(Text of Editorial Appearing in “The Island” of April 5th 2017 Under the Heading “Lester, the Lodestar”)
Today is a special day; internationally acclaimed icon of the Sri Lankan cinema, Lester James Peries, turns 98. He, in our book, is a national hero in that he almost single-handedly led the freedom struggle of the Sri Lankan cinema and liberated the local movie industry from the clutches of foreign ‘invaders’. The living legend is a national treasure!
Lester, with his Rekawa (Line of destiny), premiered in the mid 1950s, ended the ennui of a cinematic winter Sri Lankans had been facing for years. The country had got Independence, but its cinema hadn’t. With that super flick, which not only warmed the cockles of viewers’ hearts but also changed the course of the local cinema, began the marathon innings of the filmmaking genius. Lester has since inspired and guided generations of filmmakers and stars besides gifting numerous creations to the nation; some of these talented men and women have won international recognition.
Lester is in a league of his own and one of the best filmmakers in the world. He associated with many of his foreign counterparts and earned their respect for what he had achieved with limited resources in a small country as evident from his international awards. Lester, as Mahatma Gandhi said, let the cultures of all lands to be blown about his house freely without being blown off his feet by any. He and his works are firmly rooted in the Sri Lankan culture.
The bounden duty of all artistes is to improve public taste as that is the best way to enhance civic democracy and create better citizens. Lester, the movie maestro, took this responsibility very seriously and shot rapids upstream; the country has greatly benefited from his courage besides his brilliance and vision. Sadly, most of the present-day Sri Lankan artistes seem convinced otherwise; they have shirked this vital social responsibility and become slaves to the advertising industry, which is thriving at the expense of public taste.
Lester and his wife, Sumitra, made a valiant effort to raise the standards of the local tele-drama industry, as well, which is caught up in a vortex of foreign influence and commercialism. Many thought theirs was a Sisyphean task, but they succeeded in setting a new benchmark for others and getting the public to think. But, not many tele-drama directors have dared follow their example to swim against the tide lest they should fall foul of the enemies of public taste. The result has been the emergence of the so-called ‘mega tele-drama’ culture, which has become the new opium of the masses; episodes of third-rate soaps are produced almost on a daily basis and telecast at least six days a week. Most of these ‘dramas’ are usually based on themes related to three things—love, ilaw (death/funerals) and walaw (aristocratic mansions).
Lester is, doubtlessly, one in a million and it is not likely that we will have a trailblazer of his calibre in the foreseeable future. It behoves the talented Sri Lankan filmmakers and tele-drama directors to follow the examples set by Lester and Sumitra and a few others who have emulated the veteran duo. That is the best tribute they can pay Lester, who has lived and breathed the cinema.
Lester may not be as fit as a fiddle, but his laser sharp mind remains active as we are aware. Nothing will please him more than to see the cinema and the tele-drama industry progress.
Bob Hope it was who famously said one knew one was getting old when candles cost more than the cake. It is our fervent wish that candles will cost Lester much more than cakes in years to come.
Courtesy: The Island