“If we adopt the Auteur theory to look at the body of work of Lester what stands out is his humanism, 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” – Dr.Sarath Amunugama (2012 Lester James Peries Oration)
“Maestro” Lester James Peries will celebrate his 97th birthday next Tuesday. The master movie maker of Sinhala Cinema was born on April 5th 1919. Lester James Peries is the man whom I regard as the greatest Sri Lankan film maker of them all!
This article is a birthday tribute to the nonagenarian Lester now basking in the serene, golden twilight of his illustrious life. I have already written many articles about the man and his movies in the past.Still, one does not tire of writing about a favourite subject again and again. Besides it always feels good when writing about the film director who drew the “rekava”for Sinhala cinema’s destiny and is its most treasured ”nidhanaya”.
In a fim 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 eleven 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.
The greatness of Lester James Peries however 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 acknowledgedly 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.
Nearly 20 years ago at a ceremony held to mark the golden jubilee of Sri Lankan Cinema, Lester James Peries was presented the Life Time Achievement Award by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. After the event in an interview given to veteran journalist Roshan Peiris, a visibly moved Lester said “”I treasure this award a lot given for my contribution to the local film industry. It is a distinction that does make me feel that my film career has been worthwhile,”
Speaking further in the interview Lester said that in making films one has to decide whether to make commercial films for purely entertainment value or not. He said, “I don’t depreciate their value. It is an important and an integral part of the film industry. But at the same time there is the film that communicates experiences, the time in which we live, portrays life and human relationships in the society in which we live. ‘Gamperaliya’ and ‘Rekava’ were of this type. They were popular and perhaps appealed to some inner need of the public, to know their own social values. They entertained the people as well. The people had an empathy with those portrayed in the films. I am sure were these films to be shown today there would still be a considerable audience”. He went on to Observe “I must make it clear that the two types of films, entertaining films and serious ones are not contrary to each other or antagonistic. Both are necessary. As in journalism you have both serious and light articles.”
Secret Of Successful Film Making
When asked by Roshan Peiris what the secret of his successful film making was, Lester replied “My success I think, is partly due to the fact that I never compromised. I went ahead and did what I wanted to do and did not deviate from that, no matter what the pressures on me were. Also one must have a deep sense of dedication, despite ups and downs.”He mused thoughtfully and went on to say, “Now the cinema belongs to the younger generation. What has been made is made, these films cannot be changed, but I fervently hope the younger generation will have the humility and the good sense to learn from our mistakes.”
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 “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.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 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 purported 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.”
Path Breaking Film “Rekava” (Line Of Destiny)
Associated with Lester at the Government Film Unit were cameraman Willie Blake and editor Titus de Silva (later Thotawatte). Yearning to evolve more meaningful films, the trio resigned from the GFU and embarked on the venture to make the path –breaking film”Rekava”.The trio broke up later with Blake migrating to Canada 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 to a permanent team for too long. The only exception was perhaps his wife Sumithra who has been consistently editing his films and assisting in screenplays. In later years Sumithra blossomed forth as a successful film director who could portray feminine but not necessarily feminist issues sensitively on screen.
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 thing 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.
Prominent journalist Mervyn de Silva described Rekava as “the birth of Sinhala cinema” itself when writing about it.Critics like Regi Siriwardene, the well known Sri Lankan writer and journalist described Rekava 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”.
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 late 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.
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 .
After Rekava Peries made Sandesaya (Message) in 1960.It was a historic drama set against the Portugese conquest. It had some magnificient scenes of battles. There was also the opular baila song”Porthukeesa Karaya” in the film.
Milestone Movie ”Gamperaliya” (Village Upheaval)
In 1964 came the milestone Movie “Gamperaliya”(village Upheaval) that made its mark in the third New Delhi film festival and 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 award 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.
“Gamperaliya” was adapted from a novel written by the literary colossus, Martin Wickramasinghe. A unique feature of the film was that of being shot outside the conventional studio with lamps and hand-held lights. Wickramasinghe was initially reluctant to let “Gamperaliya” be filmed. He felt his “Rohini” novel was more suitable for a movie. But Lester knew what he needed and got Martins consent to film “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 Wickramesinghe 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. The film celebrates its 40th anniversary today.It was released on April 2nd 1976.
Gamperaliya was the first of a film trilogy based on novels by Martin Wickremasinghe. The others were Kaliyugaya (age of Kali) made in 1982 and Yuganthaya (end of an era) made in 1983..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.
Finest Movie Was “Nidhanaya” (Treasure)
However Lester’s finest movie was “Nidhanaya(Treasure) made in 1970. Nidhanaya 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.
Nidhanaya was the eighth feature film made by Lester James Peries. It is in black and white and 108 minutes long. Gamini and Malani Fonseka play the lead roles and about 75% of the scenes revolve around the pair. Gamini plays Willie Abeynayake the superstitious scion of a rich family facing financial ruin. Malani plays Irene his trusting, devoted wife. Sinhala Cinema’s foremost acting duo play their parts to perfection in ‘Nidhanaya’.
Nidhanaya was based on an original short story by G.B. Senanayake the journalist, poet and writer who went blind in the latter stages of his life. The story was then re-worked into a film script by Tissa Abeysekera who had to make a two-hour-long film-script out of a five-page short story. Tissa won an OCIC award for best screenplay for ‘Nidhanaya’. The film was structured as a narrative with Willie Abeynayake prior to his intended suicide writing in his diary explaining the chain of events in his life that leads to his taking his own life. The story then is related in a series of flashbacks and voice-overs. Finally Willie hangs himself to death.
Realities And Nuances of Rural Sri Lanka
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. Some of his remarkable movies include Delovak Athara (Between two worlds) that dealt with schizophrenia and Golu Hadawatha(Silence of the heart).
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.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.
Another landmark film was “Ran Salu” (golden Robe) where the Catholic Lester chose an explicitly Buddhist theme. W.D. Amaradeva composed music.“Akkara Paha” (five acres of land) 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” the English title of which was “white flowers for the dead”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” titled the eyes in English adapted from a stage play was remarkable for a superlative performance by Joe Abeywickrema and Sumitta Amerasinghe’s cinematography particularly the preliminary scenes of the lotus pond.“Beddagama” (Village in the Jungle)was based on the classic Leonard Woolf novel.Having read and enjoyed the book as a textbook during school , one was happy to see the film doing justice to the novel.
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 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 Peries’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 admitted 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.”
Famous Freedom Fighter Fransiscu Fernando/Puran Appu
Lester also made a historical film about the famous freedom fighter Franciscu Fernando / Puran Appu who revolted against British rule in the nineteenth century. It was called “Veera Puran Appu” in Sinhala and “The Rebellion “in English. Popular actor Ravindra Randeniya played the titular role.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 “Ammawarune” in 2007 the auteur has left his celluloid imprint through 20 films in a productive career that has topped half a century in years. Among these the films “Rekava”, “Gamperaliya” and “Nidhanaya” are recognized by critics and reviewers as the three greatest fims of Lester James Peries.The nature of his films have been described as the “cinema of contemplation” and his narration the “Language of silence” by connoisseurs
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.” 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.
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.
Reflected His Characteristic Humility
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.”
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. 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.
This article written for the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” appears in the “Daily Mirror” of April 2, 2016, it can be reached via this link:
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org