by Sachi Sri Kantha, September 10, 2014
Kanagasabai Gunaratnam, popularly known as ‘K. Gunaratnam’, was a pioneer Tamil industrialist and movie mogul of Sri Lanka. He also ranked as one of the prosperous Tamils in post-independent Ceylon. In 1960s, when I was a school boy, the pen produced by ‘KG Industries’ was a big hit among us. Fathers of a few of my classmates worked either in Gunaratnam-owned Cinemas Ltd. Company or in KG Industries companies. Thus, the name ‘Gunaratnam’ was an item in the chart of our routine gossip. A popular grapevine story from the homes of my school friends was that KG was a very frugal minded boss. But, this has been (and still is) a stereotype feature of Jaffna Tamils. A popular derisive Tamil idiom is, ‘Echil kaiyaal kooda kaakai viradaathavan’ (i.e., A guy who wouldn’t chase a crow with dirty hands). The implication is that, some wouldn’t even bother to chase a crow, while eating, worrying that a few rice morsels stuck in the fingers may get lost! Maybe it was true that, at certain times, in certain places, and for certain individuals, Gunaratnam might have considered frugality was a virtue. But the anecdotes (presented below) by nonagenarian Sinhalese movie director Lester James Peries (b. 1919), disproves the grapevine story I heard in 1960s.
On August 9, 1989, this movie mogul and industry pioneer among Tamils was assassinated by the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s unidentified motorcycle gang at Armour Street, Colombo, while returning home in his car. Not much has been recorded about Gunaratnam’s life, career, prosperity and his services to the Sinhala movie industry in the print or electronic media so far. In fact, I checked the Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka (2005) by journalist C.A. Gunawardena, which boasts of over 1,200 entries. I could find an entry on Gunaratnam’s namesake Rohan Gunaratna (the controversial terrorism scholar), but not an entry on K. Gunaratnam!
Unlike the dead collaborator Tamil politicians (Duraiappahs, Tiruchelvams and Kadirgamars), who are remembered with Wikipedia entries for achieving nothing of worth other than being sycophants to the Sinhalese government, Gunaratnam was a leader of a kind to be remembered. What is rather strange for me is the fact that Rajan Hoole, who had spilled so much of his energy in writing about Duraiappahs, Tiruchelvams, Kadirgamars and quite a number of nondescript Tamil characters who were victims of the LTTE, has failed to write a sentence about K. Gunaratnam and his assassination in his version of the 2001 history book, which has ‘murder’ in his subtitle!
Gunaratnam was a long time distributor of AVM films for Ceylon. The stamp-sized facial photo I’ve scanned and reproduced nearby, is taken from producer M. Saravanan’s memoir, ‘AVM 60-Cinema’. Due to his unassuming nature, not many of Gunaratnam’s photos were in circulation. Not only he was a distributor of Indian Tamil films, he was also an established producer of Sinhala films. In the words of Lester James Peries, the celebrated Sinhala movie director, “the man [Gunaratnam] who made 32 films, never made a single flop. His instincts were dead right.” As such, I have compiled this 25th death anniversary remembrance from what I was able to access in my collection and on the internet. The two remembrances presented here are both by Sinhalese – one by an attorney and the other by Lester James Peries.
Engineer S. Arumugam, in his compilation ‘A Dictionary of Biography of Ceylon Tamils’ (1997), offered the following profile of Gunaratnam’s career, with the tag ‘Pioneer film producer & Prominent businessman’. “Kanagasabai Gunaratnam, pioneer film producer and chairman of several companies, was born on 30th July 1917 in Athiyadi. His ancestors were from Nallur, Jaffna. Starting from humble beginnings in the cinema industry, he rapidly achieved a leading position. When the production of Sinhala films ceased in India, he boldly pioneered a film production studio in Ceylon and made a success of the venture. He is said to have produced over twenty five Sinhala films during the first few years of operation. What is more, Cinemas were organized all over the island for showing the films. With all these activities he became popularly known as ‘Cinemas Gunaratnam’.
He did not stop with the film industry, but rapidly embarked on a variety of ventures. He diversified into other industries. He pioneered the corrugated carton industry and the manufacture of the ball point pen. The ‘K.G’ fountain pens produced in his factory soon became popular with students all over the country. The plastic wares industry was a field in which he excelled. The production of asbestos cement corrugated sheets was another of his lucrative undertakings. Eventually he was associated with the following: as Chairman – Cinemas Ltd., K.G. Group of Companies, Fuji Graphics Ceylon Ltd. And Photo Kina Ltd.
As Managing Director – Cine Sounds Sales and Services Ltd., Union Carbide Ceylon Ltd., Asbestos Cement Industries Ltd., Alhambra Hotels Ltd. And United Spinning and Weaving Mills. Besides the above, he was a Director of several others. He passed away under tragic circumstances on 9th August 1989.”
Probably for reasons of political correctness, even Arumugam had failed to record what was that ‘tragic circumstances’. No information was presented about his family. Gunaratnam’s wife was Kamala. They had two sons and four daughters.
Nihal Sri Ameresekere’s reminiscence
Last year, attorney Nihal Sri Ameresekere had reminisced about Gunaratnam in his book, ‘Politics, Justice & The Rule of Law’, as follows:
“One of my very first clients was K. Gunaratnam, a leading businessman and industrialist at that time hailing from Jaffna. He also owned a circuit of cinemas in the island and was the leading Sinhala film producer, and who created icons in the film industry. He was my client from 1974 to 1989, when he too succumbed to his death at the hands of Southern insurgents who shot him. I was the last person he spoke with on his business matters, not even one hour prior to meeting with his tragic death.”
In another page, Ameresekere had described the losses Gunaratnam suffered during the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo.
“[When Gunaratnam was assassinated in 1989], he was going from his office to his residence for lunch. Prior to leaving the office for lunch, he telephoned me, as the management consultant to his Group of Companies, to discuss some business matters. I was travelling to the United Kingdom that evening, but I cancelled my trip, and again got involved in getting the release of his corpse from the General Hospital, Colombo.
K.Gunaratnam was one of the worst economically affected persons previously during the despicable ethnic riots of July 1983, having to traumatically flee from his residence in the middle of the night of 22nd July 1983, to escape marauding mobs, and seek refuge at the then Holiday Inn Hotel in the city of Colombo, of which he was a director.
His factory complex at Hendala, in the outskirts of the Colombo city, which had a corrugated carton factory, plastics factory and a film studio were fully scorched. Due to the large stocks of paper and plastics the fire lasted for almost two weeks, and in the process 96 brand new Picanol weaving looms, which had been imported from Belgium a few days previously and stored at this Hendala factory complex for his state of the art textile factory, and were awaiting installation by the Belgium engineers, who were to arrive shortly, were completely destroyed. Another film studio in the city of Colombo, together with the collection of Sinhala films produced by him was totally destroyed, whereby the Sinhala film industry lost all copies of some invaluable films, which had been produced by him.
The fear psychosis resulted in the funeral arrangements being handled by a committee, who met at my office, assisted by Gamini Fonseka, the doyen film actor of the Sinhala film industry. He and I openly organized the funeral arrangements and walked with the children of K. Gunaratnam in the funeral possession, regardless of cautioning by several persons, and undeterred in the face of the fear psychosis created by the Southern insurgents.”
Even Ameresekere had camouflaged the identity of Gunaratnam’s assassins as “Southern insurgents”!! All Sri Lankans know the identity of these ‘Southern insurgents’. They were the JVP terrorists in 1989.
Lester James Peries’s Reminiscence of Gunaratnam as the Producer of his ‘Sandeshaya’(1960) Movie
One of the best tributes to Gunaratnam as the movie producer is recorded Lester James Peries. I reproduce excerpts from Kumar de Silva’s compilation, ‘Lester by Lester’ (2007) below. Of the 20 full length Sinhala films directed by Peries, Gunaratnam produced his second movie Sandeshaya (The Message, 1960). Gunaratnam’s first Sinhalese movie was ‘Sujatha’ (1953), which was a commercial success. Even in the chapter on Rekawa (The Line of Destiny, 1956), about its commercial failure, Peries had reminisced about Gunaratnam as follows:
“[T]he audience expected something better than Sujatha (1953), which was the best Sinhala film, popular and technically very good. Guneratnam, unlike the other jokers, had really gone to Salem in south India, to the studio owned by Sunderam, the very celebrated director and studio owner, where the technical quality was very high…Seeing Rekawa with the expectation of seeing something better than Sujatha, the audience came back thoroughly disappointed.”
In the next chapter devoted to Sandeshaya movie, Peries had reminisced much about Gunaratnam’s character traits. After the commercial failure of his first movie Rekawa, he was wondering whether to return to England, to continue his former job as journalism. Two years and a half had passed through, before cameraman Willie Blake came to his rescue. As Peries had recorded, “When Willie Blake went to meet Gunaratnam and talk to him, I had the vague idea of a historical film in the Protuguese period but nobody in mind to finance it. Willie told him that we had a readmade script for a big film. It was to be a commercial, though a historical film, with horses, battle scenes, a fort, period costumes and all that. I have a feeling that Gunaratnam, who had more than one antenna and was a highly receptive person, went against all his established notions of what he should produce and not. He said, ‘OK. We have the Cinemas’ tenth anniversary coming up. I would like to celebrate it by making a prestige film. I will back the film. Ask Lester to come and see me.’…I went to him and told him the outline of the story, the historical part of it which was very accurate and was based on Sir Paul E.Pieris’ books on the history of the Portuguese period. I told him it was an action film which would probably require a little more money, though not very much more. I was scared that if I exaggerated the epic quality, he would drop the project because here was one little ray of sunshine we might bask in and I was afraid of loosing it. Gunaratnam told me to write the whole script and that he was giving me his word that he was going to back it….”
Peries continued further: “Gunaratnam was very keen that the film was shown in 1960 as Cinemas started business in 1950. Having a target date also helped, because we had to complete the film on time. Having read the story to him, I think the horses did it, since he used to ride every morning and loved horses…” Peries had also described for posterity the magnanimity of Gunaratnam when he faced trouble with the bad processing of film negatives, at a time when filming was nearing its end. The film roles were processed at the Government Film Unit (GFU), and first they “blamed the film and the storage”. Here are the four paragraphs of the chapter in Peries’s own words.
“Coming to the final stage, a very very strange thing happened. I don’t know if it was a dream or my instinct but I felt that something had gone wrong with the negative of the film. We had only worked on a positive work print but our main film was in that negative. One day I got into the car early morning and drove to our negative cutter Kamoor who lived close to Kandana. He was the negative cutter of the GFU and had cut both Rekawa and Sandeshaya. I woke him at 7:00 in the morning and that stunned him. I told him that something told me there was some fault in the negative. The negative was stored in the lab near the Kingsley Cinema at Barber Street. As we went there and opened can after can of 120,000 feet of film, exactly half had turned yellow. That was the time I should have got a heart attack. We checked the edge numbers of the negative and something told me that a little less than half the film had been processed at the GFU and the rest of it, thank God, at Gunaratnam’s lab.
When we took the negatives to the GFU they said it is not theirs and that it can never be. We showed them the negative reports and the edge numbers. You cannot cheat in this business because it is all coded by Kodak. We kept copies of all the negative reports that we had given the GFU. These tallied with what they had processed. What they did had destroyed the negative.
The first blamed the film and then the storage. We asked how the rest was okay. We couldn’t get a film out of it. I felt that I had to tell Gunaratnam that there was this awful crisis, and that after two years of work, there might not be a film or rather half a film.
Gunaratnam, who was a great character with great strength, took it all with a smile. Any other person having spent on a film for two years, would have shot me if he had a gun, or at least lost his temper. He asked if there was no way we could save this film. I said the only way is to go back to the work print which was battered with use. It is like a writer’s manuscript. I said the only thing was to duplicate the work print of all those scenes and cut them in. We could get away with it, but in the middle there would be obvious jumps in the quality of the picture.”
In the penultimate paragraph of the chapter, Peries had inferred, “Sandeshaya was a huge hit. There is a saying in the film industry that you are as good as your last film. But here it did not apply to me. Even though it became a big box office hit, Cinemas which produced it and Gunaratnam who by that time became a good friend, never offered me another film. I never solicited one either…”
Few Additional Thoughts
Unfortunately, Peries doesn’t offer any numbers relating to the production cost and the box office collection of Sandeshaya. Buoyed by the box office success of Sandeshaya, Peries was able to make greater strides with his next movie Gamperaliya (Changes in the Village, 1964), which received the Golden Peacock Award at the Grand Prix International Film Festival in India. Peries had noted that Gamperaliya was budgeted for 150,000 Sri Lankan rupees (in early 1960s!).
Sandeshaya movie also made the career of Sinhala movie idol Gamini Fonseka, who was not cast as the hero of the movie. According to Peries, this actor’s original intention was to be a cameraman and a director. Only the success of Sandeshaya, shifted Fonseka’s attention to act in front of the camera. Gamini Fonseka was another gentleman soul who, in many news platforms, sincerely mourned the actions of racially motivated Sinhalese hooligans to Gunaratnam’s studio during the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, which destroyed the movie library of Sinhala films of earlier era stored there, and also the mode in which Gunaratnam lost his life by JVP assassins.
Sinhala movies produced by Gunaratnam other than Sujatha and Sandeshaya, include Duppathage Duka (1956), Veera Vijaya (1960), Dheewarayo (1964), Chandiya (1965), Oba Dutu Da (1966), Sura Chowraya (1967), Ataveni Pudumaya (1968), Lakseta Kodiya (1970), Athma Puja (1970) and Hodai Narakai (1973). Among these, Gamini Fonseka played the hero role in Dheewarayo, Chandiya and Sura Chowraya movies. Gunaratnam’s munificence in making the careers of Lester James Peries and Gamini Fonseka in Sinhala movies, and how grateful these two were to KG should not be forgotten. I may be wrong, but it is my impression that KG never warmed up to support the Tamil movie industry in Sri Lanka. It could have been that, as a business proposition, Sri Lankan Tamil movie industry was a non-starter.
The ultimate question why JVP had to assassinate Gunaratnam deserves an answer. Did he fail (or resisted) to honor a request for forming a JVP-aligned trade union within his group of companies in any degree? Or was it a case of acting as a conduit of a business rival, who was competing with KG in the same turf? Or was it a case of ‘teaching a lesson’ to big capitalists of Sri Lanka? C.A. Chandraprema aka Thadi Priyantha (a recent biographer of presidential sibling Gotabhaya Rajapaksa), who had written about JVP in his earlier ‘avatar’ as a UNP apologist had the following thoughts:
“The JVP is playing the role that the LTTE can never step into – destroying the Sinhalese from within. When the present day JVP organizes a trade union in a company and make demands that result in the closure of the factory, the jobs lost are all jobs held by Sinhalese. Employed Sinhalese are rendered unemployed Sinhalese by the JVP. Not many Tamils or Muslims have lost their jobs because of the JVP’s trade unions.” [The Island, March 9, 2002]
What Chandraprema had written was indeed true in July 1983. Hundreds of Sinhalese who were working at KG-group companies lost their jobs, due to the pyromania of Sinhalese hooligans in Colombo.
Nihal Sri Ameresekere: Politics, Justice & the Rule of Law, Author House, Bloomington, IN, 2013 (available in Kindle edition).
Sanmugam Arumugam: A Dictionary of Biography of Ceylon Tamils, London, 1997, 253 pp.
Anon: Gamini Fonseka – the true gentleman. Daily News (Colombo), Oct. 28, 2004.
C.A. Gunawardene: Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka, 2nd revised ed. New Dawn Press Inc., Slough, Berkshire, 2005, 399 pp.
Rajan Hoole: Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power – Myths, Decadence & Murder, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), Colombo, 2001, 504 pp.
Kusal Perera: Lest I forget – the gorgeously ‘inclusive’ Gamini. From the blog,
http://kusalperera.blogspot.jp/2010/10/lest-i-forget-gorgeously-inclusive.html (accessed Sept 8, 2014)
Lester James Peries: Lester by Lester, as told to Kumar de Silva, Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo, 2007, 212 pp.
- Saravanan: AVM 60 – Cinema, Rajarajan Pathipagam, Chennai, 2005, 496 pp (in Tamil).