K. Gunaratnam, popularly known as ‘KG,’ with his humble beginnings in Jaffna, had commenced businesses in Colombo. I came to know him in 1974 when his son G.R. Pathmaraj introduced me to him. Mr. Gunaratnam wanted me to join his businesses. I agreed to render services as a part-time management consultant from August 1974. He allocated a separate room and a secretary for me to co-ordinate work.
I was directly responsible to him and all executives of his businesses were so informed. I more or less functioned as an executive consultant to the chairman, Mr. Gunaratnam.
Except when he was overseas, I used to meet him daily early afternoons before he went for lunch and had a nap. He had strictly instructed that he be not disturbed for whatever reason whilst he had his afternoon nap. He socialised regularly in the evenings, moving with various levels of people, developing close friendships and business relationships.
Commencing business in the film industry, he became Sri Lanka’s most successful film producer, distributor and owner of a chain of cinemas islandwide. He had inspired and developed several personalities in the Sinhala film industry including Eddie Jayamanne, Rukmani Devi, Ananda Jayaratne, Sandya Kumari and the legendary Gamini Fonseka.
One of his very popular productions was the film ‘Sandeshaya’ with the hit song ‘Pruthugisi Karaya.’ Lester James Peiris made a name as the director of this film and Arisen Ahubudu came into recognition with this famous song ‘Pruthugisi Karaya.’
Mr. Gunaratnam had produced over 25 films developing the Sinhala film industry, some of them having been Sujatha, Warada Kageda, Radala Piliruwa, Duppathage Duka, Wana Mohini, Sooraya, Weera Vijaya, Devarayo, Allapu Gedera, Chandiya, Oba Dutu Da, Ataweni Pudumaya, Lakseta Kodiya, Athma Puja, Hodai Narakai and Sandeshaya. Some of these films are lost forever to the present generation due to the barbaric Black July riots of 1983.
"Mr. Gunaratnam had produced over 25 films developing the Sinhala film industry, some of them having been Sujatha, Warada Kageda, Radala Piliruwa, Duppathage Duka, Wana Mohini, Sooraya, Weera Vijaya, Devarayo, Allapu Gedera, Chandiya, Oba Dutu Da, Ataweni Pudumaya, Lakseta Kodiya"
Mr. Gunaratnam had also diversified into industries, manufacturing ballpoint pens, corrugated cartons, plastic containers and developing state-of-the-art yarn spinning and weaving mills at Ja-Ela with 24,000 Swiss Reiter spindles which was being expanded into weaving with 200 Picanol water jet looms with 100 looms having been imported in June 1983 and temporarily stored at the Hendala industrial complex until the foreign engineers were to install them at the weaving mills in Ja-Ela in August 1983. The Hendala complex included the Vijaya Studios where films were produced. In addition, there were studio facilities at Kirula Road in Colombo 5.
The industrial complex at Hendala comprising factories manufacturing corrugated cartons, plastic containers and ballpoint pens had just been developed with ultra-modern machinery and technology, with the traditional head office being at Sri Sangarajah Mawatha, Colombo 10 which also had a printing press and with the original Cinemas head office being at New Chetty Street, Colombo 13.
A very large stock of paper reels and plastic granules had been stored at the Hendala complex. On the night of the ethnic riots of Black July in 1983, Mr. Gunaratnam was chased away by goons on the rampage from his luxurious house at Bullers Road which luckily had not caught fire. Mr. Gunaratnam had sought refuge occupying an entire floor of then Holiday Inn Hotel where he was a director. A few days later on July 30, 1983 being his birthday, together with a curfew pass, I went and saw him at the hotel. He wept.
The Hendala industrial complex was set ablaze and the fire lasted for over two weeks with the huge stock of paper reels and plastic granules and also destroying the 100 brand new Picanol looms which had no insurance as they were waiting to be installed at the Ja-Ela mills. Mr. Gunaratnam lost over Rs. 200 million at the value of money at that time due to the July 1983 ethnic riots and he shifted to a small house at Barnes Place.
Mr. Gunaratnam was the main owner of the Tower Hall, formerly known as ‘Tower Talkies’ which developed Sinhala drama and artistes. When President R. Premadasa requested for these premises, Mr. Gunaratnam unhesitantly gifted the same to the government – it is today developed as Tower Hall Theatre with no mention whatsoever of this invaluable philanthropic donation of Mr. Gunaratnam; it ought have been named after him.
When President R. Premadasa made a historic visit to Jaffna, Mr. Gunaratnam personally went to Jaffna, I too along with him. He got huge posters of President R. Premadasa, put them up on trees lining the roads using his staff of the Wellington Cinema in Jaffna and organised arousing warm welcome reception to President R. Premadasa on his arrival at PalalyAirport, Jaffna.
When I got married, Mr. Gunaratnam and his wife entertained us to a big reception in his residential house in Jaffna, inviting the Jaffna business community. More than from professional studies and work, I have gained much knowledge and experience from the late Mr. Gunaratnam as to how to deal with people with humility. I have travelled overseas with him, always economy class and staying at 3 to 4 star hotels. Mr. Gunaratnam never showed off his wealth.
On the other hand, Mr. Gunaratnam used to entertain lavishly and on Thai Pongal night, he annually had a grand dinner at his luxurious house at Bullers Road with a large circle of persons who had interacted with him – the crab curry was flown from Jaffna. He moved with various politicians including Hugh Fernando, Maithripala Senanayake, T.B. Illangaratne and the Ratwattes. Albert Page of Ceylon Theatres, though a competitor, was a very close friend of his with whom he used to have a regular get together of 4 or 5 people including me.
On the fateful day of August 9, 1989, Mr. Gunaratnam telephoned me at around 1.00 p.m.and had a chat. I informed him that I was going to the UKthat night for a few days. I left for lunch with a friend of mine and was telephoned by my office to inform me that Mr. Gunaratnam had died. I immediately stopped the lunch and returned to my office thinking he had a natural death as he had a cardiac bypass operation in the USjust a few years ago.
"I walked with Mr. Gunaratnam’s two sons behind the corpse at the funeral, though several persons cautioned us not to do so, out of fear, tension and apprehension at that time. Several bodies of persons killed had also been found in front of the gate of the textile mill at Ja-Ela. It is indeed an unforgivable tragedy that man who had made such yeomen contribution to develop the Sinhala film industry, artistes and the people with employment had been so brutally dealt with"
However, when I phoned his secretary, I was shocked to hear of the tragic shooting. I immediately cancelled my foreign tour and contacted his son G.R. Pathmaraj and went to the mortuary to obtain the release of his body. It was a very shocking and a very sad day. Whilst coming out of his office, in the front seat of his car, at a point of turning, two gunmen on a motorcycle had shot him at very close range, whilst the attempted shooting of the driver had failed and who had rushed Mr. Gunaratnam to hospital where he had been pronounced dead. His secretary later informed me that the CID had inquired as to who I was as the last telephone call Mr. Gunaratnam had taken from his office before he died had been to me.
That era of 1989 was of sheer fear psychosis and even after his killing and other killings at that time, there was a sense of fear and apprehension in society. Gamini Fonseka and I made funeral arrangements with a committee operating from my office. Both Gamini and I walked with Mr. Gunaratnam’s two sons behind the corpse at the funeral, though several persons cautioned us not to do so, out of fear, tension and apprehension at that time. Several bodies of persons killed had also been found in front of the gate of the textile mill at Ja-Ela. It is indeed an unforgivable tragedy that a man who had made such yeomen contribution to develop the Sinhala film industry, artistes and the people with employment had been so brutally dealt with.
Those who had been responsible for the barbaric Black July ethnic riots of 1983 and those who went on a killing spree in 1989 instilling a fear psychosis had not been held accountable and dealt with under the law, nor had they apologised to the people for the immense damage caused by them to the country and its people, and as a result stifling the very development and growth of this country and its people.