I have faith in the cinema and in the country. I owe my life to the cinema. I would have been in exile if I did not come back to my homeland and get back my identity. I’d like to be reborn in this country even with all the problems around us. There is no [...]


The End


Lester James Peries: 1919-2018. Pic by Dominic Sansoni- threeblindmen.com

I have faith in the cinema and in the country. I owe my life to the cinema. I would have been in exile if I did not come back to my homeland and get back my identity. I’d like to be reborn in this country even with all the problems around us. There is no other country like Sri Lanka.” This was Lester James Peries speaking at the Presidential Awards in February 2000.

While he felt local cinema was facing a grave crisis he said it was not peculiar to Sri Lanka. “Every country has faced this situation. Cinema being a combination of three factors – it’s a commercial entity, an industry and an art form – it is a difficult task to reconcile all three,” he commented.

Lester’s departure marks the end of a long line of ‘greats’ in Sri Lanka in art and culture. In the not too distant past we lost writer Martin Wickremasinghe, dramatist Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra, dancer Chitrasena, musicians Pandit Amaradeva and Premasiri Khemadasa, photographer Nihal Fernando and painter George Keyt, to name a few who made an immense contribution in their fields.

Journalist turned film director, Lester James Peries gave the lead in making films which helped Sri Lankan cinema gain recognition in the international arena. His films won critical acclaim, both nationally and internationally. Young film-makers were inspired by him and produced quality films. He was always available for advice and guidance. He gave confidence to local actors and actresses and guided them to perform award-winning roles.

“His social background, in an important sense, inflected his work and is closely tied to his undoubted strengths and failures. He comes from an Anglicized, upper middle-class family which was more conversant with Western culture than the wellsprings of indigenous forms of life. He had his early education in English. His father was a physician who was trained in Scotland. Lester James Peries, from his young days, evinced a deep interest in literature and imaginative writing. He later left for London where he began a career as a journalist. While in England he pursued his interest in journalism and at the same time studied carefully the art of European cinema, and the modes of literary and cinematic criticism. His interest in cinema began to dominate his thinking, and after returning to Sri Lanka he was able, as an employee of the Government Film Unit, to work on a number of documentaries side by side with a number of gifted European filmmakers.” – ‘Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema’ Wimal Dissanayake and Ashley Ratnavibhushana (2000)

I knew Lester for over five decades. When I first met him during my days at Lake House, the first thing he told me was that I should know the proper spelling of his name – ‘Peries’ and not in any other way. “My entire clan – my father, uncles and everybody else – used to spell the name this way. I don’t know why,” he told me once when I reminded him of our first meeting. “I believe it originated as a Portuguese name around Negombo,” he said.

I admired his methodical ways and attention to detail.  Just as much as he wrote beautifully expressing himself so perfectly, his handwriting was also beautiful. Whenever I asked for his autograph on books written about him, he always added a short comment. When I wanted a copy of the book – ‘The Formidable Genius’ I wrote as a tribute on his 87th birthday, autographed, he wrote: “From the ‘Formidable Genius’ to the formidable critic and commentator who has been our artistic conscience over the years”. He signed as ‘Lester J. Peries’ legibly and never failed to put the date below the signature.

LJP was most fortunate in maintaining sound health throughout his life. He was careful about his meals.  When I was at Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC), I took him along to Soragune off Haputale to do a documentary of the company’s sugarcane project. He insisted on taking his can of water to drink and the specially prepared ‘chillie-less’ curries from home.

He has told me that he had been pretty lucky in being able to lead a very happy family life. His wife Sumitra, a renowned film director herself kept him company and looked after him for 54 years.

During the trip to Soragune I observed his working pattern. He was so precise, clear in his mind as to what had to be done, and he was never in a hurry.

He was disciplined in every way – the way he dressed, the way he went about his work, the way he handled his players and crew and the way he made films.

It was a treat to listen to his talks.  He had a fine memory and spoke off the cuff. The way he remembered even the minute details of the happenings during shooting films was amazing.

During my long stint in writing the ‘Kala Korner’ column to the Sunday Times, there was plenty of interesting copy on Lester and his work. In addition, many were the feature articles I wrote on him.

Possibly there isn’t any other artiste in Sri Lanka about whom so much has been written. Apart from articles in newspapers, film journals and other publications, several books about him have been published in English and Sinhala. Starting with ‘The Lonely Artist’ (1970) by journalist Philip Coorey, among the more academically based ones are ‘LJP’ by A. J. Gunawardene (with Lester and Prasad Pereira contributing additional material), published by the Asian Film Centre – Sri Lanka (2005) and ‘Lester by Lester as told to Kumar de Silva’ (2007) . Sunil Ariyaratne’s ‘Lester – a pictorial biography’ was released in 2004 as an elegant coffee table book. It is the best publication in Sinhala to date. Other books have been written about some of his films.

In his Dickman’s Road (later named Lester James Peries Mawatha) residence Lester had two favourite places to sit and chat. One was his front ‘office room’ (in the old jargon) and the other the easy chair in a corner behind the dining table. He was always quite relaxed. He used to be in a long- sleeved shirt and ‘longs’ and in the front room he sat at his small writing table close to the window where he could see the greenery outside. Whenever we met we had plenty of things to talk about – from his journalistic days in London to the GFU days, right through the film career. Sumitra would pop in and move away after a ‘Hello’.

Meeting Lester for a chat was always a most rewarding experience. He had such a charming personality, was a most interesting conversationalist, a vastly knowledgeable artiste and a fine human being.

It was only three and a half weeks back that Sumitra gave him a fine gift for his 99th birthday in the form of a film based on a story he had written. Lester was too weak to go for the premiere of ‘Vaishnavee’.

Sumitra has lost her dear husband. The country has lost a great artiste, a treasured citizen. We will miss him but let’s not forget the valuable service he has rendered towards the development of cinema in Sri Lanka.

May his path be smooth and serene!

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