Flag bearers of theatre in Sri Lanka
Namel and Malini Weeramuni
Founders of Namel Malini Punchi Theatre

Compiled by Tina Edward Gunawardhana and Rosariya Liyanage

Namel and Malini Weeramuni are names synonymous with drama in Sri Lanka. Having dedicated their lives to nurturing the dramatic arts they finally realised their long held ambition by opening the ‘Namel Malini Punchi Theatre’ in Borella.

Sowing the seeds of drama

The protagonist in the story is Namel whose love for drama began during his school days at Nalanda College, where he stole centre stage taking part in every concert and play the school staged. Namel traces his roots to the southern coastal town of Ahungalle. His father was a cinnamon merchant and his mother a housewife. When he was six years he lost his father to pneumonia. He was soon taken under the wing of his two uncles in Ratmalana and they made sure that he was brought to Colombo and enrolled at Nalanda College. During his time at Nalanda he excelled in his academic work and flourished as a thespian. Additionally his orating skills ensured he lead both the Sinhala and English debating teams and was also elected President of both the English and Sinhala Literary Unions. So clever was he that he received double promotions four years in a row, and was the only direct entrant into University from Nalanda. An unusually versatile athlete, he set a national one mile cycling record in 1956. Enrolling in the cadet programme at Nalanda, Namel learned to work hard and also to be honest and dedicated to what one did, qualities he still counts as strengths.

Standing in the wings

His academic brilliance ensured him a place at the University of Peradeniya where he completed his B.A in Sociology (Hons) in 1961. This was followed by a law degree in 1967. During his time in university Namel also took part in university politics, sports and associations. By his own admission he was president or a secretary in every association and played every possible sport winning university colours in rugger, boxing, athletics, hockey, football and basketball. It was during his university days that Namel first got his major role in Prof. Sarachchandra’s play ‘Rattaran’ quite by accident. He was at an audition where no one was willing to audition and then on the spur of the moment decided to go forward for it. He ended up getting the lead role in that play.

Caught up in drama

After his days at the University of Peradeniya, Namel rose up the ranks and earned a name for himself as an actor, director and playwright of repute. His fame was not only confined to Sri Lanka but spread overseas as well. After his marriage to Malini in 1963 Namel joined the Law College and passed out as a lawyer. He soon found himself employed as one of six Assistant Legal Draftsmen at the Department of the Legal Draftsmen under the Ministry of Justice. An offer of a scholarship to Canada saw Namel leave Sri Lanka. A letter requesting additional leave of three weeks was lost in the post causing Namel to lose his job in Sri Lanka. Having arrived in London at that time he decided to try his luck there. Starting from scratch meant long hours and taking work wherever he could find it. He would shed his suit to serve as a gas station attendant or an assistant in a supermarket. To work again as an advocate would be a long, slow haul. It began with an apprenticeship but after years of sometimes working 16 hours a day, he was finally a senior partner in his own outfit. Founded in 1982, Namel de Silva & Co had three offices and 41 people on its staff by the time he retired in 2002.

Taking centre stage

Namel has acted and produced a number of plays since the 60s. Even during his time in London he staged several plays. He is also best known for playing the lead role of a diplomat in Ratagiya Aththo, a hit TV series which portrayed the life of Sri Lankan expatriates in London. He also staged ‘Muhudu Yanno’ (a translation of John Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’) and ‘Golu Birinda’ (an adaptation of Anatole France’s ‘The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife’). Acting and directing simultaneously allowed him to fulfil his vision for the play. While an actor could bring an interesting interpretation to the table, Namel’s focus as a director was always on communicating that one big idea. Acting in his own work offered him a kind of creative control that he sought. His best production was ‘Nattukkari’, first staged in 1970, and it received wide critical acclaim. He is also credited with translating Professor Sarachchandra’s Sinhabahu into English, which won him the Presidential Award in 2002. He found film as another medium to share his love of the performing arts. His maiden effort was Vasantha Obeyasekera’s ‘Wesgaththo’ (Disguised) in 1969, which proved popular enough to run for 5 – 6 months. The circle of performers who featured in these productions was small and Namel was able to claim many of the finest actors of his generation as close acquaintances. While in rehearsals in the company of his fellow actors the idea of having a theatre of their own came into being. This idea was finally realised in 2003 when the ‘Namel Malini Punchi Theatre’ was built. Outside of the theatre, he was a regular contributor to various local papers and has published around eight books of poetry, prose and translations of plays and contributed to many others.

The encore

While Namel was the leading actor, it was his wife Malini who played the supporting role especially in terms of making the Namel Malini Punchi Theatre a reality. While she has acted alongside him, she has also been the backbone in his project. They started collecting funds for this project in London and while Namel was working in a petrol station during the Christmas season he received £63 as his share of tips. When he gave the money to Malini she promptly put it in a biscuit tin and said ‘this is for your little theatre’. Upon their return to Sri Lanka they used a 50 perch property they owned in Campbell Place, Borella to set up the theatre. In 2002, the Namel Malini Punchi Theatre opened its doors for the first time and has since repaid their investment several times over, by hosting hundreds of productions and becoming one of the centers for performing arts in Sri Lanka, just as their founders intended.

For Namel and Malini, the Punchi Theatre is not just the realization of their dreams, but a continuous celebration of their hard work and passion. An institution unto themselves, Namel and Malini stand as a wonderful testament to the personal dedication and promotion of the performing arts in Sri Lanka.