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Sri Lanka: Film Director Lester James Peries Passes Away - a tribute by D.B.S.Jeyaraj

30 April 2018

print version of this article print version - 29 April 2018

Sri Lanka’s Greatest Film Director Lester James Peries Passes Away at a Private Hospital in Colombo At The Age Of 99



It is with great sorrow that I write of the death of Sri Lanka’s greatest film director Lester James Peries!

The doyen of Sinhala cinema who celebrated his 99th birthday on April 5th passed away at a private hospital in Colombo on Sunday April 29th 2018.

The nonagenarian filmmaker had been ailing for several weeks since his 99th birthday celebration. Though the news was known to a few it was kept quiet on the advice of the doctors who felt he should not have visitors in his condition. Lester’s wife of 54 years, Sumitra Giunewardene Peries a renowned filmmaker in her own right attended to him till the very end

Lester James Peries

Their last collaborative venture “Vaishnavee” a film directed by Sumitra on a story written by Lester was released on April 5th to denote Lester’s birthday.

Those of us who were aware of Lester’s health condition were hoping against hope that the pioneering filmmaker would survive the current ordeal and celebrate his 100th birthday next year

Destiny however ruled otherwise.

Funeral arrangements are to be notified later.

My heartfelt condolences to his soulmate and partner Sumitra who herself is an octogenarian

In a film making career spanning more than five decades Lester James Peries has made 20 feature films inclusive of ‘Pinhamy’ in 1980. The first of his feature films was the path-breaking ‘Rekava’ or line of destiny in 1956. His final feature was ‘Amma Waruney’ or an elegy to a mother released in 2006.

Lester James Peries has also made 11 short films, most of them in documentary mode. The first of these short films was ‘Soliloquy’ made in 1949 and the last ‘Kandy Perahera’ filmed in 1973.

The greatness of Lester James Peries however cannot be measured by the quantity of his output. It is the qualitative nature of his films that elevated him to commendable heights. 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. Lester James Peries became a national icon identified with the sphere of Sri Lankan cinema over the years.‘Rekava’ (Line of Destiny), ‘Gamperaliya’ (Changes in the Village) and ‘Nidhanaya’ (Treasure) are widely accepted as the three finest films made by Lester James Peries.

Lester James Peries was born on April 5, 1919 in Dehiwela to Catholic parents from an affluent westernised background. His father Dr. James Francis Peries had studied medicine in Scotland. His mother Ann Gertrude Winifred Jayasuriya was the first student to pass the Cambridge senior exam at St. Bridgette’s Convent. Lester had three siblings, Erica, Ivan and Noel.

Lester had his schooling at St. Peters College. His parents wanted him to become a lawyer or doctor while his teachers wanted him to be a Catholic priest. Lester however wanted to study literature and began writing stories, poems and plays from his student days. He was also an incurable film buff. Lester dropped out of school at the age of seventeen and became a journalist. He worked at “Daily News” and later at “Times of Ceylon”. Lester also reviewed books for “Radio Ceylon”. It was then that he began dabbling in drama by joining a theatre group called the “Drama Circle”. It is said that the legendary Lionel Wendt realised Lester’s creative potential and advised his parents to allow him to do whatever he wanted.

Lester went to London in 1947 to join his brother Ivan a reputed painter. The brothers lived together for some years and apparently led a Bohemian way of life.Lester wrote a column from Britain for the “Times of Ceylon” in Colombo then edited by Frank Moraes. It was titled “Letters on the Arts from England”. While working as correspondent of “Times of Ceylon”, Peries also engaged himself in 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 another award winner “Farewell to Childhood”. It was based on a short story he had written when in Sri Lanka but on film he adapted it to English surroundings.

It was the eminent film maker Ralph Keene who was instrumental in persuading Lester to return home. “You should make films in your own country, about your own people,” Ralph told him.Returning to Ceylon in 1954 Peries joined the Government Film Unit (GFU)and began churning out documentaries on several subjects including malaria and vehicular traffic. In the process he was exposed to new experiences of life which he was not aware of earlier. He discovered his roots and became appreciative of the island’s cultural heritage, something which his upper middle class anglicised existence had restricted earlier.

The first Sinhala movie was Kadawunu Poronduwa (Broken Promise). Made in India, it was released in 1947. Most Sinhala films in the first decade were heavily influenced by Hindi and Tamil masala movies. It was said that the only things Sinhala about them were the actors, dialogue and the words in the songs. The pioneering departure from this trend was by Lester in 1956 when his maiden feature film Rekava (Line of Destiny) was released. Shot entirely in Sri Lankan outdoor locations, the path-breaking film altered the destiny of Sinhala films. It was hailed as a turning point in the decade-long evolving history of Sinhala cinema.

In 1964 came the milestone movie “Gamperaliya”(Village Upheaval) that made its mark at the third New Delhi film festival and won the Golden Peacock Award for best feature film. This was the first time a Sinhala film had won an international award. It also won the Golden head of Palenque award in Mexico.

However Lester’s finest movie was “Nidhanaya(Treasure) made in 1970. Nidhanaya 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. Nidhanaya also won the award at Sri Lanka’s Golden Jubilee of Independence for being the best Sinhala movie in fifty years. It has also won critical acclaim as one of the ten top Asian films of all time.

From Rekawa in 1956 to “Ammawarune” in 2007 the auteur has left his celluloid imprint through 20 films in a productive career that has topped half a century in years. Among these the films “Rekava”, “Gamperaliya” and “Nidhanaya” are recognised by critics and reviewers as the three greatest films of Lester James Peries.The nature of his films has been described as the “cinema of contemplation” and his narration the “language of silence” by connoisseurs.

In an interview published decades ago, Lester was asked to comment on his career. Lester’s response reflected his characteristic humility.This is what he said then. “There is an old French saying that in order to understand life you have to see it backwards.This is how I saw through my work. I have done features in the last 40 years and have been in films for fifty years in all. The most important lesson is that you begin to realise how little you know.”

Consensus is perhaps an elusively unattainable word in the Sri Lankan political lexicon. Mercifully, there are several things about which there is a national consensus cutting across race, religion, caste and creed. One such phenomenon would be in the appreciation of the creative genius of Sri Lanka’s foremost film director. Lester James Peries liberated Sinhala cinema and guided it to new vistas where the medium of film was understood and appreciated.It is widely acknowledged that Lester James Peries was indeed the pioneer who went off the beaten track and proved to be an inspiring beacon for those who followed him.

The guiding light of Sri Lankan cinema has gone out but the glow will continue to brighten the Sri Lankan silver screen.


The above article from is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use