Monday, January 21, 2019

Father of Sinhalese cinema, Lester James Peries, dies at 99

  • PK Balachandran, Sri Lanka Correspondent,
    Published: 2018-04-30 17:50:22 BdST

Lester James Peries

Pioneering Sri Lankan film director Lester James Peries, known as the father of Sinhalese language cinema who rescued it from the thraldom of South Indian cinema, died in Colombo on Sunday aged 99 after a short illness.

Lester, as he was known, had celebrated his 99th birthday on Apr 5 in the presence of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and a host of his film land colleagues.

Before the advent of Lester, Sinhalese cinema was a carbon copy of Tamil cinema from across the Palk Strait, with all its songs, dances and over-acting. Till the mid 60s, a good number of directors, producers and music directors were from Madras and Salem.

This meant that Sinhalese cinema did not reflect Sinhalese culture authentically.

But Lester changed it all, despite his Westernised upbringing and his sojourn in London.

He was not prolific, having made only 20 feature films in a career spanning five decades. But what he made were classics, which have stood the test of time.

“Lester James Peries is acknowledged as the pioneer of authentic Sinhala cinema. It was he who created, in every sense of the term, an indigenous cinema in both substance and style. It was also Lester who first gained worldwide recognition for Sinhala cinema,” writes DBS.Jeyaraj, a Sri Lankan film critic.

Peries’ classics were: ‘Rekava’ (Line of Destiny), ‘Gamperaliya’ (Changes in the Village) and ‘Nidhanaya’ (Treasure).

As film making was not thought of in Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was called, in the 1940s, Lester took to drama.It was during his sojourn in England in the late 40s that he tried his hand at making short films and documentaries.

A short film, “Soliloquy” made in 1949 won an award for ‘artistic and technical merit’ from the Institute of Amateur and Research Filmmakers of Great Britain in 1951.He also produced the award winning “Farewell to Childhood” which was based on a short story he had written.

It was the eminent British film maker Ralph Keene who persuaded Lester to return home saying: “You should make films in your own country, about your own people.”

Back in Ceylon in 1954, Peries joined the Government Film Unit (GFU) to churn out documentaries on subjects like malaria and vehicular traffic.

Lester at 99 being greeted by President Maithripala Sirisena.

Lester at 99 being greeted by President Maithripala Sirisena.

In the process doing these films, Lester was exposed to the realities of rural Ceylon and the life of the common man, aspects he was not aware of given his privileged background.

His first feature film was “Rekawa” or the Line of Destiny. He did it with his GFU colleagues cameraman Willie Blake and editor Titus Thotawatte. Shot entirely outdoors, the path-breaking film released in 1956, altered the course of Sinhalese cinema.

Lester became the “Satyajit Ray’ of Sri Lanka. But the truth is that he was not influenced by the Bengali film maker. The two pioneers had developed independently, though on parallel lines.

Lester was directly influenced by the realistic Italian cinema of Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini.

Lester’s portrayals of characters always brought out the underlying feelings in a simple, subtle and masterly manner. He made silences and pauses speak.

His approach lent itself to the treatment of psychological topics not dealt with before on the Sinhalese screen for lack of cinematic sensibilities and knowledge of cinematic techniques.

Though he lived in an age of political churning, with Sri Lanka going through rapid political changes, Lester did not make political films as such. In fact he made “Amma Waruney” a subtle anti-war film at the height of the war in 2006 when the trend was to make the soldier a hero. This film highlighted the plight of a widow in those times.

Lester’s stories were about the family as he viewed the family as the microcosm of society.

“I use the family as a microcosm through which the problems of a larger world are reflected. I understand my limitations and work within this. To me the battles within the family are more important and far more intense than anything outside of it,” he told an interviewer.

After “Rekawa” in 1956, Peries made “Sandesaya” (Message) in 1960, a historic drama set against the Portuguese conquest of the Island. Then came “Gamperaliya” (Village Upheaval) in 1964 that made its mark in the Third International film festival in New Delhi by winning the Golden Peacock award.

This was the first time a Sinhala film had won an international award.

Gamperaliya was the first of a trilogy based on novels by the late Martin Wickremasinghe, a Sinhala literary colossus. The others were “Kaliyugaya” (Era of Kali or Kaliyug) and “Yuganthaya” (End of an era).

In the words of DBS Jeyaraj: “The three films made after long intervals of time depicted on celluloid the collapse of the old order and the emergence of the new. Together they comprise an epic of transition portraying vividly on screen the struggle between a dying world and another struggling to be born.”

Lester’s greatest movie however was “Nidhanaya”(Treasure) made in 1970. It won the Royal Lion award at the Venice film festival. It is also included in the global list of 100 best films to be ever made that was compiled by the Cinematic Institute of France to mark the World Film centenary.