COLOMBO: Sri Lankan film maker Lester James Peries, who died on April 29 aged 99, will go down in the history of the island for two reasons: he was the first Sri Lankan film maker to have won international recognition and was the first to entirely reject the Madras tradition and chalk out his own path in film making to reflect the culture, concerns and ethos of Sri Lanka.

In his tribute to the celebrated film maker, the Sri Lankan National Reconciliation Minister, Mano Ganeshan, said that Lester had “steered Sinhala cinema toward a Sri Lankan identity shedding the early Indian influence.”

When he came back to Sri Lanka in the early 1950s from London where he had made some prize winning documentaries, Lester found the nascent Sinhalese film industry to be an “absolute disgrace.”

In the book Lester by Lester he says: “ Sinhalese films were a disgrace artistically, a farce in the acting department, and of course, technically you couldn’t even talk about it.”

“We were seriously wondering as to why the acting was so bad, why the stories had to be so bad and theatrical, and why the film had to be so primitive.”

Lester felt an irresistible urge to make Sinhalese films authentically reflecting the culture of Sri Lanka despite the fact that he was an atypical Sri Lankan. He was Westernized and not too conversant with the Sinhala language.

But language was no barrier to him because he believed that films speak in a language of their own –the cinematic language. “One does not make films in Sinhalese or Tamil but in the language of cinema,” he said in Lester by Lester.

Hailed universally as the Satyajit Ray of Sri Lankan cinema, Lester made Rekawa a village life film in 1956, an year after Ray released his landmark film Pather Panchali. But Lester was not imitating Ray. As resident of London, he drew inspiration from post-war Italian masters of realistic cinema like Roberto Rossellini.

Rekawa got rave reviews but bombed at the box office not surprisingly. Sri Lankan masses, used to the gross and outlandish fare from Madras, found it hard to sit through a realistic film portraying local life.

It was only nine years later that there were strident demands for an indigenous Sri Lankan cinema voiced by a new breed of nationalists like Ananda Samarakoon who wrote the national anthem.

In 1962, government appointed a commission to go into the state of the film industry in Sri Lanka and suggest remedies. in its report submitted in 1965, the commission pinpointed the continued stranglehold of South Indian cinema, South Indian technicians and the dominance of Tamil and Muslims minorities in the Sinhalese film industry and suggested several remedial measures.

Lack of Patronage

While it was alright to ask for indigenous productions, precious little was done to build an appropriate infrastructure, develop skills, and provide finance.

Lankan producers were mostly amateurs who made films for a lark or were businessmen wanting to turn black money into white. Even established film companies, which combined distribution with production, looked at the bottom line and profit rather than the artistic aspect.

Lester felt that for realism the studio had to be rejected and all filming should be done on location in realistic settings. His penchant for location shooting and abhorrence of studios made Lester expensive even in an age when all that a film maker needed was Rs.150,000 to Rs.170,000 for a film.

Lester had to go from pillar to post to get money, although ironically, all his films made money for the producer either at home or abroad. Sri Lankan producers would rather fund a run of the mill commercial Madras-type film than a well-made realistic one on a serious topic

Realism required the actors to speak and act naturally. But since most of them were from theater they tended to shout, and exaggerate facial and body movements. Lester had to wean them out of these habits.

Outdoor shooting in distant places over several months saw some unusual problems cropping up. The unit had to live in huts without toilets .Members had to put up with illnesses, snakes and leeches, things unheard of till then because films were shot in studios.

Although Rekawa bombed at the box office in Sri Lanka, it got a wonderful reception overseas, thanks to a chance viewing of the film by a visiting Austrian actress, Maria Schell. She suggested that it be shown at Cannes. And at Cannes, it was bought by Russia, Poland, Germany and France. It was sold at the Karlovy Vary film festival in Czechoslovakia also.

Like his Indian contemporary Satyajit Ray, Lester James Peries entered the international film circuit with his very first film.

But in Sri Lanka, his woes continued. Since Rekawa failed in the domestic circuit, local producers baulked at the idea of giving another film to him. For three years he twiddled his thumb and contemplated returning to England.

But lady luck smiled eventually. K.Gunaratnam of Cinemas Ltd., reacted positively to Lester’s proposal to make a Portuguese period costume and action drama calledSandeshaya.With exciting battle scenes Sandeshaya turned out to be a huge hit.


Lester had to wait for another four years to make his next film Gamperaliya. Based on a story by the famous writer Martin Wickramasinghe, it was a unusual film in as much as it was only a house with some people talking to each other. But luckily Gamperaliya got rave reviews from the English language press and set off discussions on the nature of cinema as a medium.

It went on to win the Golden Peacock at the New Delhi International Film Festival in 1965, to make it the first Sri Lankan film to win an international award.

In 1970 came Nidhanaya starring Gamini Fonseka and Malani Fonseka. The film was about human sacrifice which was being contemplated by a Westernized but superstitious bachelor as a means to get at hidden treasure. There were only five characters in this film, and 70% of it was about just two people - Gamini and Malani Fonseka.

Nidhanaya got wide acclaim overseas and fetched for Lester the international film The God King (1975). A joint venture between Sri Lankan Manik Sandrasagara and Dimitri de Grundwald, the film was about the Sigiriya rock fort and King Kassapa. The agreement was that the main actors and the Assistant Director would be Whites, and the technicians would be Sri Lankan. The film featured Ben Kingsley, who later became famous through Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

Lester enjoyed making The God King specially because the Sri Lankan team did creditably.

In 1978-1979 there was a request from a politician, Tyronne Fenando ,to do a spectacular film on Puran Appu, his ancestor and leader of the 19 th.Century anti-British rebellion in Matale in Central Sri Lanka. It was a period film with battle scenes which had to have Whites also in the cast.

Despite Lester’s reservations about its success, Veera Puran Appu did well at the box office. Fernando told Lester that he made money on the film. But alas, he never produced another film!

In 1980 came Beddegama starring Malani Fonseka, Joe Abeywickrama, and Vijaya Kumaratunga, based on the novel The Village in the Jungle by the famous British civil servant, Leonard Woolf. The film did well, with France, Germany and UK’s Channel 4 buying it. The London film Festival named it ‘Outstanding Film of the Year.’

Wekande Walauwwe or Mansion by the Lake, a family drama based on Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, was released in 2001. The theme was the declining fortunes of a wealthy family which reflected the changes Sri Lanka was going through. It was shown in the non-competitive section of Cannes and got good write ups in the French press.

Amma Waruney (2006), set during the war against terrorism, saw the brutal conflict from the point of view of a widowed mother and her sons. It was an anti-war film in a subtle way.

“The mother was a metaphor of what the country was going through,” Lester said.

Lester’s career shows that Sri Lankan cinema had talent, but was lacking in necessary infrastructure, especially institutional funding. To raise money for one of his films, Lester had surrender his insurance policy and wife Sumitra had to sell some of her properties.

Film making has always been an expensive, challenging, competitive and risky business. In the absence of intrepid private financiers, it needs a State-backed support system.

Sri Lanka is yet to address this issue despite bristling with cinematic talent second to none in the world. There is some state funding now but films have to wait for years to get theaters as the latter have to show Kollywood, Bollywood and Hollywood movies to survive.