It is indeed a great privilege to pen some thoughts and emotions that ran through my mind on one of the momentous occasions which Lester James Peiris and his wife Sumithra commemorate yearly. Although I am no film critic in the strict sense of the word but I dare say that I am a devoted student of the arts, especially what is depicted on celluloid as Cinema. What Dr. Lester James Peiris achieved as a film director went beyond the celluloid culture of Sri Lanka. Lester James did a lot to change the Sinhala Cinema; he revolutionized it so that the following generations of cinema directors took note of his achievements and tried to imitate him although all, barring none, failed miserably.
No film director achieved the finesse and technical craft that Lester displayed in his films. The only two possible exceptions that deserve mention are Siri Goonasinghe of the Sath Samudura and Mahagama Sekera of Tun Mang Handiya fame. But both Goonasinghe and Sekera were already giants in another field, Sinhala poetry and lyrics and happened to follow Lester than precede him in the field of cinema. Ironically all three, Lester, Siri and Mahagama are supreme artists in the fields they chose although I personally would classify Mahagama Sekera as the “Ultimate Artist’ in Sri Lanka. That’s beside the point.
Lester’s revolution in the Sinhala Cinema originated with the film ‘Rekhawa’. What is even more astonishing was that Lester launched himself into a brand new field of arts when the so-called objective and subjective conditions were not ripe for that kind of revolution and that was vividly shown by the box-office performance of that film. When third-rate movies, carbon copies of South and North Indian popular cinema, were smashing box-office hits, Rekhawa was a total flop as a money-making venture. There alone resides the genius of Lester James Peiris, a man ahead of his time and a man destined to change those times.
To venture into such a challenging task, to accept all the stones and scorn that are hurled at him and yet carry on regardless, one must possess that inner strength and courage, that spirit that Jawaharlal Nehru described as unconquerable. In a sense, Lester had only four other equals and all of them dominated and revolutionized in their own way the fields that they chose to be in. They were: Ediriweera Sarachchandra in Sinhala Theatre and Drama, W D Amaradeva in Sinhala Music and Song, Joe Abeywickrema in Cinema Acting and Mahagama Sekera in Sinhala Poetry and Lyrics. Each of them reached the zenith in his own field and none of them had any equal to match him in that particular field. All, including Lester, created a revolution in the chosen sphere and generations followed them either to imitate them or to strive to equal them without much success at all.
The revolution that Lester created by the making of Rekhawa was immense in that, when all other films at the time were made inside the cozy environs of man-made studios, Lester took the camera to the location of the story and shot almost the entirety of the movie on location, making use of natural light, natural sounds and natural scenery. The galaxy of actors and actresses who were given exposure thanks mainly to Lester were D R Nanayakkara, Iranganie Serasinghe, Winston Serasinghe, Punya Heendeniya and even Gamini Fonseka who reached his pinnacle in acting in the Gam Peraliya movie in which he plays the role of Jinadasa to near perfection. D R Nanayakkara later produced one of the greatest pieces of acting in Sikuru Tharuwa and continued to play at least minor roles in most of the Lester movies.
However, Gam Peraliya stands as the single-most poetic cinema the Sinhala screen has produced. The only other cinematic production that could be compared to the poetic flow as well as splendid acting and sincere portrayal of villager life at whatever level was Sekera’s Tun Mang Handiya that revealed the innocence of folk life in Sri Lanka. Gam Peraliya not only captured the moving drama of a changing landscape while in Tun Mang Handiya, Sekera told a poetic saga through the rustic prism of a village hero and the most striking part of both these masterpieces is that neither made any attempt whatsoever at didacticism. Without trying to teach a lesson to society both film directors, Lester and Sekera drew a poetic drama on celluloid with humanism and folklore. Unlike most other books that were adapted to the screen, both movies, Gam Peraliya and Tun Mang Handiya added more value and credence to the stories told in the pages of the novels. Both movies would stand the test of time like some great films of the West in the genre of On the Waterfront, Godfather and Citizen Kane and closer to our heart, the Apur Trilogy of Satyajith Ray.
One other outstanding feature in the direction of Lester James Peiris was his masterly direction of the actors and actresses. Starting with Rekhawa’s D R Nanayakkara and Iranganie Serasinghe up to Punya Heendeniya in Gam Peraliya and Ran Salu, Tony Ranasinghe in Delovak Athara and Malini Fonseka in Nidhanaya, Lester extracted the best out of all these outstanding actors and actresses. Lester’s versatility is even more evident in direction of acting when one compares the somewhat mediocre acting performances of all these actors’ and actresses’ under different directors. Acting has two major components: facial expressions and dialogue delivery. Most of the good actors do considerably well in facial expressions but when they come to deliver the dialogues, their inadequacies become patently obvious. This is where, both Joe Abeywickrema and Punya Heendeniya excelled among many others. Let’s also not forget Henry Jayasena, Iranganie Serasinghe, Tony Ranasinghe and J B L Gunasekera, the first in Gam Peraliya and the latter three in Delovak Athara who stand out from the rest. One of the most moving frames that captured the intensity, poignancy and emotion of the moment is the one frame or a sequence of frames in Delovak Athara that depicted the confrontation between Nissanka and his parents on the real facts about the accident which eventually places Nissanka precariously between two worlds. All three actors, Tony, Iranganie and J B L made outstanding contributions in facial expressions and dialogue delivery that, taken as a whole, that sequence of frames would stand among the best ever in the Sinhala Cinema.
Lester also had the great advantage of having the pioneering services of Willie Blake in cinematography, Amaradeva and Khemadasa in music, Tissa Abeysekera in dialogue, Reggie Siriwardena in screenplay and his wife Sumithra in editing; truly a magnificent gallery of talent and skill- a dream-team of film-making. Examples and episodes are many but suffice it to say, that the Sinhala Cinema is richer today because such a one like Lester James Peiris decided to paint his masterpieces on its celluloid.