During the British rule, Ceylon was also the location of choice for several documentaries. The best known film was ‘The Song of Ceylon’ by Basil Wright which was made for the Empire Marketing Board. Narrated by Ceylonese photographer Lionel Wendt, the film focused on Buddhist rituals and the island’s natural beauty before reporting about native industries and the impact of British technical know-how on these industries. 

Due to the islands tropical beauty, Ceylon was also the location of choice for several Hollywood productions during the 1950s. ‘Outcast of the Islands’ by Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Beachcomber’, ‘The Purple Plain’ by H.E. Bates, and ‘Elephant Walk’ by Robert Standish were popular novels adapted to the big screen and filmed on location in Ceylon. Unfortunately, none of these films enjoyed box office or critical success. All this changed in 1957 when David Lean’s World War II masterpiece ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. To this date, this film adaptation of French author Pierre Boulle’s novel remains the most famous film made in Ceylon. In the early 1980s, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas filmed Blockbuster hit ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ which starred Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw.

Prem Jayanth – The Prince of Posters

Hettiaaratchchige Emanuel Aloysius Rodrigo (1931-1970) who performed under the name Prem Jayanth, was an important Sri Lankan actor and producer who took up designing posters in his later years and made a major impact in that field of the arts. Born in the Grand Pass area of Colombo, he was educated at St. Lucia’s College in Kotahena and at St. Joseph’s College in Colombo. He caught the movie bug as a child when he played a bit part in A. D. J. Mathupala’s short film the Carnival in 1942.

Young Prem Jayanth began his career by landing a small role in B. A. W. Jayamanne’s film UmathuWishwaasaya. His major breakthrough came in 1953 when he starred alongside Florida Jayalath in Sujatha. They appeared together once more in Seda Sulang in 1955 which was a hit and established them as major stars. Prem Jayanth is generally considered to be the first superstar of the Sinhala cinema.

Prem Jayanth started his own film production company in the 1970s and made several well-received Sinhala movies. Having worked on a few films as a set designer and art director, Prem Jayanth became fascinated with design and began to create movie posters. With his own distinctive style, he soon became the most sought-after film publicity artist in the country. By the 1970s most of his time was spent designing posters for Sinhala, Tamil and Hindi language movies. Prem Jayanth’s posters defined a generation of Sri Lankan cinema in the minds of moviegoers and are treasured by collectors today.




By the dawn of the twentieth century, posters were the most important of all visual media. They were easily produced, were immediate in impact, and could be pasted wherever there was a public to view it. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the poster quickly became a critical communication tool in recruiting soldiers and raising funds for the war effort. It is estimated that America alone created more than 2,500 war posters and printed more than 20 million copies from 1917-1918. An outstanding example is James Montgomery Flagg’s famous U.S. Army recruiting poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger directly at the viewer, a patriotic call to arms.

The Bolsheviks in Russia, faced with the challenge of communicating with a mass of illiterate peasants, turned to powerful and heroic imagery that was printed and distributed in poster form. The political potency of the poster graphics became very evident. The war that rode on revolutionary fervor was promoted by poster-based imagery.

The Allies and Axis powers also made widespread use of posters during the Second World War for propaganda and awareness campaigns. Cheap and effective offset printing methods were used to produce millions of posters for a variety of campaigns. Patriotism and jingoism were par for the course. However, along with the printed poster there emerged two powerful means of communication during the Second World War: film based images and radio.

The World War II years were an important period for Ceylon posters. The driving force behind the colony’s propaganda efforts was William Ivor Jennings, the newly appointed Chancellor of the University College of Colombo. Alarmed by the lackadaisical efforts of the Ceylon State Council, Jennings set about preparing government officials for a possible Japanese attack. He realized that, in order to get the nation to support the war, there had to be strong communication between the government and the people. Jennings believed that all avenues of media had to be utilized to forge a common sense of purpose. Under his guidance, the Government Propaganda Office recruited many artists to design posters and soon thousands of posters in English, Sinhala, and Tamil languages were plastered all over the country. Recognized commercial artists like C. K. L. Samarasinha, G. S. Fernando, and Reggie Candappa further enhanced their reputations by designing posters for the war effort.


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In 1898, a 55 foot long documentary titled Early Morning in the Ceylon was released by the Prestwick Company. This is the earliest known film about the island. The first private movie screening was held at Governor Joseph West Ridgeway’s residence in 1901. An Englishman named Warwick Major introduced moving pictures to the public by screening Bioscope films in tents pitched in fields and open areas. India’s Madan Theatre Company built Colombo’s first movie hall in 1903 and achieved commercial success by screening popular Indian films.


Rajakeeya Wickremaya was the first non-documentary short film to be made in Ceylon. Filmed in 1925, the lead role was played by Dr. N. M. Perera, a future minister of finance and one of post-independence Ceylon’s well-known socialist politicians.


In1934, filmmaker Basil Wright produced Song of Ceylon for the Ceylon Tea Marketing Board. It is considered one of the finest achievements of the British documentary movement. In all, more than thirty documentaries were filmed in Ceylon during the first three decades of the twentieth century. All of them focused on the islands natural beauty, wild life or the tea industry.

During the 1920s Hollywood talking pictures were popular with Ceylon audiences. However, by the 1930s, Indian films had surpassed English language films in popularity amongst the masses. In 1947, an Indian moviemaker named S. M. Nayagam produced Kadawunu Poronduwa (A Broken Promise) based on dramatist B. A. W. Jayamanne’s popular play. This is considered the first Sinhala language full length film. Panned by critics for aping the South Indian musical format, Kadawunu Poronduwa nevertheless was popular with audiences. Following its success, Jayamanne produced a string of movies based on his plays, all of which followed the same Indian formula. Though commercially successful, these films did not contribute much in terms of artistic creativity.


However, in 1956, three employees of the Government Film Unit, Lester James Peries, Titus Thotawatte, and Willie Blake, broke away to produce Rekava, a serious drama that was in complete contrast to what was popular at the time. Although Rekava received widespread critical acclaim, it was a box office failure.



In 1963, Lester James Peries directed Gamperaliya, a novel by Sri Lanka’s foremost author Martin Wickramasinghe. Considered the most important movie in the island’s film history, Gamperaliya was a serious drama that achieved both critical and commercial success without having to resort to any of the formulaic elements of song and dance, comic relief or fight scenes. Gamperaliya was awarded the Golden Peacock Award and the Critics Prize at the New Delhi Film Festival and won the Golden Head of Palenque at the Mexico World Review of Film Festival. Gamperaliya gave Ceylonese cinema the gravitas it had previously lacked and proved that artistic cinema was commercially viable.


Due to the islands tropical beauty, Ceylon was also the location of choice for several Hollywood productions during the 1950s. Outcast of the Islands by Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham’s The Beachcomber, The Purple Plain by H.E. Bates, and Elephant Walk by Robert Standish were popular novels adapted to the big screen and filmed on location in Ceylon. Unfortunately, none of these films enjoyed box office or critical success. All this changed in 1957 when David Lean’s World War II masterpiece The Bridge on the River Kwai won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. To this date, this film adaptation of French author Pierre Boulle’s novel remains the most famous film made in Ceylon.

Ceylon Tea Posters

home of good tea

When coffee plantations in Ceylon were devastated by the coffee rust disease during the middle of the 19th century, plantation owners turned to tea as an alternative crop. Loolecondera, the first commercial estate, was planted in 1867 and the first recorded shipment of tea came five years later in 1872.

Tea was sold as a generic commodity until 1887 when a few farsighted individuals began to differentiate their product by marketing it as Ceylon Tea. John Lane Densham of Croydon was one of the first to sell tea in retail packets under his own brand name. Being a great advocate of advertising, Densham believed that unusual tactics were needed to gain an edge over his competitors. In 1887, Densham registered the brand Mazawattee based on the words mazaa, which means pleasure or fun in Hindi, and the Sinhalese watta, a garden. Densham began using posters with an image of an aged, bespectacled grandma with her granddaughter to promote the Mazawattee brand. Before long, the name Mazawattee was everywhere and the painting, known as Old Folks at Home had become synonymous with the brand.

Another who popularized Ceylon Tea was John Hagenbeck, a ship chandler, trader and animal collector from Hamburg. Hagenbeck first arrived in Ceylon in 1886 and established himself as a dealer of wild animals. He later acquired tea and cocoa plantations whose produce was sold in Germany under the Hagenbeck Thee brand.


Since posters were a powerfully effective and economical medium of advertising, by 1890 almost every tea importer in Europe and North America was using eye-catching posters and calendars to promote their brands. Maravilla, Dalu Kola, Ceylindo, Wills, and the ubiquitous Lipton, with its slogan Direct from the Tea Gardens to the Teapot, were some of the well-known brands in Great Britain while Bohringer, Sumangala, Saman, and Chinbara were popular in Europe.

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The latter part of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century brought about giant technological improvements in transportation. Railroads, ocean liners, automobiles, and airplanes became affordable modes of travel. Whereas traveling to the far corners of the earth had previously been the domain of explorers, fortune seekers, and colonial civil servants, the transport revolution enabled ordinary people to travel great distances in comfort and at reasonable cost. This new-found freedom to explore the world sparked a new type of traveler: the tourist. The era of travel for pleasure had dawned. By the 1920s tourism was a fast growing business with luxury cruise liners offering trips to exotic locales in faraway lands.


Throughout its history, Ceylon had always attracted foreign visitors. Due to its reputation as an island of great beauty, as well as being located in one of busiest sea lanes in the world, Ceylon became a popular port of call for every cruise liner that sailed to the Far East and beyond. In an attempt to promote tourism, the Colonial Administration established The Government Tourist Bureau in 1937. The primary objective of the organization was to provide services and facilities to the large number of passengers who sailed in to the port of Colombo aboard cruise liners. With the onset of the Second World War, however, tourist arrivals had reduced to a mere trickle and the Tourist Bureau ceased operations in 1940.

The advent of widespread intercontinental air travel after the war ushered in a new era in travel. Ceylon, which gained independence in 1948, reestablished the Tourist Bureau with the objective of promoting the country overseas and developing it as a popular travel destination. Together with the newly formed national carrier Ceylon Airways, the Tourist Bureau promoted Ceylon in countries where the Government had opened diplomatic missions. As the tourist industry grew, the responsibilities of the Government Tourist Bureau greatly increased and in 1966 it became the Ceylon Tourist Board.


The Government Tourist Bureau produced a variety of promotional materials including posters that highlighted the islands attractions. Following what seems to have been a popular custom; posters were selected through a series of poster competitions. Two artists, C. K. L. Samarasinha and G. S. Fernando, competed in many such poster competitions and their winning designs are some of the best known Ceylon travel posters from the postwar era.


With the advancements made in color photography and offset printing, hand-painted lithographic artworks had given way to photographic posters by the 1960s. Interestingly, one can observe the change in poster design and technology by comparing Ceylon travel posters of different eras. Government Tourist Bureau posters were hand drawn illustrations while Ceylon Tourist Board posters were all created with photographs. Not surprisingly, Ceylon travel posters from the forties are highly collectible because they are beautiful and nostalgic reminders of a bygone era.



Governments were very quick to use posters as a medium to disseminate information. We have already seen how, during wartime, the protagonists used posters as a propaganda and civil defense tool. Other government campaigns too found posters useful in spreading messages, providing instruction, lifting morale, and giving advice. These posters were usually sited in government buildings within areas that received heavy client traffic but the more propagandistic information was posted in public spaces.

Some of the earliest Ceylon Government posters were those utilized in the Malaria Eradication Campaign. Designed in Great Britain they were used throughout the colonies in affected areas. The use of DDT made a severe dent on malarial transmission in Sri Lanka but what role the posters played in suppressing the disease has not been recorded. Owing to the rural audience for anti-malarial messages and lower levels of literacy, graphics-rich posters were the medium of choice in carrying anti-malaria information. 

Apart from the ubiquitous political propaganda posters that sprang up every time there was an election, various government departments used posters to make the public aware of their services. Poster Competitions were a popular tradition in Ceylon that got local artists involved in designing posters. C.K.L. Samarasinha, Reggie Candappa, G.S. Fernando, and Victor de Mel were some of the artists whose reputations were built by winning these poster competitions. Some of the best known Ceylon posters were the result of such competitions.


History of Movie Theatres in Ceylon

Ceylon’s film industry goes all the way back to 1898 when a 55-foot long documentary titled ‘Early Morning in the Ceylon’ was released by the Prestwick Company. The first private movie screening was held at Governor Joseph West Ridegway’s residence in 1901. It was a short film that documented the British victory in the Boer War, the burial of Queen Victoria and the coronation of Edward VII. There were many other English film screenings which were beloved by British expatriates and the elite Anglicized Ceylonese. Around 1903, an Englishman named Warwick Major introduced moving pictures to the island by screening Bioscope films in a tent pitched at the site where the Regal Theatre stands today. Until the 1950s there were several ‘bioscope men’ who had pushcarts where one could watch movies. The vendor would roll the film with a handle while passing it through a light source and a glass that magnified the image and projected it on to a black box. These were monochrome silent films and the vendor would give a running commentary on the film to the rapt audience. In 1931, The American Consul for Ceylon Stillman Eells wrote in Small Island Markets for American Motion Pictures that were touring electric bioscopes which showed films at various town halls at regular intervals with an average audience of about 400 in each location. During the silent film era, a British photographer named A.W. Andrew established a film company named Warwick Bioscope which imported foreign silent films for commercial exhibition.

Madan Theatre Company, an Indian company owned by Jamshedji Framji Madan, one of the pioneers of Indian Cinema, built the first permanent theater in 1903. A second theatre was opened in 1923 at Braybrooke Place and was named the Public Hall. Later it became known as the Empire Cinema. A man named C. Wagner was one of the first film distributors in Ceylon. At a time when there were no Sinhala films he imported Indian films which became popular amongst the moviegoers. In 1929, Madan Company brought down ‘Melody of Love,’ the first talkie. Due to the growing popularity of films, Madan Company extended its business and built more theatres in addition to distributing films. In 1928, Chittampalam Abraham Gardiner, an entrepreneur broke the monopoly held by Madan Theatres by building new cinemas with modern seating and food and refreshement facilities. In addition to his flagship theatre, the Regal, Gardiner also established Ceylon Studios which produced Sinhala films. Majestic Cinema on Galle Road in Bambalapitiya was yet another theatre established by Madan Theatres that was bought over by Ceylon Theatres who started showing popular American movies from the 1930s.

Among the other well known movie theatres, Liberty Cinema at Turret Road, Colpetty was built by businessman Jabir A.Cader in the 1950s and showed movies by Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures. The Savoy Cinema at Galle Road, Wellawatte was also built in the fifties by a man named C. V. de Silva who started had his career by providing entertainment for overseas troops stationed in Colombo during World War II. In 1956 when the musical ‘Rock Around the Clock’ featuring Bill Haley and the Comets was screened at the Savoy, some young lads watching the evening screening got into a frenzy and started dancing inside the cinema and became so boisterous that the police had to be brought in to quell the situation! The Rio Cinema at Slave Island was built much later, in 1965 by a Tamil businessman Appapillai Navaratnam.

Today there are many multiplex theatres in Colombo but the old cinemas still hold the charm of a bygone era.