Sumitra: The stuff films are made of

Book facts: Sumitra Peries : Sri Lankan Filmmaker, Poetess of Sinhala Cinema, by Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin.
Reviewed by Rajitha Weerakoon.

Sumitra Peries is Sri Lanka’s pioneer woman film-director of both national and international repute who directed nine films whilst playing a pivotal role in 18 films of the doyen of the Sinhala cinema Dr. Lester James Peries in a career spanning 52 years. It is gratifying that even at this late hour, a tribute is paid to Sumitra in the form of a book of appreciation.

Launching the book last week, the author, Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin, said that it may surprise some that the book – a homage to the legendary film-maker of serious films was authored by the daughter of a “commercial director” - Rabindra Coomarasamy Tampoe, better known as Robin Tampoe. The book is a biography of Sumitra and is interspersed with photographs that are flashbacks of her life and career. It is also a serious study of the history, the landmarks, the influences and the vicissitudes of the Sinhala cinema besides being a work of art.

The author’s aim is to assess the cinematic contributions made by Sumitra Peries. But her emphasis is more on the life and times of the personality behind the camera “than on the depth and quality of Sumitra’s work.” Relevant critical material however is included to trace Sumitra’s career that took her to the top as the first professionally qualified cineaste.

Sumitra, who had been focusing on women in her films thus has become the focus of a woman- author. Commencing her career in the early 1960s, she joined Ceylonese film-makers who were at the time seeking to take Sinhala cinema to new heights. This movement coincided with the resistance to Sinhala formula films influenced by South India. “It is in this context that the value and significance of Sumitra’s contribution to Sri Lanka’s cinema heritage can be appraised.”

Sumitra spent the 1950s absorbing the theory of cinema in France and Great Britain and the following decade saw her familiarize herself with the peripheral aspects of “the seventh art” as assistant to Lester James Peries. Nineteen years later, she threw her energies into the lives of Sri Lankan women to delve into their multiple roles as young girls, wives and mothers influenced by patriarchal values, evolving within the framework of a traditional, colonial and post-independent society.

The message of her first film “Gehenu Lamai” (1978) which was the beginning of Sumitra’s ever-ascending career as a film-director was that Sri Lanka was a country where women were “immobilized by the sweet bondage of family loyalties and restricted by the gentle disposition of one of the more austere forms of Buddhism, Heenayana.”

But the writer questioning the striking contrast of Sumitra’s personal life to women in her films says her existence had been far removed from the secluded, conservative world of Sinhala Theravada Buddhist women dominated by males. “Not only did she break bonds and barriers but she also braved a trip to Europe alone at 20 – to the great unknown and it took months to reach her destination with her destiny decked between the sea and the sky.”

However, on the other hand, the author states that had Sumitra not caught the fever of wanderlust and returned with an armful of qualifications, nobody would have enjoyed the privilege of discovering the world of the Sinhala woman – whether sedate or militant, demure or devilish….

The two sisters in “Gehenu Lamai” behave the way they do because of a set of social pressures that bear them down and to which each sister reacts differently. “Gehenu Lamai” is hailed as a “cinematic poem.” Her second film “Ganga Addara” (1980) explored the inner recesses of a mind made vulnerable by a number of emotional dislocations while “Yahalu Yeheli” (1982) is an exploration of social issues seen through the eyes of a girl growing up in an urban area. A young woman, animated by a fighting spirit is galvanized into action facing injustice. She joins in a struggle led by villagers to receive their confiscated land.

An American critic saw “Sagara Jalaya’s” (1989) village dwelling widow as having enormous political content of a feminist nature” and her “Loku Duwa” dwelt on the plight of an eldest daughter of a middle class family who had to make compromises having come to terms with the realities the family had to face.

The rare depth, talent and maturity she displayed in her films had done more for feminism than the hordes of bra-burners, women-liberators et al. Sumitra’s place was essentially that of an assistant to maestro Peries, her soul mate and later spouse. Her career no doubt is ineluctably connected with that of Lester’s but not many realize that her entry was quasi-concomitent with Lester’s even though she occasionally admitted that “being his wife made it easier to start her career as a director as did her qualifications.”

The book has attempted to trace the family-history of the top-ranking woman film-maker, whose lifestory itself has a cinematic flavour. Hailing from the Sinhala Buddhist gentry – Boralugoda Gunawardenes of Sitavaka and identified as freedom fighters, their participation in the struggle for independence found them in prison. Sumitra’s father was the eldest brother of Philip and Robert – the brilliant orators and politicians. Kusuma, Philip’s wife was also a Parliamentarian and Sumitra as such, from a very young age, was exposed to Left politics. At Visakha Vidyalaya where she schooled, she remembers being branded as a Leftist. At the age of 14, Sumithra lost her mother (Harriet nee Wickremasinghe) and her brother Gamini (Kuru) – five years her senior and her guru and mentor disappeared soon after. Reflecting on her mother’s untimely death Sumitra says that her death brought her freedom to the fore, a propensity for adventure while “the rebel blood” in her was bequeathed by her renowned paternal family. Sumitra says “had my mother with her strong personality lived, all her daughters would have been made to marry and settle down to a ‘stable life.’”

Sumitra, then a science student from Aquinas College, was scheduled to sit a crucial exam in psychiatry when she found that her missing brother, six years since his disappearance, was on a yacht in Naples and was sailing the Mediterranean. Sumitra, aged 20, grabbed some insurance money and set sail to Naples when she met her long-haired, pipe-smoking brother – the stuff films are made of?
Sumitra recollects that it was while they were sailing for half a year along Southern Italy that she, ‘a science and maths person” felt the stirring of her visual senses as she kept clicking her camera to record the enchantment of the surrounding scenario – the click that continued for over half a century. “I got the urge to recapture this experience and the European sojourn infused me with enough inspiration to last a lifetime of cinematography.”

Her brother by this time had returned to Ceylon. Sumitra who was in Paris had been turning up at the Legation to check whether money had been sent from home when Dr.Vernon Mendis, who was its Head and his wife Paddy with no inkling of the role they were playing towards a union of two brilliant film-makers, took charge of Sumitra. Peries who was also in Paris with “Rekawa” for its screening at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival was also accommodated at the Mendis’ residence. Sumitra viewed “Rekawa” for the first time in Paris when she made acquaintences with the Master – “but not particularly interested in who he was and even less conscious of the vital off-screen role he would play in my life.”
If Peries’ “Rekawa” with its visionary title would become a benchmark of Sinhala cinema, was it not a synchronization of their own lines of destiny that crossed on that occasion in the City of Lights?
Sumitra on this occasion was advised by Lester to learn filming in London, advice which she followed and which proved to be decisive. In 1960, “Sandesaya” was about to begin and was hailed by those who were seeking an alternate cinema.

Sumitra who was made Assistant Director of “Sandesaya” on her return to Sri Lanka was the only woman recruited in the all-male crew. And having just arrived from the Western capitals, she found herself virtually in the wilderness of Belihuloya where they lived for six months in huts using water from the streams. The union thus started as Sumitra says with a “baptism of fire” continued for well over half a century.

Her phase of collaboration with Lester (1961-1978) began with “Gamperaliya” – a landmark in the Sinhala cinema as well as in the lives of the Peries’. They tied the knot at the conclusion of the filming – six years after their rendezvous in Paris.

The marriage led her to take a firm grip of the film-industry with Sumitra playing a pivotal role in all fields, finally ending with full command of the entire assembly line. The author highlights yet another of Sumitra’s unerring instincts, the knack she had for talent-hunting and finding the right person for the right role which is amply testified by her pick of a fifteen-year- old, pig-tailed novice and convent girl from Gampaha for the lead role in her first film “Gehenu Lamai.” She kept her protectively at her house and cast her in her next film “Ganga Addara” as well. Vasanthi Chaturani today is a household name.

Many such new faces were brought to the screen when she went on to make more and more films.
Sumitra won twelve International and National awards – four as “Best Editor” eight as “Best Director” and eleven other national awards. A slight deviation from her filming career came about with her appointment by President Chandrika Kumaratunge as Ambassador to France in 1995 – a country which had been very close to her heart. 1995 was also the year which celebrated hundred years of the birth of cinema which the French-speaking Ambassador found to be yet another landmark-event that took place in Paris.

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