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83rd birth anniversary : The film-maker as sage

by Ajith Samaranayake - Daily News Fri Mar 5, 2002

It was the ambition of the young Lester James Peries to become a writer but his Line Of Destiny (or Rekhava) ran in a contrary direction. The end product was the emergence of Sri Lanka's pre-eminent film-maker and one of the figures of the world cinema. And thereby hangs a tale.

To reflect on the life and times of Lester James Peries (whose 83rd birth anniversary falls today) is to reflect almost on an epoch. Reminiscing with some friends recently Peries recalled that the last event he had covered from London for the 'Times of Ceylon' had been the death of King George VI, the father of the present Queen. Now the Queen Mother is dead and Peries himself was in Paris when Princess Diana suffered her sad and terrible death in a french underpass.

Lester James Peries has witnessed dynasties wax and wane and reported at first hand Ceylon's transition from the position of a British colony to an independent state from the very heartland of events in London which was still then an imperial capital.

Peries might have gone to London to work for the 'Times' from Fleet Street with the idea of cutting his teeth on a paper before becoming a creative writer but that period in Britain was crucial to his formation in a different way. London was then the centre of a vigorous documentary film tradition associated with the British Post Office the most famous of these films being about the functioning of the mail trains which transported the post all over Britain for which the commentary was written by the poet W.H. Auden. In Sri Lanka itself the Italians had set up the Government Film Unit and the country had provided the inspiration for the likes of Basil Wright to produce a masterpiece such as the 'Song of Ceylon'.

It was this vigorous tradition of the documentary cinema which Peries inherited when he returned to Colombo to work for the Government Film Unit.

In a typically witty piece in the 'Sunday Observer' some years ago by way of a tribute to his late brother-in law Gamini 'Kuru' Gunawardena Peries recalled that he had made his film on road safety titled 'Be Safe or be Sorry" and had been asked to make a film on venereal diseases. The young film-maker was confronted with the monumental existential choice of whether to make the film about the 'clap' or to get it when the chance to make 'Rekhava' presented itself.

Peries left the GFU with his colleagues Willie Blake and Titus Thotawatte and the agreement with the producer christopher peries, was signed at 225, Blomendhal Road, Colombo 13 (the address of Upali Newspapers today). Since then Lester James Peries has not looked back.

Peries was placed in a unique but quite unenviable position in the sense that he had not only to make the films but also forge and foster the film tradition and taste by which his films could be judged. The tradition of an indigenous cinema was still rudimentary at best and the Sinhala film was viewed by the elite of the day as a form of vulgar amusement only suitable for their servants.

Except for the writings of Jayavilal Wilegoda and Karunasena Jayalath in the popular press there was no appreciation of the cinema on a mass level and even they were not really equipped to respond fully to a truly art film. So Peries had not only to make films but form the taste by which the films could be judged as well. Until he found his voice with 'Gamperaliya' it was an uphill task.

Pereis' cinema has been often called a cinema of contemplation and it is here that the incipient writer and the mature film-maker become fused. In his films peries reflects on the flux of time and the convolutions of the human mind and heart, the passage of events and the inevitable human procession albeit in a muted way. It is not that as an upper middle-class film-maker educated in English (the favourite jibe of his detractors) he is alienated from the mainstream of events but that such events find their resonance in his films in a human rather than an overtly political or social mode.

It is to the philosophical core at the heart of the human condition that he directs our gaze rather than its political or social trappings. But yet 'Nidhanaya' was hailed by a Russian critic no less as a masterful depiction of the decadence of the aristocracy.

At 83 Lester James Peries then is something of a sage although I know he will be the first to disdain such grandiloquent compliments. He has observed the passing scene and digested it wisely passing to us a truly humane vision of life. Although not a political film-maker like some of his younger colleagues his view of society has been one of a decent social order buttressed by the best in our tradition while being receptive to the best from other traditions.

He is no staid pillar of the traditional order or crusty upholder of orthodoxy. He retains a keenness of mind and an abundant and undimmed zest for life which makes him relish the foibles of the human condition. Among the idiocies of life and the clamour of the vulgar horde he remains an oasis of calm but he is no 'sadhu' who has retired to an 'ashram'.

He remains at the centre of events but remains a pillar of sanity in a society sometimes running amok.

Lester Peries may not be a 'sadhu' but the study of his Dickman's Road home is something of an 'ashram'. He is surrounded by books which I must confess I have been borrowing from time to time these days although I must add in mitigation that I have faithfully returned them except for the last two. There are not only books on films but also by all the old masters - Edmund Wilson, Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden - and biographies of practically every figure of literary note of our times. Incidentally to those who accuse Peries of being politically indifferent I must commend his reading and understanding of Edmund Wilson's 'To the Finland Station,' that masterly study of the Russian Revolution.

So we shall leave Lester James Peries in his study surrounded by his books and his trophies, looking out of his window and across his leafy garden at the busy traffic along Dickman's Road, the unflinching camera eye fixed on the passing scene and the human procession, fixed as always on the human condition.

The disciplined film-maker

by D.C. Ranatunga

It was in the mid-sixties. I had moved over from 'Dinamina' to 'Observer' as News Editor (possibly the first newspaperman in Lake House to be "promoted" to an English newspaper from a 'vernacular daily') when Denzil Peiris decided to take me along with him having held the fort as 'Dinamina' editor following the sudden exit of M.A. de Silva immediately before the 1965 General Election. After a couple of years, I moved over as Features Editor mainly to handle the Sunday edition, which by then was known as the Observer Magazine Edition. Denzil, the ideas man as he always was, wanted to create a wider interest on the Sinhala arts among English readers.

Dramatists, filmmakers and literary personalities were to be featured regularly. A page in the Sunday edition was devoted to the arts. We started a column titled 'On Stage & Screen' which I wrote. I knew my Sinhala and had a love for the arts. Not many did at that time on the 'Observer'. That's how I came to know the master filmmaker, Lester James Peries (he gently told me how I should spell his name at our first meeting) and ever since then we have been close associates.

That was the time Denzil took up the cause of Sinhala film producers who were being harassed by the film distributors. The distributors were giving them a raw deal. Virtually every week Denzil commented on the unfair treatment to the Sinhala filmmakers and it came to a point when the film distributors stopped advertising in the 'Observer'. The regular film advertisements disappeared from the paper. I wonder who the losers were!

Much has been written on Lester's films and about his creative talent. Mine is an attempt to record a few 'happenings' during our association extending for nearly four decades.

When Lester picked Karunasena Jayalath's ever-popular novel 'Golu Hadawatha' to be made into a film, the 'Observer' serialised the story (translated by Edwin Ariyadasa, if I remember right) with stills from the film. It was a new experience for the 'Sunday Observer' readers. They got to know Dhammi and Sugath, the teenage heart throbs, through Anula Karunatilleka and Wickrema Bogoda, both having graduated from the stage. Our initiative would have prompted at least some of the readers to go and see the film.

Around the same time, the Federation of Film Societies organised a Lester James Peries Film Festival at the Empire Theatre. International versions of the six feature films he had made by then, were screened. Some of his early documentaries were also shown. We devoted a full page in the Sunday Observer to talk about the man "who changed the course of Sinhala Cinema". Eustace Rulach who laid out the arts page, used a string of stills from the films right across the page creating a most effective pictorial heading leading to the narrative on Lester 'In Focus'.

"A few nights ago we sat through a short experiment film made by a Ceylonese lad in London twenty years ago. It was the maiden attempt by two 'film crazy' youngsters. The film, made during their off hours, was shot purely "to please ourselves".

"Though the two men did not think very much of the film it was ultimately chosen as one of the ten best films of the year made in Britain by amateurs. It also won the London Film Production Challenge Cup presented by Roger Manvell. "The film 'SOLILOQUY' was the first film made by Lester James Peries, who was soon to play a vital role in changing the course of Sinhala cinema." These were the opening paras of the piece I wrote on the man who was being honoured with a Festival of his creations.

Lester described the 15 minute film, his maiden effort, as "an attempt to film the interior monologue of a particular individual". It dealt with the thoughts of a young man. There were just three players. All three were professional theatre artistes. His second film was 'Farewell to Childhood' the story of a young girl who bids good-bye to her childhood.

Lester's tally of short film stands at a dozen better-known creations - from 'Soliloquy' (1949) to 'Pinhamy' (1979). The list does not include the many documentaries he has done for numerous private sector firms and organisations. For Ceylon Tobacco Company, he did at least two. One was on 'Navajeevana'. CTC's 500 acre farm in Mahiyangana where the company settled sixty farmer families and opened a new chapter in farming introducing new crops like soya and maize.

The other was on another of CTC's diversified projects the sugarcane cultivation and manufacture of jaggery at a time when sugar was a scare commodity due to foreign exchange shortage. As manager in charge of corporate publicity and public relations at CTC, I accompanied Lester to Soragune off Haputale and watched him at work. He was so methodical, clear in his own mind as to what had to be done and he was never in a hurry. I remember he insisted on taking his can of water and the specially prepared 'chillie-less' curries from home. Obviously his disciplined eating habits had seen him through to enjoy a healthy life over the years.

The discipline he has acquired can be seen in whatever he does. The way he dresses, the way he gets about, the way he handles players, the way he creates films.

Lester is a fine conversationalist. Whether you have a chat with him alone or you are at a lecture he is most interesting to listen to. A recent talk he delivered at the Indian Cultural Institute was a treat. He was billed to talk about fifty years of film-making. Many of us expected him to discuss the technicalities of film-making, why he selected the themes and so on. His was a totally different approach.

It was light-hearted and turned out to be a most interesting evening. Counting 20 films to his credit in 50 years, he related how a friend of his has reminded him that he has been unemployed for 30 years if one were to calculate at the rate of one film a year!

When Lester made his first full length teledrama based on Punyakante Wijenaike's novel. 'Giraya' (the teledrama script was by seasoned script-writer Somawira Senanayake), I worked closely with him when Eagle Insurance took over the sponsorship. He was quite pleased when Eagle felicitated him just as he joined the "80 Club" (he had just celebrated his 80th birthday). "It is nice to feel that insurance companies are still willing to take a risk with my life", he told the audience.

Lester was so happy with Somawira Senanayake's script that he decided to work with Somawira for his next film 'Wekande Walauwe', now ready for release, was scripted by Somawira based on Anton Chekov's 'Cherry Orchard'. It revolves round Sri Lankan society in the 1970s.

Somawira confesses that working with Lester widened his knowledge both on tele-scripting and film scripting. He calls him "my unofficial professor". Somwira is right. Every time we meet, it is a learning process.

His memory power is excellent. He remembers the early days very well. He would talk about the Times of Ceylon days in London with vivid memories. In film-making, Lesters has been a long journey - "a long, long pilgrimage", as he puts it. He has no complaints about his audiences. "My people have been very good to me', he says.

Yet he is sad that none seems to take the film industry seriously in this country, "Cinema should be an industry, a business or an art. After over half a century, Sinahala cinema is neither an industry, a business nor an art. I was never clear which ministry handled the subject of cinema. It's like a football being kicked about the whole time," he laments.

Many are the accolades and honours bestowed on Lester by foreign governments and film organizations. Having given him the Lifetime Achievement Award two years ago, the Indian Government has just done a documentary on his life (directed by expert documentary filmmaker Bikram Singh) in time for his 83rd birthday.

Reviewing Lester's contribution to Sinhala cinema in a chapter titled "The Emergence of an Artistic Cinema' in 'Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema', authoritative commentators Wimal Dissanayake & Ashley Ratnavibhushana summed up saying: "Lester James Peries, then, will be honoured as the filmmaker who inspired a whole generation of young and gifted directors, who laid the foundation for a serious national cinema and who was instrumental in shaping a vigorous film culture in the island." How true