It is with great sorrow that I write of the death of Sri Lanka’s greatest film director Lester James Peries.
The doyen of Sinhala cinema who celebrated his 99th birthday on April 5th passed away at a private hospital in Colombo on Sunday April 29th 2018.
The nonagenarian filmmaker had been ailing for several weeks since his 99th birthday celebration. Though the news was known to a few it was kept quiet on the advice of the doctors who felt he should not have visitors in his condition. Lester’s wife of 54 years, Sumitra Giunewardene Peries a renowned filmmaker in her own right attended to him till the very end.
Their last collaborative venture “Vaishnavee” a film directed by Sumitra on a story written by Lester was released on April 5th to denote Lester’s birthday.
Those of us who were aware of Lester’s health condition were hoping against hope that the pioneering filmmaker would survive the current ordeal and celebrate his 100th birthday next year.
Destiny however ruled otherwise.
Some years ago in an article about Lester James Peries I wrote thus – ” If I were to pose the question “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the best Lankan filmmaker of them all?” to my personal magic mirror, the answer would be in three words – Lester James Peries!
Though Sri Lanka has produced many brilliant film directors over the years – and I do enjoy their movies – I have always been of the firm opinion that the greatest director of Sinhala cinema is Lester James Peries. There was a time when my friends used to have fun at my expense by belittling Lester’s films as second-rate mediocre stuff. I would retort angrily and they would laugh gleefully.
I have written many articles about Lester and his films and will continue to do so. This article however is a tribute to a man who is to me the greatest pioneeering director of Sinhala cinema.
In a film making career spanning more than five decades Lester James Peries has made 20 feature films inclusive of ‘Pinhamy’ in 1980.
The first of his feature films was the path-breaking ‘Rekava’ or line of destiny in 1956. His final feature was ‘Amma Waruney’ or an elegy to a mother released in 2006.Lester James Peries has also made 11 short films, most of them in documentary mode. The first of these short films was ‘Soliloquy’ made in 1949 and the last ‘Kandy Perahera’ filmed in 1973.
Pioneer Of Authentic Sinhala Cinema
The greatness of Lester James Peries cannot be measured by the quantity of his output. It is the qualitative nature of his films that elevated him to commendable heights. Lester James Peries is acknowledged as the pioneer of authentic Sinhala cinema. It was he who created in every sense of the term an indigenous cinema in both substance and style. It was also Lester who first gained worldwide recognition for Sinhala cinema. Lester James Peries became a national icon identified with the sphere of Sri Lankan cinema over the years.‘Rekava’ (Line of Destiny), ‘Gamperaliya’ (Changes in the Village) and ‘Nidhanaya’ (Treasure) are widely accepted as the three finest films made by Lester James Peries.
Lester James Peries was born on April 5, 1919 in Dehiwela to Catholic parents from an affluent westernised background. His father Dr. James Francis Peries had studied medicine in Scotland. His mother Ann Gertrude Winifred Jayasuriya was the first student to pass the Cambridge senior exam at St. Bridgette’s Convent. Lester had three siblings, Erica, Ivan and Noel.
Lester had his schooling at St. Peters College. His parents wanted him to become a lawyer or doctor while his teachers wanted him to be a Catholic priest. Lester however wanted to study literature and began writing stories, poems and plays from his student days. He was also an incurable film buff. Lester dropped out of school at the age of seventeen and became a journalist. He worked at “Daily News” and later at “Times of Ceylon”. Lester also reviewed books for “Radio Ceylon”. It was then that he began dabbling in drama by joining a theatre group called the “Drama Circle”. It is said that the legendary Lionel Wendt realised Lester’s creative potential and advised his parents to allow him to do whatever he wanted.
Lester went to London in 1947 to join his brother Ivan a reputed painter. The brothers lived together for some years and apparently led a Bohemian way of life bordering on the avant garde.Lester wrote a column from Britain for the “Times of Ceylon” in Colombo then edited by Frank Moraes. It was titled “Letters on the Arts from England”. While working as correspondent of “Times of Ceylon”, Peries also engaged himself in making short films and documentaries. A short film, “Soliloquy” made in 1949 won an award for artistic and technical merit from the Institute of Amateur and Research Filmmakers of Great Britain in 1951.He also produced another award winner “Farewell to Childhood”. It was based on a short story he had written when in Sri Lanka but on film he adapted it to English surroundings.
It was the eminent film maker Ralph Keene who was instrumental in persuading Lester to return home. “You should make films in your own country, about your own people,” Ralph told him.Returning to Ceylon in 1954 Peries joined the Government Film Unit (GFU)and began churning out documentaries on several subjects including malaria and vehicular traffic. In the process he was exposed to new experiences of life which he was not aware of earlier. He discovered his roots and became appreciative of the island’s cultural heritage, something which his upper middle class anglicised existence had restricted earlier.
Associated with him at the GFU were cameraman Willie Blake and editor Titus Thotawatte. Yearning to create meaningful films the trio resigned from the GFU and embarked on the “Rekawa” venture. The trio broke up later, with Blake migrating to Australia and Thotawatte becoming a film director in his own right. Thereafter Peries worked with a number of different artistes and technical personnel in different pictures without being tied down to a particular team for long.
The first Sinhala movie was Kadawunu Poronduwa (Broken Promise). Made in India, it was released in 1947. Most Sinhala films in the first decade were heavily influenced by Hindi and Tamil masala movies. It was said that the only things Sinhala about them were the actors, dialogue and the words in the songs. The pioneering departure from this trend was by Lester in 1956 when his maiden feature film Rekava (Line of Destiny) was released. Shot entirely in Sri Lankan outdoor locations, the path-breaking film altered the destiny of Sinhala films. It was hailed as a turning point in the decade-long evolving history of Sinhala cinema.
Satyajit Ray’s Closest Relative East Of Suez
Analogies have often been drawn between the South Asian contemporaries Satyajit Ray of India and Lester James Peries of Sri Lanka. India’s greatest film maker Satyajit Ray had burst upon the global film scene before Lester James Peries. Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ was made in 1955 and ‘Aparajito’ in 1956. Since Lester’s Rekava was released in December 1956 many reviewers wrongly assumed that Ray had inspired Peries. Satyajit Ray himself considered Lester to be of the same mould as him and once referred to the Sri Lankan director as his “closest relative East of the Suez.” In spite of the creative affinity between the two, Peries was not influenced by Ray when he made his first film.
Renowned writer and scholar, Regi Siriwardena once told me in an interview that Lester had not seen ‘Pathar Panchali’ or ‘Aparajito’ when he first made ‘Rekava’. Regi, who has worked as scriptwriter with Peries on some films, told this writer that the first Ray film viewed by Lester was ‘Aparajito’ and that too was only after ‘Rekava’ was made. “It is a classic instance of two great Asian directors being of the same creative wavelength and proceeding on a parallel course independent of each other,” stated Siriwardena then.
What then inspired Lester James Peries to quit the Government Film Unit along with colleagues Willie Blake (cinematographer) and Titus Thotawatte (Editor) and embark upon the venture to make an authentic and realistic Sinhala film?
Three film factors deeply influenced and motivated Lester in this yearning to make a realistic film amidst a rural setting. Firstly there was the semi-fictional documentary ‘Nelungama’ made by Lester’s boss at the GFU Ralph Keene. Lester had co-written the script and the dialogues for it. While filming, Lester was exposed to village life and longed to make a film in a rural environment. Secondly was the impact of Italian neo-realistic cinema, particularly the films of Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. Thirdly was the film ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ (Two acres of land) by Indian Director Bimal Roy that brought rural life to the screen in a realistic manner.
Lester’s early training as a documentary film maker as well as his penchant for creative literature were reflected in his films. According to Regi Siriwardena, the twin hallmarks of Lester’s auteuristic film making approach were his stylistic “construction of narrative” and ability to “capture and project actualities in a realistic manner.”
Underlying Humanism Was Outstanding In His Films
Lester’s films capture emotions and moods vividly on screen. These expressions are two-fold in the sense that they consist of clearly articulated or manifested emotions on the one hand and also of unarticulated, underlying feelings on the other. Complex relationships, poignant moods, tense undercurrents, etc. are portrayed in auteuristic style that is simple and comprehensible. What is outstanding in his films is the underlying humanism.
Dr. Sarath Amunugama focused on the Auteur theory and on Lester’s humanism when he delivered the Lester James Peries Oration in 2012. Here is a relevant excerpt:
“If we adopt the Auteur theory to look at the body of work of Lester, what stands out is his humanism. Humanism has been defined as ‘Any system, mode of thought or action in which human interest, values and dignity predominates’. While similar ideologies have prevailed in many regional traditions, we are here concerned mostly about humanism as it developed in western society after the Renaissance and became a strong influence on Lester James Peries. While he progressively delved into Sinhala Society and culture he was also a cosmopolitan intellectual. A similar claim can be made about Satyajit Ray. Philip French calls Ray ‘a great film maker rooted in his complex Bengali culture and at the same time a detached cosmopolitan intellectual.’”
Though a citizen of the world with a cosmopolitan background, Lester succeeded greatly in portraying the existential realities and nuances of rural Sri Lanka and its ontological veneer. Lester excelled in transforming on celluloid popular novels and short stories. He also experimented with psychological topics that had not been dealt with before on the Sinhala screen. The nature of his films have been described as the “cinema of contemplation” and his narration the “language of silence” by film writer connoisseurs.
Lester’s films do not have a very overt political content. The political message if any is quite subtle. As Lester himself explained it, “I cannot make intensely political films. Politics is there on the periphery, in films like Yuganthaya, where there is reference to the tension between labour and capital. All my themes are about the Sri Lankan family. I use the family as a microcosm through which the problems of a larger world are reflected. I understand my limitations and work within this. To me the battles within the family are more important and far more intense than anything outside of it.”
Though he filmed several novels, Lester was able to break away from the bondages imposed by strictures of literature and the stage. Economy of dialogue was a hallmark in most of his films. His narrative style blended cinematic images into the story with telling effect. There are long gaps of silence between dialogue. It is said that Lester had a shooting script but deviated from it as the film was being shot. He improvised with innovative spontaneity as shooting proceeded.
“Gamperaliya” (Village Upheaval)Won Gold In India and Mexico
After “Rekawa” in 1956 , Peries made “Sandesaya” (Message) in 1960, a historic drama set against the Portuguese conquest of the Island. Then came “Gamperaliya” (Village Upheaval) in 1964 that made its mark in the Third International film festival in New Delhi by winning the Golden Peacock award. This was the first time a Sinhala film had won an international award. Gamperaliya also won the Golden head of Palenque award in Mexico. Lester had placed Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon on the Global Cinema Map.
Gamperaliya was the first of a trilogy based on novels by the late Martin Wickremasinghe, a Sinhala literary colossus. The others were “Kaliyugaya” (Era of Kali or Kaliyug) and “Yuganthaya” (End of an era). The three films made after long intervals of time depicted on celluloid the collapse of the old order and the emergence of the new. Together they comprise an epic of transition portraying vividly on screen the struggle between a dying world and another struggling to be born.
“Gamperaliya” was produced by Anton Wickremasinghe with Lester James Peries and Sumitra Gunawardene as co-producers.While Lester directed, Sumitra edited the film. Lester and Sumitra married in 1964.Their’s has been a praiseworthy professional and personal partnership since then. Sumitra edited many of Lester’s films in the early years.Later Sumitra ventured into film directing herself and made her mark as one of Sri Lanka’s finest directors in her own right. Lester collaborated with her on some films as producer and writer. Sumitra’s latest film “Vaishnavee” is based on a story written by Lester some 25 years ago. Sumithra blossomed into a successful film director who could portray feminine, but not necessarily feminist, issues sensitively on screen. She also served as Ambassador to France where her husband received the French Legion D’ Honour.
Lester’s greatest movie however was “Nidhanaya”(Treasure) made in 1970. Based on a novelette by G. B. Senanayake, it won the Royal Lion award at the Venice film festival. It is also included in the global list of 100 best films to be ever made that was compiled by the Cinematic Institute of France to mark the World Film centenary. Nidhanaya also won the award at Sri Lanka’s Golden Jubilee of Independence for being the best Sinhala movie in 50 years. It also won critical acclaim as one of the ten top Asian films for all time.
Though a citizen of the world with a cosmopolitan background, he succeeded greatly in portraying the existential realities and nuances of rural Sri Lanka and its ontological veneer. Some of his milestones include “Delovak Athara” (Between Two Worlds), “Golu Hadawatha” (Silent Longing) “Ran Salu” (Golden Robe), “Akkara Paha” (Five Acres) “Ahasin Polowata” (From Sky To Earth) and “Beddagama” (Village In The Jungle).
The only English film made by Peries was “God King”, a Sri Lankan-German co-production. With a blend of foreign and local artistes, the film was shot in Sri Lanka. The story revolved around a Sinhala monarch Kassyap who built the Lion Fortress- palace rendered famous by its frescoes on Mount Sigiriya. The stipulations of a foreign-funded movie restricted Peiris’s creative control and cramped his style severely. The result was quite visible in the finished product which was not one of the director’s best work.
From Rekawa in 1956 to “Ammawarune” in 2006 the auteur has left his celluloid imprint through 20 films in a productive career that has topped half a century in years. Rekava’ (Line of Destiny), ‘Gamperaliya’ (Changes in the Village) and ‘Nidhanaya’ (Treasure) are widely accepted as the three finest films made by Lester James Peries. I have seen all three films and they are certainly path-breaking masterpieces of cinema. However the film that I liked (and still like) most among Lester’s creations is ‘Golu Hadawatha’ (Silence of the Heart).
“Golu Hadawatha” (Silence of the Heart) is My favourite
Evocative of Akiro Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon,’ the story of Golu Hadawatha too was told in flashback sequence with the two chief protagonists narrating their version of events. There were two specific reasons which endeared ‘Golu Hadawatha’ to me.Firstly ‘Golu Hadawatha’ was the first Lester-directed film that I saw. It was after seeing this film that I saw Lester’s earlier movies on re-runs at provincial or suburban theatres or at benefit shows in Colombo. ‘Rekava,’ ‘Sandesaya,’ ‘Gamperaliya,’ ‘Delovak Athara’ and ‘Ran Salu’ were all films I had seen during their re-runs after I had seen ‘Golu Hadawatha,’ which I saw during its first round of screening. Being the first Lester movie that I saw, ‘Silence of the Heart’ has a special place in my heart still.
Secondly, the ‘Golu Hadawatha’ film story was one that I could easily comprehend and understand because the Sinhala screenplay had been translated into English and was serialised in the Sunday Observer. It was published along with still photographs of scenes. This helped me greatly to understand this film and relate to it. I told this once to Regi Siriwardena who had written the screenplay for the film and naturally, he was very pleased. It was my good fortune to be associated with Regi Siriwardena during the years 1985 to 1988 at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo.
‘Golu Hadawatha’ was adapted from a novel by Karunasena Jayalath. The music was composed by “Master” Premasiri Khemadasa. The Producer was P.E. Anthonypillai. Interestingly there was a song connected to ‘Golu Hadawatha’ that was very, very popular in those days. It was written by Karunasena Jayalath himself and sung by Indrani Wijebandara and Sisira Senaratne. The duet had the lines “Aadarei mama aadarei – Dhammi thavamath aadarei, Sugath thavamath aadarei”. But the song was not included in the film.
‘Golu Hadawatha’ was a romantic story and the fresh-faced couple Anula Karunathilake as Damayanthi Kariyawasam (Dhammi) and Wickrema Bogoda as Sugath Weerasekara (Sugath) made a huge impact. Anula as the vivacious “Dhammi” stole our hearts then.
The nature of Lester’s films has been described as the “cinema of contemplation” and his narration the “language of silence” by connoisseurs.As a pioneer of authentic Sinhala cinema, the trail-blazing Lester has been inspiring two generations of film makers in the country. He has also introduced a number of artistes and technicians who went on to make a name for themselves. He has been on the jury of several international film festivals. Peries has also been conferred honorary doctorates by several institutions.
In an interview published decades ago, Lester was asked to comment on his career. Lester’s response reflected his characteristic humility.This is what he said then. “There is an old French saying that in order to understand life you have to see it backwards.This is how I saw through my work. I have done features in the last 40 years and have been in films for fifty years in all. The most important lesson is that you begin to realise how little you know.”
Lester James Peries Is National Treasure and Icon
Consensus is perhaps an elusively unattainable word in the Sri Lankan political lexicon. Mercifully, there are several things about which there is a national consensus cutting across race, religion, caste and creed. One such phenomenon would be in the appreciation of the creative genius of Sri Lanka’s foremost film director as a national treasure and icon.. Lester James Peries liberated Sinhala cinema and guided it to new vistas where the medium of film was understood and appreciated.It is widely acknowledged that Lester James Peries was indeed the pioneer who went off the beaten track and proved to be an inspiring beacon for those who followed him.
The guiding light of Sri Lankan cinema has gone out but the glow will continue to brighten the Sri Lankan silver screen.
(The featured image at the top shows Lester James Peries at 99 being greeted by President Maithripala Sirisena)
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected]