The name Vijaya Kumaratunga was well-known as a film actor, largely due to his frequent portrayal of romantic roles in Sri Lankan cinema. His on-screen chemistry with leading actresses endeared him to audiences, making him a beloved hero. Vijaya’s cinematic journey began in Seeduwa with the film HanthaneKathawa, directed by Sugathapala Senarath Yapa, following his appearance in Manamalayo. Sugathapala Senarath Yapa managed to select a gem from over five hundred applicants, assembling a team of mostly newcomers.
Notably, Vijaya’s first film also featured Tony, Kalan, and Swarna, who later achieved remarkable success in the Sri Lankan film industry.
Although the topic at hand is Vijaya’s songwriting, his acting prowess overshadowed everything even in these early years. Back then, there were no discussions about Vijaya’s singing career or any significant mention of it. This was primarily because fans and film publications were focused on establishing Vijaya as a highly acclaimed film actor.
Readers, even those who were attached to cinema publications, couldn’t overlook the fact that Vijaya Kumaratunga was a prominent film actor. Weekly film newspapers regularly featured photos and details about Vijaya’s new films, reinforcing his status. One of the contributing factors to this phenomenon was Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa, which marked the beginning of Vijaya’s involvement in over 20 films.
In the early days of Sri Lankan cinema, actors often had similar facial features, hairstyles, and speech patterns. The introduction of a young man with a suitable height for acting and distinctive wavy hair was a topic of conversation. He stood out by breaking away from the typical mold, presenting a handsome and endearing image. While various actresses with diverse acting abilities emerged during this period, the role of a new romantic lead remained vacant. Vijaya’s entry into cinema provided a solution to a problem that many directors had, earning him the crown as the quintessential romantic hero.
This era also witnessed the emergence of various iconic pairs, such as Gamini-Malini and Vijaya-Malini. Among them, Vijaya-Malini became the most popular star couple. Their first film together was Timothy Weeraratne’s Me Desa Kumatada. However, due to a delay in its release for various reasons, the film Hathara Denaama Surayo is often remembered as the first film in which Vijaya and Malini acted together, as it was the first to hit the theaters. Thus, the Vijaya-Malini era began, and their fans eagerly anticipated the release of their next film after each one hit the screens.
Another factor that contributed to Vijaya’s limited success as a singer is H.R. Jothipala. Jothi sang background songs for Vijaya in most of the films in which he acted.
Even Vijaya himself admitted that Jothi was better suited to sing his background songs than any other singer. A notable example is a statement made by Vijaya during a commemoration event for H.R. Jothipala. He mentioned that Jothi’s death was a significant loss for him. Vijaya also conveyed to the newspapers at that time that he intended to sing for the films in which he would be acting. After Jothi’s passing, Vijaya began singing songs for a film in which he acted, such as Prithiraj Weeraratne’s ‘Nommara 17’.
The film achieved tremendous success at the box office because Vijaya contributed both in acting and singing. However, it became evident that the film’s success was not solely due to the plot but also because Vijaya had passed away by that time. Therefore, the film’s success was attributed to the fans who gathered around Vijaya’s acting and singing.
From then onwards, Vijaya’s singing became a topic of conversation among many people, and his songs were primarily broadcasted on the radio after his demise. However, even these song selections were limited. By that time, Vijaya Kumaranatunga’s cassette tapes had been released, and most people began discussing those cassettes following Vijaya’s death.
From Film Background Songs to Recognition as a Singer
Regardless of Vijaya’s statement that he would start singing background songs after Jothi’s passing, he had already been involved in singing film background songs. The first song he sang for a film was in the movie ‘Paara Dige,’ screened in 1980, with music directed by Premasiri Khemadasa. The song was titled ‘Paawela yana paaradige.’ In the same year, Vijaya was asked to sing the ‘Ganga Addara’ song for Nimal Mendis’ film of the same name. Another film that gained immense popularity in 1981 was ‘Aradhana,’ where he provided background vocals for Ravindra Randeniya, his friend from school days and later a character actor in Sri Lankan cinema.
The song was ‘Sinahawakin Puthuge Muwe,’ and the music director was H. M. Jayawardene. Additionally, on the recommendation of music director Premasiri Khemadasa, he collaborated with H. R. Jothipala on vocals for a song in the film ‘Kawuluwa,’ also screened in 1981.
However, despite his entry into the music scene in the late 1970s, Vijaya did not have the opportunity to embark on a full-fledged musical career. This was partly due to his political commitments, which may have hindered his musical pursuits. The political climate at the time also meant that Vijaya’s songs were not widely played on the radio, which was further exacerbated by the lack of private radio stations to promote his music. Nevertheless, Vijaya received the Best Singer award, although it was awarded posthumously, much like his Best Actor award for the film ‘Kedapathaka Chaya.’ He earned the award for Best Background Singer for the song ‘Walakulak gena muwa karamu hiru’ in the movie ‘Saharawe Sihinaye’ in 1990.
While Vijaya was able to establish himself as a magnificent actor in Sri Lankan cinema, he did not achieve the same level of recognition as a singer. Nevertheless, notable music directors such as Gunadasa Kapuge, Sarath Dassanayake, Rohana Weerasinghe, Austin Munasinghe, and Premasiri Khemadasa contributed to his songs. Although Vijaya’s singing was not widely appreciated during his lifetime, it is worth revisiting and appreciating his singing at this moment.
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