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Lester James Peries – Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres

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The 104th birth anniversary of Sri Lanka’s legendary and internationally celebrated film director, the late Dr. Lester James Peries, falls today 05th April 2023. He is also the best example of an enduring liaison with France, her people and her culture. We reproduce Chapter 49 from “The Bonsoir Diaries” (2013), written by media personality Kumar de Silva who is also a Trustee of the Lester James and Sumitra Peries Foundation.

In a cinematic career spanning more than half a century, France has undoubtedly been the only country with which Lester James Peries has had a long and fertile relationship, one that has enriched both his personal and professional lives.

The story began when he took his first film Rekawa (The Line of Destiny. 1956) to the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. It was during this trip that he met the 21 year-old Sumitra Gunawardena at the residence of Ceylon’s Charge d’Áffaires to France, Dr. Vernon Mendis and his wife Paddy. Lester and Sumitra were later to wed at the All Saints Church in Borella, eight years later.

Lester James Peries has the distinction of being the only Sri Lankan filmmaker who has had not one, but five of his films screened at the Mecca of World Cinema – the Cannes Film Festival. After Rekawa were Beddegama (The Village in the Jungle. 1981) and Kaliyugaya (The Age of Kali. 1982).

In 2003, Cannes screened Wekande Walauwwa (The Mansion by the Lake. 2001) out of competition as a special tribute to his lasting contribution to Asian and World Cinema.

Then again in 2008 Gamperaliya (The Changing Village. 1964) was screened at Cannes as a part of the Classics of World Cinema.

Over the years, France has hosted countless retrospectives of his films. During the summer of 1971 the highly respected and prestigious Cinemathèque Française in Paris held a retrospective of seven of his films. This august institution has been the spiritual home to a host of international film makers including Lester James and Sumitra Peries.

In 1984 more honour and recognition were bestowed on him by France when the Festival de la Rochelle paid homage to him.

In 1988 came more honours from the Cinemathèque Française in the form of a highly acclaimed joint retrospective of the entire body of work of Lester James and Sumitra Peries.

They were both made honorary life members of this celebrated institution. Small wonder then that Nidhanaya (The Treasure. 1970) is today part of the Cinemathèque’s collection of the classics of world cinema.

The same year, the Festival of the Three Continents in Nantes, celebrating its tenth anniversary, heaped more honours on him. It recognised him as “one of the few best film makers of the three continents” (Asia. Africa. Latin America).

“This was a very satisfying experience because Nantes specialises in Asian, African and Latin American cinema”, he said. Here again it was Beddegama which took top honours.

In 1992 the 45th Cannes International Film Festival invited Lester James to serve as a Member of its Jury, presided over by legendary French actor Gerard Depardieu. Fellow members of the Jury included John Boorman, Pedro Almodovar, Jamie Lee Curtis and Carlo de Palma among others.

“That experience was one of great jubilation, one of real happiness, of being recognised at least to be worthy of being a member, it is in itself a great honour”, he recalled.

From 1995 to 1999 Lester James Peries was compulsorily (and he loved it) stationed in Paris when Sumitra was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Extraordinaire and Plenipotentiary for France and Spain. She was also Sri Lanka’s Ambassador and permanent delegate to UNESCO during this period.

It was during this time that the Government of France bestowed on him one of its highest national honours – ‘Commander dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres’ – in recognition of his contribution to Asian and World Cinema.

This was a great honour to be bequeathed on a Sri Lankan. The date chosen for the ceremony was 19 June 1997, their 33rd wedding anniversary and the venue was the BMICH. They made a special trip from Paree to be present at this glamourous event. The Sri Lanka film industry’s glitterati were there in full force as was the media.

Chandrika Kumaratunga was President at that time. I remember her discreetly slipping in and taking her seat that evening. She had wanted to be present as a “private citizen” and not as the President of Sri Lanka. Lester James was visibly touched. After all he had been attesting witness at her marriage to Vijaya Kumaratunge years prior.

And as the Ambassador of France in Sri Lanka Elisabeth Dahan placed the ribbon and medal around his neck, there was thunderous applause. The entire audience rose to its feet in salutation. Lester bowed his head in humble acknowledgement.

“My links with France have been spread over a long period of time. The most striking thing in my career is my relationship with France. If one goes through the co-incidences of what has been happening, one would not believe the many things that have happened. All have been like a recurring theme, a recurring motif in a musical symphony. And that is the strangest thing”, he said that evening.

Soon after and much to the couple’s surprise a large cake bearing 33 candles was wheeled in. Being at the podium that evening I requested them to cut it. They were embarrassed but obliged. I then requested Mrs. Peries to feed him with the first piece. Madame l’Ambassadeur Peries blanched in embarassment and refused. She finally had no choice but to concede since the mic was with me and everyone heard my repeated requests. Bonsoir was as usual there in full force to capture every moment and share it with our thousands of viewers across Sri Lanka the following Monday.



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‘The endangered speeches’

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by Usvatte-aratchi

That was the title of a short review of a book named Language City written by Ross Perlin. The review was written by Johnson, who usually writes to The Economist on language and appeared in The Economist of April 13. A group of scholars in New York City found that the citizens of that mega-city spoke 700 languages, roughly 10 percent of all languages alive now all over the world. That is probably true probably of London and Paris as well, who additionally have had an imperial past. What a boon, a veritable Tower of Bable.

Ross Perlin wrote about six languages, so spoken. One is Seke in Nepal, squeezed between Nepali and Tibetan. Wakhi in Central Asia is among Chinese, Persian and Russian. Nahuatl spoken by 1.6 million people in Mexico is under threat from Spanish. N’ko spoken in West Africa is in competition with French. Yiddish, spoken in southern Germany and later in New York, is giving way to German and English. Perlin picked up these languages from among the 30 that he came across in New York City. Little wonder that that medley irked Donald Trump, disturbed about his conviction by a New York jury.

Johnson went on to talk about 7,000 languages that are alive now. That number has been discussed for about 30 years now. The largest group among them is in Africa. Their survival strength lies in their isolation from more aggressive invaders. Another large cluster is in Papua New Guinea, where hemmed in between tall and thickly forested mountains, each group in a valley speaks a language unknown in the other. As these languages come into contact with more aggressive languages, they lose out and eventually die when fewer than ten people habitually use that language.

As Islam spread in North Africa, its language, Arabic replaced the local languages. Over centuries, Arabic in each country developed its own variation which is hard for a person in another country to understand. At regional intercountry meetings, officials go back to Koranic Arabic, which is not intelligible to the people at large. Latin, which was used by a small sliver of the population in medieval Europe, lost ground to rising vernaculars.

It remained supreme in learning and the church for several centuries, well into the 19th century. The vernaculars of the powerful rising nations replaced Latin in Europe and established themselves in colonies that the imperial countries conquered or populated. This is especially interesting because we find a language well-established for centuries, losing ground to upstarts. The special feature was that the new languages were vehicles of new knowledge that people found available to them. Martin Luther translated the bible into German in 1522. King James’s authorised version of the Bible in English appeared about a hundred years later.

The consequences were momentous. A contrasting feature emerged more recently when well-established languages carried new knowledge and threatened the survival of old vernaculars. Samskrt, a language that carried forward knowledge far and wide (Java, Cambodia) until about the 13th century, came to rest in backwaters, yielding place to the brash newcomer, English. An Indian scholar working on a problem in Panini’s work (Panini was a Samskrt grammarian in the 6th century.), found the solution in distant Cambridge while working with a professor, who was Italian.

The earliest of these ‘conquering’ languages were Portuguese and Spanish which subjugated indigenous languages in South America. Amazingly, people who inhabited that landmass from Manitoba in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south mostly lost their languages and now use 4 Western European languages: Portuguese, Spanish, French (All Romance languages) and English. ‘South of the border’ lies Latin America! However, some indigenous languages survived, especially in remote parts of Brazil, in parts of Mexico, Peru and in Reservations in North America.

Chinese, a source of fundamental innovations in the world did not find domicile in any cultures overseas, except among ethnic Chinese living overseas (hua quiao) in many parts of the world. We owe the discovery of gunpowder, the mariners’ compass, silk production, ink, and printing to Chinese ingenuity. The significance of these discoveries to the eventual rise of Western civilisation is immense. The wisdom of Kong Fut Ze (Confucius) and Lao Tze and Sut Tzun notwithstanding and that it is the first language of some 1.3 billion people, Chinese is not one of the leading international languages.

Sinhala, an ancient language continuously used by most people on this island, has changed much in the last hundred years. Read Guttila Kavya Varnana written by Pandit W. F. Gunawardena in 1920(?) and a book written by Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amarasekera or W. A. Abeysinghe, a hundred years later and you realise the emergence of a new usage. The beginnings of that change came with Kumaratunga Munidasa and Martin Wickremasinghe and with the growth of mass literacy spread among all Sinhala users. More recently, the widespread use of Sinhala on radio and television has spread a new patio incapable of expressing none but the gross inanities that occupy the minds of their creators.

There wasn’t only a change in usage but also in the knowledge that the new usage carried. Again, the pioneer was Martin Wickremasinghe, soon followed by Kumaratunga Munidasa. Sinhala is in a battle against English for survival. English with its close cousin across the Atlantic has been at the forefront of forces that change our economies and ways of living. (Think of blue jeans.) Most talented young people begin to work in English at the end of secondary school. They often leave for other countries.

None of these bodes well for the growth of a vigorous language that not only carries new knowledge but also engages in discovering new knowledge. We must not only revel in kav silu mini kusa dava but also write a new vavuluva. We must not only marvel at Jetavanaramaya and Jayaganga but also take pleasure in writing a programme for a robot capable of complex new tasks. Celebrating mav basa annually is no substitute for the inventive use of a language.

‘Alut alut dae notanana jatiya lova no nangi
Hinga kaema bari vuna tena lagi gaya mara gi ’ Virit Vakiya.

That is no less true of a language than of a people.

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Lester , Underrated : Akkara Paha

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Akkara Paha

By Uditha Devapriya

Akkara Paha (1969) contains perhaps the saddest and most poignant finale in any of Lester James Peries’s films. Ajith Samaranayake distilled it brilliant in his tribute to Madawala S. Ratnayake, who wrote the novel.

Here were dreamy young antiheroes seemingly without a purpose in life, fascinated by their own sexual urges but gripped by a sense of futility and self-pity.

Sena, the protagonist of Akkara Paha, is one such antihero. Poor but intelligent, sharp but sensitive, he finds himself in a totally different environment after securing a scholarship to an elite school in Kandy. Unaccustomed to life in the city, he strikes up a friendship with a girl at his boarding. The friendship later grows into a romance.

Eventually, he realises his limitations: he is far more intelligent than anyone in his class, but a bounder in their scheme of things. He responds to this by rebelling against his own inheritance, first by abandoning the girl he fell in love with in his village, and then by neglecting his studies and pining after the girl at the boarding.

This recklessness costs him everything and brings him no consolation. He does all he can to impress the girl, Theresa, played by Janaki Kurukulasuriya, even raiding into the family till and getting what little money his sister, played in her second film role by Malini Fonseka, has saved to buy Theresa expensive perfumes. Theresa initially humours him. Yet after a while she loses interest in him and begins an affair with a rich cousin.

His sexual awakening leads Sena to much disappointment, and he soon abandons his studies and tries his hand at manual employment. He finds a job at a sawmill. Yet having been shielded from hard work by his father – who has staked everything on him getting a middle-class education and securing a white-collar job – he becomes sick and is sent to hospital. It is there that his family discover what he has done with his life and to his future.

The ending unfolds in the backdrop of these tragedies, but it is not a tragic ending. Spurred by his father’s indebtedness, Sena’s family have by now moved to a State colonisation scheme. Sena’s sister has fallen in love with a neighbour. The two of them decide to marry. Meanwhile, Sena rekindles his romance with his village sweetheart, Sandha, and in doing so returns, in a manner of speaking, to the world he abandoned.

The final scene, played against a slow, haunting poem sung by Amaradeva, underscores this process of departure and return, of abandoning the past and returning to it. Sena and Sandha wave goodbye to Sena’s sister and her husband. The two of them then walk back, heads bowed down, uncertain of their future, but somewhat hopeful.

Rathnayake’s novel wraps up differently, with the sister talking about Sena with their mother after her wedding, and her revealing that he intends to marry someone. The mother is distraught: he has already ruined his life for a girl, and is worried he may ruin what’s left of it for another. She changes after hearing who his intended bride is: Sandha.

By only hinting at Sena’s reconciliation with Sandha and the possibility of their marriage, Lester Peries ends the story on a more poignant, subtle note. It is not like the ending in Golu Hadawatha, where the spurned lover forgives the girl who rejected him, or in Nidhanaya, where the husband finally realises his love for his wife. What makes Akkara Paha one of Lester’s better films – and one of his more sensitive works – is the lack of certainty about Sena’s fate. Ratnayake is more definite, concrete. Lester is anything but.

Akkara Paha was the second of a trilogy of films that Lester Peries did for Ceylon Theatres. The trilogy, taken as a whole, remains a landmark in the Sinhala cinema, because on no other occasion did a prominent director, of his standing, get such a lucrative offer from a leading film company. Until then the theatres had pitted themselves against his work: according to his biographer A. J. Gunawardena, they refused to lend his team lighting equipment for Gamperaliya because of fears that his work would undermine theirs. By the latter part of the decade, however, things had begun to change.

Ceylon Theatres’ arrangement with Lester showed what could be achieved if the resources of commerce were put in the service of art. Yet of the three films he did – the other two being Golu Hadawatha (1968) and Nidhanaya (1970), the latter acknowledged as his best work – Akkara Paha remains curiously neglected and underrated. Though it travelled to the West – it was one of seven films by Lester screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where among other things he met the formidable Pauline Kael – and won praise from foreign critics, it never got the reputation it deserved at home.

What makes this more curious is the film’s achievement. In no other work of his does Lester probe into the lives of the Sinhalese peasantry with as much poignancy as he does in Akkara Paha. While the film does exude what his critics saw as his bourgeois humanist tendencies – a charge levelled with equal vigour at his contemporary Satyajit Ray, who at the time was making his Calcutta trilogy, set against the backdrop of the Naxalite uprising in the city – it does not romanticise, still less glamourise, its subject.

Lester

All that, in turn, underscores an even more remarkable achievement. In the history of the Sinhala cinema, Akkara Paha may have been the first film to depict the contradiction between the material ambitions and the lived experiences of the Sinhala Buddhist rural youth. Lester does not really explore these tensions, or predict their unravelling in later years, particularly in April 1971. But compared with his other two Ceylon Theatres films – in particular Golu Hadawatha, which again delves into the Sinhala middle-class – Akkara Paha engages with the discontent and frustrations of the rural youth.

We do not really know what Lester’s response to the April 1971 insurrection was. What we do know is that by that point, a new and more radical group of filmmakers had begun to criticise him for what they saw as his bourgeois humanism.

Around this time the leftwing Bengali filmmaker Mrinal Sen was berating Satyajit Ray on similar grounds as well. Yet whereas Ray – who was as representative of the Bengali bourgeoisie as Lester was of the Sinhala bourgeoisie – made the Calcutta Trilogy – which underscored his sympathy for the radical youth in light of the Naxalite insurgency – Lester went his own way. At the time of the 1971 insurrection, while the likes of Dharmasena Pathiraja were making Ahas Gawwa, he was directing Desa Nisa.

In that regard, I see Akkara Paha as his most radical work yet, more radical than Yuganthaya, which as Pathiraja pointed out for me in an interview years ago was marred by a somewhat jaundiced view of politics. The film predicts the radicalisation of the Sinhala youth though it steps away from engaging with that completely. Like Para Dige, Pathiraja’s best work and in my view his most underrated, the protagonist does not face a clear future at the end: like the protagonist in Pathiraja’s film, he and his fiancée stare into the distance, although unlike in Para Dige they turn back and return home.

It is this act of turning back which, at one level, may have won for Lester censure from his more radical critics. I disagree with those who portray Lester as a conservative artiste. But that does not undermine their fundamental point: that at a time of great political ferment and artistic rebellion, his films seemed to be out of step with the times. Perhaps it is this led critics to perceive a drop in quality in his later work, starting from Desa Nisa. That this drop transpired immediately after his Ceylon Theatres trilogy is telling.

Whatever the reason may have been for the film’s lack of success, Akkara Paha marks an important point in Lester’s career. It is poignant, haunting, tragic, and redeeming. Between the romanticism of Golu Hadawatha and the nihilism of Nidhanaya, it occupies a twilight world. Admittedly, the story is optimistic, and in its ending, somewhat naïve: the novel is more concrete and direct. But it is suffused with a humanism that transcends its limitations. Above all, it is vintage Lester James Peries: life-affirming, ever hopeful.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst who writes on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He is one of the two leads in U & U, an informal art and culture research collective. He can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

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Religious nationalism suffers notable setback in India

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People casting their votes in the recent Lok Sabha poll in India

Democratic opinion the world over could take heart from the fact that secularism is alive and well in India; the South Asian region’s most successful democracy. While it is indeed remarkable for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win a third consecutive term as head of government in India’s recent Lok Sabha election, what is of greater significance is the fact that the polls featured a resounding defeat for religious nationalism.

Consequently, India’s secular credentials remain intact. Secularism, which eschews identity politics of all kinds, including religious nationalism is, after all, a cornerstone of democracy and secularism has been a chief strength of India. The defeat of religious nationalism, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, is a triumph for not only the democratic forces of India but for their counterparts the world over.

It was plain to see that the Bharathiya Janata Party under P.M. Modi was going the extra mile to placate Hindu nationalist opinion in Uttar Pradesh and outside through the construction of an eye-catching Ram temple in the state, for example, but the vote-catching strategy has visible failed as the polls results in the state indicate. For, the number of seats won by the BJP in the state has shrunk dramatically. In fact, the BJP was resoundingly defeated in the very constituency where the temple was constructed.

Constructive criticism of religious nationalism should not be considered an indictment of the religions concerned. Hinduism is one of the world’s most profound religions and it would sustain itself and thrive regardless of whether vote-hungry political parties champion its cause or otherwise. However, the deployment of any religion in the acquiring and aggrandizement of power by political forces calls for criticism since it amounts to a gross abuse of religion. Religious nationalism is an example of such abuse and warrants decrying in democratic states.

Unfortunately, religious nationalism is rampant in South Asia and it is most alive and well in Sri Lanka. And to the degree to which religious nationalism thrives in Sri Lanka, to the same extent could Sri Lanka be considered as deviating from the cardinal principles and values of democratic governance. It is obligatory on the part of those posing as Sri Lanka’s national leaders to reject religious nationalism and take the country along the path of secularism, which essentially denotes the separation of politics and religion. Thus far, Sri Lanka’s political class has fought shy of taking up this challenge and by doing so they have exposed the country as a ‘facade democracy’.

Religion per se, though, is not to be rejected, for, all great religions preach personal and societal goodness and progress. However, when religious identities are abused by political actors and forces for the acquiring and consolidation of power, religious nationalism comes to the fore and the latter is more destructive than constructive in its impact on societies. It is for these reasons that it is best to constitutionally separate religion from politics. Accordingly, secularism emerges as essential for the practise of democracy, correctly conceived.

The recent Indian Lok Sabha poll was also notable for the role economic factors played in the determining of its final results. Once again, Uttar Pradesh was instructive. It is reported that the high cost of living and unemployment, for instance, were working to the detriment of the ruling BJP. That is, ‘Bread’ or economic forces were proving decisive in voter preferences. In other words, economics was driving politics. Appeals to religion were proving futile.

Besides, it was reported that the opposition alliance hit on the shrewd strategy of projecting a bleaker future for depressed communities if the BJP ‘juggernaut’ was allowed to bulldoze its way onward without being checked. For, in the event of it being allowed to do so, the concessions and benefits of positive discrimination, for instance, being enjoyed by the weak would be rolled back in favour of the majority community. Thus, was the popular vote swung in the direction of the opposition alliance.

Accordingly, the position could be taken that economic forces are the principal shaping influences of polities. Likewise, if social stability is to be arrived at redistributive justice needs to be ushered in by governments to the extent possible. Religious nationalism and other species of identity politics could help populist political parties in particular to come to power but what would ensure any government’s staying power is re-distributive justice; that is, the even distribution of ‘Bread’ and land. In the absence of the latter factors, even populism’s influence would be short lived.

The recent Indian Lok Sabha elections could be said to have underscored India’s standing as a principal democracy. Democracy in India should be seen as having emerged stronger than ever as a result of the poll because if there were apprehensions in any quarter that BJP rule would go unchallenged indefinitely those fears have been proved to be baseless.

‘One party rule’ of any kind is most injurious to democracy and democratic forces in India and outside now have the assurance that India would continue to be a commodious and accommodative democracy that could keep democratic institutions and values ticking soundly.

Besides the above considerations, by assuring the region that it would continue with its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, India has underscored her ‘Swing State’ status. That is, she would take on a leadership role in South Asia and endeavor to be an inspirational guide in the region, particularly in respect of democratic development.

As for Sri Lanka, she has no choice but to be on the best of terms with India. Going forward, Sri Lanka would need to take deeply into consideration India’s foreign policy sensitivities. If there is to be an ‘all weather friend’ for Sri Lanka it has to be India because besides being Sri Lanka’s closest neighour it is India that has come to Sri Lanka’s assistance most swiftly in the region in the latter’s hour of need. History also establishes that there are least conflicts and points of friction among democracies.

However, identity politics are bound to continually cast their long shadow over South Asia. For smaller states this would prove a vexatious problem. It is to the extent to which democratic development is seen by countries of the South as the best means of defusing intra-state conflicts born of identity politics that the threat of identity politics could be defused and managed best.

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