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Welikathara

Joe's turning point in career:

The 81st birth anniversary of the legendary actor falls on June 22

Highly versatile actor and legend of the Sri Lankan silver screen, Joe Abeywickrama will turn 81 on June 22. He started off as a comic actor before making a name for his portrayal of character roles.

Gammana Patabendige Don John Abeywickrama was born in Lellopitiya, near Ratnapura, on June 22, 1927. His father was Don Darwin Abeywickrama and his mother Udahagedara Manchanona. He was the eldest of four children.


Siribo Aiya in Sunil Ariyaratne’s Siribo Aiya

The rural background of his childhood surroundings with the glimpse of Adams' Peak and the values of the village folk had a great impact on Joe's upbringing. He learnt to appreciate nature and hard work. As he once stated, dialects and human expressions were not new to him as they were a part of his everyday existence.

The village environment with its customs, rituals and lifestyles acted as a university for the young lad to gain fundamental education in life and filtered into the roles which he was to give life to in the future.


Goring Mudalali in D. B. Nihalsinghe’s Welikathara

Abeywickrama is a product of Sivali Central College, Ratnapura. He entered the film world in the 1940s when he settled in Colombo to take up work in Sirisena Wimalaweera's studio Nawajeewana.

Initially limited to doing office chores, Abeywickrama eventually became involved in films screened in Ratnapura by the studio. He made contacts with film industry insiders while with the studio, and on his leave obtained a role in Devasundari in 1955.

The film was shot in Madras, India and it was dubbed in five languages but it failed to create an impact but all was not lost for the upcoming young artiste. He met T. Somasekaran during the shooting of his first film and soon clinched a role in his upcoming film Saradama as an eccentric police officer.

The film was released and proved to be a turning point in his career. Due to his impressive presentation in his second movie he was in demand as a comic actor.

Career

The milestone in his career came when he was faced with a choice of taking on a role quite different to the ones he had been offered so far, the role of the stern Goring Mudalali in Dr. D. B. Nihalsinghe's Welikathara both fascinated and frightened him as it was like taking a gamble with success and failure. He finally took the plunge and the success that followed was truly amazing. It was the beginning of an extremely successful transformation from comedian to character roles.


Vannihamy in Prasanna Vithanage’s Pura Handa Kaluwara

Filmgoers could never forget the memorable roles played by Joe in films like M. Masthan's Allapu Gedara, Sunil Ariyaratne's Siribo Aiya, Mahagama Sekera's Tun Man Handiya, Lester James Peries' Beddegama, Dharmasena Pathiraja's Bambaru Avith, Prasanna Vithanage's Pura Handa Kaluwara and several others. He had won many prestigious film awards.

Joe had also made his mark as a lyricist, scriptwriter and an author. He had also contributed in portraying roles in a number of stage dramas and teledramas.

Reminisces of a milestone performance

There is no doubt that it is Welikathara, the award winning film by veteran director, Dr. D. B. Nihalsinghe, which changed the course of Joe Abeywickrama's career as an actor.

Though Joe was hesitant to take up the character offered to him, Nihalsinghe placed his utmost confidence in the young actor's talent when so many others had doubts and discouraging words to offer. The leap from a comic role to the challenging endeavour of portraying Goring Mudalali was not easy but it proved to be very fruitful.

Shooting

"I was employed as a cinematographer during that period and Joe was one of the actors included in the cast in one of my films, Para Walalu.


Sri Lanka’s legendary actor, Joe Abeywickrama.

I was thinking of starting a production with Tissa Abeysekara when we hit upon the story of Welikathara. Goring Mudalali's role derives from a real-life individual whom I met while shooting Sathsamudura. I had not decided on whom to portray the character but for some specific reason I decided to ask Joe. He refused because he was making his ground as a comedian. He felt that if he started on character acting he will lose his main character skill," Dr. Nihalsinghe said.

It had taken a lot of persuasion to get Joe to agree and once he had seen Abeysekara's script his confidence returned. He put his heart and soul into the project and was greatly encouraged by the presence of Gamini Fonseka.

"It was an exceptional role for Gamini as well because he had carved a niche for his heroic roles. The character he portrays in Walikathara is the role of an anti-hero," Dr. Nihalsinghe pointed out adding that the film had taken three years to complete.


Veteran director, Dr. D. B. Nihalsinghe. Picture by Palitha Gunasena

"Films are shot out of sequence and this is not done according to the chronological order of the narrative. It requests a huge amount of professional discipline on the artiste's side as he or she should remember continuity of the flow of incidents that follow the scenes.

For example in one sequence of scenes the arrival was shot at a beautiful old Dutch building, in Galle while the entrance was shot at my father's house in Bambalapitiya. The scene that follows these two is shot in a room in Mt. Lavinia Hotel.

The actors need to keep the flow intact so that when the film is edited the scenes fall into place," he said.

According to the veteran director the primary reason for choosing Joe for the movie had been his innate skill of being able to take on any type of role presented to him.

Versatile

"He had a certain way about him as a person. He is a very versatile, talented character actor, the best Sri Lanka had seen so far," he said also adding that Joe did not realise how talented he was and this was the reason why the international directors did not seek him out.

"While I was in Malaysia producing Malaysian films and I have come across many actors of international class but there was one particular actor who was fantastic but he did not know it. The same can be applied to Joe."

Abeywickrama had also acted in Nihalsinghe's Maldeniye Simiyon in which he had taken on the lead of a man with strong principles.

It had also proven to be an important character in his career. Having worked with him in two major productions what kind of view did you develop on Joe as a person?

"He is extremely humble and is continuously aware of his beginnings. Though many years have passed since Walikathara took shape he still remembers it as the turning point of his life."

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