By Uditha Devapriya
Dileepa Perera’s biography of Tissa Liyanasuriya does more than tell a story. Full of sharp insights and historical anecdotes, it places us in a past I wished we grew up in. A product of an urban Sinhalese middle-class, Liyanasuriya lived through some of the country’s headiest years. His hometown in Borella became a centre for the British war efforts in the region. With his education temporarily disturbed by World War II, he observed the world around him and took in what he saw. These proved useful for him in later years, as he shifted from his love for literature to films, documentary features, and television serials.
Liyanasuriya became a film director at a critical juncture in the Sri Lankan cinema. For so long dependent on the Indian film industry, it had taken a definitive leap forward after 1956. With Lester James Peries’s Rekava signalling a watershed in the industry, a whole new generation of directors, writers, and crew members took to the field. This did not, however, mean that they abandoned the commercial mainstream on which the cinema had built its fortunes; on the contrary, commercial producers began taking active party in their ventures, financing their productions and even partnering up with them. Peries had unleashed a revolution, yes, but he had also, inadvertently, breathed life to the mainstream cinema.
The films made during this period epitomised a new vigour. Though hardly artistic in the conventional sense of the term, they echoed a new social consciousness. While the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie had once gone in droves to see Rukmani Devi and Eddie Jayamanne, now they savoured new faces and films, with contributions from Sinhalese cultural elites. While Lester James Peries’s films, landmarks for their time, continued to win critical acclaim, a new middle cinema sprang up. Such developments reflected the maturing of a Sinhala middle-class, a phenomenon which the 1956 election had laid the groundwork for.
Hailing from the same generation as Sumitra Peries, D. B. Nihalsinghe, Tony Ranasinghe, and Gamini Fonseka, Tissa Liyanasuriya became a pioneer during this period. Liyanasuriya’s films are hardly artistic in the way that an Antonioni or a Fellini film is, but they spoke to a new social class in a language that milieu understood very well. Delving into themes of romance, intrigue and adventure, human goodness, and adultery, Liyanasuriya’s films relate a story at the most basic level. A hallmark of the Sinhalese narrative tradition, it is this obsession with plot that makes all three of his films so popular and memorable even now.
Rohana Tissa Liyanasuriya was born in 1936, the eldest or “badapissa” of a family of six boys and one daughter. “My father,” he tells me, “spoke very little and he was firm and strict in how he brought us up. My mother, by contrast, was more nondescript.” If not affluent and middle class, the Liyanasuriyas were better off than most. They also came face to face with the horrors of the Second World War, although as Tissa recalls, “We didn’t fear it much, not even when Japan bombed the harbour.” It was then that his father decided to put him into a school. “He was serious in teaching us, and especially serious when it came to schooling us.” The school decided on for young Tissa was St Joseph’s College Maradana.
Coming from a Buddhist background, Liyanasuriya found it difficult to adjust to a Catholic school environment. He remembers St Joseph’s as being “exclusively Christian and English, with just one period for Sinhala and Sinhala literature.” Nevertheless, he made the best of his time there, befriending the likes of Upali Attanayake, Shyamon Jayasinghe, and Sidney Attygalle. “We were the driving force behind the College Sinhala magazine as well as the Sinhala Literary, Drama, and Debating Societies. School authorities paid little attention to these clubs, but our Sinhala teacher, Victor Hapuarachchi, helped us a lot.”
It was at St Joseph’s that Liyanasuriya fell in love with radio drama. Through his efforts he met a man who would become his first figure of destiny, K. A. W. Perera. Liyanasuriya remembers Perera as someone “who had an instinctive feel for dialogues, as different as they were and could be from the stagey dialogues of the Tower Hall tradition.” Perera later wound up as the dialogue writer for Lester Peries’ Rekava, an opening that proved fruitful for Liyanasuriya when, a few years later, he was taken in as an assistant director (alongside Vijaya Abeydeva and Sumitra Gunawardena) onboard Peries’ Sandesaya.
Peries became his second figure of destiny. Liyanasuriya is understandably nostalgic about his memories of the man. “One year working for him was enough, the equivalent of a film course. From Lester I learnt how to select shots and manoeuvre actors, how to get the best out of your team and settle for nothing less. It was certainly difficult, more difficult then than now. But Lester had a flair for detail. Nothing escaped his eye. I grew to like him very much, and in the end, once production wrapped up, he wrote a nice recommendation letter for me. I can never forget that. Along the way we discovered a common link: at St. Joseph’s I had been taught by the formidable Reverend Father Peter Pillai, who had taught Lester at St Peter’s and had tried, unsuccessfully, to get him into medicine.”
Things moved fast thereafter. In 1962 three idiosyncratic auteurs teamed up together and made Ran Muthu Duwa. The first Sinhalese colour film, Ran Muthu Duwa was bankrolled by Serendib Productions. A joint venture of Shesha Palihakkara, Mike Wilson, and Arthur C. Clarke, Serendib had been set up to oversee the making of quality popular films, breaking away from its dependence on the Indian cinema. As their first project, Ran Muthu Duwa became a huge box-office hit, partly because of the story and star power (it featured Gamini Fonseka, Joe Abeywickrama, and Jeevarani Kurukulasuriya), but also because it was filmed in colour and featured ground-breaking diving scenes in Trincomalee.
For their second attempt the Serendib trio hired Liyanasuriya. Getawarayo, a film about a teenager from a village searching for his luck in the city, cast Gamini Fonseka in an unlikely role, as a lover who ultimately loses it all. If Ran Muthu Duwa reflected Mike Wilson’s love for diving, Getawarayo echoed his love for boat-racing. In a scene eerily reminiscent of that famous chariot-race from Ben-Hur, the story ends with the hero and the antagonist jostling each other along a lake. Scenes like this didn’t just attract audiences, they also garnered acclaim: at the 1965 Sarasaviya Awards, the film won the award for Best Film.
Serendib’s next venture, which again had Liyanasuriya as director, was Sarawita, a story about a poor but goodhearted peddler of betel. Featuring Joe Abeywickrema in one of his finest roles, Sarawita is a morality tale about how goodness ultimately triumphs and evil loses. In the character of the protagonist, the director tends to sentimentalise, especially in his relationship with the boy he fondly adopts as his own son. But as with Ran Muthu Duwa and Getawarayo, the Serendib trio proved that the mainstream Sinhala cinema didn’t have to imitate Indian productions, that they could be set in the unlikeliest settings in the country and still strike a chord with mass audiences. Epitomising the new age, around this time Titus Thotatawatte made and released Chandiya, another massive box-office hit.
Liyanasuriya’s next effort, Punchi Baba, introduced Malini Fonseka to the screen. A few years earlier the dramatist Sumana Aloka Bandara had discovered Fonseka and cast her in a play of his, Akal Wessa. On the lookout for a fresh face, Liyanasuriya and Joe Abeywickrema had spotted her at the Lumbini Theatre. Though his producers had expressed doubts about Malini, both Joe and Tissa had been adamant on casting her. Fortunately for Malini and the history of the Sinhala cinema, the two of them somehow got their way.
Narilatha, a relatively low-key effort, depicted a rather controversial theme: adultery. With a start-studded cast that included Tony Ranasinghe, Anula Karunatilake, and Sandya Kumari, the film depicted life along the railway, it performed rather well at the box-office, though not at the same level as Liyanasuriya’s other films. In any case the man was setting his sights elsewhere: a few years later he moved to the Government Film Unit, where he came under the influence of his third figure of destiny, Paul Zils. A German who had been a favourite of Goebbels, had defected to the US, and had found a home at the Films Division in India, Zils guided Tissa through a series of successful documentaries from 1969 to 1986.
Tissa Liyanasuriya officially retired from the Government Film Unit in 1991. After a series of teleplays and television serials, including an adaptation of W. A. Silva’s Siriyalatha, he retired from directing entirely in the new millennium. In 2008 he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award, the Rana Tisara, at the Sarasaviya Awards. Today the man lives with his family along Cotta Road in Borella. Happy and contented, he ended our little conversation by reminding me that, should be ever return to the cinema someday, “it would be to make films totally different and totally superior to what I have made until now.”
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
Reflections on S.W.R.D Bandaranaike
By Uditha Devapriya
The protests at Galle Face have been continuing for more than a month now. Initially aimed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his band of brothers, the infiltration of certain groups has diluted the tone and trajectory of the demonstrations. Over the last few weeks, the country at large has taken part in one discussion after another. These discussions have centred on topics like minority rights, the abduction of journalists, and the need for a clearer foreign policy. Once considered taboo, they have led to heated debates, both within and outside the protests. One incident that has epitomised these developments has been the blindfolding of the statue of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, just opposite Shangri-La Hotel.
For mainstream scholars and popular writers, the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka – a crisis that long predates the Rajapaksas – can be traced back to the enactment of Sinhala Only. While it’s important to place the Sinhala Only Act in its proper context – it was an abomination of a far more progressive demand for the replacement of English by Sinhala and Tamil, a proposal made by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party – Bandaranaike continues to be associated with its worst excesses, including the 30-year civil war. Those who supported the blindfolding of the statue thus imply that the backwardness of vital sectors in the country – including education and, presumably, foreign policy – can be traced back to his decisions.
Whether Sinhala Only, as implemented in 1956, adversely affected education in the long term is a matter for debate. Yet the rhetoric surrounding the Bandaranaike years implies that it also contributed to the deterioration of our foreign relations. High on anti-imperialist and anti-Western rhetoric, so the detractors say, Bandaranaike’s foreign policy sagged and brought about no tangible benefits to the country. Thus, while quick to condemn Western aggression against the Nasser government’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Bandaranaike was slower to react to China’s quelling of the Tibetan uprising in 1959, claiming that it was an internal matter best left to the parties concerned.
Revisionist accounts have it that Sri Lanka’s leap from a pro-Western to a nonaligned and multipronged foreign policy spelt out the end of our relations with the West, depriving us of critical Western support during the Cold War. The implication here is that under the 1956-1959 regime foreign policy became more insular, much like the Bandaranaike government’s language policies. While such a view may find favour with those who believe that the roots of our crisis lie in that era, the historical reality was more complex. Far from turning insular and inward, it was the policies of that regime that freed the island from dependence on one or more power blocs, eventually taking its foreign relations in a new direction.
Across much of the Third World, the indigenous ruling elite actively worked on achieving a synthesis between tradition and modernity. In her study of Third World feminism, Kumari Jayawardena notes a paradox that was crucial to the trajectory of nationalism: while defying the strictures of colonialism, Third World nationalists, drawn from the ruling elite, tried to chart a middle-path between Western concepts like representative government on the one hand and the need to uphold a traditional order on the other.
Throughout her work, Jayawardena divides the Third World, particularly in Asia, into two kinds of societies: those in which the local bourgeoisie achieved this sort of synthesis and those in which they could not, and did not. In this scheme of things, India and Sri Lanka were studies in contrast. In India, colonialism gave birth to a dependent elite, but one linked to industry. When the Congress Party began opposing British rule, Nehru’s leadership enticed local capitalists to join forces with them. Though hardly independent of imperialism, Indian industrialists struck an alliance with Nehru, lending him crucial support even as he set about nationalising vital sectors in the economy after independence.
The situation was different in Sri Lanka. What little industry the country had at the time of independence was limited to the plantation sector. Hector Abhayavardhana has estimated that by 1953, “the output of plantations contributed about 40 percent of national income.” Most plantation enclaves were foreign owned, in itself not a bad thing, except that profits had to be repatriated abroad. Moreover, because of its dependence on commodities, the country’s terms of trade began fluctuating wildly after independence, so much so that by the 1960s, after two decades of failing to industrialize, foreign reserves and terms of trade depleted alarmingly, triggering a severe balance of payments crisis.
“Throughout the Third World,” Dayan Jayatilleka has observed, “the anti-imperialist leadership was also a modernising one.” This was not so in Sri Lanka. Jayatilleka goes on to observe that Sri Lanka’s bourgeoisie was both culturally Westernised and socially and economically conservative: thus, while securing their economic interests through policies which, inter alia, restricted the franchise and then, when it was clear that the franchise could no longer be restricted, ensured a transition of power from the colonial State that made the civil service, defence, and foreign policy planks of the State subservient to the British government, the bourgeoisie pandered to majoritarian sentiment. There was nothing contradictory about this: as I have noted before, their social conditioning did not blind them to the cultural and religious myths of the majority, the Sinhalese.
The ideology of the local elite, in both countries, reflected the economic framework they operated within. In India, the existence of an industrial bourgeoisie could lay down the groundwork for a cosmopolitan elite, of which Nehru was the definitive hallmark. These elites helped bolster India’s image internationally, which in turn helped the government conceive a foreign policy that adhered to a middle-path. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, the bourgeoisie remained dependent on a colonial framework. Linked to a plantation sector devoid of science, industry, and modernity, they lacked the intellectual initiative to chart a cohesive foreign policy. To quote Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka lacked a Nehru.
The election of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike changed this situation considerably. In many ways an intellectual counterpart of Nehru – both had studied in England, and both had taken part in their countries’ independence struggles, though from different political vantage points – Bandaranaike turned Sri Lanka away from its dependence on power blocs. Though informed by pressing domestic needs, like the nationalisation of the port and airport, Bandaranaike remained committed to a nonaligned foreign policy. This did not make him the hazy idealist historians make him out to be; au contraire, it made him realize the practical limits within which he had to work. Thus, while speaking in support of the Palestinian cause, he made it clear that his government did not oppose the existence of Israel.
To be sure, we must be careful when passing judgment on Bandaranaike’s policies. As far as foreign relations were concerned, he was Nehruvian. Yet in domestic policy, particularly on the language issue, Bandaranaike failed to tap into the progressive potential of the reforms that had been advocated for years and decades by the Marxist Left. The latter, for their part, stood by those proposals, only to be washed away when they continued to defy the zeitgeist of the times. With a section of the Left, including the LSSP and the Communist Party, caving into the pressures of parliamentary politics later, the original demand for two languages instead of English turned into demands to enthrone one, Sinhala.
This paradox, between the SLFP-MEP’s cosmopolitan foreign policy and what many consider to be its insular domestic policies, has still not been studied or evaluated properly. A useful starting point would be James Manor’s biography.Far from indicting Bandaranaike for the troubles that were to follow Sinhala Only, Manor traces the problems of the Sri Lankan polity, vis-à-vis the contests between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, to the flaws of the elite leadership. Bandaranaike, he notes, stood with and apart from this crowd: as a scion of the bourgeoisie, he was a member of the elite class; as a scion of the old bourgeoisie that had spurned the new, he was incapable of becoming their equal. Manor engages in more than a little psychoanalysis when assessing where Bandaranaike went wrong, and though it’s hard to exonerate him, it’s clear that Sinhala Only was the logical successor to the years and decades of majoritarianism that had been unleashed by his peers in the Ceylon National Congress: a tendency which, in 1921, had compelled Ponnambalam Ramanathan to leave that body.All this goes to show that, far from contributing to any “backwardness” in the country’s foreign policy, the Bandaranaike era laid down a clear path which continues to be taken today. The negative consequences of his policies are as much a testament to his personal flaws as they are to the limitations of the elite leadership in Sri Lanka, of which he was a part. It is this, rather than the substance of his government’s foreign relations, that are to blame for the policy turnarounds, indeed the absence of any coherent policy, that bedevil the country today. Going by the logic of the protesters, we would need to blindfold several other statues, and not just Bandaranaike’s, well beyond Galle Face Green.
The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Are we true guardians of Theravada Buddhism?
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
Our proud claim, as Sri Lankan Buddhists, is that we are the guardians of Theravada Buddhism. Further, some believe that we practise the purest form of Buddhism. It is said that the Buddha predicted His Dhamma would survive longest in Sri Lanka. However, I have had my reservations and expressed my concerns repeatedly about the behaviour of some of our Bhikkhus. While Sri Lanka is facing the worst ever economic crisis, the behaviour of some Bhikkhus makes me do so again.The right to protest should be guaranteed. However, it is incumbent upon those who protest to understand that there is a big difference between protest and intimidation and that peaceful demonstrations have a more profound effect.Myanmar, yet another majority Buddhist country, has faced difficulties for a very long period due to the interventions of its military. Though there are some fire-brand political Bhikkhus there, too, they are a tiny minority, and their actions are forgotten, but what has remained in our memory is the lengthy procession of Bhikkhus marching silently through the streets of Yangon during exacerbation of problems. They protested with dignity. This is in contrast to what we saw during a recent procession of undergraduate Bhikkus in Colombo. It was far from peaceful! They were aggressive and tried to bring down barriers, etc. Do they think that Vinaya rules do not apply when they are in university? By allowing Bhikkhus to attend universities, instead of the two seats of higher learning established for them, are we allowing this sort of indiscipline among Bhikkus?
What was mentioned above, in fact, was not an isolated incident. There were men in robes protesting violently in many places, and in one instance, one of them was seen holding on to the back of a moving police jeep, shouting and jeering.Buddha advised kings and politicians, when his advice was sought, and expected his disciples to follow his example. But what do some of our Bhikkhus do? They not only get actively involved in politics but also seek political power. They fight over parliamentary seats and are prepared to go to courts! A law should be brought in to prevent the clergy from entering Parliament, as religion and government should be kept apart.Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhita Thera led the first anti-Rajapaksa campaign and imposed the Yahapalanaya on us. It proved to be a disaster and Rajapaksa returned to power. True, Bhikkhus supported their return but even without their support, the Rajapaksas’ comeback would have happened. Now, some Bhikkhus are in overdrive to oust the Rajapaksas without realising that the real problem facing us today is an economic one. A change of government is not going to make our economy prosper. Of course, they have no inkling about the economy as they live relatively easy lives, depending either on dayakayas or temple property.Members of the Sangha are divided on the basis of Niakyas and sub-Niakyas; some divisions are even based on caste.
The Buddhist monastic order broke down thrice during the preceding five hundred years before the Thai monk Upali visited the Kingdom of Kandy in 1753 and performed Upasampada during the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinha of Kandy on the initiative of Ven. Weliwita Saranankara. This led to the establishment of Siam Nikaya but as its hierarchy decided to restrict higher ordination to the members of certain castes in contravention to Buddha’s teachings, Amarapura and Ramanna Niakyas were established.Though the Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas were merged in 2019, it does not seem to be an effective merger as there are still two Maha Nayakas and plenty of Anu-nayakas.Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera, a former member of Parliament, is described as the Chief Prelate of the Ramanna Maha Nikaya in Southern Sri Lanka. He recently conferred an honorary title on Sajith Premadasa but it is claimed that he is more interested in promoting his former colleague of the Jathika Hela Urumaya.We have political Bhikkhus who behave worse than laymen. We have a Bhikkhu leading a nurses’ trade union. We have Veda Hamuduruwos. We have astrologer Bhikkhus. We have many Bhikkhus involved in many activities prohibited by the Buddha. Defying the Buddha’s teaching of equality, Bhikkhus promote an archaic caste system. Still, we claim we are the true guardians of Theravada Buddhism!
Sumithra peries looking back in nostalgia
By Uditha Devapriya
Sri Lanka’s oldest living filmmaker, Sumitra Peries, stands shoulder to shoulder with South Asia’s pioneering woman artist-intellectuals, including her childhood heroine, Minnette de Silva. Yet, barring a comprehensive biography by Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin, no writer has attempted to locate her life and work in the pantheon of South Asian cinema. A version of this article appeared in Himal Mag Southasia late last month.
The cinema of South Asia blows up in a riot of colour and spectacle, offering a melange of romance, action, and history. Despite its modest scale, this is one of the biggest film industries in the world, worth around 180 billion rupees (roughly 2.4 billion dollars) in India alone. Today, it has transformed into a category of its own, mixing different genres and, at least in India, earning the apt moniker “masala cinema.”
However, while many scholars have written on this industry, few among them seem to have noted its contribution in a rather unlikely front: women’s filmmaking.
Surprising as it may seem, several women made their mark as directors in South Asia. While attempting a chronology is difficult, the first such director is considered to be Fatma Begum. In 1926, when Lillian Gish considered ending her career with D. W. Griffith, and MGM was offering her a six-movie deal, Begum made her first film through her own production house, Fatma Films. Later, in Pakistan, Parveen Rizvi and Shamim Ara made their debuts as directors, while much later, in Bangladesh, Kohinoor Akhter followed suit.
What bound these women together was the way their careers developed. All of them had to transition from acting to directing. It was later, with the onset of a New Wave, in Indian cinema, in the 1980s, that a new generation of filmmakers, among them Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, took centre stage. The only notable exception to this trend, who continues to stand out, is to be found outside India.
Long orientalised for its sandy beaches and mist-clad mountains, Sri Lanka boasts of an obscure but vibrant cinema. Though dominated by men, women, too, have made their mark in it, and not just in acting. Among them, one name stands out: Sumitra Peries, the country’s oldest living filmmaker.
With 10 films to her name, Sumitra has emerged as one of the country’s foremost cultural icons. Her career offers a contrast to that of many of her contemporaries. For one thing, unlike most South Asian woman directors her age, such as Aparna Sen, she never took up acting: she began her career as an assistant director and an editor. Moreover, unlike them, she travelled extensively and studied cinema in Europe. It is this that makes her work, even her life, stand out.
Sumitra Peries was born Sumitra Gunawardena on March 24, 1935, in the village of Payagala, 40 miles from the island’s capital, Colombo. Her mother hailed from a wealthy family of arrack distillers, her father from a household of fervent political radicals.
While Sumitra’s paternal grandfather had participated in the resistance against colonial authorities, two of her uncles became leading socialist politicians in British Ceylon. One of them, Philip, whose association with Marxism had taken him to far-flung places, such as the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War, went on to dominate the political stage in the country.
By contrast her father, a Proctor, had not been as politically inclined: barring one unsuccessful attempt to get into the country’s State Council in 1936, his career was largely overshadowed by his brothers. Nevertheless, Sumitra recalls, “our home in Boralugoda was open to radical politicians. They made it their lunch stop and rest-house.”
After she turned 13, in 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence from the British, her family decided to move to Colombo. She transferred from a Catholic school, St Mary’s College, in her paternal village of Avissawella, to Visakha Vidyalaya, Sri Lanka’s leading Buddhist girls’ school. The first photograph of her in the press shows a girl throwing a discus at a sportsmeet at Visakha, exuding a youthful, defiant ardour.
Two years later, her mother passed away. Devastated by the loss, her elder brother, Gamini, left the country. Sumitra recalls how, a few years later, he asked her to join him in Europe. “I agreed at once. In 1956, I got aboard a P&O liner and set sail to the Mediterranean, all on my own.” She was not quite 21.
Arriving in Naples, Sumitra met Gamini and went to Malta. “He had a yacht docked there, and was leading a rather bohemian life with some friends.”
Over the next six months, Sumitra, Gamini, and their friends “sailed along the Italian and French coasts, savouring the Mediterranean.” At Saint-Tropez, she happened to see Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim making And God Created Woman. Her first sight of a movie set intrigued her greatly.
“I didn’t know what to do next. We decided on settling in Lausanne. My brother returned to Sri Lanka, leaving me behind in a world far from home.”
Lausanne failed to grow on her: “I longed to see France, on the other side.” A train and cab ride later, she was in Paris, “without a penny in my purse.”
On family instructions, she was soon boarded at the Ceylon Legation. There she met a man who was to change the course of the Sri Lankan cinema – with a significant, if underrated, contribution from her.
This was Lester James Peries, widely regarded as Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent filmmaker, and before long, her husband.
Lester proposed to Sumitra that she go to England. She agreed, enrolling at the London School of Film Technique. Founded in 1956, the LSFT was located in a suburb in Brixton. Less tempestuous than the Mediterranean, it offered Sumitra a more stable home.
Among her lecturers and peers at the School, she remembers Lindsay Anderson the most. Over time, the two of them got to know each other well. “He knew Lester long before he met me. The three of us became very good friends.”
Sumitra excelled in her studies, but finding a job in London was not easy for her. Only after knocking on the doors of Elizabeth Mai-Harris, one of Britain’s leading subtitling firms, was she offered work in the industry. “My fluency in French helped,” she remembers.
After a while, however, she longed to be back home. On Gamini’s advice, she returned to Sri Lanka, ending up as the only female crew member aboard Lester Peries’s second film, Sandesaya (The Message, 1960). Four years later they married, and remained together until Lester’s death in 2018.
In 1964, Sumitra began editing films. More than a decade later, in 1978, she ventured into directing with Gehenu Lamayi (Girls), following it up with eight more films, including her most recent, Vaishnavi (The Goddess), in 2018. She would go on to serve in other capacities as well, prominently as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for France and Spain from 1995 to 1999.
The essential themes of Sumitra’s work are in Gehenu Lamayi: the innocence of childhood, the burdens of women in patriarchal society, the rift between rich and poor, the torments of adolescent love. Lacking the song-and-dance sequences of South Asian blockbusters, her films are sharp, often searing, in their critique of male chauvinism.
Most of her characters come from lower middle-class backgrounds, with a few, like Kusum from Gehenu Lamayi, hailing from the rural peasantry. Thwarted in their desires, they often resort to desperate measures: after discovering that her childhood lover has married someone else, for instance, Nirmala from Ganga Addara (By the Bank of the River, 1980) commits suicide. In Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuwa Oba Handa (Letter Written on the Sand, 1988), which many consider to be her finest work, the protagonist is a sensitive young boy whose mother toils hard for him after her husband, his father, falls off a tree and dies. The son writes an imaginary letter on the sand, imploring his uncle to take him away and employ him at his shop so that he can ease his mother’s burdens.
Sumitra’s aesthetic sensibility is distinct: according to British filmmaker Mark Cousins, “she uses zooms like Robert Altman, probing shyness and tentative love.” Sumitra herself seems to be aware of a certain quality of meticulousness in her work: “I often get an urge to recompose the mise-en-scène, even to prettify it. I think that shows in the final product.” For Cousins, that reveals “what a great visual thinker she is.”
By Sumitra’s own confession, her attitude to women was shaped by the women who figured in her life, including her mother. When asked about the films she likes, she at once mentions Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. “I remember seeing Renée Falconetti’s face and being enthralled by it. I could never forget that face. It came back to me, many times in fact, when I started directing films.”
Despite the high praise she has won, however, she has also received scathing criticism. Some critics have labelled her work as “feminine” and accused her of not being sufficiently “feminist”, because of the way in which her female characters succumb to their plight – such as when Kusum from Gehenu Lamayi bitterly accepts a life of loveless poverty as her “fate.” Thus, the authors of Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema conclude that she “has not gone far enough as a director with feminist intentions.”
With Lester James Peries in Sydney
Sumitra’s response to these criticisms is that she can portray women “as someone other than who they are only by manipulating the story.” In the few instances when she in fact attempts this – as in Yahalu Yeheli (Boyfriends and Girlfriends, 1982), where the heroine disobeys her father, a landlord, and joins some villagers protesting his hold over them – one notices a tinge of artificiality. Overall, however, she sticks to a realist principle: “I prefer to depict women as they are, rather than who they should be.”
Today Sumitra resides in Mirihana, a quiet suburb located about six miles from the capital. She and her husband spent their married life in Colombo, in a house along a road that bears his name. Yet following his death, owing to certain unfortunate circumstances involving the legal title to their residence, she had to vacate her premises. She hasn’t come to regret the shift: “It’s much quieter here, in tune with my sensibility.”
Still active and working on her next project, at 87 Sumitra remains open to the possibilities of her medium. It goes without saying that her work stands out in the world of South Asian cinema. While being utterly modest about her achievements, she admitted one thing the last time I met her: “I rebelled against the idea of what a woman had to be in my society, as a girl and a director. In the end, despite those strictures, I prevailed.”
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
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