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 firstname.lastname@example.org
BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7
It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.
The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’
It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.
At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.
However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.
The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.
There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”
The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.
Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.
What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.
In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.
However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.
Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.
Queen of Hearts
She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.
Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’
When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”
Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.
The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’
She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.
“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”
A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.
“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”
Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.
“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.
“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”
What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.
“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”
The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.
Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.
And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.
We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.
Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue
KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1
by Harshana Rambukwella
In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.
This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.
However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.
Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.
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