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
Glimmers of hope?
Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?
What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.
‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.
‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.
‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.
‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.
‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.
Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.
Heartfelt hope of the many
The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”
Still utterly hopeless
Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.
Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.
Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.
Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis
By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse
(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)
There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.
The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.
1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.
2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.
3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!
4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.
Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains
We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened
1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.
2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.
3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.
4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.
Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.
1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.
2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible
3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:
Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.
Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.
Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.
Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.
Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.
Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.
Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.
Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.
1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers
All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.
The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of
India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and
There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.
Thomians triumph in Sydney
Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.
Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!
who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:
The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.
Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.
But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.
Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.
A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.
Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.
A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.
The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.
Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.
The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts. But the Thomians had other ideas.
The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable. Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.
It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.
Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.
The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.
In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.
Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.
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