A J Gunawardana: Remembering a lost colleague…and discovering online gaps

A J Gunawardana with film director Lester James Peries

A J Gunawardana (left) with film director Lester James Peries

I have just written a 2,000-word essay recalling my times with a senior colleague and fellow media-watcher, the late Dr A J Gunawardana.

AJ, as he was affectionately known, was an outstanding university teacher, writer/journalist, cinema personality and art critic. When he died in September 1998 at the relatively young age of 65, we lost a rare intellectual who had his feet firmly on the ground, and constantly built bridges linking media, culture and society.

We shared more than our surname and involvement in the media. In fact, when I was beginning to be noticed for my journalistic writing in late 1980s and early 1990s, people kept asking me if I was AJ’s son, or at least a relation. I had to disappoint them.

My association with him was in the last decade of his life. His junior by a generation, I related to the genial professor as a fellow writer and occasional partner in mischief in the domains of media and popular culture. These are the times I have recalled in the tribute, just published on Groundviews citizen journalism website.

AJ started his career as a journalist with the then privately owned flagship of Sri Lankan journalism, Ceylon Daily News, where he was a noted arts and culture correspondent in the 1960s. He went on to obtain a doctorate in performing arts from New York University. Upon return, he pursued a career in academia as a professor of English at the Vidyodaya University (later University of Sri Jayawardenapura) and was closely associated with film and media education. He chaired a Presidential Committee of Inquiry on the Sri Lankan film industry, which issued its report in 1985.

In the arts world, he is perhaps best remembered for the screenplays he wrote for three films by Sri Lanka’s best known director Lester James Peries: Baddegama (1980), Kaliyugaya (1982) and Yuganthaya (1985). The latter two are included among the best of Sri Lankan cinema as compiled by the British Film Institute.

At the time of his death, AJ was working on a biography of the doyen of the Sri Lankan cinema, which was posthumously published in 2005 as LJP: Lester James Peries: Life and Work.

Read my full tribute:
Remembering A J Gunawardana: A creative public intellectual

In researching for this essay, I wanted to verify some biographical and filmographical specifics about AJ. The usually reliable Encyclopaedia of sri Lanka (2006) edition, compiled by Charles Gunawardena (note how we all spell our same surname differently!) had no entry on AJ, which is a bit disappointing considering the far more obscure personalities featured in this reference.

My next step was Googling for A J, using the various spellings for his and my shared surname. (Don’t ask me how and why different clans spell it differently – which must drive foreigners crazy – but it matters to us). Considering AJ published most of his journalistic writing before commercial Internet connectivity became widely available and newspapers started publishing their web editions, I wasn’t surprised by how little I could find online. I didn’t come across a single piece of AJ’s incisive writing online, although perhaps a specialised search might yet unearth a few from some depth of an archive.

This highlights an unmet need where many Asian newspapers and magazines are concerned: their archives only go back to a decade or a dozen years. Even when publishers are willing to unlock their archives and make it available, the sheer logistics involved must daunt them. This could change in time to come, with Google’s recently announced initiative to digitise newspaper archives. The search giant has begun scanning microfilm from some newspapers’ historic archives to make them searchable online, first through Google News and eventually on the papers’ own Web sites.

An aside: I remember making the same point to assembled ITU, UNESCO and other UN worthies at the WSIS Asia Preparatory Meeting in Tokyo in January 2003. In a world where search for information and records is moving increasingly to the web, I said, the old sources of Asia’s news, information and culture need to be progressively placed online. This is a huge undertaking even if we just consider only the newspaper archives. But if not done, these valuable sources may soon begin to be ignored as references.

I then turned to the Internet Movie Database, IMDB, for some specifics and was disappointed again. AJ’s main entry on IMDB listed only one of his three films, and there was no other information about him, at least in the areas allowed for free access. It was only later that I stumbled upon another IMDB entry for AJ, where the last two letters of his surname are lopped off, which keeps it out of most searches.

When the two entries are put together, one begins to get an idea of AJ’s cinematic accomplishments, but it still completely leaves out his work as a film critic.

These gaps are not unique to AJ. In fact, even though IMDb is said to be “one of the largest accumulation of data about films, television programs, direct-to-video products, and video games, reaching back to each medium’s respective beginning”, I imagine a large number of film industry creations and professionals from outside the mainstream English language cinema is currently missing or poorly indexed on it.

Clearly, there is work to be done – by film buffs from Asia, whose want their cinematic traditions and professionals featured adequately on IMDB. Although I occasionally edit entries on the Wikipedia, I haven’t figured out how to do it on IMDB.

In this era of user-generated content, we can’t just sit back and complain that the web is biased towards the English speaking west. It’s still the case, but web 2.0 allows us the opportunity and tools to go and do something about it.

2 Responses to “A J Gunawardana: Remembering a lost colleague…and discovering online gaps”

  1. Sanjana Hattotuwa Says:

    Thanks Nalaka, for this revealing write-up of how the article on Groundviews came to be.

    As you know, the difference in spelling of surnames is linked to caste. While the spelling of a name in the vernacular is always the same, caste differentiation occurs in English depending on the choice and placement of e, a, oo, u, z, d, th and others in a name. I agree with you though – drives foreigners nuts.


  2. kottuCopy › Titus Thotawatte: The Final Cut Says:

    […] trio would go on to make Rekava (Line of Destiny, 1956) – and make history. In his biography by A J Gunawardana, Lester recalls how they were full of self-confidence — “cocky as hell” — and […]

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