It is said old is Gold. We could also say old is credible and solid. There was a Star in the 70’s decade in Sinhala Cinema, who dreaded filmgoers with his portrayal of the villain. He eventually became a much-loved Hero on the Silver Screen. Further, he expanded his horizons as a producer and a director. He is non other than the Evergreen Baptist Fernando. These are excerpts of a very recent interview, Daily News had with Baptist Fernando.
Waranakularuisya Maha Lekamge John Baptist Fernando’s Alma Mater was Joseph Vas College in Wennappuwa. He had been a sports enthusiast and his favourite sport was wrestling. When Baptist was in Senior Level class, he practiced wrestling with the then heavyweight champion, Basil Rodrigo.
Baptist’s good friend S.A. Fernando had noticed not only the macho body of his buddy, but also the photogenic qualities he possessed.
Thus he had taken few photographs of Baptist at a Church feast and posted them to the late B. A.W. Jayamanne (Eddie Jayamanne’s elder brother). This had led to calling for a screen test for Baptist at ‘Jaya Ruk’ (Eddie and Rukmani’s home). The film was ‘Perakadoru Bana’.
Baptist was selected for the main villain’s role and flew to India for shooting. He was still in the senior level class in College and had to say ‘adios’ to his alma mater, while flying to India.
The film was screened in 1955. Baptist had bitter experiences in the sets of his first film itself. Young Baptist silently made a pledge to him self; that he will produce and play the main role in his own film one day.
Baptist did ‘Purasha Ratnaya’(1959) with Prem Jayanath, which had he evergreen song ‘Aiyata Mae Raja Gae Malli Hadala’.
He played as the villain firstly in ‘Sithaka Mahima’ (1964). The cast was, Prem Jayanth, Rita Ratnayake, Ashoka Ponnamperuma and the alluring Sandhya Kumari. Gamini Fonseka chose Baptist to play the villain in ‘Ohoma Hondada’. Filmgoers in 70’s decade would still recall the popular song ‘Rajakam Keruwath... kalakam pala dae’ which Gamini sang, while pounding Baptist with a whip.
Baptist recalls, “I have had many fight scenes with Gamini. I always told Gamini to hit me hard to give credibility to the fight scene.
Even the film directors at that time thought, I was the best match for Gamini as the villain. Indian directors at that time who directed Sinhala films had been very professional, serious and corporative.”
‘Satha Panaha’ (1965) is another film in which Baptist played villain apposite Gamini. Baptist’s portrayal of villain was different.
Though he was soft spoken, his evil acts on the screen dreaded many. Baptist went on to say, laughingly, “Even Malani Fonseka had told me once that she was scared even to look at me even outside the set.”
Baptist played villain in Satha Panaha, Ohoma Hondada, Sahanaya (1972) Kawada Raja (1972) and Thushara (1972). Thushara was the last film which projected Baptist as villain. In the new version of ‘Thushara,’ Sahan Wijesinghe plays the role originally played by Baptist. “Sahan has done justice to my role” says Baptist.
Baptist and Jenita Samaraweera in Tikira
Baptist formed ‘Seven Arts’ with Prem Jayanath and produced ‘Sahanaya’ jointly in 1972. “Eventually, I got fed up by playing villain” says Baptist. “I wanted my fans to love me as a hero, although at that time, film goers loved the hero and villain alike”, he says.
Thus Baptist produced his own film ‘Duppathage Hithawatha’ amidst many warnings and objections from peers. “People in the film trade never thought I could project the image of the hero on silver screen, since I was branded as most dreadful villain”, Baptist says smilingly.
The film became a box office hit. This phenomenal achievement, led Baptist to produce a gamut of films with himself in the lead role, Tikira, Eka diga Kathawak, Namal Renu, Sudu Aiya to name a few. ‘Eka diga Kathawak’ was dubbed in Tamil as ‘Oru Thalei Kadal’ to be screened in Jaffna.
Significance in Baptist’s own productions was, none of the actors, actresses or technicians signing agreements. He was a ‘Pay Master’ and his colleagues knew that. Baptist was a good businessman too. What he earned from his businesses was invested in producing films with a view to rejuvenating the dying Sinhala film industry in the 80’s which was a just cause. (Introduction of colour TV had hit the Sinahala film industry hard at that time.)
He was once the Treasurer of ‘Nalu Nili Sangamaya’ and had done a great deal of justice to his post.
Baptist used to fight against injustice in real life too. His film ‘Tikira’ was deprived of screening in Lido, Zainstan led film halls.
Authorities wanted to screen ‘Weera Puran Appu’ instead in this circuit. Baptist took a court order against this decision, which led the authorities to introduce a new circuit called ‘5th Circuit’ to screen ‘Weera Puran Appu’. ‘Tikira’ became a box office hit. The back and forth summersault (‘Balti’) Baptist introduced in Tikira became very popular among his fans.
Baptist produced and directed the Epic film ‘Angulimala’ (1998) with Ravindra Randeniya and Joe Abeywickrama in leading roles. He further produced/ directed ‘Raja Kello’ with Sithara Priyadharshani (1991).
Baptist pronounces 70’s decade as the golden era of Sinhala Cinema. “The industry in 70’s had a good range at actors, directors, technicians and also script writers and producers.
“The plot in a particular film was so strong that the hero’s character as well ass the villain’s character got highlighted,” says Baptist. He has a regard for late H.D. Kulatunga who played villain in ‘Chandiya.’