Sri Lanka is honoring the late Lester James Peries for having been an outstanding film maker who brought laurels to the country abroad consistently over a period of 50 years. But he was also a ‘freedom fighter’ in as much as he single-handedly liberated Sri Lankan cinema from the yoke of the South Indian film industry writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Express.
Lester, who die at 99 on April 29 after a brief illness, courageously broke from tradition and brought into being genuine Sinhala cinema shorn of the baneful influence of the Madras film industry.
This is recognized even by Sri Lanka’s Tamil leaders. In his tweeted tribute, National Reconciliation Minister Mano Ganshan said that Lester had “steered Sinhala cinema toward Sri Lankan identity shedding the early Indian influence.”
It was Lester who fired the first shot in this war of independence with his path-breaking production Rekawa (Line of Destiny) in 1956.
Rekawa chronologically coincided with the rise of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism unleashed by SWARD. Bandaranaike .But Lester’s nationalism was apolitical, lying solely within the field of cinematic sensibilities and technique. The inspiration to chalk out a new path came from a revulsion for the South Indian film making format in which Sinhala films were trapped.
Early Sinhalese films lacked “Sinhalaness” and were mere imitations of poorly made low budget Tamil films from Madras.
When he came to Sri Lanka after a sojourn in London as a documentary maker in the early 1950s. Lester found Sinhala films to be an “absolute disgrace.” In the book Lester by Lester by Kumar de Silva, he says: “ Sinhalese films were a disgrace artistically, a farce in the acting department, and of course, technically you couldn’t even talk about it.”
Lester did not say that South Indian films were all bad. He blamed Sri Lankan producers for going to the wrong places to get things done cheaply.
“Even in South India, Gemini Studios, Vijaya and AVM Studios were turning out fairly technically competent commercial films. But Sri Lankan producers went to a broken down old studio probably because of the cost.”
“We were seriously wondering as to why the acting was so bad, why the stories had to be so bad and theatrical, and why the film had to be so primitive,” Lester recalled.
He made Rekawa set in rural surroundings to show what Sinhala cinema should be. It got excellent reviews, but bombed at the box office after the first ten days.
And it took almost a decade for Lester’s message to sink in. It was only in 1962 that, under the influence of radical nationalists, the government appointed a commission to go into the state of the film industry in Sri Lanka and suggest remedies.
In its report submitted in 1965, the commission pinpointed the continued stranglehold of South Indian cinema, South Indian technicians and the dominance of Tamil and Muslims minorities in the Sinhala film industry. It suggested several remedial measures.
Lack of Patronage
However, Lester had to suffer lack of patronage and financial resources because of the absence of a “film industry” in the island. Producers were mostly amateurs who made films for a lark or to hide their black money. Even established film companies, which combined distribution with production, looked at the bottom line and profit rather than the artistic aspects of a proposal.
Lester felt an irresistible urge to make Sinhala films authentically reflecting the culture of Sri Lanka despite the fact that he was an atypical Sri Lankan, Westernized and not too conversant with the Sinhala language.
He justified his wish to switch from English to Sinhalese cinema by saying that language should not be a barrier for film makers because films speak in a language of their own –the cinematic language.
“One does not make films in Sinhala or Tamil but in the language of cinema,” he told Kumar de Silva.
Independent of Satyajit Ray
Some say that in making Rekawa, Lester drew inspiration from Satyajit Ray , the pioneer of Indian realistic or art cinema , whose Bengali film Pather Panchali had hit the screens in 1955. But in reality, despite their friendship, the Lester and Ray grew independently, though on parallel lines. In fact, Lester was influenced by post-war Italian realistic filmmakers and not Ray.
Rekawa was a fable knit into a realistic village culture. And unlike the normal Sinhala film, it was shot outdoors. This posed technical challenges in recording sound. Lester would want the actors to speak in the normal tone, but the sound technician would ask the actors to speak loudly in the absence of sophisticated equipment. Cutting out unwanted background noises was another challenge.
Working with actors from the theater, Lester had to get them to speak not in a theatrical way but normally, and also avoid exaggerated expressions, as these could jar in close ups.
Outdoor shooting in distant places over several months saw unusual problems cropping up. The unit had to live in huts without toilets .Members had to put up with illnesses, snakes and leeches, things unheard of till then because films were shot in studios.
Since the press gave Rekawa good reviews, the box office collections were good. But this was so only for the first ten days. Thereafter it crashed as the masses were not used to the non-Indian way of telling a story.
However, the renowned Austrian actress, Maria Schell, saw the film at Roxy Cinema in Wellawatte. And in an interview to the Observer said that it should be shown at Cannes. One thing led to another and the film did land in Cannes where it was bought by Russia, Poland, Germany and France. It was sold at the Karlovy Vary festival in Czechoslovakia also.
Lester James Peries and Sri Lankan cinema had barged into the international film circuit.
But in Sri Lanka, his woes continued. Since Rekawa failed in the domestic circuit, local producers baulked at the idea of giving another film to him. For three years he twiddled his thumb and contemplated returning to England.
But lady luck smiled eventually. K.Gunaratnam of Cinemas Ltd., reacted positively to Lester’s proposal to make a Portuguese period costume and action drama called Sandeshaya.
The 1960 film introduced the redoubtable Gamini Fonseka to the world of acting. Gamini was pulled out of Assistant Directorship to take a role. Producer Gunaratnam was against casting Gamini but Lester’s persistence saw him in. The battle scenes were a major challenge for a Sri Lankan film maker. But Lester pulled them off too. Sandeshaya was a huge hit.
Lester’s penchant for location shooting and his abhorrence of studios made him expensive even in an age when all that a film maker needed was Rs.150,000 to Rs.170,000 for a film.
He had to go from pillar to post to get money for a film, although ironically, all his films made money either at home or abroad. Sri Lankan producers would rather fund a run of the mill commercial film than a well-made realistic film on a serious topic.
Lester had to wait for another four years to make his next film Gamperaliya. Based on a Martin Wickramasinghe’s story it was a unusual film in as much as it was only a house with some people talking to each other. Gamperaliya got rave reviews from the English language press and set off discussions on the nature of cinema as a medium.
It won the Golden Peacock at the New Delhi International Film Festival in 1965, to become the first Sri Lankan film to win an international award.
After Delovak Athara and Ran Salu , Lester had a stroke of luck in domestic cinema. Ceylon Theaters offered to finance three films in a row, “ quite unusual and extraordinary at that time,” when producers made one film and disappeared into the wood work.
With teenage school romance as the theme, Golu Hadawatha (1968) was based on a prize winning novel by Karunasena Jayalath. Although it contained two versions of the same story, the film ran well. Abroad, it won the French Critics’ Prize.
Ceylon Theaters next financed Akkara Paha (1969) based on a novel by Madawela S.Ratnayake on an indigent rural family’s sacrifices to educate a son to get out of poverty. Lester was challenged by the subject as the story was about the failure of the son to make it when audiences expected to see successes rather than failures. Nevertheless, Lester did the film as it showed the plight rural folk. The film got an indifferent press but it saw Malani Fonseka acting in a Lester film for the first time.
In 1970 came Nidhanaya starring Gamini Fonseka and Malani Fonseka and funded by Tonly Pillai of Ceylon Studios. The film was about human sacrifice being contemplated by a Westernized but superstitious bachelor to discover hidden treasure. There were only five characters in the film and 70% of it was about just two people – Gamini and Malani Fonseka.
The acclaim that Nidhanaya got overseas ,fetched for Lester the international film The God King (1975). A joint venture between Manik Sandrasagara and Dimitri de Grundwald, the film was about Sigiriya and King Kassapa. The agreement was that the main actors and the Assistant Director would be Whites, and the technicians would be Sri Lankan. The film featured Ben Kingsley, who later became famous through Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
It was the first Sri Lankan film to use Dolby Sound and its background score was played by the London Symphony Orchestra. The God King proved that Sri Lankan technicians were second to none.
Lester enjoyed making The God King but he was happiest doing small scale films specially about family life because for him, stories of families told stories of the larger society.
Relief came in the form of Madol Duwa based on Martin Wickramasinghe’s story about adventurous children. The film was a commercial success. But as before, despite the success, the producer did not make another film.
Ahasin Polowata (1978) was a film Lester did not want to make but eventually did for the sake of the Sumathipala couple. The film on a deteriorating marriage due to personality differences was a commercial success and won the Best Third World Film Prize at the Cairo International Film Festival.
But in 1978-1979 there was a request from UNP politician Tyronne Fenando to do a spectacular film on Puran Appu, his ancestor and hero of the anti-British rebellion in Matale. It was a period film with battle scenes which had to have Whites also in the cast. Lester had to work hard also because the film had to be based on historical records to show that Puran Appu was not a myth created by the Karawa caste.
Despite Lester’s reservations about its success, Veera Puran Appu did well at the box office. Fernando told Lester that he made money on the film, but alas, he never produced another film!
In 1980 came Beddegama starring Malani Fonseka, Joe Abeywickrama, and Vijaya Kumaratunga, based on the novel The Village in the Jungle by the British civil servant, Leonard Woolf. The film did well, with France, Germany and UK’s Channel 4 buying it. The London film Festival named it ‘Outstanding Film of the Year.’
Wekande Walauwwe or Mansion by the Lake, a family drama based on Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, was released in 2001. The declining fortunes of a wealthy family reflected the changes Sri Lanka was going through. It was shown in the non-competitive section of Cannes and got good write ups in the French press.
Amma Waruney, set during the war in 2006, saw the brutal conflict from the point of view of a widowed mother and her sons.
“The mother was a metaphor of what the country was going through,” Lester said.
Lester’s career shows that Sri Lankan cinema was lacking in necessary infrastructure, especially institutional funding. He had surrendered his insurance policy and wife Sumitra had sold some of her properties to fund a film.
Film making has always been an expensive, challenging, competitive and risky trade which needs a State-backed support system in the absence of private initiatives. Sri Lanka is yet to address this issue despite bristling with cinematic talent second to none in the world.
(The featured image at the top shows Lester with a replica of the Golden Peacock,his first international award given at the New Delhi film festival in 1965. It was stolen during the funeral service. The original which was with the producer of the film “Gamperaliya” Anton Wickremasinghe disappeared about 25 years ago)