(1958 –1974)


EARLY YEARS (1930 – 1950)
Born on December 29th 1930, in Jaffna, in the northern peninsula of Sri Lanka, Robin Tampoe, began his film career at the age of 25 years. While R. C. Tampoe is recognized as a major contributor to Sri Lanka's early film heritage, his works take on more significance as one of Sri Lanka's rare Tamil directors and producers who made films exclusively for the island's Sinhala Buddhist majority. Cinema was already running in the family and Robin's own interest in cinema seemed to have derived from observing his father, W. M. S. Tampoe. When he was only a child, W. M. S had abandoned law and become a film director, working in South India. Before the advent of Sinhala "talkies" in 1947, W. M. S, who by then had six Tamil films to his credit was also engaged in an import-export film trade with South Indian film distributors, notably the renowned director and studio owner T. R. Sundaram of Modern Studios, Salem (near Madras). Time was still not ripe for Sinhala movies. Robin attended Jaffna Central College, which had interestingly also once been the family ancestral home before being taken over by the institution. His father moved between Madras, where he had established his film business and Jaffna, the traditional seat of his family and ancestors. In the mid-1950s, Robin entered Law College, destined to join the judiciary, following tradition in the Tampoe family where forefathers had belonged to the Jaffna judiciary and bar. But, as in the case of "WMS", the call of cinema was much too strong for Robin to resist

From 1959, following in the steps of his father and the other Sri Lankan film pioneer Chittampalam Abraham Gardiner, R. C. Tampoe gave up a career at the bar to go into film direction and production. In 1958, he joined W. M. S. Tampoe in Madras and co-directed and produced Sepali (1958), a Sinhala film shot entirely in India. Born and bred in Sri Lanka, hailing from the Anglicized bourgeoisie of Ceylon, with longstanding cultural and linguistic affinities with South Indians, both WMS and RC were perfectly at ease in Western, Sinhala and Tamil cultural environments. Although Robin began his career with a co-production, there lacked the chemistry necessary for a truly harmonious relationship with his father, it would not be long before Robin branched out. W.M.S. Tampoe had already laid an important foundation stone in regional film cooperation between Ceylon and India, a precursor of the flurry of filmmaking that would soon start across the Palk Straits, and which would also sweep Robin off his feet. In today's period of healing and reconciliation, one might linger on the idea of early Sinhala cinema as a place of convergence despite being traversed by ethnic tensions. In fact the formative period of Sri Lankan cinema history attested to a true rapprochement between the two countries united in a common cinematic goal. Thus, between 1947 and 1960 Sinhala films displayed a variety of genres, ranging from the parsi or indian style melodramas to screen adaptations of Sinhala novels, an indication that the film industry had also begun a movement in the opposite direction, - from indianization to indigenization. The film art, and industry would be imbued in its turn with the ambient Sinhala patriotism spilling over from the political arena.

In the areas of production, his immediate model of reference was North and South India, whose culture he was most familiar with, and to which he was most naturally drawn. While he had begun with his father, he learnt the ropes of the art and trade under the guidance of a number of South Indian directors, before becoming part of the Sinhala film industry. Robin was part of that brief but intense period of shooting Sinhala films in Gemini and Golden Studios, Madras, with more spurts of filmmaking by other Ceylonese directors in the studios of Coimbatore and Madurai (a subject that has of late drawn the attention of film scholars). The 1960s saw Tampoe visiting a number of North Indian studios, including the remarkable Bombay Talkies, the legendary studio established by Devika Rani and Himansu Rai during the early 1940s. His Bombay trip included a visit to R. K. Studios, made in the company of his wife Rita and screen idol Gamini Fonseka as well as the actor's spouse.

It is thus on the strength of experience gained in South India that he planted some of the earliest flags of cinema in his native country, Sri Lanka, and a lively context of more Indian-dominated shooting of Sinhala films awaited him from the 1960s onwards. Ceylonese directors had by now mastered the art of the entertainer, which would soon be labelled "formula" by purists and pundits. Though decried by the intelligentsia, they were hallowed by a public which had come to associate cinema with the scintillating three-hour spectacle, having been previously fed on parsi natak, Indian melodramas and US musicals…More importantly, for independent filmmakers like Tampoe, such films brought in the much-needed funds to carry on.

In sum, R.C. Tampoe's career then straddles two important phases in the history of Ceylonese cinema: the period marked by frenzied filming in South Indian studios by Ceylonese film crew, and another that opens during the mid 1960s where Sinhala cinema is conferred what is deemed to be a more "authentic" identity. The outright rejection of the South Indian melodrama as the model of reference for the Sinhala film heralded this new period of "indigenization", spearheaded by Lester James Peries. Ceylonese directors set in motion a trend, in complement to the commercial movie, with an intense focus on Sinhala culture, shot in the realist mode, based on the growing fund of indigenous literary and dramatic creations.

Prior to the call for indigenous cinema by Sinhala cultural patriots, R. C. Tampoe was part of the numerous Ceylonese film crew who travelled to South India to shoot what would be the very first Sinhala talkies. Robin Tampoe, along with a host of other film directors, like K. A. W. Perera, and before that B. A. W. Jayamanne and Shanthi Kumar, were pioneers of Sinhala cinema, a cinema born and nurtured in South Inda. Yet, while most of these early films were made in collaboration with South Indian directors, R. C. Tampoe again stands out as was one of the rare indigenous Sri Lankan Tamil directors to make his films in quasi-autonomy, his recourse to South Indian resources being limited to technical assistance and studio facilities. He nevertheless drew from the extraordinary fund of talent, human and technical resources offered by Tamil Nadu's film professionals and personalities, including those of Sri Lankan-born directors, A. S. A. Samy and Mohammed Mastaan. Before becoming a producer, Robin Tampoe used the existing companies in Ceylon to distribute his films beginning with K. Gunaratnam, who had entered the film industry as W. M. S. Tampoe's assistant. His early films were also produced by C .A. Gardiner's Ceylon Theatres.

Released between 1956 and 1974, Robin Tampoe's films were shot exclusively in the Sinhala language. Most were family dramas into which Tampoe, like his contemporaries, integrated the song-and-dance spectacle. The narratives were also of the epic length, characteristic of Asian cinemas of that period.

When the 1961 ban was imposed on Ceylonese directors, prohibiting the shooting of Sinhala films in South India, it was an extension of Sinhala nationalisms that had marked the previous decade. Robin Tampoe and his father, like other directors, immediately complied and began making films in their native country, Sri Lanka. They also abided by the other directive to use only ethnic Sinhala crew and refrain from dubbing and sub-titling Sinhala films into foreign languages. But relocating filming in Ceylon signified the establishment of an infrastructure for shooting, which the island woefully lacked. Aspiring directors strove to stay within the law and the choice now lay to become an independent filmmaker by acquiring all the necessary equipment and producing one's own films, or to resort to the three local film companies. Deciding that independence was best, Robin travelled to Japan NHK through Hong Kong and Singapore in 1963, to purchase cameras, projectors and other equipment. This led to the edification of R. T. Studios, at Wellampitiya, completed in 1964. In the adjacent area, he built a cinema which he named after his daughter, Vilasnee. With the three existing shooting sites (Ceylon Studios, Vijaya Studios and Navajeevana), Robin's studio widened the horizons of Ceylon's nascent infrastructure. Though smaller in size, R. T. Studios was extremely well structured, and offered some of the best facilities for sound and image production in Ceylon for over ten years. The goal he had set for himself was to both direct and produce his films, something he achieved with relative ease. Even extending his reach to imports and exports during the 1980s.

An important encounter in Robin Tampoe's life was Chitrananda Abeyesekara with whom he teamed up during the early 1960s. This led to one of the most singular artistic collaborations in the history of Sri Lankan cinema of the formative phase. A talented young Ceylonese, and later Chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, Chitrananda Abeyesekara, or "Chitra" as he was fondly called by Robin, deployed his talents by writing the scripts, dialogues and lyrics for most of Tampoe's films. He also became Tampoe's friend and advisor and introduced him to other important personalities of that period.

With half a dozen box-office hits to his credit, Robin Tampoe was by the mid-1960s, a household name. Unlike some of his colleagues, Tampoe did not gain any theoretical knowledge on cinema in European academies, nor did he benefit from any recognition from international cinema circles. But he was quite satisfied with national public acclaim for his movies. International recognition for directors such as he at the time was inconceivable as film criticism and film scholarship had yet to realize the entertainer's full potential as a worthy of academic investigation.. Tools of assessment and film appraisal were not geared to comment on films such as those of many o Ceylonese directors of the time, who made films which today, despite their "commercialism", make for fascinating and singular scholarly focus.

As R. C. Tampoe rose to prominence, and his career reached a peak, it likewise seemed that his flair for talent seeking had stood him in good stead: within half a decade beginning with the 1960s, Tampoe had given the occasion to a number of Sinhalese, from all walks of life, including children, to develop their talents around the film art, behind or facing the camera. His studio became a nursery and a training ground for aspiring actors, actresses, music directors, cameramen and technical assistants, most of whom entered the glittering world of movies in Sri Lanka and have never looked back. His film Sudo Sudu released in 1964, had a record number of music directors, including Elvitigala and Khemadasa, both pursuing brilliant careers. Others were cameraman Timothy Weeraratne, actresses Suvineetha Weerasinghe and Nita Fernando who were soon to become part of the star-spangled banner of Sinhala cinema. Shyama Anandan, today a reputed actress also made her first appearance in Suvineetha Lalani (1961) as a….three month old baby in the arms of screen mother Florida Jayalath and later as a toddler in Suhada Divi Piduma (1962), no doubt breaking another record as Sri Lanka's youngest screen star, so to speak. Shyama Anandan's father M.S. Anandan, a Sri Lankan cameraman known for his sensitive handling of the camera, worked for a number of Tampoe's films, including the box office Suvineetha Lalani.

Between 1956 and 1974, although Tampoe's films contributed immeasurably to Sri Lanka's burgeoning film industry, many consider that he had reached the top a trifle too early at a young age of 30 years. His career would soon spiral downward for multiple reasons, including political instability, the occasional but severe bouts of ethnic confrontation, student unrest and insurrection and the advent of television.
But, for a brief moment, Robin made 15 films, expending unflagging energy and deploying his spirit of entrepreneurship in all three branches of cinema. This came during a period when the film industry could only hope to survive and be sustained by the private sector, whose members had the necessary talent, drive and capital.

The case of R.C. Tampoe is also interesting in the light of Sri Lanka's multiculturalism oscillating between cordiality and confict. Tampoe established partnerships across linguistic, cultural and religious lines. He valued interethnic harmony, as evidenced by his Sinhala filmography, and later the organization of the first festival of Sinhala films at the Shanthi cinema in Jaffna. In 1960 he had married an ethnic Sinhalese, Rita Fernando, from Ja-Ela whom he had met during his law college days. This was also unusual for that period (such unions are still a rarity in Sri Lanka even in the new millennium). At the professional level, Robin took lessons in the Sinhala language in order to communicate with his associates and employees, his trilingualism becoming an asset in his career. His proximity to the Sinhala people was all the more commendable as it was established during the late 1950s at a time when the island was hit by communal riots.

Until his death in 2000, Robin lived and worked in Colombo, but he never severed ties with his hometown of Jaffna. He assisted the Jaffna peasant and fisher folk at a time when the ethnic conflict was taking a toll of their lives, but he had established a special and durable bond with the Sinhala people, whose strength lay in the hours of enjoyment they had derived from Tampoe's magical movies….and all this for a modicum.

Robin Tampoe's film career spanned 40 years and took him right up to the doorstep of the new millenumun, a period marked by frequent bouts of political instability, ethnic tension, student unrest, and recently a fully fledged war, which lasted a quarter of a century. While Sri Lanka has turned the page over a long and tragic chapter of her history, and laborious efforts are being made to "reach out to the other", it is interesting to bring out to the limelight those cross-cultural collaborations of exception that had existed once upon a star…. and upon which is founded an important measure of Sri Lanka's cultural heritage.