Educated at Dharmaraja College, Kandy, Pathiraja graduated from the University of Peradeniya with an honours degree in Sinhala and Western Classical Culture in 1967.
Subsequently he began work as a lecturer in Drama and Performance Arts. and later obtained a PhD in Bengali cinema from Monash University.
His Thesis is The Dialectic of Region and Nation in the Films of Bengali Independents: Ghatak, Ray and Sen(2001) .He learnt the language of cinema from the film
society movement which was very popular in Sri Lanka in early sixties. He also recognized their socio-political limitations in a country which was heading for
a period of deep turmoil. He also studied the cinema of radical activists like Jean-Luc Godard, Third Cinema filmmakers like Fernando Solanas and Glauber Rocha,
and Asians like Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.
First wave of success (1970–1977)
Pathiraja made a short 10 minute film titled Saturo in 1970. His full-length feature film Ahas Gauwa followed four years later. Dealing with the urban lower class,
the film was atypical of most commercial films of that period. It was critically well-received, sweeping the FCJAC Awards landing Best Picture, Best Director
and Best Actor and winning the Office Catholique Internationale Du Cinema (Sri Lanka) awards for Best Film and Best Director.
1975's Eya Dan Loku Lamayek was Sri Lanka's entry at the 9th Moscow International Film Festival,
winning a Special Diploma for Female Performance in 1976 and the Special award from the peace council of the USSR to be screened at
the 18th Venice Film Festival in Bergamo, Italy in 1975
1978's Bambaru Avith is widely considered Pathiraja's masterpiece.
That year it represented Sri Lanka at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival and was screened at the Venice and Los Angeles Film Festivals.
In Sri Lanka it was awarded Best Director and Best Film honors at the first Presidential Film Awards and the OCIC Awards.
In 1997 a special council selected to celebrate 50 years of Sri Lankan Cinema named it the fourth best Sri Lankan film of all-time.