Lester James Peries, the grand old man of Sri Lankan cinema, died on Sunday in Colombo. He was 99. He is survived by his wife, Sumitra Peries, a well-known filmmaker in her own right and former diplomatic ambassador.
Among the films, documentaries and shorts Peries made over a 50-year period was Wekande Walauwa (2002), the first Sri Lankan submission in the foreign language Oscar category. The movie is adapted from Anton Chekov’s short story The Cherry Orchard and is set among the Sri Lankan elite.
Peries was born on April 5, 1919, and developed an early love for cinema after his father gifted him an 8mm projector. Peries dropped out of college to work as a journalist, and was also involved with theatre. He travelled to London in 1946 to meet his brother, the future painter Ivan Peries, where he trained in filmmaking and made three experimental short films, including Soliloquy.
In 1952, Peries returned to his homeland to make documentaries for the Government Film Unit. He made a splash with his very first feature film, Rekava, in 1956. Nominated for a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year, the film explores the lives and folklore of a rural Sinhalese community. It is credited with kickstarting an indigenous filmmaking movement, one that was free of outside influences, including from India.
Peries’s subsequent films explored a range of subjects through a style that combined realism with lyricism. Sandesaya (1960) examines the Portuguese occupation of Sri Lanka. Gamperaliya (1963), which won the top award at the International Film Festival of India, examines a romance that is thwarted by class differences.
Gamperaliya was the first in a trilogy and was followed by Kaliyugaya (1983) and Yuganthaya (1985). The films are based on Martin Wickramasinghe’s trilogy of the same name, which follow the decline of an agricultural family and its transition to a new urban economy.
Peries’s acclaimed films include Nidhanya (1972), about a hidden treasure that leads to human sacrifice. Nidhanya is among the director’s films to have been recently restored.
Beddegama (1980), set during the British occupation of Sri Lanka, was based on British civil servant Leonard Woolf’s 1913 novel The Village in the Jungle. The movie stars British science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, who lived in Sri Lanka until his death in 2008, as Woolf.
In an interview in 2015, Peries explained that he was attracted to the novel’s sociological and political relevance. He shot the film in the location mentioned in the book, Hambanthota, “to depict the harsh realities the peasants encountered, the injustices they faced, and the fiery emotions that impacted their lives”, according to a report in The Sunday Times. Beddegama was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in the Directors’ Fortnight section that year.
In 2011, Peries and his wife and professional collaborator, Sumitra Peries, set up a foundation in their names to promote contemporary Sri Lankan cinema and preserve the classics. The Lester James Peries Film Archive was set up in his name in 2014.
“The greatness of Lester James Peries however cannot be measured by the quantity of his output,” journalist DBS Jeyaraj wrote in the Daily Financial Times newspaper in 2017. “It is the qualitative nature of his films that elevated him to commendable heights. Lester James Peries is acknowledged as the pioneer of authentic Sinhala cinema. It was he who created in every sense of the term an indigenous cinema in both substance and style. It was also Lester who first gained worldwide recognition for Sinhala cinema. Lester James Peries became a national icon identified with the sphere of Sri Lankan cinema over the years.”
The 2012 documentary The World of Peries, directed by K Bikram Singh, reveals Peries’s long-standing friendship with Indian director Satyajit Ray and with Indian film festivals. Peries cited Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Adoor Gopalakrishnan as the four Asian directors he admired the most. He described himself as “deeply religious, in the sense that I am very tolerant of all religions”. He was Roman Catholic, while his wife is Buddhist.
“Life and my people have been very good to me,” Peries told Singh. “I hope that through my films, I have given something back to them.”