Thursday, December 16, 2010

Birth of ‘Business Matters’ 1989 to 2004

Somewhere in mid 1991, the management of Rupavahini decided to launch a series of programmes in English, in order to give the open economy of our country a boost. Ajita Kadirgamar Perera, who was my best friend and I were selected to handle the programme and we were granted carte blanche to carry out our ‘business’ with no interference from the management.

This was to be the beginning of a saga, which ended with the devastating Tusnami in December 2004.


Ajita and I were thrown in at the deep end. First we had to come up with a title, then the theme, then the music for the theme, then the content and to cap it all, the bureaucratic business of opening files, filling forms et al.

After deciding on the title of the series of programmes ‘Business Matters’ then we had to sort the theme out. Ajita managed to find a friend who was a talented musician, who willingly helped us out by composing an original peace of music. First it was not fast enough, and then he had to recompose it with a quicker tempo, which could be faded out at thirty seconds (maximum time allocated for a theme). With the music in place, now what do we use as visuals? Over the years, we changed the visuals of the theme over and over again but the music remained the same.

The first ever ‘Business Matters’ programme went on air over Rupavahini on Monday 7th October 1991- Ajita produced and it and I presented it, afterwards we were both comatose. I still recall Ajita saying, “we can’t go on much longer with this; it’s just too much”.

But we did. Fortunately ‘Business Matters’ was a fortnightly programme telecast on the first and third Monday of each month. We had almost two weeks in between to gather our material. And Ajita and I would take off with our respective camera crews, which comprised, the cameraman, the lighting technician, the sound engineer, EFP (electronic field production) assistant and of course our indispensable driver.

Each Friday preceding the first and third Monday when Business Matters was scheduled for telecast, we would sit together and edit all the material we had gathered for the next programme. Having contacted the relevant parties who kept us supplied with the latest developments in the Stock Market and the money market, the entire Saturday was taken up writing the scripts. Come Sunday; the Studio recordings and on Monday morning, the post production work before the programme was ready for telecast.

This comprised, joining the Studio recordings of the presenter introducing each item, with the relevant edited item. Then the nightmare of the Character Generator which produced all the lettering and figures which appear on the screen (we were not computerised then). This was one area Ajita didn’t want to touch. Before Rupavahini went further hi-tech, we had to do all this post production work in the Main Control Room (MCR) - the nerve center of Rupavahini.

And there was I doing virtual somersaults across the length of the MCR, over humans and machines trying to reach the right button on the right machine at the right time.

Many years down the line, with all the equipment being upgraded, there came this miracle called the PPU 1 (Post Production Unit 1). No more somersaulting was required here, all buttons, including that nightmare of a Character Generator, were within easy reach. This entire exercise of getting one half hour programme together was mind boggling and in between, Ajita and I used to take a break in the canteen. One day while Ajita was munching on a ‘vadei’ she suddenly suppressed a scream, “my God, there is a tooth in my vadei” she gasped.

We were about to go and confront the canteen management, when Ajita realised, she had a tooth missing in her mouth; the tooth in the ‘vadei’ turned out to be her own tooth!

When it came to the content of our programme, we selected high profile business personalities and topics worthy of being covered. Those we initially interviewed were the late N. U. Jayawardena, the first Sri lankan Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, and a trail blazing financier and banker par excellence. He was also one of the most controversial characters of the last century. He had his early education in the deep South in Matara, and he proudly claimed how he walked seven miles to school and back, bare footed, because his parents couldn’t afford to buy him shoes.

Then there was the late A. Y. S Gnanam, who started his business career selling scrap iron and built the multi-billion rupee St. Anthony's Industries Group (Pvt.) Ltd. The empire he built provided employment to several thousands of people of Sri Lanka over a period of several decades.

Yet another success story I found, was in Victor Hettigoda, Chairman of the Hettigoda Group of Companies. Hailing from a family of Ayurvedic physicians, he pursued the family tradition of Ayurveda Medicine. The secret formula of ‘Siddhalepa’- the wonder balm, was disclosed to him by his father. I recall him telling me during the interview, how he travelled to every remote village in Sri Lanka, peddling his bicycle, to promote his product- the Siddhalepa Balm. His tireless efforts were ultimately rewarded. Today, his Company is a resounding success with a global distribution network.

These gentlemen I recall, were so proud of their humble beginning, that they were never ashamed to talk about it.

Of course over a period of almost fourteen years, we interviewed a multitude of local and foreign business personalities, economists, bankers, entrepreneurs’ et al.

Somewhere along the way, we invited the veteran journalist, and former Editor of The Island and The Sunday Times Vijitha Yapa as an interviewer for Business Matters. Later he moved on to become the founder Chairman of the Vijitha Yapa Group of Companies.

One of the many business tycoons interviewed by Vijitha Yapa for our programme was Ratnapala Samaraweera, Chairman of the Maliban Group of Companies; yet another success story with humble beginnings.

I recall accompanying Vijitha Yapa, with myself as the Producer and my Rupavahini camera crew to interview the Chief of Maliban Biscuits. Afterwards, we toured the factory and filmed the entire process of the operation. As we were preparing to leave, Mr. Samaraweera presented each one of us with solid gold pens; my crew was over the moon. However, once we packed all our equipment into the Rupavahini van, I realised that the driver had not been with us, and therefore he did not get a pen, I gave mine to him and even today I recall the absolute look of glee on his face.

During the first three years of Business Matters, the management of Rupavahini didn’t want the programme sponsored, then came a political regime change in 2004, and the new management decided that the programme ought to be sponsored, or else they were going to bring the curtain down on it.

During this time I was due to interview Rienzie T. Wijetilleke, who was then the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Hatton National Bank (HNB), for Business Matters. After the recording, while my crew was packing up all the equipment, I told him about the bleak future of Business Matters, he immediately said, “We’ll take it”. Thereafter, the Hatton National Bank became the first sponsor of Business Matters. They were wonderful sponsors and granted Ajita and myself carte blanch to carry on with our programme with absolutely no interference.

Being a banker, I thought they might not want their competitors featured on the programme, but this was not the case with Rienzie T. Wijetilleke, he didn’t feel threatened by anyone. In fact I remember him calling his counterparts in other banks on the telephone, requesting them to grant me an interview with them for Business Matters. We eventually became such close friends, I told him that I sincerely hoped he would end up as the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, but he didn’t, but some one who interviewed Rienzie T. Wijetilleke for Business Matters did- Ajith Nivard Cabraal!

I still recall the nightmare I had trying to interview the veteran banker Edgar Gunatunga, who by then was the Chairman of Sampath Bank. The moment I walked into his office, he appraised me from head to toe and said, “You look terrible in that outfit” after explaining to him that a business suite is what we wore for Business Matters, he wasn’t convinced, “whatever, you don’t look so awful in sari” typical Edgar Gunatunga.

After celebrating the fifth birthday of Business Matters, Ajita dropped the bombshell! She was bored with the programme and wanted to do something different. And there I was, producing, directing, presenting, script writing, interviewing and editing Buusiness Matters over a period of nine long years.

After the Hatton National Bank had sponsored Business Matters for three years, the Commercial Bank of Ceylon Ltd., took over the sponsorship. Here again, I had absolutely no interference from the sponsors.

Along the way, while interviewing personalities, I was also checking them out as potential ‘interviewers’ for Business Matters. The first ‘victim’ was Arjuna Mahendran, the veteran economist,(who holds a PhD, but doesn't use the prefix Dr. to his name. His career spans a period of 20 years in both private companies and public sector organizations, including a stint with the World Bank. He later became the Chairman/Director-General for the Board of Investments (BOI) of Sri Lanka, where he was responsible for attracting and facilitating inflows of foreign direct investments to Sri Lanka.

Another ‘victim’ was Ranel T. Wijesinha, former President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka and a Management Consultant. In Ranel I found a ‘perfect interviewer’, besides his brilliance in his professional field, I also found in him great ‘acting’ talent, which is sine qua non for a TV interviewer, especially when there is only one camera available, for an EFP recording.

Before I confuse you further, let me explain why this ‘acting talent’ is required when there is only one TV camera available for the recording. Throughout the entire recording of the interview, the camera is focused on the interviewee. Thereafter, the interviewer has to perform the task of ‘re-asking the same questions, he posed to his interviewee, but this time with the camera focused on him or her. The ‘eye-level’ of the interviewer has to match that of his/her interviewee, which invariably means, you shoot your questions at a blank wall, a leaf of a plant, the roof of the adjoining building etc. During the process of editing, we cut the questions and answers in such a way, that to all you viewers out there it would seem that the entire interview was recorded in one go.

Of course if such an interview was recorded in a Rupavahini studio, this performance need not take place, because there a several cameras in each studio. I still recall when Ranel recorded his first interview for Business Matters, his interviewee was Macky Hashim, President of the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and of course we had only one camera. This was Ranel’s first experience with ‘re asks’ and his eye level had to be in line with a tin roofing sheet on the adjoining building, which was blowing up and down in the wind; somehow he did a very professional job of it.

Then came my next ‘victim’, Dr. Parakrama Dissanayake, who was later to become Chairman and Chief Executive of the Sri Lanka ports Authority and Jaya Container Terminals Ltd., a former President of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, and currently the Chairman of Aitken Spence Shipping. In Parakrama I found a very professional TV interviewer who could talk on any subject besides shipping, and a very high level of ‘acting’ skills: Parakrama was very comfortable with one camera.
Then I discovered Dinesh Weerakkody, who subsequently became Chairman/CEO of the Employees Trust Fund Board, Sri Lanka, and Advisor to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka from January 2003 to April 2004.

Last but not least, my final ‘victim’ was Nivard Cabraal, a double accountant, who I first came to know when he was President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka. A well known corporate figure, an economist, the first Chairman of the Committee on Cooperate Governance and subsequently the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

Of all these gentlemen, whom I ‘collared’ into becoming guest-interviewers for Business Matters, Ranel and Parakrama didn’t mind a single camera for their recordings, while Arjuna, Dinesh and Nivard preferred two cameras; not very good actors!

At good old Rupavahini two very frequently heard terms were “na’ (no) and ‘ba” (can’t). Getting a single camera out of Rupavahini for a recording was most often than not a ‘battle’ which could not be won by throwing ‘temper tantrums’, but looking ‘utterly lost, crestfallen, on the verge of breaking into tears method’ always worked. This rule also applied when it came to booking studios, editing facilities, post production facilities etc.

When there was absolutely NO camera available, yours truly even managed to get one of those two cameras always reserved for VVIP coverages, which meant the Executive President or the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. I still recall the Chief of the Camera Unit shouting “ikmanat enna, natthang mage rassava gahala yai” (hurry up and return or I will loose my job); each time I took away his VVIP cameras.

Now with Arjuna, Dinesh and Nivard, I needed ‘two’ cameras! This was one hell of a challenge. That ‘lost, crestfallen, tears method’ didn’t work here. What did I do then, since Arjuna, Dinesh and Nivard were ‘big shots’ I used to get them to call the Chairman of Rupavahini, and have both cameras reserved for VVIP coverages, released to me!

At the end, everyone was happy; my interviewers had the two best cameras at Rupavahini, me the Producer was happy and the Chief of the Camera Unit didn’t loose his job!

In December 2001, with the UNP winning the general elections, heads were rolling at a rate in all government institutions. One day Parakrama called me and said, “Sharmini, rumour has it that Nivard is going to be appointed Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. Please let me know, when he’s appointed, because I would like to interview him”. This was also a time when my guest-interviewers were interviewing each other, because they were all big shots all over the place.
Lo and behold, who gets appointed as Chairman of the Sri Lanka ports Authority, but Parakrama himself and Nivard ended up interviewing Parakrama.

Perhaps if Business Matters was still around, Parakrama would have interviewed Nivard after he became the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka!

Besides featuring outstanding personalities, we also focused on all areas, which made a significant contribution to the open economy of Sri Lanka. Be it horticulture, ornamental fish, the ceramic industry, the leisure industry, garment industry, banking and finance sectors, the construction industry, we covered it all.
Business Matters took my across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka and overseas as well.

October 1999, eight years of Business Matters, three years of which I had been batting on my own, since Ajita quit, I was invited by the management of the National Carrier ‘Sri Lankan Airlines’ to go on a ‘trip’ to Toulouse, France to take delivery of the first brand new Airbus A330-200 aircraft.

I told those responsible for inviting me, that I couldn’t accept the invitation to just go on a ‘trip’ since it was a historical occasion both for our national carrier and our country, and that I would accept the invitation on one condition; that they let me do a ‘one off’ programme for Business Matters. They were only too thrilled!

But unfortunately, since I was a ‘freelancer’ at Rupavahini I couldn’t take my own Rupavahini camera crew. But that problem was sorted out by the ‘organisers’. They hired a private camera crew for my work.

My being invited by the national carrier for this assignment, ruffled a few feathers at good old Rupavahini. “She’s not even a permanent employee” how can she be invited; the same syndrome I experienced, when CNN landed my mug on their World Report trailer.

Nevertheless, I took off on the ‘trip’ with the ‘private’ camera crew, along with a massive team of journalists from the print media, and a huge delegation of ‘others’, on Sunday 24th October 1999. We were on our way to France.

Commencing Monday 25th October until Thursday 28th October, when we returned to Sri Lanka, I was on ‘duty’ with my ‘private’ camera crew. I interviewed all those who had to be interviewed at ‘Airbus Industrie’ in Toulose. I directed the filming of the entire Airbus assembly line; what a lot of footage I had. On a bright sunny morning on Wednesday 27th October, the brand new baby of our national carrier, Airbus A-330-200 was towed in to a dressed up ‘posh’ hanger at Toulouse, which was also the venue for a grand reception party. What an emotional event that was; this shining new baby with the famous ‘Rolls Royce’ engines, was finally here, before our very eyes.

Bottles of Dom Perignon Champagne started popping, one after another, and later it was flowing like water along with gold caviar to celebrate the event. I recall calling my hubby Hiran, (who has a soft corner for these flying mechanical birds) to share with him this hyped up emotional event, and about the ‘Rolls Royce’ engines which the brand new baby was fitted with, and all he had to say was, “will you hurry up and come back. The dogs are fighting and trying to kill each other”. Yes, we were married for almost five years by then! We were due to leave France later in the day, and in between, we were let loose in a shopping mall in the heart of Toulouse.

I hadn’t planned to go shopping on this trip, so I called hubby and sonny boy to check if there was anything they needed. Oh yes, there was quite a lot they needed. Hubby rattled off names of all types of cheeses; Camembert, Brie, Gruyer, Ementale etc., and various types of wine, while sonny boy I heard shouting in the background, “Chocolates for me and the dogs”, then hubby again, “don’t forget to bring some smoked salmon.

God forbid! I felt like I was being sent on a marketing trip to the ‘Jathika Pola’. This is the price one has to pay for marrying an hotelier and a connoisseur of food and wine. Finding the cheese, chocolates and wine were no problem, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the French term for smoked salmon. I found a pleasant looking young man who was more than eager to help me in my quest for ‘smoked salmon’ but he couldn’t speak English. I made all kinds of gestures with my hands and the fellow looked quite confused. Then suddenly I remembered the French term for fish ‘Poisson’.

With a look of utter relief on his face, he took me across the massive mall to a huge display of all varieties of fish, but no smoked salmon. Okay, I thought since half the battle was won, now I had to make him understand ‘smoked’; again I made all types of gestures, like holding an imaginary cigar between my fingers and puffing imaginary clouds of smoke. Then the fellow cried “Oui madam”. Thank God, finally the fellow understood wanted I wanted.

He took me across the mall again and with a look of sheer delight, he gestured around him triumphantly, where there were rows of cigars, cigarettes and all types of tobacco products. I gave up my quest for smoked salmon!We left France aboard the brand new aircraft and we were expected to land in Colombo at the auspicious hour of 10.00 a.m. on Thursday 28th October 1999.

En route to Sri Lanka I still regarded myself ‘on duty’ and there I landed in the cockpit of the brand new bird, with my camera crew, to interview Capt. Milinda Ratnayake, Flight Operations Manager, SriLankan Airlines and Capt. Sam Ranabahu, Chief Pilot, SriLankan Airlines. The only person I couldn’t interview was Peter Hill, Chief Executive Officer of SriLankan Airlines. He was far too busy playing ‘host’. But we decided to have the interview later, when he was more relaxed in his office in Colombo.

Afterwards, I decided to take it easy. We were going to face a grand performance, we were told, at the Colombo International Airport, upon our arrival, and later on I had to deal with my ‘fighting dogs’. We entered Sri Lanka’s air space far before the auspicious hour of 10.00 a.m. and Captain Sam Ranabahu decided to ‘kill time’ by performing some mid air acrobatics which nearly killed me.

My God! Before I knew it, we were over the ocean in the deep South, and Captain Ranabahu was ‘playing hell’ with this brand new ‘bird’. There was a moment when the right wing of the aircraft was almost skimming the ocean. I sat back in my seat, with my eyes shut, I was sure we were going to crash. By now, the Dom Perignon Champagne and gold caviar were doing somersaults in my stomach!

Finally, after what seemed like hours of mid air antics, we made a perfect touch down, courtesy Captain Sam Ranabahu, at the Bandaranaike International Airport, precisely at 10.00 a.m.

Jeepers! We were treated like celebrities. Every one around us was in a festive swing. Scores of VIPs and Sri Lankan Airlines staff along with colourful brass band and bagpipers were there to greet us. Lo and behold, my colleagues Dayan Candappa (now with Reuters) and T.M.G. of Rupavahini (who was subsequently manhandled by Minister Mervyn Silva and paid a heavy price for it) were also there as presenters for the Rupavahini live telecast of our ‘grand arrival’. There was another grand reception and a party arranged in one of the hangers, but I still had Dom Perignon and gold caviar in my system, and the very sight of food made me turn blue.

After attending to the usual customs and immigration formalities at a special desk set up inside the hanger, I took off home. My God! The dogs really had had a fight. Carlo my Ridgeback was limping around on a bandaged paw and one of his ears was also bandaged. My rascal cocker-spaniel Scamper had given Carlo the ‘works’ but he had no bandages. My poor gentle-giant Carlo, who doesn’t even kill a cockroach!

I had scheduled the telecast of my ‘exclusive piece’ on Business Matters for the second Monday of November after I had secured an appointment with Peter Hill on Wednesday 10th November.

Then I returned to my regular duties at Rupavahini, which still included news reading on Tuesdays. I was now into my tenth years as a newsreader at Rupavahini.

Now I remember the reason why I selected ‘Tuesdays’ as my news reading days, because whenever I got landed to read the news on Mondays, especially the first and third Mondays, when Business Matters was telecast immediately after the English news, there was me, me and me on the screen.

Just before the news went on air live, there was my mug on the Business Matters trailer. Then my mug again ‘parroting’ the news, in between the Business Matters trailer again during the commercial breaks, then me again ‘parroting’ the rest of the bulletin. After bidding good night to the viewers, there was me again on Business Matters! Some of you must have wondered how I managed to get out of the sari I wore to read the news so fast, and within a couple of minutes, reappear again in a business suite- the reason was, the news was read live and Business Matters was pre-recorded!

After the interview with Peter Hill was recorded, I now had all the material for my ‘exclusive piece’. I also had to guard all this ‘material’ from a bunch of hooligans at Rupavahini, who were seething with envy and quite capable of sabotage.

However, as scheduled, my ‘one-off’ piece on Business Matters, which turned out perfect after editing it, was ready for telecast on Monday 15th November 1999.

Alas, when the programme eventually went on air, most of it was black and white! My gut instinct told me that the ‘hooligans’ had managed to screw it up. The next day I charged into the Chairman’s office and insisted that an inquiry be held, and those responsible brought to task. I also demanded a repeat telecast of the programme, after all it was sponsored by the Commercial Bank of Ceylon Ltd., and they were not going to pay for a black and white programme!

All my demands were met. I decided to re-edit the entire programme, in the event the ‘hooligans’ had tampered with the master cassette, which contained the ‘black and white’ programme.

The hi-tech Post Production Unit was available only at 6.00 a.m. on Thursday 18th November. I landed at Rupavahini at 4.00 a.m. armed with all the cassettes containing the rushes; they were the property of SriLankan Airlines since they had hired the ‘private’ camera crew for my assignment in France, I was entitled to keep them at home which was much safer at home than my locker at Rupavahini which the ‘hooligans’ could get their hands on.

The ‘exclusive piece’ was finally aired in full colour on the ‘unusual’ fourth Monday the 22nd of November 1999. The newspapers had given it adequate pre-publicity and all concerned were aware of the repeat telecast. I received several calls from viewers who had missed the ‘black and white’ version and were very grateful that it was repeated.

The hooligans went into shell shock and were quiet as rats after that!

In December 2003, I took up my very first ‘full time’ job with a global IT giant. I was their Manager Corporate Communication in Sri Lanka, while I continued to bat on with Business Matters at Rupavahini. Six months later, I was head-hunted by Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala, Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), to head its Communications Division.

The first time he called me I said, “No thank you Sir”.

Second time he called me, again I said, “No thank you Sir”.

The third time he called me, he mentioned something like “….for the sake of our country”.

This time Mr. Dhanapala, hit the right button. I dissolve when it comes to this ‘for the sake of our country’ business, and without hesitating, I said, “Yes Sir”! That is how, on the 12th of July 2004 I landed at SCOPP as its Director Communications. To date, I don’t regret the huge financial sacrifice I made, by leaving my previous place of employment. Although it broke my heart to part company with my colleagues and employers, who I had known since I was a school girl, working ‘for the sake of our country’ and with Jayantha Dhanapala, Dr. John Gooneratne and the rest of the team however made up for it. SCOPP was a totally new educational experience for me.

My boss the Secretary General was very keen that I continue my work at Rupavahini while functioning as Director Communications at SCOPP. So I batted on at Rupavahini and Business Matters. This was no easy task- going on field-shoots to gather material for the programme during the week, editing the segments on Fridays, writing the scripts on Saturdays, Studio recording on Sundays, post-production work on Mondays. All this while involved with a full time job at SCOPP was becoming too much to handle. Then came the devastating Tsunami in December 2004.

My workload at SCOPP increased thereafter, and it was humanly not possible to continue with Business Matters. After completing fourteen years of Business Matters, and with a heavy heart, I decided to wrap up the programme, consoling myself that all good things must come to an end and I had reached the ne plus ultra in my field of work in Television over a period of fifteen years.

I treasure every moment I worked, joked and laughed with such intellectual giants as Dr. John Gooneratne, Jayantha Dhanapala, Seneka Abeyratne, Major General Sanath Karunarathne, Prof. Emeritus Dr. Lakshman Marasinghe and the rest of our SCOPP family.

Then came another regime change in 2005. Dr. John Gooneratne succeeded Jayantha Dhanapala as the Secretary General of SCOPP for a short while. Then an import from Australia with Sri Lankan origins was appointed the Secretary General.

All my fellow Directors resigned. Prof. Emeritus Dr. Lakshman Marasinghe who was Director Legal was replaced by another Sri Lankan import from Australia. I was told that as Director Communications at SCOPP, I couldn’t utter a word in public, because it would be construed as Government policy. So I was gagged until 31st December 2006, when I bade adios to SCOPP and took up the challenging task of being a housewife!
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