Sunday, 23 October 2011


Montage - Cultural paradigm | - Sri Lanka
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Titus Thotawatte , a pathfinder

This week’s column is dedicated the veteran artist and film director Titus Thotawatte. Born Emmanuel Titus de Silva on April 17, 1929 in Borella and fondly known as 'Timama' , Titus Thotawatte played a pivotal role in the formation of truly an indigenous cinema together with pioneers such as Dr. Lester James Peries.

Although born into a business family of T.G.M Julius de Silva and Sisiliya Hettiarachchi, Titus was destined to stir a different course of life from his businessman father, embarking on a not so promising career in the early days of Sri Lankan cinema at the Government Film Unit (GFU). As described by Dr. Lester James Peries, the GFU was a ‘ most wonderful training unit ever, even in Asia! The equipments were fabulous and all brand new-Western Electric recordings from Hollywood, all the cameras from Germany, very good back up staff, a very good laboratory run by Italians.” It was such a wonderful and well-equipped GFU that Titus Thotawatte joined in 1952 as a trainee technician. He learnt documentary film making, editing, sound editing and laboratory work under a team of well-experienced professionals such as Ralph Keene, Federico sera and Giorgio Calabria.

Formative years

It is pertinent, at least, briefly, to examine the formative years of Titus Thotawatte and how his school days and activities shaped the artist and brilliant director of films. During his school days at Ananda College (1934-1945), Thotawatte used the name Titus de Silva. Subsequently, however, he changed his name to Titus Thotawatte apparently due to the influence of school of Hela Haula of Cumaratunga Munidasa. Among his contemporaries at Ananda College were Somadasa Elvitigala and Pragnasoma Hettiarachcchi. About 1943, together with his colleagues Thotawatte formed the college’s Art Society. It could be surmised that it was the Art Society and its numerous activities which germinated an abiding interest in young Thotawatte, at first, in the arts and culture and later in cinema. Although he could not sing, Thotawatte learnt music from Ananda Samarakoon and Manipuri dance under Master Sukhendra Datt from Bengali. He further learnt dancing from Shesha Palihakkara’s Saradapani Kalayatanaya (School of dancing). His abiding interest in arts, sculpture and photography led to learn drawing at Heywood College under legendary teachers such as J.D.A Perera and Stanley Abeysinghe and photography from the Government Technical College in Maradana.

Breakthrough in career

Although Titus Thotawatte was a film fan and inquisitive more than others about the technical aspects of film making, the breakthrough came when he joined the Government Film Unit (GFU) in 1952 as a trainee technician. It was with the film Karathivu Dupathe Malu Allana Minnisu (The fishermen of the island Karathivu ) made by Pragnasoma Hettiarachchi that he came into the field of cinema. He joined Dr. Lester James Peries in Ralph Keene’s feature film Nelungama (1954). Having spotted his talents Dr. Lester James Peries invited him to join him in the making documentary films such as Conquest in the Dry Zone and Be Safe or be sorry (1955). With Dr. Lester James Peries and others, Titus Thotawatte resigned from the GFU to make Rekawa (1956). Thotawatte edited Sandeshaya (The Message) in 1960 before editing Ranmuthu Duwa (1962). Ranmuthu Duwa was a watershed in Sinhala cinema on account of its being the first ever colour film in Sinhala with its breathtaking underwater photography depicting the rich marine life in Sri Lankan waters.

Prominent among the films he directed are Kauda Hari (1969), Thevata (1970), Haralakshaya (1971), Sagarika (1974), Sihasuna (1974), Mangala (1976) Maruva Samaga Vase (1977) and Handaya (1979) which won the award for the best children’s film in 1980 at the Salano Film Festival in Italy.

Career in television

One of the salient features of Titus Thotawatte’s career is his ability to change his medium from silver screen to the small screen amply demonstrating his mastery in the areas of dubbing, applying cinematic technique in medium of television. Titus was among the pioneers who moulded the medium of television as a meaningful mode of mass entertainment. Being a bilingual Thotawatte saw the need to dub some of the best movies, cartoons, teledramas and documentaries in Sinhala making them accessible to the mass audience.

The first ever dubbing of such television programs were done under his direction at the GFU since national television (Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation being the only television channel in the country). Thotawatte began experimenting with dubbing around 1983 almost in parallel with the SLRC telecasting profiting from his earlier experiences of dubbing films such as Angulimala, Nantu Lechchemi (Haralaskhaya) and Three Yellow Cats. The first ever dubbed cartoon films which were telecasted on national television were the children’s cartoon films Ahala Pahala and Loku Bas Podi Bas.

The programs Thotawatte dubbed into Sinhala became very popular among the viewers. In addition to his creative genius, Sinhalese dubbing and particularly the apt title he put for them proved his substantial knowledge of Sinhalese and English. Children’s cartoon films such as Doctor Do Little ( Dostara Hodahitha) and Top Cat (Pissu Poosa) became extremely popular among the children functioning them as model programs for private television channels to emulate. Thotawatte was innovative not only in indigenising foreign cartoons but also devising novel terms in enriching the technical lexicon in Sinhalese. Some of the new Sinhalese terms he introduced are Asi Disi (audio-visual), Sakili roo (cartoon), Ataroo (moppet ), Roosapu salasma, Eliganveema (lighting) and Upasirasi (sub-titles). His legacy of such outstanding works include Sinhalese dubbed Oshin, R.K Narayanan’s Malgudi Days, The Count of Monte Cristo , Robin Hood and kung fu TV series.

Titus and awards

It was Titus Thotawatte’s lifelong dedication to the media of cinema and television which won local and international acclaim as a gifted artist, director, editor and master in dubbing English television programs into Sinhalese. His rich legacy of creations both in cinema and in television bears testimony to his hard work and meticulous studies in the fields. His outstanding creations won awards on their technical and creative merits.

It should be stated to his credit that the few awards he won were those he earned by his sheer dint of perseverance and for his creative excellence and not on account of his friends and creed being dominated the award committees. In essence, Titus Thotawatte was a man of substance who did not, at any point in his illustrious career, suffer from award dependency as many pseudo artists and literati today.

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