‘Rekava’ or the line of destiny was the path-breaking film by Lester James Peries which altered the destiny of Sinhala cinema. (Though Rekava is spelled with both a ‘v’ as well as a ‘w’ in English, I am sticking to v because the original titles shown in the film spelled it with a v).
Rekava, the first feature film to be made by Lester, was released in December 1956. It was hailed as a turning point in the decade-long evolving history of Sinhala cinema. Prominent journalist Mervyn de Silva described Rekava as “the birth of Sinhala cinema” itself when writing about it.
The birth of Sinhala cinema
The well-known journalist, critic and writer Regi Siriwardena who was later associated with Lester in writing scripts for films like ‘Gamperaliya,’ ‘Delovak Athara’ and ‘Golu Hadawatha’ was exhilarated after seeing it. He called it an “event of tremendous importance” in an excellent review written by him in the Sunday Observer. The following excerpt from that review sums up aptly the significance of the film. Here it is:
“And so, in the very first few moments of Rekava, you realise that you are in an entirely different world from that of the Sinhalese film up to now. We are no longer watching preposterous puppets animated by synthetic emotions; this is life itself… What Lester Peries has done is to tear down the artificial barriers that the Sinhalese film industry has erected between the screen and the real life of our own people.”
Regi and Mervyn and many others who praised Rekava were impressed by the fact that the film dispensed with the melodramatic hallmarks prevalent in Sinhala movies since the pioneering ‘Kadawuna Porunthuwa’ or Broken Promise made in 1947. The making of Sinhala films was heavily influenced by Hindi and Tamil films made in India which were derisively described as ‘Masala movies’ or ‘formula films’. Rekava was in that sense a departure which contrasted sharply with the usual Sinhala films. Rekava belonged to the realist cinema category.
The actors in Rekava appeared on screen as real people whom one meets daily. They spoke simply and easily in a natural way without stylised diction or expansive gestures. There were many shots where they did not speak at all with their expressions conveying emotions through the eloquence of silence. The greater part of the story was related not by words and songs alone but to a very great extent by a number of images and scenes with minimal dialogue.
Another remarkable aspect of Rekava was that it was shot entirely on location outside a studio. Until then movies were mostly filmed in studios in India and Sri Lanka in artificially constructed sets. Also few of the filmy stories took place in a rural area. Lester changed all that by basing the film’s tale in a rural village. More importantly he filmed the village-based story in real village surroundings with cameraman Willie Blake. Most outdoor scenes in Rekava were shot in natural light.
How Lester made Rekava
Before I began writing this inaugural column on cinema I had decided that the first article would be about a Sri Lankan film or film personality. When I finally got down to writing it seemed very obvious that the article could only be about Lester James Peries or a related topic. That is destiny! Lester James Peries is the man whom I regard as the greatest Sri Lankan film maker of them all. My admiration for Lester evokes much mirth among some of my friends who often provoke me mischievously by criticising his work.
I have already written some articles about Lester in the past and wanted this one to be different. Since this article is the first one to be written for Spotlight column in the Daily FT, I thought it would be appropriate to write about Lester’s first feature film ‘Rekava’. Much has been written by many about the salient points of this path-breaking movie. What I hope to do in this article is to relate the story of how Lester James Peries made Rekava rather than analyse the film itself. Most of the facts that I rely upon for this narrative is from the horse’s mouth itself via Lester’s earlier interviews in books and journals.
After spending several years in London working as a journalist for ‘Times,’ Lester had returned to the land of his birth and begun working at the Government film Unit (GFU) for one-fourth the salary he got in Britain. Four years at GFU had dampened his spirits as Lester felt rather stultified presumably due to internal office politics. Besides, the creative impulse in him wanted to make a fictional feature film. There was also this growing disdain for the melodramatic Sinhala films being churned out and the idealistic ambition of making a realistic Sinhala film.
It was at this juncture that destiny played a hand in the form of kinsman Christopher Peries a successful businessman. Christopher made Lester an offer that he could not refuse. Lester was told that a group of entrepreneurs and professionals wanted to form a company and produce a Sinhala feature film. Lester was requested to quit GFU and come on board where he would be given a free hand. Lester would produce and direct the film. The script was to be of his choice. He could select the cast and crew. The company would purchase state of the art equipment. It was also guaranteed that the company would produce at least two films.
Lester James Peries mulled over it and decided to grasp the offer. This was the opportunity he was waiting for. Two of his colleagues also opted to quit GFU and team up with Lester. One was the cinematographer William Blake, called Willie Blake. The other was the Editor Titus de Silva who later became known as Titus Thotawatte. The trio embarked upon the challenging venture fired by the vision of making an authentic and realistic Sinhala film.
The production company was duly formed and named Chitra Lanka. The Chairman was the wealthy tycoon Sarath Wijesinghe (uncle of Upali Wijewardene). Besides Christopher Peries, the others on the Board of Directors were eminent Lawyers George Chitty QC, H.W. Jayawardene QC (the younger brother of J.R. Jayawardene), cartoonist Aubrey Collette and Douglas Fernando, an insurance entrepreneur. The only hitch was that the initial offer of making two films had been downsized to just one. It was stipulated that the second would be made if the first was a success.
Three influencing film factors
The company got down to work. Several potential stories and scripts were perused including a synopsis of the historical novel ‘Rohini’ by Martin Wickremasinghe. Lester however resolved that his venture would have a contemporary theme set in a rural environment. Three film factors deeply influenced and motivated Lester in this yearning to make a realistic film amidst a rural background.
Firstly there was the semi-fictional documentary ‘Nelungama’ made by Lester’s boss at the GFU Ralph Keene. Lester had co-written the script and the dialogues for it. While filming Lester was exposed to village life and longed to make a film in a rural environment. Secondly was the impact of Italian neo-realistic cinema particularly the films of Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. Thirdly was the film ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ by Indian Director Bimal Roy that brought rural life to the screen in a realistic manner. Interestingly, Lester was not influenced by his great Indian contemporary Satyajit Ray when he made Rekava. Actually Lester had not seen Ray’s pioneering ‘Pather Panchali’ at the time he made Rekava.
After much pondering Lester decided that he himself must write the story and film script for his first feature and not rely on an outside contributor. He wrote the story which was a simple narrative tinged with elements of a fairytale or fable. Lester wrote the script himself aided greatly by K.A.W. Perera who later became a successful director in his own right making films like ‘Kapatikama,’ ‘Lasanda’ and ‘Bicycle Hora’. There was however much improvisation as shooting went on with new lines and words of colloquial usage being introduced.
The story of Rekava takes place in a rural village named in the movie as Siriyala where superstition reigns supreme. The narrative in essence is about two childhood friends – a boy Sena and a girl Anula. A stilt-walker cum soothsayer reads Sena’s palm and predicts he would become a great healer. Later Anula loses her sight by accident and even the ‘Vedamahathaya’ (native physician) is unable to cure her. Anula however believes Sena can cure her by touching her eyes. She regains her sight later and is convinced it was due to Sena’s healing powers.
The story of Sena’s healing spreads and the boy’s father together with a money lender exploit this by promoting the son’s healing powers in a bid to make money. When a wealthy landowner’s son is brought for healing, Sena is unable to cure him and the boy dies. The village begins to turn against Sena. The monsoon rains fail and a drought sets in causing hardship and misery. The suffering villagers start believing that Sena is possessed by a devil and is bringing bad luck to the village.
A ‘thovil’ ceremony to exorcise the boy is held but the devil dancers fail to detect any evil spirits in the boy. The mass mood turns ugly and at one point the landowner even tries to strangle and kill Sena. And then it begins to rain! As the torrential life giving rain pours down, the evil hopeless mood of the people transforms into that of hope and happiness. Peace descends on Siriyala.
Lester wanted to skip studios and shoot the film outdoors on location. To be really authentic he wanted to film it in an actual rural village. This yearning to some extent had a personal dimension. Lester was from a privileged Westernised background. He was a Roman Catholic brought up in an urban environment. He was more at home speaking in English rather than in Sinhala. Lester knew very little of Sri Lanka’s villages and village life when he first began making films. The decision to go to a village and shoot there was a manifestation of the deep-rooted desire to experience the village personally.
First location: Bandarawela
There were two locations for the film, one in the up country and the other in the low country. Shooting began first at a location in Bandarawela. W.T. Keble, the legendary headmaster of St. Thomas’ Prep School in Bandarawela, had persuaded Peries to film there, guaranteeing that there would be no rain during that period. This was on the basis of statistics compiled by Keble for the past 20 years which indicated there was no rainfall during the specified period. So the film unit went to Bandarawela.
There were only two boarding houses in the area. The entire unit was housed there amidst cramped conditions. Meals were supplied from a Chinese restaurant. The surroundings were scenic with a long winding road, grasslands, striking trees and a mountain in the backdrop. Shooting began and the opening sequences were filmed. Scenes of Sena and his friends and the virindhu song sung by Ivor Dennis for the stilt walker and the antics of his monkey were filmed to a great extent in the first few days. And then it began raining, raining, raining! It rained consecutively for 22 days!
Days passed and nothing could be done. W.T. Keble who had guaranteed it would not rain avoided Lester in embarrassment. Making matters worse was the behaviour of the monkey that accompanied the stilt walker and performed tricks. The monkey trainer got one bottle of arrack and the monkey half a bottle each day. Denied its daily quota due to rain, the monkey threw tantrums, biting crew members and defecating in the Bug Fiat vehicle used for transporting it.
As the pouring rain continued without abating, Lester thought of utilising the opportunity by shooting the final sequence that required heavy rainfall. So the cast needed for the final sequences were brought to Bandarawela for filming in the rain. What happened next was that the rains suddenly ceased and the sun began shining brightly, making the cast brought for the rain sequence redundant. According to Lester, the Chinese restaurant proprietor had chortled, “Lain, lain no shooting; sun, sun no shooting.” The weather gods had a hearty laugh at the expense of Chitra Lanka. The unit shot a few sunny scenes and returned after wasting more than 20 days.
Second location: Wewala
The second location chosen was a village called Wewala close to Alawwa. Lester was familiar with the place having filmed some scenes there earlier for the GFU. The crew and cast went to Wewala and lived there with the villagers in village homes. Lester, Willie and Titus shared one small room in a local house. The young men in the crew and cast were under strict orders not to have any “romances” with the village damsels. This was adhered to. So much so that when the shooting ended, an elderly village woman was to “complain” that the crew was departing after staying in the village for nine months without leaving a single “memento” behind.
The unit spent more than eight months shooting at Wewala and nearby places. The shooting schedule went awry when a chicken pox epidemic erupted, afflicting the villagers and the cast and crew including Lester. Many in the village became critical grumbling that the “bioscope karayas” had brought a curse upon the village just as the villagers in the film story accused the boy Sena of bringing bad luck to the village. Two whole months of shooting were lost due to chicken pox.
In keeping with the assurances given to Lester the company did let him purchase modern equipment. While in London Lester had seen Carol Reed use the new Arriflex camera for location shooting in his film ‘A kid for two farthings’. So Lester procured the blimped ,400 ft. magazine Arriflex model from Germany. This was the first such camera to be used anywhere in Asia at that time. Lester also bought an RCA Kinevox magnetic sound recorder from the USA. This was the second of its kind to be used in Sri Lanka; the first was used by the GFU.
A trial-and-error exercise
Since this was Lester’s first attempt at making a feature and because the concept of location shooting was something novel, the film making became a trial and error exercise. The weather was fine most of the time but the problem was the overwhelming presence of crows and the sounds they made. The mikes picked up all outside sound.
The track had to be transferred regularly from magnetic to optical and sent to India for processing. A sound recordist from Madras N.B.S. Mani had been enlisted. There was no post-synching facility on location in those days. Thus Lester could not take any chances and had to shoot more than 120,000 feet of film. Nowadays of course celluloid has given way to the digital image.
The cast for Rekava was handpicked by Lester. When Lester was living near the Lunawa lagoon he had a black Morris Minor. There used to be a little boy from the neighbourhood who used to come and stare wide-eyed at the car. Lester then used to think that the boy with expressive eyes would look good in a film. So when Rekava began, it was that boy Somapala Dharmapriya who was picked to play Sena. “Somapala had large, dark eyes filled with the wonder of childhood,” observes Lester.
The girl Anula was played by Myrtle Fernando. She had already acted in a Sinhala film called ‘Ahankara Sthriya’. The boy was a fresher. The children were given their dialogues and rehearsals were done for about two weeks in a class room at Lester’s Alma Mater St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. The boy found it difficult to memorise the lines while rehearsing but proved to be a natural actor in front of the camera. Lester’s way of directing children was different. Instead of imposing anything, he would leave it to the kids themselves to act as they wished, intervening to correct only when absolutely necessary.
The role of the mother Kathrina was acted by Iranganie Serasinghe nee Meedeniya. Her husband in the film Kumetheris was played by her spouse in real life Winston Serasinghe. As is well known, both Iranganie and Winston were from the elite English theatre though they have acted in many Sinhala films. Sinhala stage actors of the time like D.R. Nanayakkara, N.R. Dias and Romulus de Silva played the parts of Sooty, Podi Mahathaya and the village headman respectively. The versatile Sesha Palihakkara acted as Miguel the stilt-walker. The young couple Premawathie and Nimal were played by Mallika Pilapitiya and Ananda Weerakoon who did not act in films afterwards. Sadly the kids acting as Sena and Anula are no more as both died of cancer later.
One of the difficulties Lester had in filming Rekava was to make the actors influenced heavily by the stage and melodramatic films to break out from that mould and act naturally. They were asked to speak normally as in everyday life instead of adopting stylised diction and intonation along with sweeping mannerisms.
As shooting progressed, more and more colloquial speech was introduced into the script written by K.A.W. Perera on the instructions of Lester. Actors were also made to adopt silence at times and convey emotions through expressions or lack of expressions. Ironically the problem of sound recording on location compelled Lester to ask actors to speak out aloud at times.
The music score and songs
Another remarkable feature of Rekava was the music score and songs. When Lester was living in London he had heard a singer perform Sunil Shanta’s ‘Olu Pipila’ song. Upon inquiring he was told that the music was composed by Sunil Shanta. Apparently Lester resolved then that he must get hold of Sunil Shanta if and when he made a film. So for Rekava it was Sunil Shanta that Lester approached to compose the music. Catholic Priest Fr. Marcelline Jayakkody known as the ‘Pansala Piyathuma’ wrote the lyrics. The music director was B.S. Perera while K.A. Dayaratne was the music arranger.
The singers were Indrani Wijebandara, Sisira Senarathne, Latha Walpola, Ivor Dennis and Tilakasiri Fernando. Subsequently Indrani and Sisira got married. The song sequences in Rekava are fabulous thanks to the words of Fr. Jayakkody, the music of Sunil Shantha and the renditions by the respective singers. The picturisation of songs by Lester was enhanced by the striking camera work of Wille Blake. ‘Olu Nelum Neriya Rangala’ (Sisira), ‘Sudu Sanda Eliye’ (Indrani), ‘Mini Muthu’ (Tilakasiri), ‘Sigiri Landakage’ (Latha), ‘Anurapura Polonnaruwe’ (Ivor) and ‘Wesak Kekulu’ (Indrani) were all great hits.
So too was the classic theme music composed for the showing of titles and opening scenes. Willie Blake brings out the pastoral beauty of rural hinterland through his expressive cinematography and one cannot but help recalling Mahatma Gandhi’s saying about India living in her villages.
There is also the striking contrast between the songs ‘Olu Nelum’ by Sisira and ‘Mini Muthu’ by Tilakasiri and the manner of picturisation. ‘Olu Nelum’ is a joyful song brimming with the zest for life as the boatman goes along with the flow of water against a background of scenic loveliness. ‘Mini Muthu’ on the other hand is a sorrowful song melancholy tones set against a bleak desolate landscape caused by the drought. The virindhu song by Ivor Dennis picturised on Sesha Palihakkara and the children is another number lingering in memory. Thanks to YouTube one is able to view and hear these songs again and again.
At one stage Chitra Lanka exceeded the budget allocated for Rekava. Additional finance was procured from Ceylon Theatres who distributed the film after Sir Chittambalam and Lady Gardiner viewed some of the reels. The main editing was done in Sirisena Wimalaweera’s studio in Colombo by Thotawatte, who is credited in the film as Editor under his original name Titus de Silva. Titus however served in many capacities as an assistant director. The great thespian Gamini Fonseka too worked as an assistant to Lester for Rekava. Incidentally Gamini’s first-ever screen appearance was in Rekava, where he played a part in a crowd scene.
Interestingly enough, the famous director Sir David Lean was in Sri Lanka to shoot ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ while the making of Rekava was in progress. Lester had a dinner meeting with Lean at the Chinese Dragon cafe. While conversing, Lester told David Lean that he was waiting for rain to shoot the final sequences. The British Director had laughed out loud, telling Lester not to wait for rain but to go ahead and make rain with the help of the Fire Brigade. Lean also delegated one of his special effects assistants to help out.
The services of the Colombo Fire Brigade were obtained. Since large quantities of water were required, the rain scene was shot in an estate belonging to J.R. Jayawardene in Kelaniya adjoining the Kelani Ganga. The fire engines pumped in the water and sprayed it upwards to a height of over 60 feet using a special kind of nozzle called the London nozzle. About half a dozen cars flashed their headlights constantly to provide light as the shooting went on from midnight to dawn. The monsoon rain sequence was very well shown in Rekava and forms an integral component of the film narrative.
Rekava premiered to an invited audience at Regal Cinema. Thereafter it was screened in 16 theatres, including Elphinstone and Roxy in Colombo. The initial reviews particularly in the English media were complimentary. The film evoked great expectations and ran well for the first week. The mood however changed soon as this realistic film disappointed fans used to seeing melodramatic films of the formula variety. Also sections of the Sinhala media turned hostile to Rekava and conducted an anti-Rekava campaign.
Apparently there were two reasons for this. It was Regi Siriwardena who told me about these matters vividly in a lengthy conversation many years ago at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) where both of us were working at that time. What Regi said in essence was this:
Though Rekava was shot in a village and depicted rural life, the film went against the popular romanticisation of the village and shattered illusions about rural innocence and purity. Rekava showed attributes of deceit, selfishness and cunning among village characters. It also demonstrated the extent of superstition and irrationality prevalent. This went against the popular conceptualisation of the village and village life. Thus sections of the Sinhala media turned against Lester saying he was Westernised and a Catholic who could not comprehend the sanctity of our “gama”.
The second reason for hostility according to Regi was the caste factor. Hard as it is to believe in the current context, a groundswell of resentment had gained ground then in certain quarters on account of caste. A horrible whisper campaign gathered momentum that Rekawa was a Karawe caste conspiracy. It was pointed out that a number of people involved in the film like Lester, Christopher Peries, Fr. Jayakkody, Sunil Shantha, Romulus de Silva, etc., were of that caste. It was even alleged that Rekawa and Karawe had the same six letters from the alphabet, which indicated a hidden meaning. Interestingly, Lester in an interview alludes to this by relating an anecdote where Winston Serasinghe (not a Karawe) was faulted by friends at CR&FC for getting trapped into a ‘Kay’ conspiracy.
The end result of these hostile campaigns and the sense of disappointment felt by audiences used to a different type of cinema resulted in Rekava becoming a financial flop in its initial run. Lester himself tells the story of how he went incognito to Elphinstone to see audience reactions. The film goers were very angry at the unconventional film and one was heard to remark that instead of wasting money for this cinema ticket “bread could have been bought for crows”.
What really helped Rekava was an unexpected windfall. Austria-born Hollywood actress Maria Schell (sister of Oscar winner Maximilan Schell) was in Colombo for a vacation at the time Rekava was screened. She had wanted to see a Sinhala film and her guide had taken her to see Rekava. Maria loved the film and said so in an interview to the ‘Observer’. She stated in the interview that she would recommend Rekava to be screened at the prestigious Cannes film festival.
Maria Schell kept her word and soon there was an invitation from the Cannes festival organisers. There was once again a hitch. Opposition built up that a negative film like Rekava portraying the villages of the country in a bad light should not be allowed to go to Cannes. The Education and Cultural Affairs Minister of the time Dr. W. Dahanayke said: “You cannot send a film like Rekava where there are bad people. You must make films where village people are shown as paragons of virtue and can do no wrong.”
Fortunately for Lester, a celebrated American author and composer Paul Bowles was in the island at that time and wrote to the Minister criticising him on account of blocking Rekava. Bowles wrote that it was unbelievable that the Minister thought Western audiences were naïve to believe that everybody was good in the villages.
The Government relented and Rekava went to Cannes. The good Samaritans who made this happen were two Westerners whom Lester had never met. Both Maria Schell and Paul Bowles had been impressed by the film and had no connection to Lester personally. Rekava, the first Sri Lankan film to be shown at Cannes, did not win any award but for Lester – down in the doldrums after the film flopped – it was a morale booster. The film was received well and exhibitors bought screen rights for the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, France and Britain.
Positive impact of Cannes
This international recognition had a positive impact back home. The film was again screened at outstation theatres for few days at a time. Those days it was customary for cinema theatres to screen old Sinhala and Tamil films between the screening of new films. There were some theatres which screened only old films for two days at a time. Rekava got gradually popularised in this way. I too saw Rekava on screen for the first time at a theatre in Kurunegala in my late teens.
Rekava is now celebrated as one of Lester’s three best films along with Gamperaliya and Nidhanaya. Lester James Peries with his Rekava is seen as a path-breaker in Sinhala cinema as Ediriweera Sarachchandra is seen with Maname in Sinhala drama. Rekava and Maname were screened and staged in the watershed year of 1956.
As stated earlier, the fate of Rekava and its maker may have been different if not for the chance for the film to be screened at the Cannes festival. It was that recognition which paved the way for a Rekava renaissance. Cannes proved to be the line of destiny in Lester’s life in another sense too. It was enroute to Cannes via Paris that Lester met his wife Sumitra Peries nee Gunawardena for the first time in the city of light. The couple who married in 1964 celebrated their golden anniversary this year. That truly is the line of destiny. On that happy note, I conclude.
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com.)
‘Spotlight’ will focus on films, film-related matters and film personalities
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
This is the first of a new, regular column titled ‘Spotlight’ to be written by me for the Daily FT. Most readers who have followed my earlier writings in English newspapers such as The Island, Sunday Times, The Hindu, The Sunday Leader, The Nation, The Bottom Line and currently on Daily Mirror would know that I generally write on political matters and politicians. This column in the Daily FT however would be different. The ‘Spotlight’ in Daily FT would focus on films, film related matters and film personalities.
I have been – and still am – an aficionado of movies and movie matters since childhood. Apart from being an avid film goer I also read quite a lot of magazines, journals and books on cinema and cinema related matters. When I was a recipient of a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, most of the courses I followed for audits were in the sphere of cinematic studies.
Many of my friends and relatives who are aware of my passion for films have been surprised and puzzled at this lesser-known aspect of my personality. What I say to them is that I grew up with cinema and cinema grew on me.
For several years, nay decades, in the past I have nursed the fond hope that I could write a regular column on cinema. I have written occasionally on cinema-related topics but what I yearned for was to write a regular cinema column in a Sri Lankan newspaper; a cinema column that would be informative and entertaining without being too serious or too frivolous. My Editors, however, would lend a sympathetic ear and then gently urge me to continue writing articles on politics.
Things took a different positive turn last year when I visited Sri Lanka after an absence of 25 years. A conversation in Colombo with Wijeya Newspapers Chairman Ranjit Wijewardene and his son Sujan Wijewardene, CEO of Wijeya Newspapers, followed subsequently by an exchange of e-mails created an opportunity for me to write another column for the Daily FT in addition to my weekly column for the Daily Mirror.
Related discussions on the matter with Daily FT Editor Nisthar Cassim and Deputy Editor Marianne David resulted in a most welcome outcome for me. The Daily FT was amenable to my writing a cinema column instead of a political column for the paper. Nisthar, being the enterprising Editor that he is, observed with a smile, “I will be happy if you can write one or two articles on politics too in the future.” I agreed.
Despite my elation and excitement at the prospect of realising my long-cherished dream of writing a column on cinema, there were some unforeseen problems on my side. Thus there was a delay in beginning this column entirely due to lapses on my part. As a result the ‘Spotlight’ which should have shed light early this year is being switched on now in July.
This film industry is one which manufactures dreams. The commencement of this column on films, film-related matters and film personalities is a dream come true for me. It is my sincere hope that the readers of Daily FT will enjoy sharing this dream along with me as the ‘Spotlight’ starts shining regularly in the coming weeks.
Meeting Lester James and Sumitra Peries at their home
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Lester James Peries is someone whom I have always wanted to meet in person but never got the chance. Though I have met a lot of creative artistes from Sinhala cinema and drama ranging from Vasantha Obeyesekera to Kapila Kumara Kalinga, mainly due to departed journalistic colleagues Ajith Samaranayake and Bede Claudius Perera, meeting Lester had just not been possible with several plans of doing so not materialising in the past.
Last year however was different as I got a chance to meet Lester James and Sumitra Peries at their residence on Dickmans Road, now renamed after the master himself. It was one of the highlights of my visit to Sri Lanka after 25 years.
With the deadline for my return to Canada drawing near I thought of getting two books autographed by Lester and Sumitra before I left. Daily FT Deputy Editor Marianne David kindly obliged by securing an appointment with the Peries duo through the help of Lester’s biographer Kumar de Silva. All that I wanted was a few minutes to say “hello,” shake hands, pose for the camera and get the books autographed.
When we reached the house after being delayed due to traffic snarls, the time was neither noon nor evening. We were very late for the appointment. Sumitra was editing her film in the making. Lester the nonagenarian was resting. I was feeling quite awkward. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. Both Lester and Sumitra came out to welcome us. I was flustered when Lester hugged and kissed me. I was overwhelmed by the gesture and later Marianne was to tease me about it saying I had suddenly become speechless.
Since we were already late I did not want to take up too much of their time but they were both relaxed and engaged in conversation. We spoke about many things relating to cinema and Sri Lanka. I was extremely happy to discover that both Lester and Sumitra had read quite a lot of my political articles and not merely the ones I had written on cinema in general and Lester in particular.
We also spoke about a few of our mutual friends and acquaintances like Ajith Samaranayake, Regi Siriwardena, Vasantha Obeyesekera, Titus Thotawatte and Gamini Fonseka. Lester also told me that ace cameraman Willie Blake was living in Canada. I had thought he had migrated Down Under.
Naturally, for a man in his nineties, Lester did appear frail and looked quite different to the dapper director I had admired from afar in the not so distant past. His intellect however was razor sharp despite the age. His memory power was formidable as he regaled us with anecdotes. It was also discernible that Lester yet retained the wry sense of humour he was famous for.
We bade au revoir after a very interesting conversation with both husband and wife lamenting the fact that I was leaving Sri Lanka in a few days. They graciously extended an invitation that I should visit them for a meal when I next visit Sri Lanka. The maestro hugged and kissed me again and I was struck dumb for the second time.
Both inscribed their signatures along with wishes on the books – one on Lester and one on Sumitra – I had taken to be autographed. The sentiments expressed were close to my heart. I shall treasure them forever. Meanwhile, I look forward to meeting both on my next Sri Lankan visit.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj with Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries at their home on Dickmans Road