Sumitra Peries

Sumitra Peries is the Grande Dame of Sinhala Cinema. On March 24, Sumitra marked 81 years. On April 5, her husband, the Godfather of Sinhala Cinema Dr. Lester James Peries, will mark his 97th. The Daily News visited them at their delightful abode at Dr. Lester James Peries Mawatha – named in honour of that pioneering filmmaker, to catch up on what’s new in 2016.

Q Sumitra, are you working on any films at present?

A: We’re at the finishing stages of a film called ‘Vaishnavee’, which we shot in 2012. It’s based on a script my husband, Lester wrote. We developed it together with Tony Ranasinghe. It’s about a puppet-maker. Due technology was used in making the film - digital, at this late stage of my life. We’re waiting for this last production part of the film to fall in place, and then we’ll be done.

Q Is filmmaking the same as it was to you in the past? Do you make films with the same passion and desire to create as before, or is it more a long labour of love for you, at this stage?

A: For me, now, filmmaking is raison d’etre; a reason for being - to do something with your life rather than sit around, look up and wait for that call from heaven, or hell, or wherever. I am not a deeply religious person. I am more of an existentialist. Buddhism to me is the religion I was born into. Lester is Catholic, which is his private faith. My religion is about being preoccupied with the life around me and looking for ways to interpret it in ways that will strike a chord with the people around me. It is always touching to hear someone say to you that your film has resonated with them in some way: Audiences are changing, trends are changing and because of technology, films can now be preserved for younger generations who may be affected by these films in ways I had not even intended at the outset. That is a wonderful thing.

Sumitra and Lester James Peries at work

Q: What of the Sri Lankan audience? Are they in your estimation, as loyal as before?

A: Things have changed. Audiences are now divided. Now, it is the toss up between a blockbuster like Batman vs. Superman and a small film like Ho Gana Pokuna. When we first started, we had an audience that could support a filmmaker. Yes, marketing in a specific way can find you an audience that appreciates the films you make. But I think it is not like it was before. Audiences then, were not divided.

Q And what of film critique? Do you think we have enough of that in Sri Lanka?

A: We don’t have enough. In the early days of our career, there were lots of national papers in the Sinhalese language that wrote about cinema. In the English language papers, there were writers like Reggie Siriwardene, Phillip Cooray, A. J. Gunawardena - intellectuals preoccupied with writing about cinema. Unfortunately, that is less now. Very rarely do you get people who write about cinema. I read once, somewhere, that cinema is the formalised expression of experience.

If that is so, there must be someone to weigh that expression against the yardstick of real life and offer criticism. We walk in a great void, in this respect. For creative people, it is important to have some form of assessment of their work from peers. It validates their piece of art and validates their life as well, since their life is given to the craft. It could be that the filmmaker has even failed by his own standards. But literary criticism of that fact can be used as corrective measure.

Q Tell me a little about your experiences as a female film director. Was it hard for you to break into the industry?

A: I came from a fairly middle class family. But one that had a political history. My father’s brother was Philip Gunawardena who broke with the political ethos at the time and brought a Marxist ideology to the country. He is known as the Father of Socialism. He introduced a community consciousness to the Sri Lanka psyche. It was he, together with N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene and others who started the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. So you could say that, such a revolutionary background helped me charter a new path for my career and myself. My brother lived on a yacht in Europe, and when I was quite young. I decided to follow him there. I lived for some months on that yacht in the South of France before deciding I wanted to study film in Switzerland. I took to film long before I met Lester. Many people are of the notion that my interest in film and filmmaking began with my marriage to Lester. But that is not how the story goes. At the time, no films had been produced in Sri Lanka, and I was unaware of Lester and his debut ‘Rekawa’. So I was sort of working on a blank canvas, with no previous history of Sri Lanka having produced any film. I later met Lester when he was in France, with ‘Rekawa’, for the Cannes. It was he who advised me to study in London, which I later did.

When I was done with my studies in London, my brother told me that Lester had begun work on his second film, and asked if I would like to work with him. I agreed and my brother checked with Lester on the possibility of my working with him, to which he agreed. So I decided to return to my country and begin work on a Sinhalese film. I could have done otherwise, but that is the choice I made, which, in a sense, changed the course of my destiny. I returned home, to my own country and immersed myself in the language and literature of my own people. I have made 10 films and they all centre on the girl child, and her needs, wants and aspirations. They are about her role in society, about how the lack of resources, or education or opportunity, or the blackmail of influential relatives prevent her from realising her ambitions.

Filmmaking is not a career I would recommend to anyone looking for stability in life, because it will not give you that. That is where I think women are deterred. But if you are adventurous and willing to take risks, then you can do it. This is definitely a male-dominated field. Whether consciously or unconsciously, most films glorify the male and his strength and violence. Whether consciously or unconsciously, even if half the population is women, films are made that way. It may be because of the very male dominated culture around films– from film technicians to sound guys, to camera crew. About 90% of the workers are men. So maybe there is a subconscious desire for empathy with men. You need their support. This culture is by its very nature divided and polarized. But barriers are coming down now. This is why films such as the Hurt Locker – directed by Kathryn Bigelow, are important. That film was the only film by a female director to have won an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director, ever.

Sumitra Peries at work

But I don’t think the concept of gender occurred to me at all. If I wanted to do something, I did it. You could say I was privileged, but I never abused that privilege. When I started off in filmmaking, I started off as a technician. But by the time ‘Gam Peraliya’ came along, I sold some property I had and invested in the company. I bought the right to edit the film. You think about your life and you think things have come naturally to you, but that is not true, when you look back you realise that at certain junctures, you have made conscious decisions to go this way or that, or do this or that in your career that helps you break the glass ceiling.

Q What are you reading at the moment?

A: I am delving into potential material for my next film. There is a short story during the time of the British that I am interested in. So I am reading up on some British history, including speeches made by those of the ilk of my uncle Philip Gunawardena.

Then there is the ‘Legend of the Bhairava’ that I am interested in –it is about a period of drought, during which a young virgin must be sacrificed, but she is saved by her lover – there are various interpretations to the story, I am reading that. Then there is a script by Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu, one of Japan’s greatest directors, called ‘Early Spring’. I am dipping into that as well.

Lester is keen that I do an interpretation of one of Anton Checkov’s films – Uncle Vanya, so there is that option as well. I no longer read for escapism, but for utilitarian value.

Q Is there any book that made a deep impression on you, perhaps in your more impressionable days?

A: Yes, Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Memoirs of a dutiful daughter’– I was greatly impressed by that book when I was very young, and would carry it around with me like a Bible.

Q Any one person who made a deep impression on you?

A: With the exception of my husband, I think it would be my older brother.

In our younger days, he had absolute control over the literature we imbibed and the movies we watched. He nurtured it with care.

We read some interesting things and watched some good movies.

I don’t think I had ever read a romantic novel that time. He never encouraged it – not even A. J. Cronin!

Q And your husband?

A: Lester and I, we celebrated 50 years of marriage last year.

He has been my companion, my mentor, my tutor, my role model, my friend – everything.

I owe him a tremendous amount.

He gave me an anchor to my emotional bearing and the sense of being born and lived a life that can in a certain context be called, worthwhile.

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