A sports drama movie is something very rare in Sinhala cinema, but the 1314th movie ‘Udumbara’ provided a different kind of experience for fans. The elite cast made fans queue up at cinemas. Legendary actor Jackson Anthony played the lead role, while Sarath Kothalawala, Jayani Senanayake and Janaka Kumbukage had prominent roles.  

There are different types of fans in Sri Lanka – addicted movie fans and sports fans. They would know every little detail about their favourite area. A sports movie is something where both movie and sports fans can watch together. When a new face appears on screen, all movie fans are eager for more information about that person.

The lead female role was played by a newcomer, Nadeeshani Henderson, who was making her debut. ‘Udumbara’ is a story about an athlete and her coach; how a girl named Udumbara wins the world in the 400m event. Nadeeshani might have been just another actress for movie fans, but sports fans knew she was an athlete in real life, because only an athlete would know how to run technically. For an athlete doing something completely different would have been a challenge, but the young girl did her best.

Ranjani Liyanage and Henry Henderson are cycling stalwarts of the island. Ranjani was the women’s cycle champion for a decade, while Henry, apart from his love for Ranjani, also loved his cycle.

Nadeeshani is the elder daughter of the cycling duo, but she decided to choose a completely different sport from what her parents mastered. She ran, she acted, she studied and she graduated. Nadeeshani decided to migrate to study for her masters and is the complete all-rounder. Her story is thrilling and exciting.

Born on 11 August 1993 in Minuwangoda, Nadeeshani first attended Dunagaha Ranasinghe School. She spent most of her teenage years in Colombo with her parents and young sister Sadeepa.

The little girl was attracted to athletics when she was 8-years-old, and her talent/skill saw her receiving a scholarship to attend Ave Maria Convent, Negombo. Her stay at Ave Maria was only until the 9th grade since she grabbed the attention of many schools with her skills. She once again received a scholarship to Gateway Colombo, where she completed her London A/L’s.

Nadeeshani dedicated her life to athletics, and did not allow any other sport to come in between. She decided to make the 400m her pet event. While still a student, she participated in the first Asian Youth Games held in Singapore in 2009, and won 4th place in the 400m, and was a key member of the 4x200m relay team that won the Bronze medal. At the 14th Asian Junior Championship in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2010, she qualified for the super eight in the 400m.

Nadeeshani was at her peak in her last couple of years as a teenager. At the 2010 Junior Nationals Championship, she won first place in the 400m event with a new meet record. At the 2011 All Island School Games, she won a gold medal in the 400m event with a new meet record. She did not stop there, but went on to win first place in the 200m event and was adjudged best female athlete. The same year she showed her true potential at the 2011 ISAC (International Schools Athletic Championship). She was the schools’ 400m sensation and this was evident when she won Gold in the 400m at the 2011 National Youth Games. Be it the National Youth Games, the All-Island School Games or the National Sports Festival, she was simply unstoppable. She made the 400m event her own. Once again at the 2012 All Island School Games, she won first place in the 400m event. At the 2012 National Youth Games she won first places in the 200m and 400m events, while being a member of the 4×100 and 4×400 relays she won Bronze. If I were to pen down, I could pen down many more of her achievements and records.

“I finished school in 2012, but I wanted to do local AL because I always wanted to join a local campus. Soon after 2012, I kept continuing my athletic career, but unfortunately, I sustained a knee injury and had to stop for a few months. This made me lose touch and I started to lag behind. My performances and timings dropped, and I was never the same girl after recovery.  This made me focus more on my studies. I always thought that even though we excel in sports, it’s not enough to have a stable career in Sri Lanka; hence, being educated was a must. So, I somehow managed to balance sports and studies. I wasn’t the best student in class, but I managed and passed.” Nadeeshani spoke about what happened after she bid farewell from school.

With her athletic career slowly fading she knew it was time for the next phase of her life, but she never lost hope. She got through her local A/L’s and gained admission to University of Sri Jayawardanapura to study Sports Science. While studying, she also continued with her first love. An athlete studying in a State University meant she was able to take part in the University World Games. She achieved the qualified standards and participated, but was unable to win any medals.

While doing her BSc, she also decided to follow a HND course in Human Resources Management at IPM. She successfully graduated from University of Sri Jayawardanapura and passed her HND. After completing her studies, she worked as a HR intern at MAS Holdings.

“It was not an easy task to be honest. On certain days I had exams and was only able to sleep about 3 or 4 hours. This is actually not good for an athlete, but I had to make sacrifices. Sometimes when you try to do two things at the same time you find it hard to excel perfectly in either. Anyhow, I managed to balance out, but I think my athletics performance dropped due to being more focused on my studies.” Nadeeshani commented on how she balanced sports and studies.

The sporting fraternity saw her ruling the track; her parents, friends, and close associates saw her excelling in her academics, and now this multi-talented girl was up for another challenge, something very different which needed a lot of training, patience and character. It was time to showcase her acting skills.

‘Udumbara’ portrayed how a courageous girl was able to rise through the ranks and win the world. Life is all about acting and the girl had to learn how to act professionally in front of a camera, not an easy task for a 24-year-old who has never acted. She was able to win the hearts of many people, and through ‘Udumbara’ reached a wide fan base. She won an award for creative achievement at the SIGNIS Awards 2019 which showcased her excellence in her new field. 

Commenting on her acting experience she stated: “‘Udumbara’ was an experience that I am so privileged to have indulged in because not many people get to act in a good movie and be the main actress in their debut, and that too, alongside the legend Jackson Anthony. I had no experience in acting, but Jackson sir was such a helping hand on set. I must also thank Anoja Weerasinghe madam for being my mentor in acting. She is the person who taught me the roots of acting. I would also like to pay tribute to my director Chamantha Raj sir, who was also very supportive to help make this film a success. Finally, I want to thank Sirasa TV for making this movie.”

Nadeeshani married the love of her life, the guy she fell in love with five years ago. Sajith Ushantha Jayaweera and Nadeeshani were acquaintances during school days, but they fell in love much later. Sajith is a Marine Engineer and the duo got engaged on 27 June 2020 and married on 29 May 2021 – the pandemic delaying their wedding.

Currently she lives in the UK studying for her master’s degree.  It’s been over 3 years since this dedicated girl last stepped on the track, but in her heart, she always has the need to win an international medal for Sri Lanka. Well, you never know, she might make a comeback like no one ever has, and indeed she still believes and is hopeful.

“Sports is my everything. I am nowhere without sports. It’s because of sports I got admission to prestigious schools like Ave Maria and Gateway; it’s because of sports I became famous and even got the chance to be the main actress in the movie ‘Udumbara’; it’s because of sports I met my lovely husband. Actually, I owe my life to sports. Sports will always be in my heart, so much so that one day I will make my children excel in sports as well. My advice to the youngsters is to trust themselves and not mind what other people think of them. However stupid your plan might be to other people, if you trust it’s going to work and if you have faith in yourself, go for it and implement it and don’t look back, and never regret anything. Everything good and bad has taught us something in life, so never regret. For parents, I want to say never force your kids to follow ambitions which they don’t cherish, let them follow their own path, and you just be the light bearer to light the path.” Nadeeshani explained how sports lit up her life and contributed to her personality. She did not forget to provide some advice to the kids and the parents.

For Nadeeshani to engage in sports from childhood would have been easy because of her parents’ sports background. The two cycling champions made sure to support their girl whenever she needed it, and never exerted any pressure on her. This might have been one reason why she was able to balance her sports, academics, and other extracurricular activities. She considers them as her pillars of success and forever grateful to them for sacrificing all their time, money, sweat and tears for her success.

She considers American legendary athlete Alyson Felix her role model, and admires her achievements and her way of life. For Nadeeshani winning the All-Island School Meet and being selected best overall athlete, participating at international meets and also getting the opportunity to act the main role alongside renowned Jackson Anthony in the movie ‘Udumbara’, are her proudest moments in her life. 

Finally, this gutsy and multi-talented lady extended her thanks to everyone who has helped her reach where she is now. “I want to thank my parents for always trusting me and their huge support throughout. My husband is such an understanding and supportive husband it is because of him that I could be where I am now. A huge thank you goes to my coaches Sunil Gunawardena, Badra Gunawardena and Nayanthi Kumari. I must also thank my sister Sadeepa Henderson, who is also an athlete now, for being a good sister to me throughout my life. I also take this an opportunity to wish Jackson Anthony good health during this unfortunate time he is going through.”

By Vimukthi Adithya