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Reel life action man Robin’s exciting journey from gymnastics to silver screen

By Cassandra Van Heer

robin-fernando-sharing-his-memories-with-quadrangleHaving entered the Sri Lankan cinema over five decades ago and revolutionising the action film industry, Robin Fernando, 78, needs no introduction. His personality and charm linger on as we enter his house and are immediately made to feel at home.

Hailing from Kotahena, Robin was the only one from the six siblings to attend St Benedict’s College. He joined the college in 1942, from the “Baby Standard” which existed at the time. Joining at a time when World War II was at its peak, he still vividly remembers hiding when the air raid sirens were sounded. The college, however, continued business as usual and didn’t have to shut down.

Promoted to the regular school, Robin began his journey into gymnastics, and then later, the film industry. He tells us how Rev. Fr Martin who possessed a 15mm camera would screen films for the young Benedictines for 10 cents a film. The “theatre” was the building which now serves as the Brothers’ quarters. Starring in many of these films as the action hero was Robin’s idol, Burt Lancaster, a famous American actor and champion gymnast, who would perform outstanding feat of gymnastics, enthralling the 13-year-old Robin.

St Benedicts was the only school at the time to have gymnastics, with then master-in-charge George Atkinson spearheading its introduction to college. “He was also a great disciplinarian. He would roam the halls to make sure the boys were not being tardy, particularly after the sounding of the first bell,” Robin said.

So passionate was Robin about gymnastics, that when school concluded at 3.30pm for the day, in 15 minutes he would be in the gymnasium hard at work. At the time, St Benedict’s had no competition, but he trained hard for the fun and enjoyment it brought. Initially, they would perform at school functions.

A close associate of Robin since 1973 was Victor Fernando, and the duo worked together in the God King film which was shot on locations in Anuradhapura, following  up with Suraduthayo. Robin’s famous event at school was jumping through five flaming fire hoops, much to the entertainment of his fellow Benedictines and the adults. Once the nature of gymnastics caught on, he could be seen performing at state functions such as the Independence Day celebrations.

“Cutting” school and heading to the gymnasium was a common occurrence

A close associate of Robin since 1973 was Victor Fernando, and the duo worked together in the God King film which was shot on locations in Anuradhapura, following  up with Suraduthayo. Robin’s famous event at school was jumping through five flaming fire hoops, much to the entertainment of his fellow Benedictines and the adults. Once the nature of gymnastics caught on, he could be seen performing at state functions such as the Independence Day celebrations.

Robin said: “While other schools performed drill displays and exercises, we were performing somersaults and fire diving!”

Given this, it is very likely Robin and his fellow gymnasts were the star attractions at these events.

robin-fernando-in-sura-dhuthayo-movieDuring his time in school, he took part in many extracurricular activities apart from gymnastics. He was a corporal in the Senior Cadet Corps and was heavily involved with boxing as well. He became a cadet under Colonel D. V. Chapman, who also was the college English teacher and a great disciplinarian. Robin’s favorite memory is training in Diyatalawa and shooting live bullets. A good marksman, Robin also fired a 9-inch gun at Mutwal – three people were needed to carry a single shell for the gun. Robin spoke of how gymnastics played a large part in his entry into the world of film, It was through his gymnastics performances in the late 1950s that he met Fr Ernest Poruthota, who noticed his talent and realised how young Robin could branch out. Fr Poruthota asked Robin if he would be interested in acting in a film. Robin readily agreed. Robin was put in touch with his science teacher Hector Perera, and his son, who was a good cameraman. They made a small film titled Hingana Kolla in which he performed a fight sequence. This was his stepping stone into the film industry as an “Action Man”, thus setting himself up to emulate his hero, Burt Lancaster. Although he performed this sequence while still in school, Robin never seriously considered the idea that he would have a rewarding career in acting. To him everything that followed in the late ‘60s was a complete surprise.

Robin is quick to make note of all the teachers who made his time at St Benedict’s College an enjoyable experience: Mr. Bede Puvimanasinghe and Col. D.V. Chapman who pushed him in his cadetting and Mr George Atkinson, without whom Robin would have never been introduced to the world of gymnastics and generations of Sri Lankans would have missed out on the greatest five decades of action films as a result.

“Cutting” school and heading to the gymnasium was a common occurrence, and Robin would write letters of excuse and sign as his father, whilst subjecting his relatives to many false ailments. At one point, we are told, he was pulled up following his grandmother’s third death, while the lady was indeed alive and quite well. Despite this, the school backed Robin to excel and be the best possible version of himself. Life in general during the ‘40s to ‘50s are a blur, so focused was he at excelling in gymnastics and travelling for training with his fellow cadets.

1He left school in 1957 in a blaze of glory – he had achieved college and national honours  and more impressively, was the first Benedictine to have the honour of performing gymnastics to the audience of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. Fr Poruthota gave Robin a letter to help him in his job hunt, and he joined Mackwoods in 1960 where he remained for 10 years working in the accounting section of the Tea Department.

Even at work, St Benedict’s continued to play a central role in his gymnastics training – he would be seen practising and polishing his skills at the gymnasium. His master-in-charge, George Atkinson, remained at college throughout, training generations of young Benedictines up until the mid ‘70s.

robin-fernando-while-shooting-a-movieRobin’s break through acting role arrived in the ‘60s, through Ariyaratne Kahawita who resided in Kotahena as well. A film editor for the ‘Kala Magazine’ and working at Cinemas Ltd, Ariyaratne had seen Robin’s gymnastic performances as well as his fighting sequence in Hingana Kolla. A few weeks later Robin began acting in 1962 for his first official film Chandiya, directed by Titus Thotawatta. Playing the role of the film’s namesake, Robin performed an outstanding fight sequence opposite Gamini Fonseka. Up to this date, Robin considers the versatile Titus Thotawatta as the best director he had worked with  – not only was Titus able to direct, but he also was knowledgeable in dancing, action, script writing, editing and was a talented and multi-faceted individual.

Robin looked forward to preparing for his role in Chandiya. His keen interest in learning self-defence courses such as judo, karate, boxing, fencing and horse riding, took him to the American Embassy Library, of which he was a member. There, he would read up and study about all these techniques, and as there were no special training centres for this subject area, he depended solely on his personal interest and enthusiasm as he devoured all sources of knowledge available to him. Even years later, when he was well established in his film career, Robin continued his education by travelling the world and learning all that he could about the craft to which he had dedicated his life.

robin-fernando-performing-his-first-stunt-as-a-schoolboy-back-in-1950-at-st-benedicts-collegeChandiya, released in 1964, was well received by the public and a box office hit; it changed the face of fighting sequences in  movies that would later follow in its wake. The aftermath of the film’s release saw Robin receive around eight acting roles, all as an action man – in most of the sequences he had to direct himself. However, Robin was still in the employ of Mackwoods, which, at the time, was run by the British. Although they were understanding and lenient towards his acting schedules and the fatigue that prevailed during work hours, Robin made the decision in 1970 to resign and pursue a serious career in the Sri Lankan Film Industry.

During his career, Robin has worked with other industry stars such as Gamini Fonseka, Senadheera Rupasinghe, Vijaya Kumaratunga, Rukmani Devi and several others. Although 80 per cent of his roles were primarily stunts and heavy fight heavy sequences, he gradually climbed the ranks and played the lead roles in films such as Davena Pipasaya and Pinibindu. Hard-pressed to pick a single film as his favorite, Robin lists out Hadawath Neththo, Ranmenika (opposite Malini Fonseka), Hara Lakshaya and Siripala Saha Ranmenika (both of which were based on true stories).

Robin tells us a little known fact – the three characters in Sura Dhuthayo were based so as to represent problems within the society; namely, drugs, smuggling of arms and counterfeiting.

robin-fernando-with-few-of-his-colleagues-from-cinema-industryIn addition to acting, Robin has been the Action Director in a majority of films produced during his time in the film industry. Further, he directed and co-produced two action films of his own in the ‘80s: Sura Dhuthayo, starring Rosy Senanayake, and Ninja – Sri Lanka. Robin tells us a little known fact – the three characters in Sura Dhuthayo were based so as to represent problems within the society; namely, drugs, smuggling of arms and counterfeiting. The time spent researching this information demonstrates Robin’s attention to detail and the desire to convey a message which was not based on generic plot lines.

Having completed more than a hundred films on the silver screen to date, Robin also branched into teledramas: He is grateful to Sriyani Amarasena, as well as the co-producers Wimal Alahakoon and Lilani Perera, for affording him the opportunity to take part in a tele-drama which was filmed in London: Ira Bata Taruwa. In 1999, he starred in another tele-drama, which was also filmed in London, produced by the late Mr. Chandrasena, titled Chandramaya. His teledrama résumé also includes Hangimutta and Paradeesaya, amongst several others.

Dedicated to his craft, Robin has had quite a few accidents and hit his head often, by falling off buildings, horses and jumping from bridges to rivers, but is lucky to have not sustained serious injuries throughout his acting career.

Robin formed close bonds with his colleagues, and never found that he had any problems with them. One friendship in particular stands out to Robin, and that is his close friendship with the late Vijaya Kumaranatunga. It began while Robin was still employed at Mackwoods. Vijaya had come to meet Robin following the advice of Shesha Palihakkara in the late ‘60s. Vijaya was being considered for an action heavy film about Puranappu and wished to be trained in crafts such as fighting, fencing and horseback riding.

“He was a fellow Benedictine. And we must always help our brothers in any way we can,” Robin said.

However, a problem presented itself. Vijaya lived in Ja-Ela, while Robin resided in Malabe. Eventually Robin spoke to his wife, and decided that Vijaya should stay at his place and train. Thus began the friendship between them. Soon after, Vijaya (playing the role of a captain) and Robin starred in their first film together, which was Bindunu Hadawath, directed by Luvi Vandastratan.

On the subject of the future of Sri Lankan Film Industry, Robin believes that the demand for films is diminishing. He cites cost as the common denominator; both in terms of production as well as viewing audiences. Firstly, to produce a film in Sri Lanka is comparatively expensive, and most often than not, the film barely recovers that cost in terms of profit. Secondly, there is heavy competition from the likes of Hollywood, Bollywood and even Kollywood. Cinema owners in this situation, preferred to screen a foreign film and earn a profit from that, rather than give out screen time to a locally produced film as they looked at things from a financial perspective.

Elaborating, Robin tells us that the foreign film industry is constantly churning out commercial films and in instances where a good cultural film is made within the country, there is never time to screen it as the screening queue backlog is such. The constant demand for commercial films and the declining appreciation for culture, coupled with the remaining good actors and actresses in the industry gravitating towards the foreign film industries, have led to the current situation where there is little incentive to produce, direct or help the local silver screen industry. “All of this has contributed to the gradual erosion of our film industry to a great degree,” he says.

Speaking candidly about his true passion, gymnastics, Robin finds that its evolution over the years has somewhat waned with regard to the raw thrill of the craft. It has lost much of its authenticity and heart-stopping action: where he would pass though flaming cycle rings back in the day, at present, the same act is performed with hoops large enough for small cars to pass through.

Furthermore, Robin believes that there isn’t a future for stuntmen in the local industry anymore. He echoes the subject of cost once more. With the desire to keep up with the few storylines that sell, there is no incentive for the talents of gymnasts and stuntmen to be honed. But he doesn’t blame anyone for this state of affairs. “The industry is rapidly changing and we must do what we can to survive within it and make the best out of the situation,” he says. Even in the past, we are told, only a small percentage of the film budget was allocated towards fight and stunt sequences. Robin himself was paid Rs. 300 for his first film.

During his five-decade long career, he is proud to say that there has not been a single scandal or gossip  involving him. The reason for this was his work ethic of keeping his work and personal life as separate entities. Joining the industry was his way to showcase his knowledge in a craft which he had nurtured. He loved his trade and focused on doing his best. “It was my job, and doing my job came first. I made that resolution from day one, and stuck to that throughout.” His greatest recognition for his craft is the appreciation and acknowledgement received for his work, as well as the love and support from his fans.

robin-fernando-with-his-wife-violet-fernandoOn the subject of his family, Robin married his true love, Violet, in 1964. Robin says: “I have a wonderful and a loving wife at home, who has been a tower of strength to me right throughout my career and still continues to stand beside me.”

They have two children, Eranthika, his daughter, who is an executive at SriLankan Airlines and son, Channa, general manager of Sovereign Hotel. Through all his roles, his favorite thus far has been that of a grandfather to his two grandsons and two granddaughters. His beloved alma mater, St Benedict’s College, still remains close to his heart. “It was through their training that I achieved all that I have today.” Robin is never to be seen attending college functions without sporting his school blazer emblazoned with the college crest, proudly displaying his love for his school.

Robin has no regrets. He enjoyed all that he did and was first and foremost a dedicated gymnast which was what enabled him to attain a long and fruitful career as an actor and director. More than acting, he is happy to have given back to the society by conveying a message through the medium of art.

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