(Text of an editorial appearing in “The Island” of May 1st 2018 Under the Heading “The Lodestar fades away”)
The country is grieving the loss of one of her greatest sons. The Lodestar of the Sri Lankan cinema has faded away. Dr. Lester James Peries had the rare distinction of being loved and respected by one and all. It looks as though even the Grim Reaper had been reluctant to lay his icy cold fingers on the genial doyen of the Sri Lankan cinema, prematurely. The Vesak moon was bathing the city, which the maestro belonged to, in a sliver light, at the time of his demise, as if to pay him a glowing tribute.
The peerless, gentleman film-maker, who did Sri Lanka proud, was lucky that he had been able to live life to the fullest; he accomplished his mission and died, with his boots on, for all practical purposes. Nevertheless, his demise has left us diminished beyond measure. Towards the latter stages of Lester’s illustrious life, he had a dream, which was to see the latest film, Vaishnavee, by his wife, Sumithra, screened. Based on his storyline and made under his guidance, the film is now showing at major movie theatres. His biographer cum personal friend, Kumar de Silva, tells us, in an article, published on this page today, how the great man willed his spirit to prevail over his frail, mortal coil till Vaishnavee premiered. He waited five long years—a long wait for a man, in his nineties.
Lester has been hailed as a nonpareil who put Sri Lanka on the map, through his internationally acclaimed films. But he did much more for the country. A small nation, caught up in the vortex of globalization and the attendant unbridled cultural invasion, has to not only preserve its culture but also project its cultural image beyond its geographical boundaries, if it is to retain its identity internationally. This is no easy task. Lester and other greats such as Chitrasena, Keyt and Amaradeva, to name only a few, promoted Sri Lankan-ness through their creations, which won international acclaim and helped reinforce the pillars of the country’s age-old culture. They, together with some of their contemporaries, formed Sri Lanka’s cultural bulwark. But for Lester’s courageous intervention and subsequent, life-long battle, coupled with his vision and dedication, the Sri Lankan cinema would have lost direction and vigour, and been reduced to a mere appendage of the South Indian film industry. (Sadly, the local television is moving in the opposite direction, dishing out, as it does, daily, imported trash dubbed into Sinhala.)
We are not without talented, young film-makers, but the question is whether any of them is equal to the task of taking on Lester’s mantle. Most of them lack the strength of purpose, sense of duty and, above all, passion. Lester was never preachy and had no agendas to advance through the cinema. He did not make films to win awards or increase his bank balance. They were the maestro’s cinematic expressions, aimed at entertaining people, encouraging them to think critically and raise their taste, besides setting benchmarks of quality. It was Lester’s movies which enabled people to broaden their horizons and realise what the good cinema really was, before the country was exposed to the rest of the world to the extent it is at present, in days of yore.
Going by the appallingly low standards of most locally made movies and soap operas, one wonders whether they are the outcome of a cultural conspiracy of sorts against the country; they persistently strive to lower public taste and discourage critical thinking, which redefines one’s reality in a rational manner. A country, incapable of critical thinking, makes no progress and is easy to manipulate; its people can be duped into believing that cow’s milk, marketed by multinationals, is better than mother’s and helps improve children’s mathematical skills.
Lester’s demise marks the end of an epoch in the history of Sri Lankan cinema. It has left a void, and the challenge before the young film-makers is to fill it. Easier said than done!