Ammawarunay: The last temptation of LJP
STILL: A scene from Ammawarunay
CINEMA: At age 87, Lester James Peries, universally honoured
as one of the greatest living film makers, has succumbed to the
temptation to make another film, his 21st. At its premiere at the Regal
Cinema on 30 December 2006, he announced that Ammawarunay (Elegy for a
Mother, as the film brochure calls it) would be his last film.
He pleaded physical incapacity, implying that although his spirit is
willing, his flesh is weak. If I remember right, in one of George Bernad
Shawâs plays, a young man concerned to ascertain the age at which the
human animal ceases to be plagued by temptations of the flesh, seeks the
answer from his 90 year-old grandmother.
She says that she still doesnât know. I happen to believe that
greater temptation hath no man than LJPâs to make films. So we who love
the Father of Sinhala Cinema, should hopefully and respectfully say of
LJP what Shakespeare said in a Sonnet:
âWhen my love swears that she is made of truth I do believe her,
though I know she liesâ.
However that might be, I think there is a way out of LJPâs putative
physical incapacity to make films. Since films, like wars, begin in the
minds of men, I suggest that LJPâs next film should be made entirely in
his fertile mind.
After all, if theoretical physicists can apprehend the nature of
physical reality by thought-experiments, there is no reason why LJP
cannot explore the intricacies of human relationships in the brilliant
studio of his mind.
Moreover, his cinema idol, who films joined to him, the unvaryingly
constant, extremely able and, ever willing Sumithra, is there to
translate his thought films into celluloid.
To clinch my plea I will quote an authority LJP is in conscience
bound to accept: â... a man shall leave his father and mother, and be
made one with his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.â
So his flesh cannot be weak. Therefore, Ammawarunay cannot and must
not be his last film. With those valedictory thoughts off my chest, let
me now focus on the film itself.
A moment ago I remarked that like wars, films begin in the minds of
men. The allusion was to the famous sentence that occurs in the preamble
to the Constitution of UNESCO, which was established as a UN agency in
It goes like this: âSince wars begin in the minds of men, it is in
the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.â In my
perception, Ammawarunay is a film about war and peace.
War is explicit and sanctimoniously endorsed; peace is implicit and
humanely urged. So this film is one that seeks to build the defences of
peace in the minds of those who will see it.
Ammawarunay is vintage LJP. The frames of the film tell the story of
the ravages of war, however justified the war may be. Its hidden agenda
is LJPâs beatific vision: peace in his motherland in his time.
It seems to me that the title of the film Ammawarunay is a metaphor
for Mother Lanka symbolizing as she does the sum total of mothers in the
country, destined by Nature to ensure the continuity of the most
precious thing on earth: Human Life. And precious human life is what war
The lead role in Ammawarunay is played by Malini Fonseka, surely our
best actress. In this film she reaches the transcendent pinnacle of her
career and gives a performance of surpassing emotional intensity. At
several points she brought tears to my eyes and - as I couldnât help
perceiving at the premiere show - even to her own eyes, as she watched
We are living through a tragic war, generated and sustained by
blood-thirsty men of ill-will greedy for personal power. Moviegoers
cannot stop wars. Nor can moviemakers for that matter.
But Dr. Lester James Peries knows that what cannot be cured must be
endured and that a catharsis of our emotions is the only symptomatic
therapy to be prescribed. That therapy Ammawarunay gave me. I warmly
recommend it to others.
The theme of Ammawarunay is the heart and soul of LJPâs cinematic
art. It is his conviction that the most altruistic of all human bonds is
a motherâs love for her children.
This is the unlimited, self-giving compassionate love that the Buddha
spoke of when he said: âJust as with the sacrifice of her own life, a
mother shields from hurt her own, her only child, let all-embracing
thoughts for all that lives be thineâ.
In Ammawarunay the motherâs love for her children is so intense that
when she sees them suffering from the âslings and arrows of outrageous
fortuneâ, her response is a desperate one.
Her brain - the organ that Nature has given her to survive. in this
world - switches to the mode which puts her out of touch with reality.
To be out of touch with reality is nothing else but to be mad. Thus, the
tragedies her children have to endure drive her mad.
When we try to find out the source of her madness we find that it is
traceable to the war that is raging in this Buddhist land. It is raging
in the teeth of the fact that Buddhism does not recognize even the
concept of a just war.
LJP and Somaweera Senanayake are jointly credited with the story of
Ammawarunay. Somaweera Senanayake is responsible for the screenplay,
which permeates the film through and through with the Buddhist ethos,
the bedrock of Sinhala Culture.
The irony of all this is that the creator of the film LJP remains an
out and out Roman Catholic. His first film Rekhawa (1956) which purports
to portray life in a typical Sinhala village was conspicuously devoid of
any trace of Buddhism.
He was rightly chastised by critics for this grave and glaring
omission. Ammawarunay, on the contrary, is conspicuously devoid of
reference to all other religions, except for one throw-away-line put
into the mouth of an insignificant character in the film (Sanath
Gunatilleka). He happens to be the doctor in charge of the rural
Just before leaving the village on a mercy mission to a conflict
area, he informs the Chief Priest of the village temple that even
non-Buddhists will receive relief! (At this point in the film I burst
out laughing; to my utter embarrassment nobody else did).
Life is about human relationship and Ammawarunay is a film that
sensitively explores the relationships between a widowed mother and her
two adult sons and daughter. Unsurprisingly, in a film with the title
Ammawarunay the mother (Malini Fonseka) is the supremely dominant
Her elder son (Pradeep Dharmadasa) is a young Buddhist priest
professionally committed to cultivate detachment, but manifestly
succeeding only in becoming physically non-attached to the family.
The daughter (Gayani Gisanthika) in a moment of indiscretion had
married a quintessential male chauvinist pig (persuasively portrayed by
Asoka de Zoysa) who is good for nothing except for the practice of
mumbo-jumbo bordering on fraud.
The younger son (Roshan Pilapitiya) joins the fighting army to escape
from the army of unemployed disaffected youth. The mother accepts the
elder sonâs religious vocation with equanimity, if not with the serene
joy of the pious.
But she unconditionally rejects her younger sonâs joining the army.
When she turns to the Chief Buddhist Priest in the village for guidance,
the advice she receives is more in line with religion as a survival
strategy of a tribe, than it is in consonance with the teachings of the
Compassionate Buddha. (Incidentally, the Chief Priestâs role is played
to perfection by Tissa Abeysekara.
In real life Tissa is a multi-talented, many splendored personality.
The only thing I remember of the film Veera Puran Appu is Tissaâs
portrayal of Kuda Pola Himi. He plays his role in Ammawarunay with such
consummate brilliance that I felt my much-married friend had missed his
The film tracks down the vicissitudes in the lives of the five
members of the family (mother, three children, and son-in-law) with
sensitivity and human understanding. To achieve maximum effect it
deploys state of the art photography, editing and other technical skills
of the cinema.
Premasiri Khemadasa directs the music in the film unobtrusively with
a perfect understanding of its function. Pandit Amaradewaâs Buddhist
chant gives the film a touch of meditative gravity.
All of these add up to make Ammawarunay an enthralling cinematic
experience. Two take-home messages linger in my mind. One is that when
all is said and done dukkha is a fundamental fact of existence. The
other is that war is hell.
It is difficult to avoid sensing that Ammawarunay is an anti-war
film. When our country is going through a phase of war mania in the
literal sense, it requires an artiste with exceptional creative
intelligence to make a film with the merits of Ammawarunay.
On the face of it the film, through the mouth of a Chief Buddhist
Priest, endorses the practical necessity for able-bodied young men to
fight, and if need be, to die for the good of the tribe.
One comes away from the film, however, abhorring war. One is reminded
of the words of the American General William T Sherman uttered in 1880:
âThereâs many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys,
it is hellâ. Ammawarunay demonstrates the reason why it is so. War is
hell because it drives mad the mothers of boys.
Ammawarunay is a film about war and peace. So is Leo Tolstoyâs famous
novel War and Peace. Those who have gone to the trouble of counting say
that in Tolstoyâs War and Peace there are something like 500 characters.
In LJPâs film on war and peace there are only 11. In Tolstoyâs War
and Peace the vicissitudes of the members of 4 aristocratic families are
laboriously documented. LJPâs film on war and peace explores the lives
of just 5 people of one poor, humble family.
Yet, perhaps because I am more âcinemateâ than literate, the
emotional impact on me of LJPâs film was much more profound than the
impact of the novel regarded by discerning critics as the greatest novel
ever written. You may think me a philistine for saying so. But that is