Lester James Peries’s death anniversary fell on April 29. A condensed version of this essay appeared in the Daily News of April 30, 2020.
Had he been born in a country where he had greater access to capital, he would have become another Steven Spielberg or Walt Disney. That’s what Nuwan Nawayanjith Kumara once wrote, not of Lester James Peries, but of Titus Thotawatte. Titus wasn’t born in such a country; it was his luck, or ill luck, that he was born here. The same could have been said of Lester, who passed away two years ago. But then of course the two personalities were different, though they collaborated frequently enough with one another.
Titus was more the rambunctious type, a Captain Haddock as Nalaka Gunawardene put it in his obituary of the man. Lester was more a Bourbon prince, as another collaborator of his, Tissa Abeysekara, remembered. The latter didn’t specify how, but I think I can guess: short in stature, yet exuding a regal, awesome presence his height couldn’t capture. In one quality though, he was anti-royalist, almost a republican, and that was his humility. He was the last artiste of that calibre this country ever set its eyes on, barring one exception: his wife, the equally nondescript Sumitra.
Tissa was all of 21 when he first encountered Lester. There are two conflicting accounts of how the two met. In a tribute to the man, Tissa remembers that after watching Sandesaya – released in 1960 – he felt betrayed by a director he had looked up to since the day he had seen Rekava. Sandesaya was by comparison a travesty, a retread of popular Westerns and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai that left him cheated, “like all adolescents.” So he despatched a letter to Lester, so Lester received it, so he replied, and so the cheated adolescent was asked to visit him: “a Rubicon crossing” was how he remembered the moment he crossed the road to the man’s Dehiwela residence. By that time, if my memory serves me right, Tissa was working as a librarian (or an assistant librarian) at his school. The conversation turned out well, and the day turned to night when it finished. “I still chew the cud of those days in my idle moments,” he later wrote, reflecting on the rendezvous.
The second account was told to me by G. R. Perera, one of Tissa’s childhood friends. Apparently the two friends, with a couple or so other acquaintances, had bicycled their way through the cultural triangle, ending their tour in Kandy. While the others opted for rest and sleep, the two of them had gone to watch Rekava, catching the last bus back to their friend’s house once the show was done. The film had impressed him so much – “he would describe to me the sequences as though he had scripted them,” G. R. remembered for me – that he kept the fatigued friend awake as he went on rambling. The next morning, having woken up Perera again (“I never got any sleep to begin with!”), the two of them went out to buy some paper, and he sat down and wrote a letter to “‘Lester James Peries, Galle Road, Adjoining Good Shepherd Convent, Dehiwela.” Surprisingly, a reply inviting the two of them to his house reached them a few weeks later. The two duly obliged.
There’s a third account of another visit, after he saw Sandesaya, “felt cheated” by it, despatched a sandesaya himself to the director, was invited by him, and met him. But it involves a different third man: Premaranjith Tilakaratne, one of Tissa’s classmates from Dharmapala. “I remember how taken in by Rekava he was, how disgusted by Sandesaya he was. Well, we had time to kill back then. He took me to meet Lester when he visited him again. We spent the entire day at his Dehiwela house.” G. R. remembers being excluded from the conversation in his version of the first meeting, “so much was I ignored, because I couldn’t make head or tail of what these two were talking about.” Premaranjith, on the other hand, joined in. I wish I asked Premaranjith to recall that day more; he passed away three years ago, right after he had published his memoirs.
Of the two versions, the first is the most likely: it was confirmed by Tissa, Lester, and, for me, Tissa’s own son. That enterprising, eager adolescent, who felt cheated at the time but who would emerge as one of Sri Lanka’s finest scriptwriters – I’m inclined to think he was the finest – became, overnight, Lester’s protégé. The decision to turn to movies, at a time when the cinema had only begun to be taken seriously as an art in the country – that was Lester’s doing – wasn’t taken lightly, nor was it accepted at first by the family elders; his father, who had entertained a future for his son as a lawyer, wrote a long, seven paged letter to the director “in high-flown English”, accusing him of putting dangerous notions in the young budding scriptwriter’s head. Lester was amused, Tissa was livid. The situation eventually worked out to the satisfaction of the son: he came aboard Gamperaliya, wrote the Sinhala dialogues (neither Lester nor the scriptwriter, Regi Siriwardena, had a more than passable grasp of the language), and went on to excel the field.
At the time he was, as I mentioned before, 21. 50 years later, after Lester retired and Tissa had passed away, I had not quite turned 21 when, after a call (or three), I was invited to visit the man by Sumitra. After two aborted attempts – the first because of an illness, the second because at the time I paid the visit, some relatives of his, newly arrived émigrés, were about to make a mandatory call – I finally sat down, neither pen nor paper in my hands, nothing but a bunch of bananas and a biscuit tin in my hands (which I duly deposited on the table in their sitting room), and just talked. I believe we talked for over three hours that day, and I distinctly remember what we talked about: the American cinema, Lawrence of Arabia, and the perils of big budget moviemaking.
Over the following days, weeks, months, and years, I returned again and again, and the conversations got lengthier each time. We didn’t just talk about what he’d done; we also talked about what he could have done, but couldn’t do, like the Robert Knox project, or couldn’t do to his satisfaction because of constraints imposed on him by indifferent producers, inefficient co-workers, or plain apathy, like The God King (“the making of which should be turned into a book”). Every director has a project he or she wants to do when he or she decides on becoming a filmmaker. Lester was no exception: in his case, it was “a Sri Lankan Citizen Kane.” Lester was in London when the great Orson Welles, 26 at the time, made what is now considered as the greatest film ever made. He was, to put it mildly, thrilled by it: “the intercutting of the past and the present, the sudden flashes of memory, the camerawork, and the final revelation: these impacted me in a way few films have since.”
Critics and commentators have not focused their energies much on the American influence on Lester. He was a deeply sincere fan of Hollywood, “not so much the money-making part as the part where art and big business get together.” Like Satyajit Ray, he got an opportunity to visit a Hollywood studio – Universal Studios, in 1969 when he and Sumitra visited New York and California for a retrospective of his films – and the memories encouraged him to wax eloquent on the industry. In the case of Citizen Kane, an idea had presented itself to him: he felt that its story, the rise of a newspaper tycoon, could be transposed here, “because we had a Kane like figure in the person of D. R. Wijewardene.” Decades later, however, he gave up: “biography was never my cup of tea, and besides, it would have cost a lot: the research, the search for the perfect actor, the logistical complications.”
All this goes to show the immense influence Kane, and Orson Welles, had on him. “In a way I was a Welles in Ceylon!” he jokingly told me once. The comparison isn’t unwarranted: Lester, like Welles, was considered for a long time a “prestige failure”, and not even the awards and accolades he won for his films, and for his country, could guarantee him against the failures and obstacles that beset him. In the 1970s, when Lester made his greatest film, Nidhanaya, Welles was wandering here and there in Europe, searching for a producer; not even Citizen Kane could salvage him, just as not even Birth of a Nation could salvage D. W. Griffith, in many ways the father of the American cinema, and just as not even Rekava, Gamperaliya, and the three Ceylon Theatres films – Golu Hadawatha, Akkara Paha, and Nidhanaya – could salvage Lester. But like those two, he stubbornly stuck on.
One reason why the American influence has been discounted by most critics, apart from the fact that the American cinema shaped every director worth his or her salt and thus doesn’t need emphasis, is that Lester’s fascination with the French cinema was more pervasive and dominant: he himself talked to me of his “debt to the country of Renoir, Cocteau, and Bresson.” In that regard, as I wrote years ago, “he was closer to Welles than to Hollywood.” Welles’ influence comes out most discernibly in one respect: his eye for witty, nimble cutting. The final argument between mother and son in Delovak Athara, the arguments between mother, father, and daughter in Ran Salu, and the bedside feud between the siblings in Nidhanaya: the camera becomes in these sequences a dexterous participant, revealing the characters’ insecurities rather subtly. They sometimes touch on comedy – think of the farcical argument between the protagonist’s and his fiancée’s families over tea and cake in Delovak Athara – and then suddenly culminate on an unresolved note.
His love for Hollywood, despite his distrust with those who believed they could just import the studio and star system to Sri Lanka disregarding the cultural and economic differences between the two, was simply undeniable. His favourite actor, he once told me, was not one of the big stars: not Cary Grant or Marlon Brando or James Stewart or Gregory Peck, but the relatively unheard of John Garfield, who gave out his best in a series of smash hits in the Depression Era and, after a couple or so hits later, faded after being subpoenaed and blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, or HCUA. He was not quite 40 when he died, of a heart attack, and his funeral was the largest attended since Rudolph Valentino’s. Lester liked him because of his deep sensitivity, his charismatic sincerity, qualities he no doubt looked for in his players.
There were other favourites among the blacklisted, like Jules Dassin. In his own special way, I think, the love affair he carried on with Hollywood never blinded him to its faults. This came out thoroughly in his admiration for those who had been banned and exiled from the studio, and those who defied it and broke down the monopoly it had hitherto exerted in the late 60s. No doubt he saw in them all the fiercely individualistic artist he aspired to be, and became. This bias cropped up over otherwise trivial conversations about the cinema: not only about personalities, but also about that contentious means of gauging the true worth and value of a film, the “greatest ever” opinion poll.
In 2013 when I first visited him, the pantheon of great movies had shifted dramatically. The previous year, Sight and Sound in its decennial list of the 10 best films of all time had, for the first time, NOT placed Citizen Kane at the top. The number one slot had been instead taken by Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I was nonplussed, though only mildly so, and Lester was eclectic enough to accept it too. But Sight and Sound had begun the poll 60 years ago; through the thick and the thin of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, Citizen Kane had reigned supreme, an undisputed primus inter pares. That’s why I think his response to the change showed the criterion he used in judging films, and in making them.
He firstly drew a distinction between “films specific to their time, which age, and those that become timeless, which do not.” The dichotomy, futile thought it may be to those who love all kinds of films, remains for me the best way in which we can separate what he next referred to as “seasonal films”, of which Vertigo was one, from “epochal films”, of which Citizen Kane was one. What he meant there, I think, was that while Vertigo carried the baggage of Hitchcock’s work until that time – in the same way that, say, Lester’s Ammawarune carried the baggage of all his work until then – Kane was, and always remained, an objet d’art that defined if not defied an era: there was nothing that heralded it or predicted it, nothing that preceded it. Lester then made another distinction: “Hitchcock’s great talent came out in the editing room, for he was primarily an entertainer and he belonged to the technician’s workshop”, while Welles on the other hand “innovated on so many other fronts, including not only cinematography and editing, but also acting.” Taking these two criteria into account, he concluded that “regardless of Sight and Sound, and of what your generation, attuned as you all are to works of entertainment, might think, for me the true landmark will always be Kane.”
Lester had other interests, like music, and he always said he wished he became a conductor. In A. J. Gunawardena’s biography, he compares the filmmaker to a conductor: “you assemble certain skills together and get them to interpret your vision, your reading of the musical text.” He had no illusions about the competence of those in Sri Lanka who mulled around him interpreting his vision in movie after movie: “[g]ood, but not expert.” He was humble, almost to the point of self-deprecation, but, at the same time, deep beneath his humble exterior was a man who knew who he was, what he’d done, and how well he was regarded; as such, while making the case for modesty among directors, he didn’t downplay the need to be assertive: “the director may have to be dictatorial, even arrogant; but at the same time, he must also be humble.” There was no contradiction between the two, and he didn’t see any, though I doubt he was ever an arrogant dictator on the set.
If his humility endeared him to everyone who came under his gaze, his meticulous precision and his obsessive regard for the right shot – like Flaubert’s mot juste – did away with the clumsiness which normally adorns the works of directors and playwrights whose humility is taken by the cast and crew as an excuse to impose themselves on the final production. Lester’s willingness to hear out his actors brought out the best in them. Douglas Ranasinghe told me that “maestro”, as he called him, gave the actor three takes: “one for him, one for the camera, and one for the lighting.” His memory was, in that sense, phenomenal, “because he could remember how you acted in the first take and thus take you to a perfect third take.” Ravindra Randeniya remembered him as “quite a non-assertive character” who “never made you feel his presence even when he oversaw you.” Lester’s response to this was typically, and characteristically, witty: “I impose myself by my absence.”
It was the same story with the scriptwriters and the cameramen. He let them have their way, as long as it contributed to the needs of the story. The physical, geographical, and logistical demands of the script often delayed shooting, as it did in the case of Gamperaliya: the crew had to wait for some time before they could find a manor in which they could film the opening sequence in exactly the way they had scripted it. To give another example, Belihul-Oya wasn’t what the crew had originally planned for Sandesaya; it was selected only after Lester chanced across it on his way to Wellawaya when, after his car broke down “a mile beyond the Belihul-Oya Rest House”, he wandered off through the jungle path “towards the distant hills”, and came across “the very place the script demanded.” If this seems too fortuitous, consider that the opposite was also true: there were times when the external features of a location imposed itself on an ongoing shoot. It happened in Gamperaliya, where Lester and Willie Blake caught sight of the reflection of a swirling mass of water in a bucket on a wall in the manor, and featured that in the transition from Nanda pondering on whether she ought to marry Piyal to their wedding; like the bulb at the end of Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, also unplanned, the ripples represent doubt, uncertainty, and instability, but also hope.
Chance, fortune, and luck, as well as misfortune and ill luck, played their part in the evolution of the Sinhala cinema. At its forefront, and as its father, Lester was more assailed than any other by these: it was an enviable, and unenviable, mixture of rejection and acceptance that, at the end of the day, put him at the top of the pantheon. Not all the opinion polls and not all the critical pieces on him, of which I’ve authored a few, can dispute that. He was a modest director who knew when to be assertive, an assertive director who knew when to be modest. By no means, and at no point, did he forget that. In that sense he was a Bourbon prince, as Tissa remembered him, or as Nalaka Gunawardene wrote of another of his collaborators, a Gulliver in Lilliput.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org