(Talk given by Prof Carlo Fonseka at a commemoration meeting held in St Mary’s Church Bambalapitiya on May 28.)
On April 29, 2018, Dr Lester James Peries, the greatest film-maker on earth at that time, was going on his 100th year. Then he radically changed course and embarked upon the journey “to the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns” as Shakespeare’s soliloquizing Hamlet memorably put it. We are assembled this evening in this church where Lester regularly worshipped, to pay homage to the memory of the great man whose cinematic art helped to make our lives in this world more enjoyable and meaningful.
To set the context in which Lester did his work, let us recall that he belonged to a special subgroup of gifted people in this country. To name but a few of them, apart from Lester himself, it included his brother Ivan Peries the famous painter. Then there was the Cambridge educated lawyer and legislator, Sir James Pieris who in the 1920s led the Ceylon National Congress and was the Vice-President of the Legislative Assembly. There was also his Cambridge-educated lawyer son Charles Jacob Pieris who however, abandoned the law and studied classical Western music. He returned to Sri Lanka, took the name Deva Surya Sena and became an accomplished musician. He focused on our folk songs and vannams. He was a member of the Anglican Church and as it happened, composed a Sinhala liturgy based on the Gajaga Vannama.
Lester James himself was born on the 5th of April, 1919 and brought up in an out-and-out Roman Catholic family. He was Anglicized to his teeth under the beneficent influence of his father Dr Francis James Peries who had acquired his medical qualifications in Edinburgh, UK. He loved the game of cricket and played it enthusiastically. He loved horse-racing and put bets on horses. Lester says that his father never ever spoke a word of Sinhala to them. Lester’s only use of Sinhala was to talk to his paternal grandmother. Lester’s mother Anne Gertrude Winifred schooled at St Bridget’s Convent, Colombo and was the first girl from that school to pass the Senior Cambridge Examination. That, in outline, was the family background of the man who was destined to become the Father of Sinhala Cinema.
Lester himself was acutely aware of what he called the “severe disqualifications” he had for assuming the title of Father of Sinhala Cinema. But – and this is the important point – his incompetence in the Sinhala language, he insisted, was not one of them. He firmly declared that “language was the last thing needed to make films”. He went on to explain that one does not make films in Sinhala or Tamil but in the language of the cinema. The language of the cinema is pictures in motion and the instrument of making pictures is the camera. The Father of the Sinhala Cinema whose working language was English only, proved his point by making 21 high quality Sinhala films.
At this point, it is appropriate to ask what motivated Lester to abandon his comfortable life as a journalist in London and return home. As Lester has recounted to Tissa Abeysekera, who knew more about Lester’s cinematic life than anyone else, in 1949, Lester had been at a concert in Wigmore Hall London at which Hubert Rajapakse from Ceylon had sung Sunil Santha’s immortal song Olu Pipeela. The haunting melody of the song seems to have penetrated into the deepest recesses of Lester’s subconscious mind. Lester had told Tissa that listening to that song was like receiving a come-back call from home. The rest, of course, is history.
Lester’s first film Rekawa, was screened in 1956. Lester says that his aim was to tell a simple village story. The day after it was screened, the formidable editor of the Ceylon Daily News, Mervyn De Silva wrote a review of it. The review carried the heading “The Sinhalese film is born”. Serially, Rekawa happened to be the 41st film produced in this country but Mervyn De Silva identified Rekawa in the birth of the Sinhalese film. He dismissed all films made in this country before Rekawa simply as “photographed, decadent, theatre”. Rekawa on the contrary, he argued, “does justice to the essential nature of cinema”.
Father of the Sinhala Cinema
If Rekawa marked the birth of the Sinhala film, then logically, its maker becomes the “Father of the Sinhala Film”. It was a title Lester never claimed. It was a title that was thrust upon him and he carried it with grace and aplomb and justified it by producing a number of wonderful Sinhala films. Although Lester’s declared aim in making Rekawa had been to tell a simple village story in the south of Sri Lanka, the film did not provide even a hint of the Buddhist culture which is an integral part of the Sinhala village. Some critics castigated Lester for this grave and glaring lapse. Intelligent, sensitive Lester seems to have taken the criticism seriously. His 21st and last film called Ammawaruney or Elegy for a Mother, which was screened in 2006, is manifestly saturated with Buddhist sentiment.
How did this transformation or metamorphosis in Lester’s attitude come about? My short answer is: through the magic of Sumitra Gunawardena, who hailed from the revolutionary Gunawardena family in Boralugoda Seethawaka. Sumitra had learnt cinematic art in Paris and London, mentored under Lester, and in 1964, became Lester’s inseparable partner in life and cinema. She it was who single-handedly, gently and subtly, helped Lester to discover his roots and regain his lost heritage necessary for him to fulfil the role of Father of the Sinhala film. But Lester James Peries kept his precious Roman Catholic faith intact and throbbing. Lester believed that according to his faith, as set forth in the Bible Genesis Chapter 2, when he married Sumitra, they became “one flesh”. This feeling was warmly reciprocated by Sumitra. For her part, I think Sumitra can lay her hand upon her heart and say to Lester, in the beautiful words of poet Anne Bradstreet:
If ever two were one, then surely we
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.