Renowned Sri Lankan film maker and a national icon Lester James Peiris, credited with revolutionalising Sinhala cinema in the 1950s with a strong local flavour and indigenous style, passed away in Colombo on Sunday. He was 99.
A contemporary of Satyajit Ray, Peiris is regarded the “father of Sinhala cinema”. He won critical acclaim in the island and outside for his work that spanned five decades. His debut Rekava (Line of Destiny), made in 1956, is considered path breaking for its realistic portrayal of the ethos of the rural Sinhalese, in a newly-independent Ceylon.
Early Sinhala cinema was heavily influenced by Indian films, until Peiris broke that mould, and shifted filmmaking “out of that formula”, making indigenous, art films in Sinhala, according to well-known filmmaker Asoka Handagama.
Peiris’s pioneering work inspired generations of Sinhala film makers. “They say that Dostoevsky once said ‘we all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat. The same way, we all came out of Peiris’s Rekava,” Mr. Handagama told The Hindu.
Rekava made it to the competition category at the Cannes film festival in 1957, a first for Sinhala cinema. In 2008, his 1963 film Gamperaliya (The Changing Village) was screened at Cannes in the classics series.
Mr. Peries’s Wekanda Walauwa (Mansion by the Lake) in 2002, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard, was Sri Lanka’s first submission for the Academy Awards.
Close to Ray
“Both Ray and Peiris were influenced by Italian neo-realism. Their films have some common features and they were known to be friends,” Mr. Handagama said. Ray once referred to the Sri Lankan director as his “closest relative east of the Suez, journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj wrote in a tribute.
Fans and students of Peiris’s work note that while his films cannot be considered overtly political, a subtle strain of political thought could be noticed. “There was a critique of the feudalistic Sinhalese society in his films,” Mr. Handagama recalled.
Peiris made about 20 films in his career of five decades. In addition to full-length feature films, he also made short films and documentaries. The Sri Lankan government honoured him with the ‘Sri Lankabhimanya’ title, the highest honour given to a civilian.
The veteran filmmaker is survived by his wife Sumitra Peiris, herself a film director and editor who collaborated with him on many projects. Her latest film Vaishnavee, based on a story written by Peiris, was released early April, coinciding with his 99th birthday.
The office of President Maithripala Sirisena has said that the legendary director’s funeral would be held with state honours. “Rest in peace, Lester, the visionary pioneer who paved the way for Sri Lanka to find its identity in the art of cinema. The footprints he has left will be a roadmap for artists in generations to come,” he tweeted on Monday.