi was a love devoid of sexual intentions,” explains Ms Karunathilake.
“Even when I first read the book I hated the character Dhammi. When the film was released so many people came up to me and said that when they read the book they hated Dhammi but that they really liked the on-screen Dhammi,” she adds.

Reminiscing about the making of the film Golu Hadawatha she says that she signed the contract on her 21st birthday on January 22nd in 1967 and by the time the film was released in 1968, she was a married woman as unlike the character Dhammi, she married the man she loved. “Before I acted in Golu Hadawatha I had already acted a few movies that were well reviewed and even though I had been called to act in many more, from that time I selected my roles carefully and did not accept if I didn’t like the role”, she says.
The reviews following Golu Hadawatha were all in praise of the film, she says. Also it became famous not only among Sri Lankan’s but also among foreigners.
“One day my husband and I were at a party and the Japanese Ambassador was there and he had seen the film only a couple of days ago by that time. He started talking to me saying how much he enjoyed the film, its story, my performance, etc and at that time a Sinhalese gentleman came up to him and asked him who I was. Then the Ambassador really scolded him saying ‘don’t you know her, she is a famous actress, etc. etc. and scolded him”, she laughs.

Ms Karunatilake says that during the filming of Golu Hadawatha, Karunasena Jayalath frequently came to the filming set and spent a lot of time with them. “In fact the veralu fruits that she hands over to Sugath through the classroom window were from his veralu tree at home”. Also because by the time Golu Hadawatha was filmed I had already worked with Mr. Peiris before and also with Gamini Fonseka and Titus Thotawatte, etc, I found the acting easy and relaxed. Also since most of the acting was in a school setting, it felt like real life”, she says

“One day after the film was released we went on a trip and one elderly gentleman approached me and said hold out your hand which I did involuntarily. Then he put some veralu fruits onto my palm”, laughs Ms Karunatilake. “This scene became so popular that even today there is a mobile phone sim being advertised with this same scene”. Also there is a scene where I had to run along a corridor after having said something to Sugath. Mr Peiris made me do this scene several times as a joke and told me that since I was a little fat it was meant to be exercise,” she laughs. “Also there is a scene in the film where Sugath is talking to my mother and he is telling her that his mother is dead while I was making a cup of tea for him in the kitchen, and when I overhear this conversation I was due to cry. But during this scene the tears in my eyes were real and it was not an effort as it was a very emotional scene”, she further adds.

The filming of Golu Hadawatha took place in Dharmapala Vidyalaya in Pannipitiya and also Horana. That year Anula Karuantilake won the Sarasaviya award for the best actress and most popular actress while Lester James Peiris won the award for the best film and the film was a huge economical success.
But soon after the release of Golu Hadawatha she took a break from films as she wanted to have a happy married life with her husband.

“I remember Mr. Peiris telling my husband to delay our marriage a bit as he had a plan of doing a film of the Karunasena Jayalth’s book Gehenu Lamai as well, following the tremendous success of Golu Hadawatha, but we had already planned to get married by that time. As a result, making of the film was delayed by several years until they found Wasanthi Chaturani for the role of Kusum,” says Ms Karunatilake.
“From the time he took a photograph of me Daya Ranaweera my husband and I became friends and initially we were just friends. Later our friendship turned into a love”, she reminisces. Her eyes fill with tears as she mentions that it is now ten years since he died from a sudden heart attack.

“Even though my husband was a journalist he never took any liquor or smoked like most journalists do,” she says. After working in Dawasa he worked for the “Aththa” newspaper and afterwards during the UNP regime for the newspaper published by Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga’s party. He was a brave man and at one time there was a peaceful demonstration at the Galle Face green by Dambarawe Hamuduruwo where he was killed by some unknown persons. At that time no journalist had been allowed to come there and all had been chased away but somehow my husband had been on a higher level and had been able to take a photograph at the time hamuduruwo was killed and during election campaigning the photograph he took was pasted all over the place”, she says.

“Afterwards he resigned from the newspapers and we managed a studio together where we worked together. Even though my husband was not against my acting it was my decision to be away from films as I wanted to have a happy and stable married life. Even when Golu Hadawatha was nominated to be shown at the Delhi film festival, they sent me a ticket to fly to Delhi to attend the function but not for my husband. Then I wrote to the organisers and asked them that I was willing to buy another air ticket for my husband and whether they were willing to allow him to stay in the same hotel room. They did not so I decided not to attend it. When my husband was alive I never went anywhere without him and even shopping groceries he and my sons used to do according to the list I gave them. But now I have to cope with it alone.” she says.

After a long break she acted in the tele drama “Amba Yahaluwo” as Sunil’s mother while her husband was still living. “When the invitation came it was my husband who told me take it as I was reluctant to go back to acting. My sister says that I was so natural in it the way I speak to my screen son Sunil and maybe this is because I too have two sons myself. After Amba Yahaluwo was screened I got many more offers, but I did not accept any”, she says.

Today she acts in selected tele dramas in characters that she likes. Currently she could be seen in Ganga Addara which is also an adaptation of a book. She is also involved in the lives of her two sons – one who lives in Australia.
“I am now a grandmother and even now I am getting ready to go and see my new grandson in Australia”, she says.
“I like to live simply,” she adds, “because finally we don’t take anything with us.”