Tribute to Lester James Peiris
By Algi Wijewickrema
To say that Lester James Peiris turned the then cinema industry upside down – if a cinema related industry existed in the 1950s in Ceylon – would be an understatement. At a time when what passed off as cinema craft in Ceylon in the late 1940s or early ’50s, was in the grips of the south Indian themes and culture, Lester James Peiris’ Rekhava (Line of Destiny) shone like a beacon in a dark night.
Movie making by Ceylonese had started in 1947 by B A W Jayamanne with his “Kadawunu Poronduwa” (Broken Promise), but this was filmed entirely in a south Indian studio as were the subsequent Ceylonese films in the early 1950s. Even the language adopted in these early movies was more the stage play-style language (Kadawunu Poronduwa was in fact a stage play by the Minerva Theatre group in which B A W Jayamanna was involved) and Lester’s Rekhava came as a breath of fresh air on the almost parched Ceylonese movie scene.
With its easily understood Sinhala in the spoken idiom, mellifluous songs, a story set to a rural village theme and filmed completely outdoors, the Rekhava and Lester gained popularity. Though Rekhava was not a commercial success in Ceylon, that it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival was no surprise to anyone and speaks volumes for its quality as a truly Ceylonese movie.
Lester was born on 5th April 1919 at Dehiwela to staunch Catholic parents, James Francis Peiris and Gertrude Winifred Peiris (nee Jayasuriya), He had two brothers, Ivan (a painter of repute being a founder member of the famous Colombo ’43 Group) and Noel and a sister Erica. Like his brothers Ivan and Noel, Lester attended St Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya, but left school at 17 years and joined the Daily News and subsequently the Times of Ceylon. He later joined Drama Circle, a theatre group involved mainly in producing English plays.
In 1947, Lester travelled to England to join his brother Ivan who was there on an Arts scholarship. While in UK he met a like-minded individual in Hereword Jansz and together they entered a short film in a competition and won an award, the ‘Mini Cinema Cup’. Lester wrote the script for this and directed it while Hereword did the camera work. In 1952, Lester, while in London, had the opportunity of interviewing the Head of the Government Film Unit (GFU) and later, on a suggestion by Mr. Ralph Keene who was the Head of the GFU, Lester returned to Sri Lanka and joined the GFU in 1952 and was responsible for producing documentaries for the Government.
In 1956, together with Willie Blake and Titus Thotawatte, Lester left the GFU and formed Chitra Lanka Limited to produce movies which resulted in the production of Rekhava for which Blake was the cinematographer while Thotawatte was the editor. The music for the movie was by Sunil Shantha and lyrics for the songs were by Rev. Fr Marcelline Jayakody. Rekhava, sans fights and girl-boy love scenes was not a commercial success though it did turn the cinema world in Ceylon upside down and was later appreciated and acclaimed for its excellence with authentic Ceylonese culture brought to the fore, and was to be considered the turning point in the Ceylonese movie industry.
Lester met Sumithra Gunawardena (a niece of the well-known labour leader, Philip Gunawardena), through her brother who in 1960 arranged with Lester for her to work as an Assistant Director in his second movie, Sandeshaya (Letter or Official Communication).The couple married on 19th June 1964 at All Saints Church, Borella. Sumiththra went on to direct her own movies the first of which was Gehenu Lamai (Girls).
After his pioneering effort, Rekhava, Lester continued to make movies, 19 of them in all and had a number of popular movies which set the standards for classic movies in Sri Lanka. Of these movies, some of Lester’s more acclaimed movies included Sandeshaya in 1960, Gamperaliya (a novel by Martin Wickremasinghe) in 1963 and Delovak Athra (1966), Nidhanaya (1972), God King in 1975 (a movie in the epic mould about king Kashyapa and Sigiriya), Madolduwa in 1976 (another of Martin Wickremasinghe’s novels) and Baddegama (1980) – Leonard Wolf’s Village in the Jungle.
Apart from awards won for some of his documentaries in the early days of his movie making, Lester received the Commandeur (Commander) in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) from the French government in 1997, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 31st International Film Festival of India in 2000, the Fellini Gold Medal awarded by UNESCO for his outstanding movie career in 2003 and the State Honour of Sri Lankaabhimanya, the highest Civil Honour of Sri Lanka in 2007.
In addition to the National and International Honours, Lester was also honoured by the alumni association of his Alma Mater, St Peter’s College, Old Boys’ Union in 1983 for Arts (Cinema) and had a National Stamp dedicated to him issued on 5 April 2002 and a road named after him (the former Dickman’s Road).
Dr Lester James Peiris was a Vice Patron of the St Peter’s College, Old Boys’ Union and at the time of his death in 2018, was known to be the oldest alumni of the school.
The country in general and the cinema industry of Sri Lanka in particular has lost a genuine and unparalleled movie maker and Lester’s demise has brought the curtain down on an era of pioneers who had to fight to release the movie industry from the clutches of pure commercialism and foreign influence.
While mourning his loss we pray that the Lord may grant him eternal rest and let His perpetual light shine on him.