By Punya Heendeniya
The time was in the mid-sixties. The period of transition from ocean travel to air travel. No cell phones and the kids read storybooks and play board games with the adults and sit down to dinner together. No phone lines to rural areas. The electricity has just been installed. Roads expanded with and first names of local dignitaries. The only form of communication was by post or telegram.
We were invited to a world film festival held in Mexico, and the reason was Gamperalia, a masterpiece written by outstanding writer Martin Wickremasinghe and made into celluloid by Dr. Lester James Peries; it won the Golden Peacock award at the New Delhi International Film Festival in 1965. I was the lead actress and Henry Jayasena played the male lead in the film.
The invitation was sent to me by Dr. Lester J Peries via a trusted crew member. My dad started pacing the living room muttering, “How can we send you halfway around the world alone?” You never even go to the “lindha” (the water well) alone. Send a message saying you cannot accept this invitation.
Such was the atmosphere in which I grew up. My mother, as usual, babysat “mom”. My older brother, an ardent admirer of my artistic career, came to my rescue.
In an unusually confident and assertive manner, he told his father, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone like Nangi and she should take advantage of it. If you do not allow him to participate, I will take a transfer and leave the house”. That did the trick, and my brother’s firm statement had the desired impact on the situation.
Dr. Peries heard about my problem and came up with a plan to make it easier for me.
He forwarded his invitation to his wife Sumitra, who was also co-producer and editor-in-chief of the Gamperalia. All’s well That ends well. I managed to join Sumitra and Henry as part of the smallest group of guests at the festival.
Three of us had to find currency for the trip even though the airfare was paid for. Only four books were allowed per person for overseas travel. We got together and appealed to the Prime Minister at the time, Dudley Senanayake, who very generously allowed each of us to carry one hundred pounds. It was just our pocket money.
Sumitra and I named Henry as our delegation leader.
As state guests of the Mexican government, at dinner at the El Cano Hotel, Acapulco, and other banquets, three of us said in Sinhalese that we would have stopped with the lavish entry itself if we had to pay for our meals.
A mink coat
It was the worst winter in the northern hemisphere. Coming from a tropical country we lacked warm clothes. Sumitra having been in France had some warm clothes and she very gladly gave me a pair of old gloves and a flannel vest. One of my very wealthy fans, who later became one of my best friends, came to my rescue. She gave me her mink coat.
A mink coat for Punya Heendeniya was manna from heaven at that time.
If I had been offered this coat today, I would have refused it, given the number of innocent mink killed to make this coat.
Eighth Resenna Mundial
This is how the Mexican Festival of Festivals was named in Spanish. All of the world’s award-winning films of the year were invited and the festival was held on a massive scale in an old battlefield. We were able to rub shoulders with the most famous stars in the world. I flew the flag of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) wearing only the osaria and cloth and jacket for two to three weeks. This was highlighted in bold print in national newspapers. In an article written by Henry, at a later date, he mentioned, “Punya made history in Acapulco by refusing to wear a bathing suit.” It was my upbringing and Sumihra, with her nonchalant, casual and calm manner, supported me by saying that we didn’t show flesh for attention.
The papers were full of pictures of me in cloth and jacket and osaria.
Meeting with the giant of Asian cinema Satyajit Ray
Our delegation consisting of only the three of us was assigned a limousine for travel and it was called “Ceilan Delegation“
At the multi-star hotel adjoining our El Cano hotel, came a one-man delegation. It was none other than the Satyajith Ray with his Charulatha. His bearing was majestic. He was tall, dark and handsome. His visit made the three of us feel like we had a close relationship with him. He gladly refused his limo and traveled with us until the end of the festival. It was remarkable that he was one of the judges on the jury, at the New Delhi International Film Festival, where Gamperalia was voted best film. So he had some understanding of the members of our delegation.
We attended almost daily matinee screenings of experimental films, and one day we took an American film critic to our Ceylon vehicle. He was sitting with Ray in front and our topic of conversation was Asian movies. He talked about Akira Kurosava and Satyajith Ray. All four of us were silent. He said he saw the opus trilogy. Ray in his elegant style said, “I am Satyajith Ray”. I have no words to express the reaction of the American. He was delighted.
On the day of our film screening, we draped our guide Christina Godard in a sari, and she wore it in great style. I wrote a short speech for myself and Christina translated it into Spanish. I memorized it and when I addressed the audience in fluent Spanish “Saludos mees Amigos” the audience applauded enthusiastically. Sumithra, in her distinguished way, nominated me to collect the trophy for the film “The Golden Palanque Head”.
Our stay in New York
After leaving the warmer climes of the city of Acapulco, our next stop was New York. The Ceylon Mission of the National Assembly was aware of our arrival. We landed at the snowy John F Kennedy airport in the early evening. We were warmly welcomed by the staff members of the Ceylon Mission.
Among them was another tall, dark, handsome figure that I had seen only in photos but had never encountered. It was none other than our own Mahagama Sekara. The funny thing was that he was from Siyane Koralaya and I was from neighboring Hapitigam Koralaya. We were both gamayas rural areas of Mirigama and Radavaana. We were to meet for the first time, at John F Kennedy airport in New York!
From then on it was an impromptu program complete with dinners and sung songs. At one point we were singingMey Sinhala apage ratai, mulu lova ey ratata yatai(words by Mahagama Sekara) from 42n/a floor of a skyscraper. After that, we all walked along Fifth Avenue to our lodgings. Unusual for the time of year in the winter sky, the moon peeked through the skyscrapers. It was a very familiar sight to all of us and our own poet Mahagama Sekara whispered: “Gamey andurana kenek dekka vaage”. (Like we saw someone we know come home from home”)
At that time, the ambassador to the Ceylon Mission was Mr. RSS Gunawardane. He joined most of our meetings and invited Henry and me to perform on World Human Rights Day, which fell on December 10. The scheduled agenda had Sidney Poitier as guest speaker. Our own Shantha Weerakoon was to perform an element of Kandyan dance. The Ceylon Mission took advantage of our unexpected presence at the right time to invite us to play. We gladly accepted. A separate print has been made available featuring us as the main players in the award-winning contest Gamperalia and also mentioned our most recent and fresh participation in the Mexican festival from which we had just returned after winning the Golden Palanque Head Award.
Henry and I discussed what to play and we sang our own Maestro Amaradava” Piley pedura henata aragena enavaa“. More lyrics from Mahagama Sekara. This opportunity turned out to be a feather in our cap as we never dreamed of such a chance as this to perform on the main stage of the United Nations Assembly. Thanks to our great Dr.Lester J Peries and Gamperalia. In a way, this was all possible thanks to the support of my brother as well. I couldn’t imagine being crowned on the UN stage as a thank you for participating.
Meeting with the legendary Sir Sidney Poitier
Sir Sidney, in his address to the assembly, very humbly recalled how he had been trained to read and write by an elderly Jewish waiter, when he was employed as a boy in menial work as a dishwasher. He mentioned that his journey from dust to gold, and to holding the prestigious Oscar, was rough and full of obstacles.
Then followed the photo shoot. We lined up and I was hiding a bit behind, and suddenly I felt two iron clamps lift me from my waist and place me in front saying, “Your place is here” and position me next to the General Secretary Mr U Thant. Immensely flabbergasted, I looked back. I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was none other than Sir Sidney Poitier, the idol of the galaxy of Hollywood stars, and at that time he was at the height of his brilliant career.
We enjoyed the hospitality of the Secretary General’s Green Room. I saw this unassuming knight in shining armour, mingling with the crowd like a well chiseled and well polished ebony statue that had come to life.
As artists, we loved this Oscar winner’s groundbreaking and groundbreaking performances in films like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “To Sir with Love” and “In the Heat of the Night.”
Sir Sidney is no more. But he will live on in everyone’s hearts.