Mihira at 50 (‘මිහිර’ ළමා පුවත්පතේ 50 වැනි උපන් දිනය): Sparking imagination of millions

Mihira children's newspaper first issue - 27 July 1964

Mihira children’s newspaper first issue – 27 July 1964

Sinhala children’s weekly newspaper Mihira has just completed 50 years of publication. The paper holds nostalgic memories for those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with limited access to reading material.

The tabloid was launched by Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL, or Lake House) on 27 July 1964. Its founder editor was veteran journalist Srilal Hikkaduwa Liyanage (who was also founder editor of Tharunee women’s newspaper and Navayugaya informative newspaper from the same publishing house).

I wasn’t even born when Mihira came out. Sometime in 1969, when I was a precocious three-year-old, my father bought me my first copy. I was hooked: for the next dozen years, I eagerly awaited the arrival of each week’s issue on Mondays.

In the early years, Mihira carried a mix of stories, comics, articles and verse. While many were produced by talented writers and artists who understood the child’s mind, some were actually children’s own contributions.

In fact, Mihira is where I first got myself into print. As a school boy of 9 years, I submitted several of my (Sinhala) verses to Mihira (at the suggestion of my Grade 3 class teacher). One of them, on my perception of an animated clock, was printed in one issue of October 1975. I was thrilled to bits – that clipping is somewhere at the bottom of my personal archives…

Funnily enough, thousands of printed pieces later, I still get an enormous kick each time a newspaper publishes my writing.

S A Dissanayake, comics artist

S A Dissanayake, comics artist

To me (and many others of my generation), the most memorable part of Mihira were extraordinary comics written and drawn by S A Dissanayake. He drew a long-running comic (chitra katha) called Onna Babo (‘ඔන්න බබො’), which chronicled the adventures of three intrepid kids (‘බූ – බබා’, ‘තුල්සි’) and involved a wicked witch (බටකොළ ආච්චි), wizards and other characters. For us entertainment starved kids, ඔන්න බබො was Harry Potter of the 1960s and 70s. All these years later, some sub-plots are still clearly etched in my memory…

S A Dissanayake also drew the more comical Yodaya (‘‘යෝධයා’’) about a good-hearted village giant and a learned but wicked man (‘‘යෝධයා සහ පඬිතුමා”), as well as several other popular comics.

When some teachers and parents condemn all comics as polluting children’s minds, I always remind them of the glorious exceptions created by S A Dissanayake. Some feel his stories paved the way for the enormous popularity of TinTin comics and animations in Sri Lanka later on.

I just read that Dissanayake (who was a school teacher by profession) still draws children’s comics for Mihira – a rare feat (world record?) of a comic artist drawing for the same publication for half a century.

ළමයින්ට දැනුම විනෝදය ගෙන එන ‘මිහිර’ ට 50යි


බුබම්බා, යෝධයා,පඬිතුමා හා බටකොළ ආච්චි ළමා ලෝකයට රැගෙන ආ ඇස්.ඒ.දිසානායක


From the scrap book of S A Dissanayake, children's comic artist for half a century

From the scrap book of S A Dissanayake, children’s comic artist for half a century


Titus Thotawatte (1929 – 2011): The Final Cut

Also published on Groundviews.org on 20 Oct 2011

Titus Thotawatte: The Magician

Emmanuel Titus de Silva, who was better known as Titus Thotawatte, was the finest editor in the six decades of the Lankan cinema. He was also a great assimilator and remixer – a ‘builder of bridges’ across cultures, media genres and generations.
Titus straddled the distinctive spheres of cinema and television with a technical dexterity and creativity rarely seen in either one. Both spheres involve playing with sound and pictures, but at different levels of scale, texture and ambition. Having excelled in the craft of making movies in the 1960s and 1970s, Titus successfully switched to television in the 1980s and 1990s. There, he again blaze his own innovative trail in Sri Lanka’s nascent television industry. As a result, my generation remembers him for his television legacy whereas my patents’ generation recall more of his cinematic accomplishments.

Titus left an indelible mark in the history of moving images. The unifying thread that continued from 16mm and 35mm formats in the cine world to U-matic and Betacam of the TV world was his formidable genius for story telling.

Titus de Silva, as he was then known, was a member of the ‘three musketeers’ who left the Government Film Unit (GFU) in the mid 1950s to take their chances in making their own films. The other two were director Lester James Peries and cinematographer Willie Blake. Lester recalls Titus as “an extraordinarily talented but refreshingly undisciplined character” who had been shunned from department to department at GFU “as he was by nature a somewhat disruptive force”!

The 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 determined to overcome the artificiality of studio sets. “We were revolutionaries, shooting our enemies with the camera, and set on changing the course of Sinhala film. In our ignorance, we were blissfully unaware of the hazards ahead – seemingly insurmountable problems we had to face, problems that no book on film-making can ever tell you about!”

In the star-obsessed world of cinema, the technical craftsmen who do the real magic behind the cameras rarely get the credit or recognition they deserve. Editors, in particular, must perform a very difficult balancing task – between the director, with his own vision of how a story should be told, and the audience that fully expects to be lulled into suspending their disbelief. Good editors distinguish themselves as much for what they include (and how) as for what they leave on the ‘cutting room floor’.

The tango between Lester and Titus worked well, both in the documentaries they made while at GFU, and the two feature films they did afterward: Rekava was followed by Sandeshaya (The Message, 1960).

They also became close friends. At his own expense, Titus also accompanied Lester to London where they re-edited and sub-titled Rekava (into French) for screening at the Cannes festival of 1957. As Lester recalls, “Titus was a great source of moral and technical strength to me; his presence was invaluable during sub-titling of the film”.

Titus Thotawatte - photo courtesy biography by Nuwan Nayanajith Kumara

In all, Titus edited a total of 25 Lankan feature films, nine of which he also directed. The cinematic trail that started with Rekava in 1956 continued till Handaya in 1979. While most were in black and white, typical of the era, Titus also edited the first full length colour feature film made in Sri Lanka: Ran Muthu Duwa (1962).

His dexterity and versatility in editing and making films were such that his creations are incomparable among themselves. In the popular consciousness, perhaps, Titus will be remembered the most for his last feature film Handaya – which he both directed and edited. Ostensibly labelled as a children’s film, it reached out and touched the child in all of us (from 8 to 80, as the film’s promotional line said). It was an upbeat story of a group of children and a pony – powerful visual metaphors for the human spirit triumphing in a harsh urban reality that has been exacerbated in the three decades since the film’s creation.

Handaya swept the local film awards at the Saravaviya, OCIC and Presidential film awards for 1979/1980. It also won the Grand Prix at the International Children and Youth Film Festival in Giffoni, Italy, in 1980. That a black and white, low-budget film outcompeted colour films from around the world was impressive enough, but the festival jury watched the film without any English subtitles was testimony to Titus’s ability to create cine-magic that transcended language.

Despite the accolades from near and far, a sequel to Handaya was scripted but never made: the award-winning director just couldn’t raise the money! This and other might-have-beens are revealed in the insightful Thotawatte biography written by journalist Nuwan Nayanajith Kumara. Had he been born in a country with a more advanced film industry with greater access to capital, the biographer speculates, Titus could have been another Steven Spielberg or Walt Disney.

Titus Thotawatte was indeed the closest we had to a Disney. As the pioneer in language versioning at Rupavahini from its early days in 1982, he not only voice dubbed some of the world’s most popular cartoons and classical dramas, but localised them so cleverly that some stories felt better than the originals! Working long hours with basic facilities but abundant talent, Titus once again sprinkled his ‘pixie dust’ in the formative years of national television.

In May 2002, when veteran broadcaster (and good friend) H M Gunasekera passed away, I called him the personification of the famous cartoon character Tintin. I never associated Titus personally, but having grown up in the indigenised cartoon universe that he created on our television, I feel as if I have known him for long. Therefore, Therefore, I hope Titus won’t mind my looking for a cartoon analogy for himself.

I don’t have to look very far. According to his loyal colleagues (and his biographer), Titus was a good-hearted and jovial man with a quick temper and scathing vocabulary. It wasn’t easy working with him. That sounds a bit like the inimitable Captain Haddock, the retired merchant sailor who was Tintin’s most dependable human companion. Haddock had a unique collection of expletives and insults, providing some counterbalance to the exceedingly polite Tintin. Yet beneath the veneer of gruffness, Haddock was a kind and generous man. It was their complementarity that livened up the globally popular stories, now a Hollywood movie by Steven Spielberg awaiting December release.

Perhaps that’s too simplistic an analogy for Titus. From all accounts, he was a brilliantly creative and multi-layered personality who embodied parts of Dr Dolittle (Dosthara Honda Hitha), Top Cat (Pissu Poosa), Bugs Bunny (Haa Haa Hari Haawa) and a myriad other characters that he rendered so well into Sinhala that some of my peers in Sri Lanka’s first television generation had no idea of their ‘foreign’ origins…

Titus was also a true ‘Gulliver’ whose restlessly imaginative mind traversed space and time — even after he was confined to one place during the last dozen years of his life.

A pity he spent too much time in Lilliput…

Living secular in the ‘Sinhala Buddhist Republic’ of Sri Lanka

Two years ago, in a moment of panic, I rushed my young daughter to Colombo’s only children’s hospital. To be honest, I don’t normally turn to our overcrowded government hospitals for healthcare. But a doctor friend had recommended the Lady Ridgeway Hospital as the best place for administering the anti-rabies vaccine.

As with all government hospitals, they first wanted to record the patient’s basic bio data. Fair enough. I provided the child’s name, age and street address. For some reason, the form also asked for the patient’s religion. Before I could say anything, the nurse in charge wrote ‘Buddhist’.

Now, this was both incorrect and highly presumptuous. But when I objected, it sparked off an argument. The formidable woman insisted that with a ‘good Sinhalese surname’ like ours, we simply had to be Buddhists!

When I said her assumption was wrong, she asked me with some disdain: are you then a Christian? No again. Now she was beginning to be get really irritated: who is this man who speaks fluent Sinhala, but is neither Buddhist nor Christian?

I was not about to declare in public a matter I consider to be intensely private: my religious faith. With the fellow public behind me becoming impatient, and the public servant in front of me taking a dogged stand, I retreated with a heavy heart. (I later paid a few thousand rupees for the same course of vaccines at a private clinic, where my religious faith or ethnicity was never questioned.)

I thought this was an isolated incident, and didn’t think further. But a few months later, I ran into a similar situation at my area police station. I’d gone to make a formal complaint about a serious matter concerning personal safety, and once again, the process started with my bio data. When it came to fixing labels, the woman constable recording my statement categorised me as ‘Sinhalese Buddhist’ — without even raising her head from the big book of complaints.

In case you are wondering, I bear absolutely no tell-tale signs of belonging any faith: I don’t wear a religious symbol as jewellery, or wrap pirith nool (pieces of thread blessed by monks) on my wrist. I also carefully avoid sprinkling my everyday speech with any religious phrases. Even my occasional swearing is devoid of religious references. (An observant friend once likened my colloquial speech to that of my favourite cartoon charter Tintin’s: no harsh swear words, and only secular references.)

Must biology be destiny in the 21st Century? Blind chance of birth placed me in a family of ethnic Sinhala parents who also happened to be Buddhists. But these cosmic accidents don’t make me a Buddhist any more than, say, I become a believing and practising Aquarian simply because I was born in February. My brand loyalty to the randomly assigned religion and star sign are about the same: zero.

Just so that I put all my cards on the table, I have not practised any religion or belonged to any religious faith (with their trappings of scripture, priests and places of worship) from my teen years. That’s 30 years of uninterrupted secular humanism.

Indeed, ‘secular humanist’ is the only label that I proudly wear in both public and private. But in the Sinhala Buddhist Republic of Sri Lanka that my land of birth is turning into, various public agencies find this ‘aberration’ either unsettling or unacceptable. My self-exclusion on matters of faith makes me an instant misfit in many state procedures. And yet, we are supposedly an open and democratic society……and in theory at least, not a religious state.

But that matters little in practice. For example, I recently gave evidence under oath in a court of law in a civil case. All along, my lawyer advised me to just ‘pretend’ to be a Buddhist for that solemn occasion. Apparently the system can’t handle ‘spiritually neutral’ — my preferred (and very honest) answer when asked about my faith.

I don’t see how and why a citizen’s religious affiliation – or its complete absence – should matter in the least when dispensing vaccines or justice in the modern world. Is this not a residual habit from colonial times that no longer serves a purpose? Actually, I find it worse than redundant; it’s plain insulting.

Religion is not the only private matter that our governments love to poke its clumsy and unwelcome noses into. Also falling into this category: everyone’s sanitary habits, and sexual relations between consenting adults.

For sure, what private individuals do in the privacy of their homes can have some implications for the community, economy and national statistics. In today’s highly inter-dependent and interlinked world, no man or woman or nation is an island.

Despite this, there are at least three aspects of modern living where choices must remain strictly and entirely personal: what we do in our bed rooms, wash rooms and (metaphorical) shrine rooms. I, for one, will resist all arms of the state and government, as well as self-appointed guardians of our morals and values, from intruding into any of these hallowed spaces of my free will and choice.

Especially when it comes to matters of faith – or its complete avoidance – the Jackboot of government means absolutely nothing.

Well, at least until they perfect the Thought Police

* * * * *

Explanation for non-Lankan readers:
The ethnic mix and religious mix in Sri Lanka don’t coincide, making it (at least for me!) a delightfully chaotic melting pot. While some Sinhalese are Buddhist and some Tamils are Hindu in their choice of faith, that is not to be assumed. Indeed, there are statistically significant numbers of both Sinhalese and Tamils who are Christians (of various denominations). While all our muslim friends are Islamic, there are also some ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils who have converted to Islam. So one has to be very careful in making generalisations, and it’s altogether better to avoid them….