Father of the Sri Lankan Cinema notches 90

By T. K.Premadasa

(April 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The pioneer who dedicated his wide knowledge of cinematography for amelioration of the cinema industry notches 90 years on April 05, 2009. The inestimable contribution made by this great son of Sri Lanka to bring Sinhala cinema to the pinnacle of its glory is historical.

At the time the Indian film industry had an influence on Sri Lanka, monopolizing their power of technology in the production of films, the cultural background here was almost South Indian. Sri Lankan producers were inclined to produce films on a commercial basis caused by the want of technical infrastructure. It was then that this young cameraman contemplated to exert his cinematic know how towards resilience of the film industry by his influence on productions depicting indigenous culture. He is the world acclaimed cinematographer, Dr Lester James Peiris, who established the global image of Sri Lanka in the cinema industry.

Lester James Peiris was born to a reputed Roman Catholic family in Dehiwala on April 05, 1919, whose residence was known as ‘Sinhagiri’. His father Dr James Francis Peiris was a medical doctor who graduated in Scotland. Ms Ann Gertrude Winifred Jayasuriya, a student of St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo, was his mother who became the first girl to pass the Senior Cambridge Examination from the same school. He had two brothers, Ivan & Noel and a sister Erica. His brother Ivan, a skilled painter was a close associate of the internationally famous artist George Keit. Lester’s life was significantly influenced by these professional artists. He started his preliminary studies at St. Mary’s Primary College, Dehiwala, later known as Holy Family Convent and later joined St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya.

He was more attentive to lectures on the arts, inspired by the films he was fortunate to watch through projectors made available to him. He was 11- years- old when he was ptedented with a 8 mm Kodasco projector by his father. He started writing to the blue pages of the ‘Ceylon Daily News’ at the age of 17. In 1939 he joined the ‘Times of Ceylon’ newspaper and displayed his skills under the Indian editor Frank Moraes and also reviewed books over Radio Ceylon (now SLBC). "The Teacher" & "The Saree" are two short stories written by him. In the view of Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne, the young Lester enjoyed the presentation of the book called "Cathedral and a Star" authored by him to Pandith Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.

Lester traveled to England in 1947 as advised by his mother to join his brother Ivan, who was on a scholarship in London. This young journalist of competent skills in journalism, wrote articles to the ‘Ceylon Daily News’ column from London on the request of the editor Moraes under the heading "Letter on Arts from London".

Lester’s debut in production was the "Farewell to Childhood" in 1950, a short film based on the story written by him called "Saree". The Amateur Cine World Silver Plaque was awarded to this experimental film among the 10 best films produced in Great Britain. His second film was "A Sinhalese Dance" and the final film "Soliloquy" was produced in London in 1951, a 20 minute short film based on a threefold love story. The Mini Cinema Cup for short films was awarded to this production for its best technical proficiency by the Institute of Amateur and Experimental Film Makers’ Festival-Great Britain (1951).

On his return to Sri Lanka Lester joined the Government Film Unit (GFU) and worked with Ralph Keene, who was the director of GFU. In the first instance Lester assisted Keene to make a documentary film "Nelungama". Later two documentary films, "Conquest in the Dry Zone" (1954), on the Malaria epidemic and "Be Safe" or "Be Sorry" (1955),were produced for the GFU by him. The film, "Conquest in the Dry Zone" won the Diploma of Honor at the Venice Film Festival in 1954. He left the GFU in 1955 after he formed his ambition to produce Sinhala films on his own.

Significantly, the year 1956 became historic by the revolutionary changes that took effect in political, social and cultural fields in Sri Lanka in the interest of the entire nation. "Rekhawa", the debut production, disporting his extraordinary knowledge in the techniques of the film industry, by Lester James Peiris in December 1956, earned him a great reputation as the best production in Sri Lankan cinema. Starting from his masterly production "Rekhawa", this great cinematographer accredited with an abundance of knowledgeable skills in film industry, elevated the Sri Lankan cinema to the zenith of its glory by numerous films, winning international awards, an inestimable honour to the nation.

Dr Lester James Peiris has directed around 20 films during the last 50 years of his experience in the film industry, enlivening Sri Lankan cinema with accolade after accolade, both locally and abroad. Sri Lankan nation owes him a debt of gratitude for his immeasurably high quality productions of international acclaim, namely, Rekhawa (Line of Destiny 1956), Sandeshaya (The Message 1960), Gamperaliya (Changing Village 1964), Delovak Athara (Between Two Worlds 1966), Ran Salu (The Yellow Robe 1967), Golu Hadawatha (The Silence of the Heart 1968), Akkara Paha (Five Acres of Land 1969), Nidhanaya (The Treasure 1970), Desa Nisa (The Eyes 1972), The God King (1975), Madol Duwa (Enchanted Island 1976), Ahasin Polowata (White Flowers for the Dead 1978), Pinhami (1979), Veera Puran Appu (Rebellion 1979), Baddegama (Village in the Jungle 1980), Kaliyugaya (The Era of Kalli – The Changing Village Part II, 1982), Yuganthaya (The Changing Village Part III, 1983), Awaragira (The Sunset 1995), Wekande Wallauwa (Mansion by the Lake 2002) and Amma Varune (Mothers 2007).

In addition to his contributions of documentary films to the GFU, Lester produced 10 documentary films on requests by various other institutions. Among them were, "Too Many and too Soon" (1961), "Home from the Sea" (1962), "Forward into the Future" (1964), "Steel" (1969), "Forty Leagues from Paradise" (1970), "A Dream of Kings" (1971) and "Kandy Perahera" (1971).

Appreciative expressions on the perceptive vision of Dr Lester James Peiris have been articulated by world renowned professionals on many occasions. It is related in the book authored by Ronald Fernando that the popular Indian super star, late Raj Kapoor, highly impressed by the movie "Rekhawa" had recommended to Sri Lankan producer K.Gunaratnam, to utilize the talents of this consummate cinematographer, Lester, in his future productions. In consequence Mr Gunaratnam offered the direction of his film "Sandeshaya" to Lester James who exhibited a marvellous array of innate skills in his performance as the director, to bring the film to the pinnacle of international acclaim.

Remarkably, a number of books have been written by various scholars on the life of this reputable character and his award winning productions. In addition, a documentary film by the name, "The Foot Steps of an Asian Master", was directed by Neil I.Perera in 1985 and another film "The World of Peiris" directed by Bickram Singhare on behalf of the Ministry of External Affairs, India.

He not only won the first international award for Sri Lanka in London in the early ‘50s but also achieved the Golden Peacock Award presented by Delhi International Awards and Golden Head of Palenque Award from Mexico World Film Festival for "Gamperaliya", a story which turned a new page in Sri Lankan cinema as the best film. It was Lester who represented Sri Lanka with his film "Rekhawa", first at the Cannes Film Festival in 1957. The number of local awards won by him from Rekhawa to Amma Varune, is a potent estimation of his exemplary contribution to Sri Lankan cinema. Recognition of his productions at high degree of excellence by the international cinema not only demands absolute technique but involves tremendous amount of dedication and determined effort. In appreciation of his invaluable contribution to cinema he was honoured with the title Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the Government of France in 1997, The Lifetime Achievement Award and the Golden Lotus by the Government of India at Delhi International Film Festival and the Asian Cinema Person at Cannes International Film Festival. He has also discreetly performed an extraordinary service as a member of the jury at the International Film Festival with distinctive responsibility. The entire nation is profoundly delighted by the global tribute of high regard extended to this indomitable personality over his intellectual expertise in the film industry.

He was felicitated by his own nation with the title Kala Keerthi in 1980, issue of a stamp to mark his birthday in 2002, highest honour of Sri Lankabhimanaya in 2007, naming Dickman’s Rd as Dr Lester James Peiris Mawatha and a new orchid flower named after Lester James Peiris by M.L.SW.Wanigathunga , chairman of Lakmalsala Amerasekera. It is significant that he was honoured with doctorates by the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya in 1985 & 2003 respectively.

The latest felicitation for this doyen of Sri Lankan cinema is from UNESCO , the world’s most prestigious institution for culture for his Gamperaliya production.

Dr. Lester James Peiris’ ‘Sonduru Minisa’ has exalted the image of Sri Lanka in the global cinema with a high degree of respect. He is regarded as a leading cinematographer along with world renowned Satyajith Ray of India and Akerawar Korusowa of Japan. The resplendent contribution made by Lester to Sri Lankan cinema will be etched in the memories of the citizenry of Sri Lanka.

Chirang Jayathu Lester!

(The writer is the head of Corporate Affairs and Communication of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board)
-Sri Lanka Guardian