Demise of Dr Nihalsingha irreparable damage for media reforms in Sri Lanka
It was last week that the nation bid farewell to a legend – Dr. D. B. Nihalsingha, who created a vacuum not only in the film industry, but in academia as well.
As it was widely claimed during his funeral days, Dr Nihalsingha was the first in many aspects. He created history by laying the foundation for many firsts not only in movies but also in various other fields. We heard many stories about his innovative contributions to the film industry through his involvement in Sathsamudura and Welikathara movies. He was the first General Manager of the Sri Lanka Film Corporation and the creator of the first teledrama in Sri Lanka Dimuthu Muthu. He was the first to introduce many technologies to both entertainment industries.
No argument that he was “The Guru” for many new comers to cinema or to television. Everyone respected him as a leader in the profession and never dared to cross the line with him. But within this respected Guru, there was a gigantic human being that helped many youngsters to come up in their profession. He would go any extra mile to support an upcoming youngster.
When I met Dr. Nihalsingha, he was heading the country’s one and only satellite television operator Astro in Malaysia. We became good friends through our first meeting at his office, when I went to inform him about a New Year musical show that the Sri Lanka High Commission in Malaysia was organizing. I still can remember how he was happy to hear his old buddies like Rohana Weerasingha and Nanda Malini were to visit Malaysia for the first time. Nihalsingha took a major part of the responsibility away from my shoulders.
When I heard that Rosy Senanayake was to be appointed as the High Commissioner to Malaysia, he called me.
“Before she gets into the office, tell her that I want to talk to her,” he ‘warned’ me.
Being a lavish host, Nihalsingha invited Mrs Senanayake with her team to his home and gave a long lecture on social conduct- Dos and Don’ts - in a Muslim majority country in Malaysia.
It was a gem of a talk as we (Mrs Senanayake, Saman Ekanayake and myself) were all new to the country. He was such an organised man, the list of Dos and Don’ts was ready in print and handed over to the new Ambassador. From then onwards, he was an unsung advisor to the High Commission and both Mrs Senanayake and I used to call him Loku Mahattaya. “Loku Mahattayata Kivvada?” (Did you inform the Big Boss?) Mrs Senanayake would inquire before any major or minor function at the embassy.
He later continued this voluntary orientation for many leading Sri Lankans who came to Malaysia for respected positions. One such recipient of those Dos and Don’ts was Upali Arambawela who joined the Asia Broadcasting Union as the Chief Engineer. On most of these occasions, Rukmin and Mayanthi Wijemanna would join the “Briefing dinners.”
Then both of us had to return to Sri Lanka due to our mutual reasons and again had to work together at the Sri Lanka Press Institute. When I was appointed as the Director General of SLPI, NIhalsingha was a member of the board of directors at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism which was managed by the SLPI. “Mister General – Before come home today,” he called me no sooner the news was out that I had been appointed. I obeyed his orders. Three-hour orientation from preparing board papers to minor administrative techniques. He played the lead role in establishing a proper administration system as well as state-of-the-art television and radio studios within SLPI system.
Uniting the broadcasters for a professional conduct has been the most challenging task for the past 26 years, since its opening. As initiated by the SLPI, Nihalsingha took this lead ten years ago and managed to mobilise all the television channels in this country in producing a commonly accepted code of conduct for the broadcasting sector, though it was never moved forward.
I used to enjoy the interactions between the “Two Sinhas” - as they called themselves – at the SLCJ Board meetings. Those were Nihalsingha and Sunday Times editor Sinha Ratnatunga. Nihal always called Mr. Ratnatunga as “The Sinha.”
In fact, Nihalsingha was “The Sinha” in cinema and many other fields as well.
But working with Nihalsingha was always a challenge as he was a tough perfectionist. He would never raise his voice, but use the most powerful words in very low tone into your ear. Nevertheless, that was what made us what we are today.
When I informed him about my desire to pursue a doctoral study, again I got an invitation to come home and it was a half-a-day briefing on how to proceed on the challenging path. He gave me five books along with his own PhD thesis with strict advice to return them. Always these consultations end with a lavish dinner at his home. Sometimes we are forced to watch a latest movie in his massive home theatre system.
Except for Mrs Kalyani Nihalsingha and their son Matheesha, the next saddest person on his demise is his closest friend Prof Ben Selladurai, a world renowned neurosurgeon living in Malaysia. Those were the closest buddies including Dr. Ravindra Randeniya. When these three get together, that is the pinnacle of fun with lots of hidden stories. Though junior in age and experience, I am also dragged into these conversations – but I cannot cross the lines as they do since I have great respect for these three icons.
Though he enjoyed the successes of all his engagements for the betterment of many initiatives, one main thing he always regretted was the efforts to digitalize the broadcasting sector. His recommendations were never respected and implemented – and then ended up in a mess due to the short-sighted vision of the then regime.
However, we lost Dr Nihalsingha at a time we needed him most. We are in a period of transition – especially as far as the media is concerned and we were expecting his leadership and mentorship in many such efforts. The damage through his demise is irreparable.