Tapping talented youngsters with Danga Malla
By Uditha Jayasinghe
DM / 11Nov2005
A teledrama for teenagers is arguably a unique venture for Sri Lanka. Nalaka Swarnathilaka has taken a step into this frontier with his maiden teledrama “Danga Malla” featuring 65 children based on Enid Blyton’s perennial book “Naughtiest Girl in School.”
Translated by Ganga Suduwelikanda, it was not adapted but rather kept in all its originality for the drama. Having first used it in a radio programme when he was working for Lakhanda Radio and then put on the boards as a stage play countrywide, it was a natural transition to a full length teledrama including all three books of Blyton’s, which will be played out in around 25 episodes.
The play, which is still continuing its triumphant run, spawned three awards at the Children’s Drama Festival including that of Best Actress, played by Natasha Perera. She also has the distinction of having played the main role in all three productions in the mediums of radio, stage and TV. The drama is set to hit TV screens along the Swarnavahini Channel from late October onwards.
The production took 35 gruelling days, from early August to September 12 to be precise, at St. Thomas’ Guruthalawa, Bandarawella. A site that was chosen after combing over two dozen schools. “The main theme is woven around the task of any education system and its role in moulding the talents of children to live complete lives. This is applicable to any country,” says Nalaka. The actors literally lived their tale as they camped out at the school during the entire shoot and predictably became great friends.
“It was a very interesting experience. Teenagers are a group that have fallen through the cracks of our entertainment industry. No one does productions exclusively for them,” he said.
“We took kids from 20 schools after an extensive audition, despite the bulk of them being first time actors, training them were not difficult because I chose kids who were all-rounders in their respective schools. Used to doing plenty of extra curricular activities and still capturing top grades. Plus the story is familiar to everyone and something that kids can relate to very easily,” Nalaka explained.
He added that programmes of this nature need to be linked with education and be sensitive to the psychological needs of teenagers. Moreover it can carry a myriad of messages to parents and teachers about the needs of education and the value of understanding the problems of growing up. For children, it’s all about interacting with others, dealing with authority and gearing up to face adulthood.
Surprisingly Nalaka revealed that unlike most people’s expectations, he finds it easy to work with children and maintaining discipline was not a problem. Plus their inexperience was an advantageous tool to sculpt the drama as he wished.
Having already practised the dances and a few key scenes in Colombo for over a month the rest was done speedily. The drama has several songs in both Sinhala and English, resulting in the toughest shooting during a seven hour train journey.
Its uniqueness was further enhanced by the newness of the string-pullers behind the scenes.
Camera Direction was done by Thisula Deepa Thanbawita, Art Director Dinesh Jayashantha, make-up Sameera Kidelpitiya, Music Director Nuwan Vithanage (first venture), Dancing Harshika, Production Manager Pujitha Kanchana and Assistant Directors Asiri Priyani and Ronald Sanjeewa.
Adult actors cast to enhance the youngsters were Kusum Peiris, Sanoja Bibile, Ramani Siriwardene, Malkanthi Jayasinghe, Athula Pathirana and Rebecca Nirmalee. They supplement the action but the limelight is held firmly by the children.
In the middle of editing a new page in his career Nalaka recalled the challenges faced by him, in breaking through the negative mentality surrounding a teledrama that preached a concept alien to the public. “Money was fortunately not a hurdle but convincing people that this drama can be marketed in today’s fiercely competitive scene was a chore,” he admitted ruefully.
Having been an avid dramatist during his days in Kingswood College, Kandy, Nalaka did his A/Ls in Drama and Theatre before joining TNL with the hope of progressing with his passion. But unfortunately he was trapped doing news stories as a journalist and rarely found time to pursue drama. A transition to Lakhanda did not better the situation but did give him the opportunity to get involved in educational programmes, which he tried to extend to his “chosen people.” Three years later at Swarnavahini Nalaka finally found a vent for his ideas with the aid of L.S Chandrasekara, H.D Premaratne and Roshan Seneviratne.
Nalaka has given aesthetic value to an untapped section of children. Hopefully others will follow in his steps to explore its potential in the future instead of letting it lie silent.