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Lester James Peries: Liberator of Sinhala Cinema

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by D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Lester James Peries is the acknowledged pioneer of authentic Sinhala cinema. It was he who created an indigenous cinema in every sense of the term . It was he who first gained worldwide recognition for Sinhala cinema.

Western background

The path-breaking director was born on April 5, 1919 in Dehiwela to Catholic parents with 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. At the age of eleven, Lester was presented an 8 mm Kodasco projector by his father. This was his entry to the captivating world of the magic lantern.

Peries 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.

He 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 “Drama circle”.

London

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.

Lester wrote a column from Britain for the “Times of Ceylon” 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 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.

[Lester James Peries]

Govt film unit

Returning to Ceylon in 1954 Peries joined the Government Film Unit and began churning out several documentaries on several subjects including malaria and vehicle 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.

In later life some critics pointed out that his “distance” from the social and cultural milieu in which his films were rooted was a “disadvantage.” But Lester compensated for this deficiency by infusing his creations with a tremendous amount of empathy.

As Lester himself has stated, “in film the visual language is more important than the verbal. A filmmaker must master the language and syntax of the film. What is most necessary for a filmmaker is empathy, the ability to empathise with his subject.”

Associated with him at the GFU were cameraman Willie Blake and editor Titus Thotawatte. Yearning to evolve more meaningful films, the trio resigned from the GFU and embarked on the “Rekawa” venture. “Rekawa” or “line of destiny” was truly the line of destiny for Sinhala cinema.

The first Sinhala movie was “Kadawunu Poronduwa” (Broken Promise) produced by SM Nayagam. Made in Madras (now Chennai), it was released in 1947.

Most Sinhala films in the pioneering first decade were heavily influenced by Hindi and Tamil masala movies. It was said that the only thing Sinhala about them were the actors , dialogue and songs.

Rekawa

The departure from this trend was by Lester in 1956 when his maiden feature film “Rekawa” with a story set in a rural milieu was released. Shot entirely in Sri Lankan outdoor locations, the film chartering a novel course, altered the destiny of Sinhala films.

[“olu nelum neriya ragala” in Rekawa]

People like Regi Siriwardene, the well known Sri Lankan writer, journalist and critic described Rekawa then as an “event of tremendous importance.”

Writing a review of the film in the “Observer” Regi had this to say-

“The story of Rekava is a village story. Our national film-makers have hitherto ignored the setting in which the great majority of the people of this land live”

“And so in the very first few moments of Rekava, you realise that you are in an entirely different world from that of the Sinhalese film up to now. We are no longer watching preposterous puppets animated by synthetic emotions: this is life itself. What Lester Peries has done is to tear down the artificial barriers that the Sinhala film industry has erected between the screen and the real life of our own people”.

Satyajit Ray

The fifties of the 20th century was a golden era for films globally with bold, brilliant film makers in France,Italy, Spain, Japan and Sweden creating new waves in cinema.

In India, it was the Bengali director Satyajit Ray who was regarded as that country’s greatest film maker. Satyajit Ray considered Lester to be of the same mould as him and once referred to the Sri Lankan 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. Regi Siriwardena told this writer once that Lester had not seen “Pathar Panchali” or “Apu Sansar” when he first made” Rekawa”

Regi who had worked as scriptwriter with Peries on some films said that the first Ray film viewed by Lester was “Aparajitho” and that too was only after “Rekawa “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,” said Siriwardena.

Sumithra

The Lester-Willie-Titus 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 without being tied up with a team for too long.

The only exception was perhaps his wife Sumithra who has been editing his films and assisting in screenplays continuously. He married her in 1964. Her maiden name was Gunewardena . She was a niece of the Boralugoda “Lions” Philip and Robert Gunewardena.

In later years Sumithra blossomed forth as 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 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.”

Contemplative cinema

Lester’s films described as the cinema of contemplation 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.

His was the language of silence. Complex relationships, poignant moods,tense undercurrents etc. are portrayed in auteuristic style that is simple and comprehensible.

Lester’s films do not have a very overt political content.The political message if any is quite subtle. As he explains 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.”

After “Rekawa” Peries made Sandesaya (Message), a historic drama set against the Portugese conquest. It had some magnificient scenes of battles.

Gamperaliya

Then came the milestone “Gamperaliya” (Village upheaval) in 1964 that made its mark in the third New Delhi film festival. It won the Golden Peacock Award for best feature film. This was the first time a Sinhala film had won an international award. It also won the golden head of palenque in Mexico.

The late Ediriweera Sarachchandra of “Maname” fame was quoted in a Sinhala newspaper as having stated of Gamperaliya that after viewing it he left the auditorium with a feeling that he had seen a miracle and wondering how this spontaneous creation had manifested itself.

“At last a Sinhalese film has been made with which we could show the world without having to hide our heads in shame. I want to say a great film has been made of a great novel”, Sarachchandra wrote. Scottish film critic, Lindsay Anderson hailed “Gamperaliya” as “elegiac” with “near-Chekhovian grace”.

“Gamperaliya” was adapted from a novel written by the literary colossus, Martin Wickremasinghe. A unique feature of the film was that of being shot outside the conventional studio with lamps and hand-held lights.

Wickremasinghe was initially reluctant to let “Gamperaliya” be filmed. He felt his “Rohini” novel was more suitable. But Lester knew what he needed and got “Gamperaliya”.

When novels are made into films , the novelist is usually displeased with the film feeling that much has been lost in the “transfiguration”. But Martin was very pleased with Lester’s product and even praised the director by saying that some of the cinematic sequences conveyed his message better than the chapters written.

Later on , Lester was to film many of Wickramasinghe’s novels and short stories. “Madol Duwa” (enchanted Island) was an entertaining movie.

Gamperaliya was the first of a film trilogy based on novels by Martin Wickremasinghe. The others were Kaliyugaya and Yuganthaya.

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.

Nidhanaya

Gamperaliya along with Nidhanaya are considred the twin masterpieces of Lester. His greatest movie however was Nidhanaya made in 1970, based on a novelette by G. B. Senanayake. It was compared to Satyajit Ray’s “Jalsaghar” in portraying the decline and decadence of the aristocracy.

Nidhanaya (treasure) 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 fifty years. It has 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, Lester succeeded greatly in portraying the existential realities and nuances of rural Sri Lanka and its ontological veneer. He also excelled in transforming on celluloid popular novels and short stories.

Lester also experimented with psychological topics that had not been dealt with before on the Sinhala screen. Some of his milestones include Delovak Athara that dealt with schizophrenia and Golu Hadawatha.

Golu Hadawatha

Evocative of Akiro Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” Golu Hadawatha (Silence of the heart) too was told in flashback sequence with the two chief protagonists narrating their version of events.

Of Lester’s films my favourite to this day is “Golu Hadawatha”. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly “Golu Hadawatha” was the first Lester directed film that I saw. It was after this that I saw Lester’s easrlier movies on re-runs at Provincial theatres or benefit shows in Colombo. Being the first Lester movie that I saw, it has a special place.

Secondly it was a story 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 wrote the screenplay for the film and naturally, he was very pleased.

The film was adapted from a novel by Karunasena Jayalath. The music was composed by “master” Premasiri Khemadasa who passed away recently. The Producer was P.E. Anthonypillai.

It was a romantic story and the fresh – faced couple Anula Karunathilake as Damayanthi Kariyawasam (Dhammi) and Wickrema Bogoda as Sugath Weerasekara.(Sugath)Anula as the vivacious “Dhammi” stole our hearts then.

Interestingly there was a song connected to “Golu Hadawatha” that was very, very popular then. 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 in the film.

Landmark

Another landmark film was “Ran Salu” (golden Robe) where the Catholic Lester chose an explicitly Buddhist theme. W.D. Amaradeva composed music.

“Akkara Paha” was based on a novel by Madawala S. Ratnayake. It extolled the virtues of rural life and encouraged a return to the land.

“Ahasin Polowata” was another major example of Lester’s attempts to portray characters of a complex psychological nature. It was adjudged the best third world film at the Cairo International Film Festival and awarded the Aknetath trophy.

“Desa Nisa” adapted from a stage play was remarkable for a superlative performance by Joe Abeywickrema and cinematography particularly the preliminary scenes of the lotus pond.

“Beddagama” was based on the Leonard Woolf classic Village in the Jungle. Having read and enjoyed the book as a textbook during school , one was happy to see the film doing justice to the novel.

God King

The only English film made directly by Lester was the “God King”, a Sri Lankan-German co-production. The God King with a blend of foreign and local artistes and the film was shot in Sri Lanka. The story revolved around the Sinhala monarch Kassyapa who built the lion fortress palace rendered famous by its frescoes on 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 works.

Lester himself admits this saying, “I strayed when I did God King. It was dictated to me in a way. It was clearly not my cup of tea.”

Autumn

Three films made during the “autumn of the cinematic patriarch” were “awaragira” (Sunset), “Wekande Walauwe” (Mansion by the lake) and “Ammawaruni” (An elegy for a mother). “Wekande Walauwe” was inspired by Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard”.

From Rekawa in 1956 to “Ammawaruni” in 2007 the auteur has left his celluloid imprint through 20 in a productive career that has topped half a century. The nature of his films have been described as the “cinema of contemplation” and his narration the “Language of silence”.

Though he filmed several novels, Lester was able to break away from the bondages imposed by strictures of literature and the stage. He liberated Sinhala cinema and guided it to new vistas where the medium of film was understood and appreciated

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

Interview

In an interview a decade ago, Lester was asked to comment on his career. 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.”

A host of directors have followed in Lester’s footsteps taking Sinhala cinema to new heights. I have not come across any of these talented directors being critical of Lester’s creativity and creations in any interview given by them.

They acknowledge the fact that Lester was indeed the pioneer who went off the beaten track and proved to be an inspiring beacon for those who followed him.

Speaking of the future of film-making in an interview, Lester was not only optimistic but also envisioned a gradual transformation in directorial ventures.

“I feel certain that film-makers of the future will be more subtle, more elliptical, more oblique in their narration and that all traces of the literary and the theatrical will be banished from their work”, He said.

Disciplined

Lester is methodical and disciplined. He has been careful about his eating habits and began avoiding chilly in curries for many years. It is perhaps this discipline that has enabled him to exceed the biblical span of life by a score.

Even as I wish him many more years of a serene, golden twilight I would also like to state that the best way to honour him is not by renaming roads but to set up a full – fledged film academy or institute .

The finest acknowledgement of the man who changed the course of Sinhala cinema would be to name that Institution after Lester James Peries.

I can be reached on
Email: djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com

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8 Comments

  1. Jairaj

    Thanks a lot for this. I learnt a great deal about Mr. Peries from this. I havent read anything like this even in Sinhala papers. I hope you write more and more on cinema and arts

  2. I saw Rekawa for the first time somewhere in the 1970’s but was struck even then by the freshness and the ‘joie de vivre’ of its rustic simplicity. The primordial place of LJP in Sri Lankan cinema, and indeed South Asian cinema is assured.

    However I do feel that the ‘freshness and creativity of his films began to peter off after masterpieces such as “Gamperaliya””Goluhadawatha”, “Nidhanaya” ……to the extent that the later films were a remake and a mere return down the well trodden path to the ‘Walauwa’ its inhabitants and their private lives. Unfortunately, a very strong and vocal LJP fan club kept up the chorus that all these were masterpieces even to the extent of promoting one such film as i remember correctly , a potential Oxcar candidate.

    Anyway, thankyou for the informative and evocative piece.

  3. hei this is great work! many thnksss for your effort!

    by the way do you know anything descriptive about RAN SALU? it is my favourite movie. do you know anywhere i can get the songs of the movie?

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