Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rupavahini- My University of Experience! (1988 – 2004)

The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation was set up in 1982- a gift from Japan to the people Sri Lanka. At the time, there were the crème de la crème of professionals, from the very top to the bottom.

With the years catching up and before I start to suffer from dementia, I decided to indulge myself in reminiscing about those good old days at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation - the State television station, which I refer to as my ‘University of Experience.


1988 was when my unplanned career in the electronic media, actually took off. I was a Guest Producer at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). One fine day, my dear friend and colleague at SLBC Mahes Perera suggested that I do some work at Rupavahini as well.


I didn’t take her suggestion too seriously, because I was very happy doing various things at SLBC. With all good intentions, she made appointment after appointment for me to meet the Director General of Rupavahini, and I never went until one day, Mahes actually hauled me across the road to Rupavahini and planted me in front of the Director General!


Mr. Director General glanced at my CV and since I was qualified in both print and electronic media, decided that I should do this and that and various other things, to which I didn’t have the guts to say, “No I can’t”. So I ended up wearing numerous hats; Guest Producer, Director, Interviewer, Script Writer, Programme Presenter, Duty Editor, Reporter for the weekly CNN World Report and inter alia, as a newsreader- gosh, the things I didn’t do there! Though a freelancer at Rupavahini, I ended up becoming a full time freelancer, wearing all these hats.


I was a naïve twenty-four-year-old when I joined Rupavahini. I didn’t regard my ‘work’ as a profession but a ‘pass-time’ while my five-year-old son was at school. My son was my priority, therefore I didn’t have to work regular hours every day. This suited me fine because it also kept me from getting involved in the usual ‘office politics’.


As far as I was concerned, everyone appeared nice because as a freelancer, I was not a professional threat to them. Also the majority of those I interacted with were not the hypocritical bourgeoisie snobs, which I was born in to. What a refreshing change it was to meet real, genuine and normal people, who couldn’t care less if your blood was blue, red or white, or if you came from the ‘correct’ family background and the right caste, creed or not!


However, the sheltered upbringing I had as an only-child of a so-called bourgeoisie family though was obviously meant in good faith, it didn’t help me in dealing with the ‘real world’, which also contained the good, the bad and the ugly! I didn’t know how to defend myself when attacked. But fifteen years at Rupavahini made me a master-of-the-art.


If one can survive fifteen years at Rupavahini and live to tell the tale, then one can survive just about anywhere, including my latter days at SCOPP, where my former colleague and dear friend Ari christened me ‘dhakune marawarayek’ (thug from the South) until I told him that I was half Southern and half Kandyan, to which he replied, “that makes it worse”!


Coming back to Rupavahini, all the numerous hats I wore there had its advantages, over my newsreader colleagues; they came in only to read the news. However I had the advantage of being privy to all the behind the scene happenings and the comedies of error unfolding at Rupavahini, especially its News Room, which was referred to as the ‘blade factory’.


Throat slitting, back stabbing, you name it and it all happened there in the ‘blade factory’. There was also once an attempt to make me also a victim of the ‘blade factory’ by leaving a death threat recorded on my telephone answering machine at home; what a blithering idiot! The coward responsible for that steered clear from my path after I dealt with him in an ‘appropriate’ manner.


1989 was a bad period for Rupavahini and the rest of the country. Those ‘Red’ insurgents started going on a killing spree and did away with some of my colleagues, as well. Then they threatened our newsreaders with death and the worms amongst them went into hiding. I recall way back in August 1989, when we at Rupavahini were under the protection of the Sri Lanka Air Force with Air Commodore Ananda Samarakoone at the helm, there were just three of us reading the English news bulletins; Ushan Wickremesinghe and Andy Wijesuriya, courtesy Sri Lanka Air Force, and yours truly, a general jack-of-all trades at Rupavahini.


I read my first news bulletin on the 12th of August 1989 and the next day, our News Editor Kulasiri Amaratunge was gunned down. Yes I too received death threats, but I flushed them down to where they belonged- the cesspit. If anyone wanted to kill me they were more than welcome to do so, but I was definitely not ready to bow down to threats, which I associate with cowards.


Those of you who watched our mugs on the idiot box, have no idea as to what actually went on behind the camera at Rupavahini. During this tumultuous period, the Rupavahini news bulletins were prerecorded. The Main Control Room (MCR) was manned mainly by Sri Lanka Army engineers, and while the news bulletins were recorded, there were two armed soldiers inside the studio and another two outside the locked doors to the studio. Phew! This I was told was to ensure maximum security, in the event infiltrators crept in and made us say things they wanted said, and take over the MCR and telecast the bulletin live. Hence, the armed soldiers inside and outside Studio 2 which is located exactly opposite to the MCR, manned by Army engineers.


In order to keep our identities a secret, our names were not displayed on the screen and there were actually many viewers out there who were under the impression, that yours truly, who’s supposed to have this ‘SAARC region look’, was a RAW agent ‘planted’ at Rupavahini by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), who were then in Sri Lanka fighting the Tigers in the North and East, while our military were trying to bring the ‘Red’ insurgents under control in the South.


This was also a period when the ‘Red’ insurgents went around setting fire to anything of Indian origin. I remember hiding all my Indian saris under the mattresses of all the beds I could find at home, Mysore dhal between the roof and the ceiling, and my Rupavahini identity card, wrapped in plastic and stored away in the toilet cistern. They could kill me, but were definitely not going to touch my Indian saris, Mysore dhal, and my Rupavahini identity card!


I must thank both my parents for their patience and support during this period. Despite numerous words of caution about threats to my life, they both knew, there was no holding me back. I was definitely not going to give into a ‘gang of bullies’ and I was ready to take them all on, with my bare hands! Each day I left for work, I never expected to return alive.


After the ‘Red’ insurgents were brought under control, all the worms wriggled out of their holes and returned to Rupavahini. And the News Room regained its normal ‘blade factory’ status. Meanwhile I had started a series of TV programs titled ‘Dateline’ through the Current Affairs Division, also located within the ‘blade factory’.


Then one fine day, there landed half-naked Madam Amazonia in the Current Affairs Division, through some string pulling by a so-called Minister buddy of her’s. Amazonia decided to take an instant dislike towards me. She was one of those female ‘thugs’ I had to deal with.

Amazonia, went to great lengths to demoralise me, she even resorted to hiding the keys to my cupboard, where I had my cassettes locked, and accused me of hiding my own keys. Mysteriously the keys reappeared, but not before she had got duplicates made. What a cunning wretch!

Then I discovered to my utmost horror, the cassettes containing the rushes of my unedited programme had gone missing. I immediately informed security and the cassette librarian about what had happened.


At Rupavahini, no one is permitted to take cassettes out of the premises without official approval. But subsequently, Amazonia was caught in flagrante delicto, smuggling out Rupavahini cassettes.


By now, Amazonia had managed to make herself very unpopular at Rupavahini and I had my own team of dedicated ‘detectives’ within Rupavahini, watching all her movements. They gave me daily reports on her misdeeds which I faithfully recorded, for the coup de grace.


Then came the day, when she actually managed to erase one of my TV programmes before it went on air. What she didn’t know, was that I had made a duplicate of the programme, and the cassette was in safe custody until it was telecast. I made it a point to remain at Rupavahini until the programme went on air, just to watch her reaction. This dark skinned woman actually turned white before my very eyes. She was in shock!


By now I had enough proof to nail her. I had already prepared my case to present to the highest Executive of the Country. I couldn’t trust anyone else to deal with this creature.


And then I came down on Amazonia like a ton of bricks! I still recall what I said to her, “Amazonia, you have been kicking me around this place for long enough. The only reason I didn’t kick you back, is because you happen to be the same age as my mother”. Amazonia gave a scornful laugh. That did it. I told her, “The day I decide to kick you back, you will never walk again”. She laughed like a nervous jackass, and retorted, ‘what can a small brat like you do to me!”


Well the next day, she discovered what exactly the ‘small brat’ had done. Amazonia was declared persona non grata by the management of Rupavahini!


Few months later I heard that she had suffered a massive stroke and was totally paralysed even todate.


There were numerous other cases similar to Amazonia’s, but they are too insignificant for me to comment on. Mind you, all these misadventures I encountered were during the first couple of my years at Rupavahini, when I was in my mid 20s.


The downfall of Rupavahini began after the democratically elected Dictator Executive President Ranasinghhe Premadasa took office in 1989. Of course, there was still a handful of very nice ladies and gentlemen I worked with, but there was also a combination of thugs, cads, hooligans and back stabbers who crept in from the back doors of Rupavahini.
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