Ratnarajah Navaratnam was born the same year when his father, Appapillai, opened Navah Cinema in 1951. This was soon to be followed by the Rio Cinema in 1965. The Rio Hotel came more than a decade later, in time to host the Non-Aligned Summit of August 1976. The family also had the Trio Cinema in Dehiwala, Gem in Ragama and Rio in Jaffna. Until the distribution of film was brought under the National Film Corporation, the chain not only brought quality English films to the island, but also distributed them to other cinemas for display.
For decades, the Rio Cinema and Hotel towered over Kumaran Ratnam Road in Kompannaveediya. Once a state-of-the art theatre, red and blue neon lights illuminated its exterior, with a Todd-AO projection system bringing to life the country’s first 70 mm film screen within its walls.
Then, it was a blackened shell, hollowed out by looting and fire in the July riots of 1983.
Soon, there may be nothing at all.
After three decades of hosting poorly-attended screenings, scattered photo shoots and art exhibitions, the owner of the Rio complex—the cinema, hotel, and attached Navah Cinema—has put the property on the market. In the fast-developing neighborhood, it’s unlikely that the new owners will preserve the historic theatre, leaving the Rio, like many other markers of this dark chapter in our history, likely to be erased.
Currently working as the Rio’s manager, Navaratnam recalls with joy the important place Rio held in the hearts and minds of the community. It was a landmark. An evening at the movies at the Rio made for a special occasion or celebratory outing for many families.
‘Parents, children, grandparents, they would all come’ he said. ‘I know people who saw Sound of Music 15 times, you know, Alamo, South Pacific, many times over.’
Navaratnam jokes that the cinema was like a ‘golden ticket’ for the family. One mention to any government officer and tasks that would have otherwise dragged on were completed in minutes. He tells of his classmates complaining that they couldn’t study because of all the free movie passes he gave them, passes that he would claim were given to his school master when his father questioned him about them at the end of each month.
On July 23 1983, Navaratnam was home with his family at their house in Thimbirigasyaya. He suddenly saw flames across the junction from his window — a fleet of buses, owned by his father-in-law, had been set alight. A few minutes later, his father-in-law called; a mob was at the gates of their house, demanding to be let in.
Navaratnam and a close friend went out to get help, leaving his wife and two small daughters at home. They rushed to the Cinnamon Gardens police station, asking for someone to come and deter the rioters.
’We have no police available here.’
The officer at the station seemed, Navaratnam says, both unable and unwilling to help. ‘If you can find a patrol car somewhere, ask them to come and help you,’ he had told the two men. They asked the officer if the station could radio someone in.
‘No we can’t.’
They then went to the army post at Radio Ceylon & Rupavahini premises, the present day Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. The soldiers there said they couldn’t leave their posts, despite the house being a few metres from where they were on duty.
Navaratnam returned home, anxious about leaving his wife and kids alone. His father-in-law’s house was looted for days and partially burned. Later, he was told by friends and neighbors that among the mobs were some Tamil thugs who joined in on the looting, with Buddhist monks occasionally leading the charge.
A Sinhalese friend helped Navaratnam and his family move to the Holiday Inn, now called the Ramada hotel, to take refuge. Later that night, from the upper floor windows, he saw smoke rising in the distance, as fire consumed the Rio complex. By the end of the riots, the Rio Cinema and the Trio Cinema in Dehiwala were completely burned. The Navah Cinema’s interior was gutted by flames. The Rio hotel, though not set ablaze, was looted entirely.
It was five days later, on July 28th, in a now widely-criticised speech, that President J.R. Jayawardena spoke to the nation. There was no official inquiry into who was responsible for initiating the riots, and no one was punished by the law. The government gazetted to establish the Rehabilitation Of Persons, Properties And Industries Authority (REPPIA) to compensate victims.
The Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, the sole insurance provider at the time, found a way to evade a proper payout to affected persons. They claimed that the buildings had lost value over the years, and that the owners were overvaluing them. ‘Finally, with insurance and the money they gave for all the damages, we couldn’t even put the roof of the Rio cinema alone,’ Navaratnam said.
It was hard for the Navaratnam family to square these experiences with the goodwill they thought they had with their neighbors and community. The elder Navaratnam was an active philanthropist, who his son says ‘helped all communities.’ He lent out his car, one of the few in the area at the time, to people who needed it for funerals and weddings. Houses for people from the nearby Wekanda mosque, a school for the Holy Rosary Church, supporting Holy Rosary Tamil School and donating money to several Buddhist temples in the area, including the Gangaramaya—they were surrounded by a community that they supported, and who were grateful for their help.
‘He felt more hurt, by the fact that he was part of the society here, and that still they did this, to burn down ... forty, forty-five years of hard work, go[ing] up in smoke in one night,’ says Navaratnam.
Having been brought up in a diverse community that did not distinguish people based on ethnicity or religion, he was taken aback when people justified the destruction of their property and hard work just because ‘they were Tamil.’
Though the affected communities and underlying contexts are different, Navaratnam’s memories, of the riots themselves, the response, and the aftermath, echo some of the experiences of residents of areas in the Kandy district after the anti-Muslim riots of March 2018, and that of those in Aluthgama before that.
Navaratnam is reluctant to say that law enforcement didn’t intervene, despite his own experience during 1983. Following a wave of violence targeting Muslims in more recent years, CCTV footage and eyewitness video captured on smartphones have shown officers standing by, unwilling to intervene.
Just as the Navaratnams were targeted for being ‘well to do,’ despite their history of generosity, the Muslims in Kandy also reported that the mobs featured some familiar faces. Their targets included people known by locals to have had a successful shop, money on hand to loan, or a trishaw that could be called on in an emergency.
Muslims say there has also been a lack of support from the government in the process of rebuilding after the riots, with compensation not being nearly enough to buy new equipment, restock stores, and rebuild walls. Reparations are being doled out unsystematically, accompanied by impractical requests from the authorities for plans, blueprints and valuations.
The Rio was rented out after the riots in July 1983, when the Navaratnams went overseas for a short while. In the meantime, the cinema was rebuilt in late 1984, and reopened in 1986. By the time Navaratnam returned in 1987, it was nothing like it used to be. It wasn’t just a matter of money, Navaratnam said; the pain of losing decades of work made it hard to think of fully starting over.
‘When you see things like that happening, your whole heart doesn’t really come back in rebuilding again,’ he said.
Today, the Rio is running without a profit, operating almost solely because Navaratnam can’t bring himself to let go of his staff. He wishes he could restore the cinema to its old glory. But given the area’s high property values, it made more sense to sell the property.
Navaratnam sees some irony in his family’s decades-long dedication to Kompannaveediya, and his decision to leave it now. He recalls his father often being asked why he didn’t move to a wealthier area.
‘No, this is where my grandfather started, my father, we all did our businesses here. Let’s work on this area,’ the elder Navaratnam had said. ‘My father also said that this area would be very valuable one day and see, his words have come true now.’
The area around Rio has seen some of the most dramatic effects of Colombo’s post-war efforts to become a ‘modern’ city. From 2010 to 2013, hundreds of families living in what is termed ‘low-income housing’ in Kompannaveediya had their land seized by the government and were forcibly evicted from their homes. Residents battled in court for the right to compensation: Some were mandatorily resettled—without compensation, and for a fee of Rs.100,000/ which the current regime has promised to repay—in high-rises in Dematagoda, several kilometers away. Others were offered the choice of compensation, or money for rent while awaiting apartments in the high-rises that are being built, with many delays, around their former homes.
Even if some residents return, Kompannaveediya will never be the same. A good deal of them may not want or be able to stay in the high-rises, so different from labyrinth of close-knit communities they lost.
‘Who will live here now?,’ Mr. Navaratnam asks. With the existing development projects promising ‘luxury apartments,’ and the government’s ambition to create more ‘world class’ buildings, the demographics of Kompannaveediya will likely shift away from the poor and lower middle class Tamil and Muslim families who have lived there for decades and witnessed its history.
Several other iconic historical structures of the area have been destroyed to make room for this development, including the Castle Hotel and the de Soysa buildings more recently. Most likely, Navaratnam says, whoever buys the Rio will demolish it completely, and a luxury commercial or apartment building might take its place.
As the area changes and the Rio is sold, Navaratnam says it is inevitable that memories of the riots too will fade.
‘Will people forget ’83? In a sense, yes. But not the minority community,’ he says. The Tamil community, for whom the riots are not only the source of trauma and pain, but a moment that changed the trajectory of so many of their lives, through violence and displacement.
‘Everyone just left,’ he says, taking stock of family and friends who left the island in the migration of minorities that increased after 1983, having begun with the exclusionary 1956 Sinhala Only Act. Educated and skilled Tamils who had the means were able to leave the country for foreign shores. Because of the brain drain, compounded with the ensuing conflict, Navaratnam says J.R. Jayawardena’s accomplishments in economic policy prior to 1983 were reversed, and set the country back decades in terms of development. ‘Minorities tend to work harder’ in order to overcome discrimination set out in legislation itself, he says, ‘and yet with all that we wondered why we were not getting the same chances, same opportunities as Sinhalese people.’ With the insecurities the violence brought, anywhere seemed like a better option that Sri Lanka.
Many Sri Lankans, he says, particularly Sinhalese, don’t see Black July as a tipping point between peace and war, or understand that it was the culmination of oppressive state structures and a history of violence against Tamils.
‘If we didn’t have the ’83 riots, I don’t think the LTTE would have the presence and impact that it did at all,’ he said, referring to how the riots dramatically increased recruitment for Tamil separatist groups including the LTTE. The situation created a loss of faith in political solutions, and researchers say it was responsible for ‘legitimising the Tamil militancy like never before.’
He notes that violence against the Tamils began long before 1983, with riots recorded in 1977 against up-country Tamils and Tamils living in the East.
‘If you go and talk to [people], and ask, ‘Do you know why [the war] happened?’ People will tell you [the LTTE] wanted to conquer the country and break the country into two. Those in the South don’t know why the LTTE did that, how it came about, none of that.’
After the end of the conflict, he says that the widespread narrative is that Tamils had been ‘controlled.’ ‘Seeing Muslims doing well in business, is a new threat to Buddhists’ he says. Perceived economic discrepancies, those usually not grounded in fact, instill fear in the Sinhalese. Fear that, Navaratnam says, is easily exploited by political actors, who use language and divisions to play on this fear.
He worries that a rising sense of tension will cause more migration, not just of Muslim people who feel unsafe in their homes but of Sinhalese people witnessing the social instability, and people who feel there is no future in a country constantly erupting in violence.
‘The riots of Aluthgama and Kandy have been, by magnitude, smaller than those of July 1983,’ Navaratnam says, confined to a locality, and for that reason he remains cautiously optimistic that history is not about to repeat itself. There are enough people who aren’t willing to accept fearmongering and intimidation. And now, he said, ‘the world is watching us much more closely.’
After the Rio property sells, Navaratnam said he might try to restart the family’s cinema brand with a multiplex theater.
‘Rio, Navah, and Trio, three names,’ he said, ‘in my father’s memory.’