Sumithra's exploration into realm of cinema
Sumithra Peries salutes the present generation of serious film makers such as Asoka Handagama, Vimukthi Jayasundara, Prasana Vithanage, Enokaa Sathyangani and Sathyajith Maitipe for the little space they have created in cinema for serious films.
Although commercial film should be made to keep the industry going, it is the good serious films that will define the characteristic of a healthy film industry. It is the landmark productions that stand the test of time.
In order to make film industry profitable, it is imperative to have good commercial as well as thought-provoking serious films. People immersed in the medium search for new vistas, new subjects and new audiences. She wishes that they may have sponsors for their work to be continued.
She hopes that generation of film makers would emerge to enrich the filmdom and to keep the cinema alive with quality and perception that would explore the recesses of life. There will be younger string of generations to come in; for sixth and seventh generations.
Referring to "Yahaluwo" she is happy that though it is not women centric as her earlier productions, it depicts values through the character of a child. Those are the values that elders should emulate especially in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural milieu. It is one of the few films where script was written by a woman.
The lateral kind of narrative or exploration of situation in "Yahaluwo" at the end added up to the sum of the story and how it affects the child and the child's innocence wins the day.
Sumithra Peries states that most of the critics in English press read the film in that light. She is of the view that film is not a visual extravaganza which titillates for the moment but something to be explored. The Sinhala writers always expect to see same kind of films and not prepared to go that extra mile. They are not trying to read films beyond the surface.
Some times film makers cannot understand the complex grammar of shooting. When a film director composes a shot, he or she is working on one level to shoot that scene best and also on another in that configuration, there is another layer.
That film can be read and understood. It is purely not one and a half hour story artificially manipulated to a climax. This should not be the modern telling of the stories. The critics should not try to push creators into their mould and open up and be prepared to see another way of looking at work of art.
Even though women have been portraying diverse characters, they have also reluctant to venture into other areas. Speaking on the strong feminist element in her films, Sumithra Peries of the view that she made female central character in almost all of her films (the mother, the girl, the daughter and family relationship), though she did not subscribe to the idea of feminism in conventional sense. Though she fought for the liberation of females from the constrains she would have had, Sumithra did not harbour feminist attitudes.
Even in the "Gehanu Lamai" she tried to portray through Kusum's character or Soma's character in a way social forces constraining them. How one could become conventionally good and another immoral in conventions sense. If the social inequalities are there, they do not get the fruit of labour.
Sumithra thinks that West had read the film in that light. However, in Sri Lanka some of the critics made it that Sumithra had made Kusum a victim not portraying as the person who overcame the obstacles put in her way so that she scarified for the love of man enabling him to achieve his objectives at her expense.
Sumithra made it in the social context that as long as social inequalities there, whatever the circumstances may be, there is no redemption. Even in "Ganga Addara", the father's ambition of upward social mobility and ambition of the daughter and at the end the girl is the victim.
Sumithra of the view that the character of Mudithalatha in "Yahalu Yeheli" is, perhaps, the most meaningful character for her. She sang up to the moral attitude for father. Muddithalatha stood up for right attitude and rose against the system of values.
Evocative lines like "pol gedi dahatharakatane me okkoma" (All this is for a 14 coconuts) epitomised the gulf between the rich and the poor and inherent ethos that dictates human relationships and even the certain set-reactions.
In the character of "Heen Kella" in "Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuwa" drives home the fact that if someone could not give anything for the society, he or she could not get anything in return. Sumithra is of the view that she has not exploited female for commercial purpose. In "Sakman Maluwa", she has seen the story from the different perspective.
In retrospective of her career, Sumithra Peries attributed much of her success partly due to her husband Dr. Lester James Peries and partly due to the commitments to the craft. Sumithra had never compromised the standards and expectations of the audience. In looking back, she is satisfied on the life and films she made with Dr. Lester James Peries.
However, she does not believe that film is a media that can be used for propaganda work. Apart from monitory gains, every film maker likes to reach the work to a wider audience. Female film makers should bear in mind that their work may benefit the females.
She is believed that challenges for women are the same and more intense given the volatile situation of the day. She would think that making films for female would be more difficult as capital for making films increasing day by day.
As Sumithra Peries admitted herself it was not she who became the first woman film director though she is the first woman technician who became a film director. Before Sumithra ventured into cinema, two actresses namely Ruby de Mel and Florida Jayalath made two films.
Sumithra came into the industry as a technician at a time Sinhala films were at embryonic stage. She recollects watching two documentaries by Dr. Lester James Peries; "Be say for thee sorry ", a documentary on the spread of Malaria. She watched the films with a renewed interest at Olympia theatre. It would have been her first insight into the Sinhala films.
She wanted to study cinema at Idec where most of the famous film makers such as Francois,Traufauts. But she attended Conservatoir where she learnt the craft of film making.
However, she had a kind of orientation to France as her brother lived in Europe, in Spain and had also lived in a boat.
He was a very Franco-oriented against the British and Sumithra lived for some time with him.
It was at that time, Dr. Lester James Peries was going to the Cannes Festival with "Rekhawa". Sumithra's brother who had earlier met Lester in Sri Lanka asked Dr. Lester James Peries to meet Sumithra and to find out what Sumithra wanted.
After meeting Sumithra for couple of times, Lester suggested not to wait for another year studying French instead to follow a course on 'Films Study' at the London School of Film Studies.
As far as she could remember, Sumithra was given a letter by Lester stating that she had worked with him to enable Sumithra to gain easy entrance to the Film School. Though strangely, she found that she was the only girl in the school. At the time, she found that cinema was predominantly a male domain.
After qualifying, Sumithra, for a short stint, was sub-titling French films into English. However, Sumithra got an important message from her brother who said that Lester was starting a new film called "Sandeshaya" and she has been asked to join the crew. It was a challenge for Sumithra and she went off to Belihuloya, the location where film was shot to see a huge crew and battalion of boys.
Apart from Lester and Willie Blake, there was Gamini Fonseka playing the second lead character though they thought that he would be chosen to play the lead role. In addition to portraying the second lead character, Gamini was also the Production Manager.
The accommodation in a male dominated camp was a challenge for Sumithra. However, she put up with Appuhami family with a request that she be given a separate toilet, a pit toilet inside a cadjan contraption.
It was a change of milieu for Sumithra from the sophisticated one in Europe to living in Belihuloya with leeches and having to get up in the early morning on a rough terrain. As the crew who were dependent on light a lot, every one of the crew got up early to catch the light in the morning.
To her it was a challenge of working with males and she intuitively felt that she had to shelve her femininity and readily mingle with the male crew. Sumitta Amerasinghe, Gamini and Tissa Liyanasuriya were all very supportive.
Though she did not get a lump sum for the six months she worked for "Sandheshaya", the experience drew her into the cinema. The initial challenge was to get into a male dominated industry and to work as a technician. However, her next challenge was to be a creative collaborator on a film.
This came here when Dr. Lester James planned to make the film "Gamperaliya". Having inherited her share of the property, Sumithra sold some residual properties to invest in Cine Lanka Ltd with Anton Wickramasinghe as its chairman. Thus she became, perhaps, the youngest director in the company at the age of 24.
With smile indefinable, Sumithra recalled that putting in money into the company would tantamount to buying her rights and to be in the selected few. She recalled with nostalgia how she was fortunate to be associated with Wimalaweera era.
Above, all "Sandeshaya" gave her the hand-on-experience and also had experience in editing with a nearly broken down machine at Titus Thotawatte's editing room.
As the editing equipment was very primitive, it was a laboured process. Long hours had to be spent on editing.
The little challenges she had and opposition from the family vanished following her eventual marriage with Dr. Lester James Peries which in a way consolidated her position in the filmdom.