Eulogising Lester James Peries


By Carlo Fonseka
Chairman, Arts Council of
Sri Lanka

LJP, the greatest living Asian filmmaker, one of the greatest in the world, is the undisputed – but eminently disputable – Father of the Sinhala Film. I have before me as I write a newspaper clipping from the Ceylon Daily News which I have preserved from 1956. It is titled: The "Sinhalese Film is Born". It is a review of LJP’s first film Rekawa by M.De S i.e. the redoubtable journalist Mervyn De Silva. A critic who could be vitriolic if necessary, he was not wont to issue certificates lightly. To set the record straight, the first (silent) Sinhala film (called Rajakeeya Wickramaya) starring N.M. Perera (yes, the one and only political double-doctor Nanayakkarapathirage Martin Perera, then aged 20 and stunningly good-looking) had been filmed in 1925. The first Sinhala talkie (Broken Promise), chronologically the third Sinhala film, had come out in 1947. Serially LJP’s Rekawa was the 41st Sinhala film. Yet M.De S, put his reputation on the line and publicly proclaimed that with the arrival of Rekawa, "The Sinhalese film is born". In order to justify his seemingly outrageous arithmetical howler M.De S first identified "pictures in motion" as the medium of the art of the cinema, the technical instrument of which is the camera. Next, he dismissed all Sinhala films produced before Rekawa as nothing other than photographed (decadent) theater. "Rekawa, on the contrary" argued M.De S "does justice to the essential nature of the cinema". Then came his final ultimate judgment on Rekawa: "It is, I repeat the first Sinhalese film".


However that may be, by way of preparation for writing this eulogy, I thumbed once again through the fascinating book "Lester by Lester as told to kumar de silva" published in 2007. Even on re-reading, the book proved unputdownable. The blinding clarity of LJP’s unadorned, straightforward prose takes my breath away. Frank and drily witty, a playful intelligence pervades his commentary on his 20 films. Truly, if LJP had not become the Father of the Sinhala film, his claim to fame would have been as Sri Lanka’s finest stylist in the English language. Fortunately for Sinhala cinema, the temptation of the camera triumphed over the lure of the pen. He had a clear vision of the future of the Sinhala cinema: "The future of our industry will depend upon the extent to which we use the stories which are rooted in our own soil; stories which portray our own people, their hopes, their fears and aspirations, and in our own beautiful landscapes and settings. Our film can never be called truly Sinhalese until all the pernicious foreign influences which have dominated them are ruthlessly stamped out…" He has freely admitted that "there was a nationalist feeling behind my thinking which I think motivated me." Which proves that you can genuinely serve your country and your people even if you are "English only" in practical life.


It should be noted that LJP, the first and possibly the last true gentleman (in the original English sense of the word) in the world of Sinhala film, has never claimed paternity of the Sinhala film. His acute brain apprehends the reality that in those far-off, pre-DNA days paternity (unlike maternity which is a palpable fact) would always be a theory. After all, conventional wisdom is, "mama’s baby, papa’s maybe!". The paternity of the Sinhala film has been thrust upon him, and the good Samaritan he unfailingly was and is, he is left holding the baby. In that context, it will not pass unnoticed that the opening sentence of this eulogy forthrightly declares that LJP’s fatherhood of the Sinhala film is "eminently disputable". How come? you will ask. Well, it’s like this. By self- proclamation LJP is "an Anglo Saxon, English oriented person". He was born (on 5 April 1919) and bred in an out-and-out Roman Catholic family. Culturally, he was anglicized to his teeth under the beneficent influence of his cricket-playing, horse-betting, Edinburgh-educated western doctor (Dr. James Francis Peries) who was totally anglophilic. Says LJP of his father: "All his life my father never spoke one word of Sinhala to us". LJP himself speaks of his "love for the English language". His mother – Anne Gertrude Winifred – had been the first girl from St. Bridget’s Convent to pass the Senior Cambridge Examination. LJP’s only use of the Sinhala language was to talk with his paternal grandmother who spoke only Sinhala. Having gone to London in 1945 when he returned home from England after 7 years his language ability in Sinhala had been "almost non-existent". To crown it all he had married an English woman. Given this background, LJP himself was acutely aware of what he called these "severe disqualifications" for siring the Sinhala Film. To this day LJP, although sensitive to the emotional nuances of the Sinhala language has barely spoken in Sinhala in public. It is as though he wanted to make a certain point beyond any manner of doubt. The point as he put it is that "language was the last thing one needed to make a film. One does not make films in Sinhala or Tamil, but in the language of cinema".

Language Resource Persons

It is true to say that LJP Sri Lanka’s avant-garde film maker is a born storyteller. "I have no problems at all with storytelling. Creating stories is the least of my problems… Deep down my feelings for cinema was not so much for documentaries as for fiction". And so it came about that his 20 films from Rekawa (The Line of Destiny, 1956) to Ammawarune (Elegy for a Mother, 2006) are all marvelous stories. Remembering his "severe disqualifications" he hit upon a surefire method of choosing good stories for his films. Everywhere men and women are not only members of the species called Homo sapiens with species-specific characteristics, but also products of their particular environment and nurture. They are, indeed, "abstracts and chronicles" of the places they were born; the homes in which they grew up and learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the books they read, the music they listen to, the songs they sang, the gods they believed in and the old wives’tales they heard. As the language resource persons for his films LJP turned to the nation’s most literate people like Martin Wickramasinghe, G.B. Senanayake, Karunasena Jayalath, Eileen Siriwardhane, Regi Siriwardane, Tissa Abeysekera, Somaweera Senanayake and A.J. Gunawardena. For good measure he also used Leonard Woolf and Anton Chekhov. The truth is that understanding the language of cinema as he did, LJP could have made authentic Sinhala films even with double Dutch. The stories he himself created such as Rekawa, Sandeshaya, Delowak Athara and Ammawarune are superbly crafted. Indeed, by his own submission, LJP is a storyteller at heart, who tells his story with a camera.


The fascinating story of how his 20 films were made is recounted in "Lester by Lester" and it would be an act of impertinent insolence on the part of an old medic like me to spoil the luminous clarity of his story by any commentary. In this eulogy written to celebrate the 93rd anniversary of a living master of the cinema let me simply say that by his ability to fuse mass appeal and stylistic mastery of his medium he has made Sinhala film an art form that people of this country have warmly embraced. It says something for the Father of the Sinhala film that he not only created the Sinhala film in 1956 in terms of theme, content, narrative style and mode of presentation but also succeeded in inducing in our filmgoers the capacity to respond sensitively to the art of the cinema. He himself took the art form to the highest possible levels. As Prof. Wimal Dissanayake, Sri Lanka’s internationally accomplished expert on the art of the cinema has judged: "LJP has garnered all the possible honors locally as well as the highest plaudits internationally".

Sumitra the Mother

By his own account LJP made his first film Rekawa "to do a simple village story". Because Sinhala culture is predominantly a Buddhist culture, a realistic film about a Sinhala village must surely give at least some inkling of its vibrant extant Buddhism. In Rekawa there isn’t a trace of Buddhism. Critics castigated him for this grave and glaring lapse. LJP, anglicized and Roman Catholic to the marrow of his bones, has simply ignored its existence. On the other hand, his last film Ammawarune is saturated with Buddhist sentiment. I believe that Sumitra Gunawardane who hails from the revolutionary Boralugoda Gunawardanes of Sithawaka and learnt cinema art in London and Paris and married LJP in 1964 unconsciously effected the phenomenal attitudinal transformation of LJP. She first met LJP in Paris in 1957 when he went there to organize the presentation of Rekawa at Cannes Film Festival. At that point she hadn’t even bothered to find out who LJP was. I believe that it was she who played the major role in helping LJP to discover his roots and regain his lost heritage necessary for siring the Sinhala film for the greater glory of the Sinhala cinema. So in a vital sense Sumitra Peries is truly the Mother of the Father of the Sinhala film.

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