I first met the veteran filmmaker Lester James Peiris in 1978, at the time when his wife, film director Sumitra Peiris’s first film Gehenu Lamai was released. After watching the film several times, I was transfixed by the freshness of the cinematic narrative. I immediately wrote a review on the film titled “Gehenu Lamainey Koheda [...]


To Lester who taught me the ABCs of filmmaking


I first met the veteran filmmaker Lester James Peiris in 1978, at the time when his wife, film director Sumitra Peiris’s first film Gehenu Lamai was released. After watching the film several times, I was transfixed by the freshness of the cinematic narrative. I immediately wrote a review on the film titled “Gehenu Lamainey Koheda Bala Inne” (Girls where are you’ll looking?)- a lyrical phrase that I extracted from the film itself.

The writer Nilendra Deshapriya

It was also a time I was editing the magazine “Prathibha”, and I needed to include this review in the second edition of the magazine. Publishing the first edition of the magazine was a challenge financially, and printing the second edition was almost impossible.

However, since Gehenu Lamai inspired me, I decided to visit Lester at his home on Dickman’s Road.  I thought that it would not be easy meeting him. Yet, it was not the case. He warmly welcomed me. He went through the review and asked Mrs. Peiris to read it. I was barely 16 years old. He asked me how he could be of help, and I explained about the magazine and the financial difficulties in printing the second edition. However, I was determined to distribute copies of the magazine at least among my friends. He was curious and asked me more about the magazine, what it is about, where it will be published and so on. He also questioned me on cinema, the films that I had watched and the filmmakers I was passionate about.

Then, he called his long-time Assistant Director with whom he collaborated with till late, Upali Perera, and asked him to give me an advertisement and also a letter requesting the Gnaanaartha Pradeepaya press to give me access to the printing block with the artwork for the advertisement. He gave me money for the advertisement before the advertisement was published and even before reading a single page of the magazine. He simply gave me his blessings to go ahead and print it. That was my first encounter with him. I will never in my life forget his benevolent help. I could actually publish two editions of the magazine from the money that he gave me. However, after two years, in 1980- I became a professional Assistant Director. I was still schooling.

Lester made immortal films for the Sri Lankan and international audiences. Unfortunately,  he could only produce a few films during his lifetime – roughly 20 films. If he had been given the opportunity, he could have made more extraordinary films. What disappoints me the most is his unfulfilled dream. He dreamt of establishing a National Film Archive 50 years ago. Not the cost of building one highway, but the money spent on two km of a highway was sufficient to make that dream a reality. The policy makers, politicians of this country, the officials in charge of the Film Corporation were not able to make his dream come true, not even 50 years later. But although he is no more, his dream is very much alive.

The second time I met him was at the Tharangani Hall at the Film Corporation during a screening of a restored print of his film Gamperaliya. I had studied the novel Gamperaliya for my Advanced Level Examination, and I kept watching this film again and again. After the screening, when everybody was greeting him, I also approached him. Then he asked me “Nilendra, why can’t someone restore me?” What he actually meant was that his films and other Sri Lankan films should be restored. He was already feeble, but he attended the screening and mingled with the audience. I believe that even during that time he was eagerly waiting to make another film, yet he did not have enough opportunities.

The third time we met was when I went for the Venice International Film Festival in August 2013.The World Cinema Foundation, on the initiative of Martin Scorsese, had restored the world’s best artistic oeuvres using 4K technology. Unfortunately, Lester could not attend that event due to poor health. However, at the 70th Venice Film Festival his film Nidanaya which had won the Silver Lion Award in 1972, was screened in retrospect under the Venice Classics section. The remarkable cinematography, the acting of  Gamini Fonseka and Malini Fonseka, the music composition by Premasiri Khemadasa, a landmark score in Sri Lankan film music, Tissa Abeysekara’s script and Lester James Peiris’s renowned visual style made the experience of watching the film in Venice quite surreal.

Lester James Peries: Unparalleled vision and generosity of spirit

Sumitra  Peiris was present at the festival, so were actor Ravindra Randeniya, his son Sameera and many more Sri Lankans who lived in Venice. Makeup artist Ranjith Mathangaweera’s brother Lucky Mathangaweera, and Devina De Silva with her family- all of us shared the bliss of witnessing this masterpiece. We were all amazed by how a film which was made around 40 years ago with technical and financial constraints could be that fresh and powerful. That night we felt very fortunate to be a part of an audience which applauded the veteran filmmaker with a standing ovation.

I was determined to meet him before directing my first film Thanha Rathi Ranga, and promised myself not to proceed without doing so.When I met him he did not ask me what my film is about. He asked me what the visual style I intend to use for the film is. As the film was to be shot in two weeks I was too nervous to answer him in detail, but somehow gathered the courage to explain the best way possible. He called Mrs. Peiris too, telling her-“Listen to what Nilendra is saying”. I showed him the script and a book with pre-production notes and visuals of workshops conducted with the actors. He said, “Nilendra make this film, I want to see it,” while adding a note of good wishes on the book. I remember that day as if it is today, I touched his feet and worshipped him. He was not a person who was used to these traditional formalities.  I did it because, I know that if I have evolved as a filmmaker or a television personality today, it is owing to three great pillars including D.B. Nihalsinghe and Gamini Fonseka. However, before meeting these two great artists, it was Lester James Peiris who actually taught me the ABCs of filmmaking.

Nilendra Deshapriya


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