Shesha Palihakkara had been
famous for almost five decades ever since he acted in the Sinhala film 'Mathalan' which
was a box office success then. 'Mathalan' left an indelible impression in the minds of Sri
Lankan film goers. People still talk about 'Mathalan' and its songs that remain popular
Shesha played the dual role of a despotic king and his son. He played the role of a
powerful king in 'Mathalan'. The king was a sadist who was hell-bent on taking revenge
from his wife after she gave birth to a son. He also played the opposite role by acting as
the son of the king. Shesha is a versatile person having being an actor, a reputed film
director and producer. 'Ranmuthuduwa', 'Getawarayo' and 'Saarawita' are some of the award
winning popular Sinhala films that he was associated with. Shesha hails from Ruppagoda, a
village in Kadawatte in Gampaha district and is a product of both St. Benedict's College,
Kotahena and at St. Joseph's, College Colombo.
Although he was 14, he never had
the slightest idea of learning dancing or getting involved with the film industry until he
saw Chitrasena dance in the Vidrura ballet. His dance captivated the young lad. He was
determined to meet Chitrasena and learn dancing from him.
By this time he was studying for his Senior School Certificate (S.S.C.), but found he was
not interested in studies any more. But one thing that he was keen was to learn dancing at
Finally he left for Shanthi Nikethan to learn dancing. Shanthi Nikethan was 95 miles away
Having studied at Shanthi Nikethan for almost two and a half years he decided to enrol
himself at the Institute of Kalashethra in South India to major in dancing.
He covered the major portion of the syllabus at Shanthi Nikethan including painting,
sculpture and dancing as his forte was dancing.
He was admitted to the Kalashethra in Adyar. It was about nine miles from Madras in South
He joined the Kalashesthra and worked hard under two renowned traditional teachers of
dancing for about a year.
Shesha wound up studies and came to Sri Lanka in 1948 to take part in the Pageant of Sri
Lanka. It was a cultural event depicting historical events of Sri Lanka. The event was
organized by a committee of artistes including P. Saravanamuthu during the first
Independence Day celebrations. There were spectacular Kandyan and low country dances.
Chitrasena too organized a ballet in which he played the role of Ravana. Rama was played
by Premakumar and Seetha was played by Iranagani Meedeniya. Shesha had played the role of
Lakshmana in that play.
Shesha set up a school for dancing at Borella. Dr. P.R. Anthonis, and K.D.A. Perera who
was the principal at the Aesthetic institution had helped him.
After directing dancing in two Sinhala films, viz 'Ahankara Isthri' and 'Puduma Leli'
Shesha was asked by the director Nagarajah to act in a Sinhala film called 'Matalan' that
was about to be produced. After an audition Shesha was selected to play the main role in
'Matalan' and the entire troupe left for Madras in 1953. It had taken almost a year to
produce 'Mathalan' in India and except for a few outdoor scenes the rest was filmed inside
film studios. Shesha, however, being a stage artiste was not so keen remain an
Shesha never expected the film to be a success. He had to decide whether to pursue a
career in acting or remain a theatre artiste in 1954. Meanwhile Lester James Peries was
starting the film 'Rekhawa' and Shesha played the role of an astrologer and a man on
He said he enjoyed the film because everything was fresh and most actors were not
professionals except for a few. In fact, he had introduced Ananada Weerakoon to 'Rekhawa'.
Although 'Rekhawa was not a box office success it was accepted by many as a unique
Meanwhile a group of film makers from USA arrived in Sri Lanka in 1954 to make a film,
Bridge on the River Kwai. It was a big production and Shesha was given an assignment in
the make up department.
The filming of 'Bridge on the River Kwai' went on for about five months and when it was
over Shesha had a letter from his friend Ramgopal to join him in a tour to South America.
He then took a ship to London and joined his friend Ramgopal in London in 1956. After
being with him for over ten months Shesha joined the Asian Music Society, founded by the
world's renowned violinist Yehudi Mehudin and visited most of the universities in Europe.
Shesha returned home in 1959 stricken with asthma.
The doyen of Sri Lankan
Cinema, and internationally recognized as one of the worlds great film directors.
His film classics include Gamperaliya (The
Changing Village / 1963), which won the Grand Prix (Golden Peacock) at the 3rd
International Film Festival of India 1965, Nidhanaya
(The Treasure / 1970), Kaliyugaya (The Age of
Kali / 1983) and Yuganthaya (The End of an Era
/ 1985). He is a member of the Legion of Honour (Republic of France) and received the
Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Film Festival of India in January 2000.
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