The third in a series of sketches of the movies of Lester James Peries
After ‘Rekava’ and ‘Sandeshaya’, Lester James Peries knew that no one was going to take a chance with him again. With Gamperaliya he found someone who would: Anton Wickramasinghe. Wickramasinghe, then separated from his wife, was living in the Orient Club, the haven of the Colombo 7 elite. In the history of our cinema, he was probably the only producer who had a connoisseur’s taste for the cinema. The fact that he didn’t want to continue with Gamperaliya’s two sequels, even after it won lavishly abroad, attests to that. Lester’s fourth film needed to be different, therefore.
Delovak Athara remains my favourite movie by Lester, if at all because it moved into a milieu I can identify with at once. The great achievement of Gamperaliya was that, despite the social backgrounds of the cast and crew, it evoked rural life rather startlingly. That famous opening sequence wasn’t there in Martin Wickremasinghe’s novel, for instance; it was plotted by Regi Siriwardena, and it delayed the shooting of the film for a whole year until the Mahakappina Walawwa was discovered. The greatest art is sometimes born out of accident. The Sinhala cinema prospered because of those accidents, especially in Lester’s career.
It’s perhaps a testament to the man’s individuality, but he never displayed any overt enthusiasm for the New Wave in continental Europe. His signature was Renoirean; graceful, poetic, never slipshod, always calculated. Delovak Athara became the only movie of his which swerved from that trend. For a moment at least, it embraced the grey, but freewheeling charm of Godard and Truffaut. “What is your ambition?” Patricia asks a celebrity in Godard’s Breathless. “To become immortal, and then die,” replies that celebrity. And yet, there’s nothing random about these conversations; underlying and puncturing them was the freewheeling zeitgeist of its time, which symbolised an entire generation. Delovak Athara was a little like that. No less a critic than Philip Cooray called it his most continental work, comparing his cameraman, Willie Blake, to the great Raoul Coutard, Godard’s cameraman.
With Delovak Athara the man rebelled against the conventional wisdom of the sixties
With Delovak Athara the man rebelled against the conventional wisdom of the sixties; that the director was an auteur. No, he said to Malinda Seneviratne 15 years ago, “The film director is like a conductor. He has to interpret a script with a whole group of people.” Lester’s first interest had been literature – the awards he won at St Peter’s were all for essay competitions – and he once recalled, for me, the days when he’d cycle to the Public Library. He was respectful of the scriptwriter in the moviemaking process, which is why the quality of his work can be traced to his writers.
Delovak Athara doesn’t succeed at being the terse thriller it tries to be. There are sequences which, while incidental to the plot, take time to unravel even after we stop anticipating their final punch. The sequence of Shirani (Jeewarani Kurukulasuriya) swooning after her fiancée and our protagonist Nissanka (Tony Ranasinghe) tells her his terrible secret is like that. We await it, are thrilled by anticipating her reaction to his ill-timed confession, but by the time she does swoon after two items in a concert-pageant, we’ve lost our interest. Even that wordless sequence of Nissanka contemplating his dilemma at night is melodramatic, and his paranoid imaginings (he “sees” the man he killed outside his window) add little to what we already know.
It’s a rather flawed film, but it was probably the best of its kind made here. But while it managed to replicate the zeitgeist of Godard’s films, it had none of the Gallic spontaneity of the New Wave. The mood was intellectualised, unemotional, and cold. Of the penultimate sequence Cooray had this to say: “Nissanka is standing by a tree, lost in his thoughts, the camera moves slowly around him, frames him between two tree trunks, and catches the slow trickle of a tear down his cheek. But the scene does not move us. The objectivity is all.” Lester had abandoned Renoir, yes, but he hadn’t abandoned the documentarian in him. That’s where the objectivity came from.
And it’s exactly that sharp, focused, unemotional objectivity which is missing in Ran Salu, the next film he directed. Anton Wickramasinghe, in a move characteristic of Lester’s career, stopped making films with him after Delovak Athara. Considered at this point as a prestige failure (the movie didn’t make a profit, and took time to break even), he was offered a most unlikely deal; a script by a man he once described as probably the only original scriptwriter in the Sinhala cinema, P. K. D. Seneviratne. Like Delovak Athara, it would be shot in the same milieu, with roughly the same cast (Tony Ranasinghe, Irangani Serasinghe, and J. B. L. Gunasekera) but with a different crew (particularly the cameraman, Sumitta Amarasinghe, who was closer to Seneviratne’s glamourised view of village life than Willie Blake could be).
You’ll notice that many writers and audiences describe Ran Salu as a Buddhist film today. But there are no “Buddhist” films, just as there are no “Marxist” films or “capitalist” films: these are convenient labels used to demarcate the ideology of the work of art, as opposed to what that work of art actually represents and contains. P. K. D. Seneviratne was less a scriptwriter of Buddhist movies than he was a moralist parading as a middle-of-the-road cineaste. Deeply influenced by the Colombo poets, he saw in the village the salvation of his country and his race.
Towards the end of the 1950s, when our directors began to feverishly adapt the novels of W. A. Silva, the trend was to capture the country’s lost innocence with certain stock figures borrowed from the early English theatre: the innocent virgin, the abusive, drunk, lascivious headman, and the devoted paramour. In Seneviratne’s hands, that virgin became Punya Heendeniya, that headman became D. R. Nanayakkara, and that paramour became Dayananda Gunawardena. The film was Kurulubedda, which got so conflated with Rekava later on that even the compilers of the Insight Guide on Sri Lanka wrote that they were directed by the same person, Lester James Peries.
You’ll notice that many writers and audiences describe Ran Salu as a Buddhist film today
Ran Salu was the inevitable continuation of Kurulubedda and Sikuru Tharuwa, and had the same cast, including Punya, Nanayakkara, and Dayananda. By shifting to the same milieu that had characterised Delovak Athara (Kurulubedda had been stimulated by the visual loveliness of Rekava, and as with that film, Seneviratne was inspired by Lester here too), he continued with the change of setting, a point reinforced by having Irangani Serasinghe and J. B. L. Gunasekera as the mother and the father.
It’s a different kind of Buddhist ethos which sweeps across in the movie, consumerist, cosmetic, and lavish. Seneviratne depicted the contradiction at the heart of that milieu rather well. While Delovak Athara (like Rekava) didn’t contain a hint of the temple or Buddhism, here the clash between the social aspirations of Sujatha’s family and their commitment to their faith accentuates the plot. So much so, in fact, that anyone repudiating that faith in favour of those aspirations had to be a villain.
That villain was Tony Ranasinghe. In one sequence he flares up, frustrated at his fiancée’s reserved attitude to their affair: “I won’t come to this house if that dasa sil gani does.” To which he gets a typical Seneviratne-ist response from Sujatha (Punya): “Don’t ever speak of that nun like that again to me, Cyril. I don’t like it.”
In the American Western the saviour is always a man of the people, but he’s more refined than the people he’s with. In Seneviratne’s movies, the heroes are rooted in their surroundings, but they are more sophisticated than their people, who are depicted as simpletons not unlike the forever grinning villagers (who exist to entertain) in John Ford’s films. Kurulubedda had a whole bunch of these simpletons, socially less well off than the two heroes. Even in Ran Salu, that discrepancy comes off: both Sujatha and Senaka are affluent, though from different milieus, while the servants are chatty, gossipy innocents. (This even pervades the score: for the servants, especially Nanayakkara, Amaradeva reserved the only upbeat musical motif in the movie.)
At a little more than two hours, Ran Salu was as long or short (depending on how you prefer to see it) as Delovak Athara. But while Delovak Athara was an intellectualised picture – it revolved around a single incident, after all – Ran Salu was, as Cooray called it, a “plotted” film. Emotionally it overwhelms, which is why it lacks the objectivity of its predecessor, but then it wasn’t really Lester.
In Ran Salu Lester hence achieved his conception of the director as a conductor. “I did nothing but transform the script,” he once told me when I talked with him. True. Together with its fidelity to realism that was lacking in Seneviratne’s previous work, Ran Salu was, at the end of the day, a scriptwriter’s dream come true. Lester wouldn’t return to the theme of faith as a leveller for 40 years. And after those 40 years were done, he returned to it for one final time, as Ammawarune would be his last film.