The father of Lankan cinema Dr. Lester James Peries will turn 99 on April 5. His wife of a half a century and more, the celebrated film director Sumitra Peries will give him the best gift of all – her latest film Vaishnawee (Divine Messenger) to be released on the same day, its script based [...]


A match made through cinema

As the doyen of Sinhala film Dr. Lester James Peries turns 99, Sumitra Peries talks of their life together and her special gift to her husband

Lester James Peries: An unparalleled vision: Pic courtesy of a book by Sunil Ariyaratne on the master

The father of Lankan cinema Dr. Lester James Peries will turn 99 on April 5. His wife of a half a century and more, the celebrated film director Sumitra Peries will give him the best gift of all – her latest film Vaishnawee (Divine Messenger) to be released on the same day, its script based on a ‘synopsis’ done by Lester many years ago.

“When I told Lester that the film is to be released on his birthday on April 5, his response was that he prayed for it every day,” says a radiant Sumitra, the ‘divine messenger’ in Lester’s life. With a chuckle she adds that this time it will be her turn to embrace his catchwords: “it made my day!”

Theirs has always been a film connection. Rekawa was meant to be the ‘Line of Destiny’ not only for Lester James Peries, but also for 21-year-old Sumitra Gunawardena who boarded a train to Paris in exchange for the sleepy Swiss town of Lausanne where she had spent two years at the University of Lausanne. This was the time Lester came with Rekawa for the Cannes Film Festival.

Sumitra Peries: Many memories. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Introduced to the budding film-maker, by her older brother Gamini in Paris, Sumitra chuckles, “He was certainly not the young girl’s dream boy.” There were absolutely “no emotional strings attached” to him until several years later. Sixty two years later, Sumitra says: “I am what I am because of him.”

“Why waste time learning more French? Go to London,” was Lester’s advice to Sumitra when they met in Paris. Sumitra who was headed for the Idhec Institute of Cinema in France wasted no time in getting herself enrolled at the London School of Film Technique. “That was the first and the most decisive decision Lester helped me take,” she says.

By the time Sumitra completed her course in London, her brother brought pleasant tidings that Lester was working on an ambitious canvas, a new film Sandeshaya.Literally it was a ‘message’ of good luck to Sumitra. “I had three years in Europe and I also felt a calling to come back,” says Sumitra who came on board as Lester’s assistant. Driving a rickety old jeep to the ‘set’,

A scene from Gamperaliya: Their most treasured collaboration

Lester’s young assistant sporting cropped hair and baggy pants complemented the setting of Sandeshaya– the band of guerillas up in the mountains who wanted to storm the fort! “Lester who was always meticulously dressed even on location was most embarrassed when his assistant turned up dressed like a hippie, laughs Sumitra. She was the only woman in a unit of about 40.

As for the romance, “it just grew,” says Sumitra. They tied the knot in 1964 soon after Gamperaliya which she sees as their most treasured collaboration. The film not only launched Sumitra’s film-editing career but also brought her the ‘best editor’ accolade. “Even the location Maha KappinnaWalauwa in the deep South which we discovered together brings back so many memories. I remember Geoffrey Bawa saying that he watched the movie so many times just to behold the beauty of this 300- year-old Dutch period mansion!”

Bridging “all gaps possible” in the match, in the words of Sumitra, their journey together has been cemented by their cinematic marvels, driving them to measure everything in life by their creations. “Outside film making, very little interested both of us,” remarks Sumitra who wonders what kind of films she would have made if Lester wasn’t in her life. “I remember a European friend of mine saying after I took up film directing- ‘Oh so you are in competition.’ It has never been so, I have never felt inadequate next to Lester. On the contrary, he has let me breathe and flower on my own.”

Bridging all gaps: Sumitra and Lester

“We always respected each other’s work. Even when I had a doubt about a shot, an edit, Lester would subtly guide me without ever imposing.” It is this very subtlety which earned her husband the reputation of being a gentle giant, says Sumitra. “I believe it is the example he set by being a strict disciplinarian. He always won the respect of everyone without ever demanding it. Lester is one of those exceptionally tolerant people who hardly took any offence.”

Lester’s portrayal of the most subtle human feelings on the silver screen continues to enthral her. As Lester once said of people who worked with him, ‘I get the best out of them, but I do it without much effort.’ Directing came most naturally to him, Sumitra says. “So much so he always claims he discovered his roots through cinema.”

Be it Gamperaliya, Delovakathara, Golu Hadawatha, Nidhanaya, Desa Nisa, Yuganthaya or Wekande Walauwa there were no limitations for the Lester-Sumitra collaboration . “We ripped our own curtains and brought our own furniture,” recollects Sumitra. This came at an enormous cost. Antique silver mirrors were lost, heirlooms were chipped and favourite sarees were drenched in ‘rain sequences’ and spoilt.

Yet if they are to do it all over again, they would, says a smiling Sumitra.

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