It was to the , the celebrated film-director, television producer, accomplished cameraman, efficacious public administrator and the mentor to many, Dr. D.B. Nihalsingha, who went on his final journey on last Thursday, April 21, gave his final candid newspaper interview. When we sat before him at his residence, which was always welcoming, just two days before the demise of this visionary, enthralled by his witty repartee and captivated by his wisdom we had no presentiments that soon he would make us all poor with his exit. As a tribute to this path finder, who had left a footprint like none for many to follow, we carry excerpts of his last interview with the Daily Mirror.
Randima Attygalle posing a question to Dr. D. B. Nihalsinghe during his final interview with Daily Mirror
s I write my eulogy for a visionary whom I hold in my highest esteem, the latest addition to my most treasured journalistic mementos sits by me on my desk. Authored by one of the finest journalists the country has ever produced- D.B. Dhanapala, his much sought after work ‘Among those present’- a collection of pen portrayals of eminent public Lankan personalities, is a must in every scribe’s collection. “What shall I endorse in it? Let’s say from an insignificant son of a significant father”, chuckled the son of the revered journalist, Dr. D.B. Nihalsingha as he gifted me this work which best holds testimony to what his legendary father’s pen was capable of. When I posed my question – ‘how important do you think it is for the journalists of today to revisit the golden era of journalism your legendary father championed?’ his immediate response was pulling one of the last remaining editions of this treasured compilation which he republished a few years ago out of the nearby bookcase and autographing it for me.
"Humility was the hallmark of this gentle giant despite being a trendsetter. He often considered it a ‘merciful act’ to spare him from recollecting his long list of accolades! "
It was a gift never to be forgotten, gifted just two days before his ‘reel of a life’ came to an end.
Many years ago as a young journalist, I had the privilege of interviewing this trailblazer. The ground work I did on him before the interview astounded me, realizing the watershed that he was in many aspects. I cannot recall my first question for him but I remember very vividly his response to it- “It is heartening to know that still there are young journalists who would do their homework.” It was the beginning of an inspiring acquaintance. Since then I have sought his wise counsel on many occasions in many journalistic contexts. He was never hesitant to offer his ‘fine comments’ to enrich an article. Young at heart, he took delight in the accomplishments of the young talent in every discipline.
Humility was the hallmark of this gentle giant despite being a trendsetter. He often considered it a ‘merciful act’ to spare him from recollecting his long list of accolades! He was of a stock whom seldom breathes today. A charismatic man whose integrity was never in doubt, Dr. Nihalsingha minced no words about injustice, ailing cinema and television industries and corrupted administration. He was a man who called a spade a spade, reminding me of the Great Bard’s famous words in Julius Caesar:
“His life was gentle; and the elements so mixed in him,
That nature might stand up and say to the world
This was a man….”
Following are the excerpts of his last newspaper interview:
"Good governance in my experience is getting the objectives right and garnering positive results. Here I’m talking of ethical objectives of administration and not objectives owned by
Q You have been a watershed and a pathfinder in so many spheres-both here and abroad. Your association with cinema is nearly half a century and with the television nearly 40 years. Today when you look back, what do you feel?
My greatest satisfaction is derived from the launching of new talent, setting the path for others to tread. It certainly was not easy being a path finder, clearing the shrubs! Yet the results of this effort in every respect- are it in technology, launching faces, creating opportunity for talent, gives me intense satisfaction today. I am humbled, seeing the pupils of my pupils excelling today!
At the same time, it is a mix bag of feelings I must say. As much as I derive satisfaction in creating opportunities, I have the greatest disappointment in the two media I contributed my labor of love to. Both cinema and television are in an abysmal pit today.
Q As the founder CEO of the National Film Corporation (NFC), you turned the tables increasing the screening time for domestic cinema from mere 20% to 58% and introducing the 100% loan system which produced so many landmarks. The film audience which was accelerated to 74 million by 1979 from 32 million a year in 1971during your tenure, is less than five million today. Is there any hope of salvaging the industry from this ruin?
In simple terms, ‘all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again’. This explains it all. The devastation is an amalgamation of two forces contributing to it. People in the industry and politicians together expedite the ruin. The pundits who succeeded me in the NFC in 1979 brought down the industry with an audience of 74 million to 32 million within just seven years. Today we have 150 cinemas and a handful of distributors when at one time we had about 70-80 distributors per circuit! I am told that like Nero fiddled when Rome burned, the present day pundits are fiddling with the fantasy of ‘fixing’ this situation, attempting to replicate the Indian distribution system. Can they be more idiocentric than this?
The beginning of this colossal devastation of the film industry goes back to 1978 and the convenient and ridiculous apology to this devastation was couched by the so called watchdogs of the industry- that it was the advent of the television! Any rational minded person will question how the ITN which was broadcasting within a radius of 150 km only in Colombo at that time could contribute to a national wide decline of the film industry! The pundits just sailed on without looking at the importation of Tamil films and it came to a point when they ran out of Tamil films. There was zero film-attendance in the North and East. So I will repeat that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again!
Q Have you ever been approached lately for your consultancy in this regard?
Mercifully no! The previous regime however, approached me on the digitalization of film and television to which I contributed together with my other colleagues and we proposed our specifications. The launching of the digitalization policy was marked by a big tamasha where all had a good time dining and wining, but to date we have no such policy in place. This is the type of hypocrisy we have to put up with. How can we afford to have a national film policy of celluloid when it is no longer a medium of the world? Today 80% of the global cinema is digitalized. With no inkling of the future of the industry, the so called guardians of the industry are making delightful speeches resulting in nothing.
Q You wore many hats as a public administrator- as the founder CEO and the GM of the NFC, youngest to hold the post of Director of the then Ceylon Government Film Unit and also steering the photographic arm of the National Identity Card Project introducing the 35mm still film to the country. How crucial do you think was the then political leadership sans political interference to achieve what you did in national interest from which the present public administration could take a cue?
I was fortunate to have the premier as my minister as well because Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike took over the NFC. She and I agreed on a course of action encompassing the four cornerstones of the industry- import, export, production and distribution. She had confidence in me that I would act in the best interest of the industry. She never interfered because she knew I was producing results without merely exploiting the opportunity as it often happens today. She had the wisdom to see those fruits of labor as a feather in her cap. Despite heavy criticism leveled at me in Parliament that I was a UNP’er and was sabotaging the situation, Mrs. Bandaranaike stood firm and said to the effect, ‘I am not a mind reader to determine whether Nihalsinghe is a SLFP’er or a UNP’er. But I can say that he is implementing a policy of this government in an exceptional way and until he keeps on doing that, no one can interfere in what he is doing.’ As proof of the pudding was in the eating all the criticism fell by the wayside.
Q As a successful public administrator and a scholar of Public Enterprise what do you think are the fundamentals to which the present public administration of this country is painfully blind to?
It is all about managing people and selecting the correct people for the correct job and telling them what the objectives are. These objectives should be national objectives and not individual political objectives. If you get the objectives of administration correct, you don’t need backseat driving like what happens today. The top public administrators like the perks of high office but they don’t want anything of the labour which goes into it. I have discussed this issue in the backdrop of the film industry in my publication ‘Public Enterprise in Film Development-Success and Failure
in Sri Lanka’.
Pix by Pradeep Dilrukshana
Q Today we see the local television industry which you helped set in motion through Tele-Cine Ltd, South Asia’s pioneering professional colour television production company, contradicting its objectives which you may have envisaged. What are your comments?
The original intention of television when it was launched was to be a catalyst for education. Then as it went along, it started drifting from its primary purpose and with the entry of private TV stations, the industry eventually be came invaded by businessmen. The most tragic part is that the government too is contributing to this appalling situation through the ITN and Rupavahini. They too are going with the Bandwagon, inundated with ‘mega series’ with absolutely no shame. In tune with the famous adage that ‘every country gets the government it deserves’, we too have got the cinema and the TV we deserve. Today the television industry of this country is gang raping the audience!
" How can we afford to have a national film policy of celluloid when it is no longer a medium of the world? Today 80% of the global cinema is digitalized. With no inkling of the future of the industry, the so called guardians of the industry are making delightful speeches resulting in nothing"
Q As a son of the legendary D.B. Dhanapala, one of the most illustrious journalists the country could claim, how important do you think it is to revisit the golden era of journalism which your eminent late father and his contemporaries laboured to champion?
My father worked in an atmosphere where discipline reigned which enabled him to do what he did. Of course he had political interferences in a big way but he could ward them off. Today there is none of his calibre to challenge anybody and the existing political fabric too does not permit such bold figures. Such boldness in contemporary times would have ended up in a white van or having lost the job!
My father’s employers allowed him to do what he thought was right because he was producing results. They saw in my father, his amazing aptitude for producing readers and it was encouraged. He not only launched publications but also launched some extremely qualitative people who could contribute to the pool of journalistic talent.
Q Today ‘good governance’ has become a cliché. In your view, what is good governance?
Good governance in my experience is getting the objectives right and garnering positive results. Here I’m talking of ethical objectives of administration and not objectives owned by political bosses. I was responsible for good governance of what I was put in charge of. Not only was I responsible, but I also garnered results.
Q Finally what are you engaged in these days?
(Smiling) I have one obsession these days. That is my grandchildren. They are in Australia and my wife and I often visit them and return leaving our hearts behind. In January my granddaughter called me and lamented ‘seeya, I won’t have grandparents coming for my school grandparents’ day’, which broke my heart. So we packed our bags and flew and had the most glorious time. Grandchildren will grow up and there will come a day when they won’t run to us but I have to get to that bridge and see how to cross it and till then I will enjoy them to my heart’s content!