By Bandula Jayasekara
Political vultures are circling round the late Maestro Lester James Peries after his death. They have instructed to ‘honour’ him with a state funeral at the expenses of the state. I saw a photograph of President Sirisena handing over a cheque to Lester on his 99th birthday on 5th April this year. The cheque was to cover his medical expenses. I was saddened by it. The incumbent President and his predecessors could have done better and more for Lester. Why the pathetic public display I thought. Why didn’t they do it earlier? Why at 99? Disgusting. Isn’t it? Lester was a treasure. A treasure, Sri Lankan authorities didn’t treasure enough.
Long ago, Lester told me how sad had been when our mutual friend the late Ajith Samaranayake criticised him for appearing in an advertisement endorsing a popular Video Recorder. “It took me more than a year to direct Yuganthaya and I was paid Rs. 40,000. For this advertisement which was shot in my garden and took only one hour, I got paid Rs. 40,000. They also gave me a video recorder to watch movies. What is wrong with that?” Lester asked. I told Ajith what Lester told me and also told him what I thought about it. Later, Ajith understood why Lester had agreed to appear in the advertisement and both of them continued to be good friends until Ajith’s untimely death. We all know Lester and Sumithra Peries never made money and lived in a rented house. Whatever they earned they invested in films.
We must commend what former President Chandrika Kumaratunga did for Lester and Sumithra. She recognised them and honoured them. Chandrika asked him to be Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Paris. Lester declined and Sumithra was appointed as Ambassador. Sumithra told me apart from serving the country well, they, especially Lester, had a memorable time in France. Lester and Sumithra first met in Paris and their love story began in the Romantic City. She saw his movie Rekawa first in Paris. The city of culture and art recognized the Maestro of Sri Lankan cinema and the poetess of Sri Lankan cinema. Those were very happy times for Lester.
Let our ‘leaders’ who capitalize on birthdays and funeral of artistes be reminded that India and France recognized and honoured Lester James Peiries of Sri Lanka, before Sri Lanka did. He was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 31st International Film Festival of India in 2000. The French Government honoured him in 1997 with Commandeur (Commander) in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) UNESCO awarded Lester the ‘Fellini Gold Medal for Outstanding film career in 2003 at the Cannes International Film Festival and his own country, Sri Lanka the Wonder of Asia, waited until 2007 to confer the Sri Lankabimanaya, the highest civilian honour to Lester.
Taking part in News 1st Pathikada on Sirasa TV, A Tribute to Lester on 1st April this year, actress Yashoda Wimaladharma told Sri Lanka about the financial difficulties faced by Lester and Sumithra to get their masterpiece Vaishnavee released earlier. “They asked for help even from the National Film Corporation of Sri Lanka. But, they didn’t help” Let us ask, why the state patronage now? Don’t get fooled Sri Lanka. Yashoda also said “The film was first premiered in Kolkata. Lester and Sumithra boasts of a wonderful friendship with Kolkata. It is over 50 years. At the closing ceremony, the Chief Minister of Kolkata said: “We have a long friendship with Lester and Sumithra. Our friendship is so much, if I was the leader of India I would make them special citizens of India and honour them.”
My friend Kumar de Silva, a dear friend of the Peiris family, who wrote the autobiography of Lester, Lester by Lester also participated in my programme on 1st April. He told me after the programme, with sadness “Lester waited and waited for five years until the film is released. Bandula, I think he is holding on until then.” Kumar, you were right. But, how did you know it?
The Island was Lester’s favourite newspaper. I have seen him combing the paper from the first page to the last. Lester, loved its editorials and its contents. He was an avid reader, A Maestro. Sumithra told me “He wouldn’t let anyone else touch the newspaper. He holds on to it.” I have seen it happening when I have walked in to his room. It was his Island. I know Lester was elated when the Editor of The Island, my friend Prabath Sahabandu paid tribute to Lester in Editorials dedicated to him. He realised right thinking people loved and treasured him. The Island has lost one of its greatest readers.
I can pen more from the first time I met him when he was the Chief Guest at the Trinity College prize giving and how I questioned him as to why he didn’t come to Kandy looking for actors (That was after Madol Duwa) Then I got a note signed by one of his assistant directors V. Upali Perera to come and meet Lester in Colombo. My interest in acting was lost when I came to Colombo. However, it was a privilege for me to have met both Lester and Sumithra and continued an association with love, respect and honour toward them. I wonder what the Master of the Pen, late Ajith Samaranayake, who took me to meet them first, would have written about the departure of the Maestro of Sri Lankan Cinema. They would meet in heaven and have a long discussion instead.
This is enough. Dear Sumithra, I am deeply saddened by Lester’s death. However, I am more angered by the way the State of Sri Lanka treated him.
PS: It isn’t late for the State of Sri Lanka to protect, care and honour Legends of Lanka, Irangani Serasinghe, Vajira Chitrasena and Sumithra Peries.