An unmatched legacy in Sinhala cinema

Saturday, 5 April 2014 00:07 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • ‘Lester by Lester, as told to Kumar de Silva’ – A book review in tribute to Dr. Lester James Peries on his 95th birthday today, 5 April
Today, as Sri Lanka’s cinema industry spreads its wings towards various genres ranging from teen pop to historical films and so forth, one of the forefathers of the Sinhala cinema Dr. Lester James Peries claims a pedestal that few mortals can during their lifetime, to be a ‘living legend,’ celebrating his 95th birthday today, 5 April. Today, as this iconic creator of moving images quietly rests in his days of retirement, one can only wonder what images of his golden days behind the camera and onset ‘playback’ in his thoughts. Today as a tribute to this Sri Lankan filmmaker who crafted an unsurpassable legacy on celluloid I believe it is apt to spare a few minutes to dwell on what LJP has presented as his official biographical account covering his entire body of work in the form of an oral narrative made into a textual record titled ‘Lester by Lester, as told to Kumar de Silva’. The book which is a Vijitha Yapa Publication was launched as a limited edition issue in April 2007 and commands great value as a collector’s item since every single copy bears an authentic signature of LJP himself. On turning each page any film lover who holds a sense of respect for the complex craft of creating stories in moving visuals will be captivated by the words that narrate a film legend’s life in the world of cinema, and feel awed as the tones and turns of phrase speak out the voice of LJP to take shape in the reader’s mind, to recreate the days and events that charted his path to become who he is today, a word renowned filmmaker from Sri Lanka who stands to be the only Sri Lankan so far to be honoured by the French government as Commander in the Order of Arts Letters (Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres). In the personal note by LJP to the reader, he reveals that the publication is one of passion and devotion on the part of the biographer, well-known media personality, TV broadcaster and author Kumar de Silva, whose unwavering commitment over a span of five years, to record, transcribe, and collate the ‘LJP story’ created the biographical narrative now existent for posterity as ‘Lester by Lester, as told to Kumar de Silva’. The onus of recounting an authentic, true to fact ‘career story’ covering 20 film projects no doubt had been considerably felt by LJP’s conscience which is evinced in the following words  – “A journey in time is always fraught with multiple dangers; nostalgia and an obfuscation of the truth. I have tried to avoid both pitfalls – it hasn’t been easy. When you have worked with artistes who enjoy iconic status today, but were unknown when you started their careers, how much can you reveal? When you have ghost directed a considerable number of scenes, would you now reveal what has been an artistic triumph today? Historical veracity may try to force you to, but the ethical thing to do is to keep your trap shut.” The book presents 20 chapters, and each chapter is titled with the name of the film it deals with. Each chapter is thus something of a ‘director’s cut’ in words, if one may adopt the term as a turn of phrase, as the images that get conjured in the mind of the reader will run like something of a private rendition of the film in aspects that were beyond the scope of being recorded on camera. What the reader discovers first is where it all began, ‘Rekawa’; which was titled in English as ‘The Line of Destiny’. The reader is taken back in time to what happened in 1955; literally in the ‘last century’. In this opening chapter LJP gives in the following words insight as to how his desirous flames for feature filmmaking were getting fanned with getting the feel for ‘Rekawa’ – “Deep down my feeling for cinema was not so much for documentaries, as for fiction. It is difficult to say where the stories come from. This story came from a whole lot of associations. It may have been a simple story where I could embody a great deal of village life and the things that happen in a village like a puppet show, a masked devil dance, or a stilt walker coming to the village.” Budgeted back then at Rs. 150,000, the story of the ‘Gamperaliya’ film project is one that will surely enthral readers when the words of the pioneering filmmaker describe how the locations were selected and the acting talents of the late greats of the Sinhala stage and screen Henry Jayasena and Trilicia Goonewardena were cultivated and harnessed to achieve the vision that the directorial eye had conceived. How the bestselling Sinhala romance novel ‘Golu Hadawatha’ made it to the big screen, how LJP devised the narrative from text to visuals, and how the renown leftist legislator Bernard Soysa had helped save the film from being brutally contorted with suggested deletions of scenes by the authorities of the Ceylon Theatres is all stated in black and white. What I believe this book offers to the world of cinema in terms of learning, is a practitioner’s account of how filmmakers work between film theory, the politics in society and institutions and actual onset work; taking a film project from concept to reality, or from script to celluloid. Surely the details that give technical insight as to how certain shots in certain films were achieved and why they were done in that manner will be of much interest to cinema enthusiasts, film critics and academics as well as students of film and aspiring filmmakers.  When I came to know from the biographer Kumar de Silva that a Sinhala translation of this book is currently underway, being translated by Athula Samarakoon, the current Head of the Department of Fine Arts of the University of Peradeniya, to be launched in July this year as a Samaranayake Publication, and, as part of the French Spring Festival, I felt that a tremendous service is being done to the existing body of Sinhala literature on cinema. Many after all are the monolingual Sinhala readers in our country who have been enamoured with LJP’s Sinhala cinema. His story in Sinhala will surely touch the pulse of many of his viewers who were partners in certain respects to the success he enjoyed over the decades. And so with my salutations proffered to the great doyen of Sinhala cinema may I say let us all on this day in our hearts warmly accord him a standing ovation. Happy 95th birthday and may you be blessed with good health Commandeur Lester James Peries! – Dilshan Boange