Iranganie Serasinghe needs no introduction to many Sri Lankans. For decades she has graced stage, cinema and televisions with characters indelibly etched in memory. I grew up with Iranganie playing Sudu Hamine in Yashorawaya as staple viewing, as much as her role in Doo Daruwo which over 5 years was an epic narrative played out on our televisions every week.

Iraganie is part of the old guard of actors, trained in English method acting, starting out in theatre and then branching out to cinema and television. Her entry into cinema was with Rekava, the first Sinhalese film which was fully shot in Ceylon, the first in the country to be shot outdoors and to date, the only Sri-Lankan film to be nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Film-making was fundamentally different over 50 years ago, and Iranganie begins our conversation by recalling what it was like to be part of Rekava directed by the famed Lester James Peiris. We talk about her travails of working in Sinhala cinema and speaking Sinhala, given that it was a very distant second language for her. She spoke of how her rural upbringing helped her to learn the expressions and their delivery, and also flags the Sinhala Only policy as one that divided our people, “a tragedy of Sri Lanka”.

Iranganie speaks of her childhood, her university years, the relationship she had with her father and her background in theatre. There is a wonderful moment in the conversation when she is surprised, after a brief pause, when I note that she is the last surviving actor of the first production at the Lionel Wendt in 1953, Maxim Gorky’s ‘The Lower Depths‘ produced by E. F. C. Ludowyk. In her inimitable style, she laments that at one stage, theatre was so bad in Sri Lanka that she stopped going for it, and that now, even though she loves theatre, her inability to drive around in the evenings makes it difficult for her to see productions.

We talk at length about Iranganie’s commitment to the preservation of the environment. She is a founding member of Ruk Rakaganno and there is another wonderful moment when she, with just a half sentence and glance, speaks volumes about the collapse of the rule of law in relation to the manner in which the environment is being placed at risk and degraded.

Finally we talk about Iranganie’s sources of inspiration, for her work in cinema in particular. She speaks of Flora Robson and her meeting with Sybil Thorndike.

But the real bombshell in the interview Iranganie saves for last, when she speaks of the incredible devastation of the environment in Hambantota (the electoral district of Mahinda Rajapaksa), where over 6,000 acres of forest land are earmarked to be cleared. It is a powerful lamentation and brings to a poignant end a conversation with someone who is a living treasure, a Sri Lankan of a mould we sadly do not find anymore. Iranganie truly is sui generis.

  • Panabokke

    Dear Madam

    Please take this message to the environmentalists and environmental scientists:

    Sri Lankan fishermen hard hit by peace, 2 September 2010:
    ” Fishermen in the Sri Lankan port of Trincomalee hoped the end of the island’s civil war would bring prosperity, but dynamite and corruption now threaten their livelihoods. … big operators bribe authorities and use dynamite to kill large numbers of fish, also damaging coral reefs.”

    A Marred Victory and a Defeat Pregnant with Foreboding, 10 June 2009:
    ‘‘Sinhalese fishermen have been brought under naval protection to fish in the sea off Mannar Island without any restriction. … The trawlers with Sinhalese fishermen use large Japanese nets of a kind now banned internationally, which drag the seabed, pulling out coral, the nets of local fishermen and damaging the breeding ground, eggs, weeds and fish fodder.”

    3. How many thousands of acres of forests(dryzone -difficult to grow) were cleared to form the ”Menik Farms”?

    4. How many thousands of trees were cut down by the army of occupation in the last 40 yrs in the Northeast?

    5. Arms are not the only form of destroying a people and the environment: there are plenty of scientists in the South who know the science of ”alien species” – one big threat to the planet around the world is ”alien species”.
    Orphaned elephants to be sent to Mullaiththeevu, 10 January 2011
    Pigs of HSZ harm crops, youth electrocuted in Jaffna, 30 December 2010

  • Panabokke

    Peace Education, Environmental Education and Citizenship Education are inseparable from each other – they have a large common ground.

    Please bring our educators of all sectors and institutions like International Centre for Ethnic Studies, National Institute of Education, professional Associations together – we cannot violate the rights of the future generations to have a healthy environment:
    ”during Sri Lanka’s civil strife, 5 million trees have been cut down for military purposes.”

  • Panabokke

    Dear Madam
    Why education matters for global security, Irina Bokova(Director General, UNESCO), 1 March 2011:
    ‘’ Education must rise on the agenda of peace building. We know the wrong type of education can fuel conflict. The use of education systems to foster hatred has contributed to the underlying causes of conflicts, from Rwanda to Sri Lanka, but also in Guatemala and Sudan.’’
    Why Sirimavo refused to visit Jaffna after 1964 cyclone
    By Neville Jayaweera, 18 January 2009:
    ”…. Building a consciousness of nationhood is not a responsibility that can be left to politicians and constitutional lawyers. A deseeya chintanaya cannot be legislated, nor can it be secured through structural changes. Unlike a jathika cintanaya, whether Sinhala or Dhamila, which have roots reaching back over two thousand years, the seeds of a deseeya cintanaya have yet to be planted.
    It is pre-eminently an educational task, to be initiated at the level of our schools.
    Address by Christine Robichon, Ambassador of France, at the Peradeniya University Research Sessions (PURSE) – 2010, 16th December 2010 :
    After almost 30 years of conflict, it also has to rebuild a Nation, a Sri Lankan Nation united in its diversity, where communities and individuals feel at ease. For this, there is not much foreign friends can do. This is the responsibility of Sri Lankan people, their political leadership, in the government and in the opposition, and also their civil society, and this is where academics and researchers have an important role to play, particularly those who are working in the fields of history, law, economy, sociology and political sciences.

  • Asoka Undugodage

    I hope that she will be heard loud and clear.

    The pause, the hesitancy, just before she came out with that important piece of information about the threat to the Hambantota forests is, indeed, telling.

  • luxmy

    Thank you – I was unable to put it in words.

  • Dilkusha

    Thanks much for this interview and for giving the interviewee space to think and talk! Watching this many thousands of miles away from Sri Lanka, made me feel nostalgic and misty eyed for the days gone by. Iranganie Serasingha was and is such a household name in SL!

  • rita

    Thank you, you’ve spoken for many.

  • sr

    ”The pause, the hesitancy, ….. that important piece of information about the threat to the Hambantota forests ….. ”

    All sorts of environmental scientists, pl do something.

  • CheeLanka

    I beg to differ. A film actress, an accomplished one as Serasinghe, will no doubt have legions of fans and admirers singing her praise. Her acting credentials are impeccable. But her environmental ones are not so. At the risk of being discordant, I have to raise this. I do so as a progressive woman who shares her concerns, but one who is not at all impressed by her inconsistency and selective memories.

    If Serasinghe is so concerned about what is going on in the name of rapid economic development, where has she been all this time? Just to cite a couple of notable examples from among many:

    Did she speak out when a road was blatantly built through the Wilpattu National Park, arguably much more important than some little patch of forest in Hambantota?

    Was she part of the protest against the original location of Hambantota Airport, which was too close to the Bundala National Park (which was later changed to Mattala after local farmers protested)?

    Did we at all hear Serasinghe the environmentalist speak in support of fishermen of Negombo when their lagoon was threatened by sea plane landing plans?

    Under an earlier regime (lest we be misunderstood as picking current examples), where was she when multinationals connived with myopic local officials to exploit the phosphate deposit of Eppawala in Anuradhapura district? Men of courage like D L O Mendis and Nihal Fernando took enormous risks in challenging that act.

    Why did someone like Serasinghe, who has all the access to the media and can still command a mass audience, wait until this interview (broadcast on an English language channel, without a mass outreach) to come up with this latest pet concern?

    All I can say to her and the other do-gooding society ladies who dabble in environment in their part time is: Too little, too late.

    We’ve all heard this line, so apt for our Lanka: “All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men to do nothing.” Of course, that includes good women like Serasinghe. She chose to remain quiet while Lanka was being pillaged, raped and sold.

    Serasinghe, please don’t insult the work of genuine activists and intellectuals who have risked life and limb to fight for what they believed was right. We will suspend our disbelief for your good acting, but not for your selective social commentary.

  • R. Pieris

    Well done for speaking out on the matter of Hambantota at least you did speak up………It is unfortunate that people like CheeLanka choose to question in what appears to be a misdirected way on a person right to speak. It is entirely up to her what issues she wishes to take up. It is a question if CheeLanka questions the actually rapists of the environment (Politicians) with equal vigor. At least have the fortitude to not hide behind a pseudonym if you choose to criticize!! We can also judge for ourselves then if you are such an activist yourself. For and on behalf of the behind the scenes (not all can raise their voice in a public way) environmentalists activists we are well aware of the many issues you have taken up on behalf of the local fauna and flora. We may not always agree with you, but at least the causes are worthwhile.

    Is it necessary to speak up on each and every issue particularly if one is unaware of the actual facts?! It is unbecoming to say one contributed towards litigation, or that one provided information in defense of some of the pressing environmental disasters taking place in the name of development. The environmentalists need to lobby together, put all their energy together, become united to save the country from haphazard development. There are so many areas not Protected under the FFPO that can be developed first in a sustainable way. Leave the PA’s alone for the wild creatures!! It is a sad indictment on us as a Nation to think we needed a war to protect our Fauna and Flora from rampant rape and pillage.

    I expect this may hurt but lets be charitable for anything at all done in the name of our rapidly deteriorating environment……

  • jansee

    thanks Sanjana for illuminating such an icon.

  • Panabokke


    SL fisheries department has banned catching conch shells in Jaffna since last December, considering the already endangered situation for the species.

    But the Sinhala fishermen who come from the south in the guise of catching sea cucumbers, eye on the conches.

    Very soon the historical Jaffna Chank will be an endangered species, the local fishermen said.