On the front lines of women’s film-making | Daily News


On the front lines of women’s film-making

Sumitra Peries: Reflections on a career
With Lester James Peries
With Lester James Peries

Perhaps I should begin this essay with the two films that Sumitra Peries, the only director from that era still with us, could not do or complete: Mihikatha Kampava and Dona Katherina. Somewhere in the 1980s, the decade that would prove to be her most productive – with four films, about three television projects, and additional work as a member of the board of management at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies in Colombo – Boodi Keerthisena’s father had approached her with the idea of filming a story about a toddy tapper’s family. She had initially not evinced interest in the project but later yielded. Having shot about 7,000 feet of footage, however, “we realised to our dismay” that they remained blank: “the cameraman had been confident and had not checked to see whether things were working or not.” The story, which centred on the rape of a village midwife by a shopkeeper and the tragedy that unfolds after she dies giving gives birth to the illegitimate child, was a different terrain for the woman who had filmed Gehenu Lamayi, Ganga Addara, Yahalu Yeheli, Maya, and Sagara Jalaya. She would attempt a similar detour with Duwata Mawaka Misa, though it was precisely this quality that would repel audiences.

Dona Katherina was a different kettle of fish altogether. The second Rajasinghe’s mother and the consort of the first Vimaladharmasuriya who had married her to consolidate his authority as the king of Kandy, upsetting Portuguese plans as he did so, she remains one of the more inscrutable, enigmatic, and controversial women in local history. Contrary to how the popular historian has reconstructed her story, she remained a steadfast Catholic all her life, even after she had been married to the man who embraced Buddhism to assume the Kandyan throne. While Sumitra had grandiloquent plans for a movie that had both subtlety and spectacle, from the beginning she was well aware of the problems associated with such a project, and not just the expensive budget. “The main issue was whether audiences would take to a film revolving around her life. She was a divisive figure, and she died with the Cross in her hands. No less a figure than my husband told me to think twice about it. Eventually, I let go.”

The rape of a midwife and the life of a Catholic Sinhala queen: two contrasting subjects that by themselves diverge radically from Sumitra’s usual body of work. If by being a woman she has been pigeonholed to a particular conception of the cinema, this has on no account reduced Sumitra to a typical female director. In her films, even her lesser works, one comes across a particular attitude to her craft. To attempt to define this attitude is to read how her critics, of whom most if not many have succeeded in misinterpreting her intentions, have understood it. She hasn’t quite got the press that her husband did – in fact none of them, not even those who defied his kind of cinema, ever got the kind of press he did – but if we are to come to terms with her contribution we must dwell on what critics wrote about her and how this is reflected, or not reflected, in her movies, even the ones she couldn’t make.

To begin with, the cultural and political context against which Sumitra emerged as a director and not just an editor of films must be compared with the circumstances that led to Lester picking up the camera. In the late 1950s when Lester, Titus Thotawatte, and Willie Blake left the GFU and formed a company to make their debut film, there was next to nothing local in the local cinema: the stories were all plagiarised, the sets were all artificial, and shooting and postproduction almost invariably took place in South India. Rekava’s success in Cannes and failure in Sri Lanka can be rationalised in terms of the rift between what audiences expected and what they got to see. One of the first reviews of Rekava abroad, perhaps the first foreign review Lester got as a filmmaker, was by Penelope Houston, who described it as a “study of village life in Ceylon, of custom and superstition.” In other words foreigners, and Westerners especially, were responding to Lester’s debut the same way they had reacted to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali a couple of years earlier.

What can explain Rekava’s uninspiring commercial performance and Sandesaya’s lacklustre critical reception, and what can explain Gamperaliya’s success with the same Sinhala middle class – the children of 1956 as that oft-quoted cliché despairingly goes – who had ignored and scorned Rekava? The rising tide of Sinhala nationalism, refracted through the 1965 Report of the National Film Commission which called for greater scrutiny of foreign, especially South Indian, intervention in the national cinema, could have been one reason, compounded by the decision of the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime a decade later to institute a State Film Corporation which increased the number of local films screened in theatres. The first CEO of the Corporation, D. B. Nihalsinghe, later went on to observe that given how audiences in this period flocked to watch Sinhala films and how admissions rose from 30 to 74 million in less than eight years, private distributors had, prior to State intervention, failed to predict the kind of films that popular audiences wanted. By 1977 Sri Lanka had become one of the major film producing countries in the world, an achievement partly attributable to the loan schemes that the Corporation had made available to the young filmmaker.

Lester’s best films are undoubtedly the three he undertook for the only producer that stayed with him for more than two projects, Ceylon Theatres: Golu Hadawatha, Akkara Paha, and Nidhanaya. How, then, to square these accomplishments and the Corporation’s achievements with a less than prodigious output from the father of the Sinhala film? The Corporation had ceded space to a fresh, new generation of filmmakers ready to take on otherwise controversial political themes that critics thought – and this is important – Lester was shirking. By the time Sumitra entered the scene, Peries had made three further films, and none of them, with the exception of Madol Doowa, had the blend of grace and subtlety of the Ceylon Theatres films. No doubt this was his response to the new generation of not just filmmakers, but also critics, the latter of whom he took on in an interview with the Sinhala film weekly Suratura where he lamented the state that criticism had fallen to.

However, I would offer a different reason: it wasn’t only critics and filmmakers but also, and far more importantly, audiences who had changed. The doubling of audience numbers during this period must be contrasted with the declining audience numbers for the kind of political directors the Corporation had helped prop up. The commercial failure of Ahas Gawwa and Bambaru Awith versus the lukewarm success of Eya Dan Loku Lamayek may have roughly approximated to similar hits and misses among earlier filmmakers: Gamperaliya and Delovak Athara did not recoup their costs while Ran Salu and Golu Hadawatha did, to give just one example. Underlying this, however, was a more inscrutable shift in audience tastes: the 1970s was the era in which K. A. W. Perera, M. S. Anandan, and the more centre-of-the-road H. D. Premaratne, Sathischandra Edirisinghe, and Manik Sandrasagara made their mark. In other words, the swelling ranks of admissions indicated, perceptibly, that people were clamouring for a more middlebrow cinema: the kind they got with Mathara Achchi, Sikuruliya, Apeksha, Sita Devi, and the enormously popular Kolamba Sanniya.

These movies didn’t demand a higher conception of the medium for them to be enjoyed, yet they freely borrowed the tropes of more serious filmmakers. They couldn’t have offered the cinema of contemplation that Lester himself, speaking to Philip Cooray, said he did, but they offered audiences a kind of escapist fare that nevertheless balanced the needs of the medium and the demands of entertainment. The split between art and commerce, which had existed before, thus began to peak in this decade when those offering a contemplative cinema turned into purveyors of a minority art pandering to a minority audience.

It was from the ranks of this audience that the new critics and filmmakers would emerge and even though Lester’s work influenced them, they soon began to repudiate and reject much of what Lester would churn out at this time: the reviews of Ahasin Polawata, released a decade after Golu Hadawatha had finally helped him reach his audience, clearly indicate that they were now viewing him as a decadent bourgeois artist: “Acting talents were wasted... camera angles were faithful plagiarisms... Music was sheer cacophony” was how Gamini Dissanaike saw it, while Ananda Jayaweera dismissed it as merely “a sensitively produced essay in crass sentimentality.” Mainstream audiences were instead flocking to Premaratne and Sandrasagara on the one hand and K. A. W. Perera and Anandan on the other, and art house audiences were patronising Pathiraja – the rebel with a cause, as he often called himself.

Sumitra Peries’s work must be assessed in light of all these developments – in particular, the distinctions that a new generation of critics would make that helped split the cinema into two seemingly irreconcilable halves – as well as the developments that followed the defeat of the Bandaranaike government and the subsequent privatisation of the film industry which would, ultimately, result in the democratisation of the industry on the one hand and the shrinkage of the critical cinema in favour of a more vibrant, commercially feasible middlebrow cinema – the purveyors of which included H. D. Premaratne and Vasantha Obeyesekere – on the other. Sumitra conformed to, and deviated from, this latter conception of the medium. It was when she resolved all these contradictions in favour of her style that she could give her best work: the magnificent Sagara Jalaya, and the more low key Loku Duwa.


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