ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 32

Kala Korner

By Dee Cee

How Lester rebelled against Sinhala cinema

It was a nostalgic evening at the Regal when we met to celebrate the golden jubilee of Lester James Peries’s Rekava, acknowledged by everyone as the first authentic Sinhala film. It was a special moment for those of us who had seen and enjoyed the film 50 years ago.

Why the Ministry of Cultural Affairs or the State Film Corporation did not think it fit to celebrate the occasion was anyone’s guess.

It was left to a virtually unknown group of enthusiasts, the Sahurda Sanvada Kendraya (the live-wire of which is the well known lyric writer Bandara Eheliyagoda), to team up with DFCC Bank to organize the event. A laudable act indeed.

The evening also marked the launch of two books by father-son duo – A.D. Ranjit Kumara and Nuwan Nayanajith Kumara. Ranjit's is a fine collection of reviews on Rekava along with its screenplay and a collection of stills from the film and other relevant photographs. Nuwan's is a collection of articles by Lester, a very useful publication for the student of cinema.

There were two short addresses by Professor Sunil Ariyaratne introducing Ranjit Kumara's 'Ada Siya Wasaka Ridee Rekava' (a Surasa publication) and versatile artiste Jackson Anthony on Nuwan's effort, the Sarasavi publication 'Lester Virachita Lekhana Sanhita'.

In Prof. Ariyaratne's words, Rekava changed the fate of the Sinhala cinema. "It was the first revolt in Sinhala cinema. Lester was the rebel leader - the terrorist in today's terms. He dashed the existing Sinhala cinema on the ground, eliminated the love-triangle, threw away the grammatical Sinhala used in dialogues, changed the manner well-known actors were selected, replaced the shining clothes and artificial settings and reversed the South Indian techniques of lighting, camerawork and editing," he said paying tribute to the great master.

Jackson Anthony was of the opinion that the maestro filmmaker's contribution to cinema has not been adequately acknowledged in his own country although the world has recognised him as one of the three Asian greats, the other two being Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. Twelve artistes graced the occasion, with all but one sitting in the gallery, facing the audience, while the twelfth, Assistant Director Vijaya Abhayadeva, being confined to a wheelchair was in a box-seat at the rear. Lester, of course, rightly occupied centrestage, flanked by Iranganie Serasinghe, Sesha Palihakkara, Mallika Pilapitiya, Camillus Fernando and Sunila Jayanthi; singers Latha Walpola, Ivor Dennis, Sisira and Indrani Senaratne; and music director K.A. Dayaratne. Titus Totawatte was unable to attend the celebrations as he was ill, while Willie Blake and Ananda Weerakoon are abroad. Those who have departed were remembered by observing a minute's silence.

Lester was taken aback when asked to speak a few words after the distribution of the tokens of appreciation. Reminding everyone that silence is golden, he however, revealed the little known fact that he rushed to the premiere of Rekava just in time, having spent the whole day in courts in connection with the documentary 'Traffic Police' he had done when he was in the Government Film Unit. He couldn't remember the details. (Seasoned journalist Percy Jayamanne who was seated next to me whispered that he saw the first show at Gampaha Public Hall in the afternoon while the premiere was held at the Regal at 6 p.m.)

What the English reviews said

Thanks to Ranjit Kumara, we are able to go back 50 years and enjoy what was written about Rekava. Many of us have forgotten that all the big names in English journalism thought it worthwhile to write about a Sinhala movie.

D.B. Dhanapala (Janus) writing to the Times of Ceylon - Sunday Edition described how neatly Lester had created a Sinhalese village……. which was "such a great relief from the usual run of Sinhalese films in which we see the same old sets of the Madras Vahini and Gemini Studios with a young man and a woman bellowing out their passion in thundering tones as they run round and round a tree or a male servant trying his tricks with the master's ayah in the back verandah and the inevitable hero in ill-fitting Madras trousers. For my past sins I have seen a number of such films that pass off as Sinhalese movies. If you see one, you have seen them all.

"Lester Peries has shown these bogus Cinema Moghuls that what they said cannot be done can be done."

To Reggie Siriwardene, Rekava demonstrated that you can make a film in Sinhalese satisfying the demands of the popular audience and the canons of good taste. He called it an act of faith in the Sinhalese filmgoer, an affirmation that popular entertainment need not be synonymous with puerility, vulgarity and poverty of imagination. Jayantha Padmanabha (The Walrus), Editor of the Daily News wrote that it proved to be a film of remarkable quality, not only as compared with the few Sinhalese films which have been made before, but by any standards.

Tory de Souza, Editor of the Times of Ceylon predicted that if the film was competently edited down to 90 minutes (every reviewer criticized that it was far too long), it should quite easily win a handsome prize at the Venice Biennale. "Even as it is, it sets entirely new standards in Ceylon where garish and strident melodrama has hitherto dominated much of our filmmaking." To Mervyn de Silva, Rekava was the first Sinhalese film.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.