Lester James Peries: Grand Master of the Cinematic Form

Sachitra Mahendra in Daily News, 5 April 2018

Immediately following Independence, Ceylon roamed in darkness. The country was at a loss. The country was looking for an identity at least for the sake of its majority ethnic group, Sinhalese. The urge had been brewing for a decade, and the architects were in the making.

A Roman Catholic by birth, S W R D Bandaranaike instituted a political crusade in favour of the majority ethnic group. There was much more to it than racism like it came to be portrayed a few decades later. Bandaranaike was focused on gaining a stretched political mileage through a unique adoption of the Sinhala-only policy. In London, Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy had a one-on-one discourse with Bandaranaike who was treading the Oxford University terrain. Dr Coomaraswamy offered him the tip of a famous five. Back in Ceylon Bandaranaike had the Sinhala-only policy crowd-sourced by this famous five: clergy, physicians, teachers, farmers and labourers. That ploughed Ceylon to welcome a cultural revolution.

All the same, Bandaranaike cannot be considered the high priest of that cultural renaissance. He was one of them. Chitrasena, Sunil Santha, Amaradeva, Lester James Peries and Martin Wickramasinghe came to the forefront to capsize the cultural capsule, while Bandaranaike continued to plough the land. He did not last long, sadly, yet his mission did. The revolution came to pass at a fast pace and we are yet to celebrate its century. All masters of that revolution, but one, are long gone. The master left behind is on the verge of a century.

And that is Dr Lester James Peries who turns 99 today.

That the local cinema initiated its long journey in 1947 with Kadavunu Poronduwa is known to everyone in this country. But the industry was struggling for uniqueness and originality. The industry was too newfangled for the local filmmakers to be original. To this forte, Peries enters like any other good Ceylonese man with a heavy English-influence. He availed himself of his English influence to wipe away the English remains in the country.

Dr Lester James Peries will be revered in Sri Lankan history on account of quality – rather than quantity – of his filmography. Film by film, Dr Peries planted a fresh seed in the industry. Film by film, Dr Peries introduced a new wavelength. He did not deliver art. He delivered a whole generation. That whole generation did not think outside the box. They formed a box for the industry. The likes of Gamini Fonseka, Tissa Abeysekara, Titus Totawatta and Sumitra Peries saw the light of the industry in Dr Lester James Peries’ cubicle. And that created the tunnel for emerging contemporary filmmakers such as Prasanna Vithanage, Ashoka Handagama and Vimukthi Jayasundara.

Rekhava, officially premiered in 1956 incidentally coinciding with the Bandaranaike revolution, broke the prevailing grounds. The film was shot out of the studio premises and was confined to Ceylon. The dialogues were more natural. The storyline provoked more emotional nuances. Ultimately it went on to be the first feature-length film down the local cinema annals. It gained entry into the Cannes Film Festival in 1957 – an international honour denied for the films hitherto produced. Yet, this was not consummation. Dr Peries was still experimenting with the subject.

Peries, still a newbie to the industry, had to face challenges. He sought a local vein for the music. He heard of Sunil Santha while in London through Devar Surya Sena at a concert. Back in Sri Lanka, he wanted to have Sunil Santha on his team, but the latter did not like the idea of contributing to an industry plagued with South Indian influence. Luckily for Peries, Fr Marcelline Jayakody came to rescue.

The second feature film, Sandeshaya, was one step ahead, handling a more intricate plot outline: history. That was 1960. Three years later, Peries took over a new trial: a film based on a novel. Gamperaliya was a few steps ahead with Tissa Abeysekara (known for his natural dialogues, and a revered scriptwriter whose posthumous films continue to emerge), and Reggie Siriwardana entering the scene as writers to the screen. That was a more groundbreaking work with a number of performers such as Tony Ranasinghe, Henry Jayasena and Trilicia Gunawardane later earning a brand name in their own right. It received a widely acclaimed appreciation from the critics such as Ediriweera Sarachchandra. Reviewed Professor Sarachchandra: “At last a Sinhalese film has been made which we could show the world without having to hide our heads in shame. I want to say a great film has been made of a great novel.”

Gamperaliya was followed by Delovak Athara, Ran Salu, Golu Hadawatha and Akkara Paha. These films show Dr Peries’ knack as well as a fondness for making films based on fiction. Yet, in 1972, he entered a different plane with the next film, Nidhanaya, originally a short story by G B Senanayake. Dr Peries had the blessings of a powerful script by Dr Tissa Abeysekara, powerful music by Dr Premasiri Khemadasa and an equally powerful, yet small, skill-studded cast.

Ammawarune, the hitherto final movie, made in 2006 cannot be called the culmination of the Lester James Peries filmography. It is the continuation of the culmination he has already attained in the late fifties through seventies.

Dr Lester James Peries deserves the ovation he is honoured with today as he begins to shift to the much-coveted century from the nonagenarian decade. He was the first filmmaker who led the Ceylonese cinema into an international platform. That acclaim made things easier for the subsequent Sri Lankan cinema. Film after film, Dr Peries offered lessons on how indigenousness could be employed in filmmaking. That was a gradual, yet steady, path. Regi Siriwardana cannot be more accurate when he defined ‘Rekhawa’ as an ‘event of tremendous importance’. Though it may not be a masterpiece, it ushered in the tradition Dr Peries wanted to be instilled. With Rekhava, the Ceylonese audience was done with the unoriginality.

Growing up in a Christian home, speaking only in English, Peries’ only access to the vernacular culture was his grandmother. If Sri Lanka has reached some cultural pinnacle today, her citizens should be thankful to that great lady along the same line of paying tribute to Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy for being the cradle that nurtured revolutionaries.

A NOTE from Wilfred Jayasuriya: “REMEMBERING LESTER JAMES PERIES and a Robert Knox film script”

When Lester James Peries was at the height of his career perhaps 30 or more years ago I happened to meet him in his house at Dickman’s Road and have dinner there with a number of others, including his wife Sumithra and my wife Cynthia, who were collaborating on a film about a deaf child, which was sponsored by Asia Vision, an NGO.  After talking with Lester he handed me a complete script of a film on Robert Knox, asking me to read it and talk about it.

In Peradeniya University in the 1950s, where Dr Karl Goonewardene taught Ceylon history he had a whole term full of lectures on Robert Knox in Room A, which was the largest lecture room. Since Knox was full of authentic  info we, as young undergrads, were fascinated by the point of view. We read English literature too and British history and knew the connections and interpretations. Further Karl was an excellent story teller and reveled in dwelling on the significant detail e.g. scoring a point for the audience, by telling us  that according to Knox, washing the back side with water as the Kandyan Sinhala did,  was better than using some kind of toilet paper, as the British did in the 17th century! So Robert Knox became one of us as he narrated his life story. Surely it is a model of the narrative art.

The author of the film script was one of the Gunewardene men, who were connected family wise to Sumithra, and who had lived in UK and who later ran some kind of a boat yard in SL. In some way I cannot quite place now, he was also  connected  to Lalitha Adihetty, who was one of my more memorable contemporaries at Peradeniya.

The script consisted of a series of scenes from the book. “A Relation of The Kandyan Kingdom.” One I remember well was of Knox at a village house where paddy was being sold and Knox was there, overseeing the process of measuring and collecting the payment, as a claimant for part of the payment, because he had advanced some seed paddy to the cultivator, who was selling the paddy. Knox was portrayed in this scene as a kind of Jew, as in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, who lent and received with interest, introducing a commercial angle to the more simple minded behavior patterns of the Sinhala, that Knox describes himself. The script writer introduced a historical perspective acceptable to a Sri Lankan audience.

Of course Knox was a much more complex character than he presents as himself.  Or as a scriptwriter could. But the book is a mine of possibly creative info which could be the most authentic stuff we could show and see about pre colonial Sinhala people. The script writer Goonewardene had imaginatively placed him in a historical context which silhouetted him as a white man in the local scene, whereas Knox focused on the external world in some sort of “objective” way. When I returned the script to Lester he did not draw me into a discussion however. Apparently it was not going to be done by him. I understand that it was produced as a documentary on Dutch TV. We never saw it. Perhaps the book itself is copyrighted in a way which prevents use. But what a fascinating thing it would be if we could make a film of it. Or see what the Dutch did with it.

Greetings to Lester and Sumithra!

Wilfred Jayasuriya……………………….wifridjayasuriya@gmail.com

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