By Radhieka Peeris
Pix by Dumidu Wanigasekara and Mul Pituwa
“At six o’clock in the morning, my father switches on the radio and tunes in to listen to the early morning news, while the seven of us run helter-skelter getting ready for school as our mother prepares our breakfast,” reminisced Bandula Padmakumara, on his earliest memories of morning news broadcasts. Now, instead of sitting by the radio like his father did decades ago, he presents Mul Pituwa –at 6.30 a.m. daily, on the Swarnavahini television channel. “My main idea was to combine print and electronic media and make an early morning show that analyses news” he explained.
Mul Pituwa is a news presentation that summarizes essential news from Sinhala, Tamil and English dailies and the Internet. In an unmatched feat of sheer hard work and the will to see it through, Padmakumara and his Mul Pituwa will be celebrating 10 years of non-stop daily news analysis, this year in July.
A decade ago, the novelty of Padmakumara’s idea presented him with more setbacks than he envisaged. Although the concept had been visualized one year before the first programme was aired on TV, it was difficult to sell the idea to media organizations. However, with a mix of persuasive skills, potential return on investment and previous successes in print media, he was able to get a prime time slot on morning TV at Swarnavahini.
Today, Mul Pituwa is embedded in households islandwide, as one of those essential early morning rituals. Switching on to watch Mul Pituwa is enough to get adaily dose of the goings-on in the country and around the world. Padmakumara feels that his show also induces the audience to reach out to print media by reading more about the stories he brings to their attention.
Born and raised in Mapilana, Kamburupitiya in Matara, to a school principal father and a teacher mother, he grew up amongst paddy fields, rivers and mountains. He schooled at Matara Rahula College for two years before attending Ananda College in Colombo, where his most formative years were spent. One of the most significant events in his childhood, he claims, was when his father was interdicted from his profession for being a strong Communist and speaking at a public political meeting against Dudley Senanayake’s United National Party (UNP) Government. This incident left an indelible mark in his life, which led him to submit a short story, Aththa, to a newspaper. It was the first time he was published, which in turn encouraged him on to join the media fraternity in later years.
“It was my father who greatly influenced my professional life, as he used to take us to the cinema and theatre which nurtured my interest in the arts,” he says. “I was always fascinated by the movies,” he says, recalling his involvement in the Sinhala cinema, which began during his days at Ananda College.
During his A/L days in 1968, he made a full length feature film with his classmate, Ranjith Lal, named Nim Walalla. This gave him exposure to the film world. Winning a film review competition organized by the Film Critics and Journalists Association (FOAC) was the stepping stone to his cinematic career. Padmakumara was then invited to be the assistant director on three other Sinhala cinematic productions, Nuwan Renu and Madol Duwa, directed by Dr. Lester James Peries, and Ape Langama, directed by Dr. Tissa Abeysekera.
“My father was a very liberal person. He encouraged us to read, watch dramas and films. He used to take me watch plays like Sinhabahu and Maname. He introduced us to many Russian books and my writing skills were honed through my exposure to these authors.”
His first freelance gig as a journalist was for Visithura, a film magazine. “I got my first break when a businessman approached me to start a magazine, Geetha. After the sixth issue, I was invited to start a women’s paper, Kumari,” he said.
Known as the pioneer in the mal paththara kalawa, he has established many women- and youth-focused magazines. The unique selling point of these magazines was always, “a combination of marketing and a style of writing aimed at touching the readers heart. In other words, a combination of Karunasena Jayalath and Dr. Ediriweera Sarachchandra.”
As the founder editor of Lakbima in 1994, he was a trendsetter of the times. “I am a product of popular culture and I also believe in pop-culture. So for the first time in the Sri Lankan newspaper history, I introduced a Sinhala tabloid,” he said, explaining the birth of the tabloid, Ridhma. Padmakumara, juggles be two jobs; presenting the Mul Pituwa every single morning for the past 10 years and bearing the responsibility Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL) as its chairman for the past six years.
“I wake up at 3.30 a.m., leave home by 3.50 a.m. and from there onwards, it’s two hours of going through all the papers,” he said. He arrives at the studio and begins to scan seven Sinhala, four English and three Tamil newspapers along with various websites, out of which he handpicks around 100 to 120 different shots of paper cuttings and puts them in order to create a flow.
According to an article on Padmakumara by Chamitha Kuruppu, “President Mahinda Rajapakse watches a recorded programme of Mul Pituwa every morning while he is at the gym.” So here is a man who holds the rapt attention of both the common man and the leader of the country for half an hour every day.
“Mul Pituwa has never been biased,” he says, “I pick up all news items from all the papers, be it a pro- or anti-government article. I have to be impartial in my role of bringing news to my audience,” he stressed.
“I may have taken a cumulative of 50 days of leave during the past ten years,” he said, mentally adding up the figures with a smile, “My wife, Samanmali Padmakumara has been very supportive throughout my career. She wakes up early morning and prepares breakfast and looks after the family affairs,” he added. For the past 10 years, he has never attended late night events or parties, being a follower of the ‘early to bed and early to rise’ adage. He starts counting sheep by 8.30 p.m. every night in order to wake up in the wee hours of the morning.
When asked as to how he managed to accomplish this decade-long feat, he says: “I don’t know how I did it. It is the response of the people that makes me go on; people say I am their lengathu madya wediya.” He concludes, with a glint in his eye, “Someday, maybe when I retire, I would like to get back into the world of cinema to direct a film.”