- Someone who had an identity of his own
- Lester told Malinda that the cinema salvaged him'
- He remained Lester, until that last day
- The three brothers and in particular Lester had been very mischievous as children
In his memoir Pin Athi Sarasavi Waramak Denna, Ediriweera Sarachchandra dwells on the intricate link between a cultural resurgence and the identities of those who take part in and eventually get to lead that resurgence. Taking a rather puritanical stance, he contends that while the Japanese cinema gave birth to Akira Kurosawa and the Bengali cinema gave birth to Satyajit Ray, the Sri Lankan, specifically the Sinhalese cinema, gave birth to Lester James Peries. “They had Kurosawa and Ray, in keeping with the names their cultures had forged. We, on the other hand, continued with our colonial past” was the gist of his argument. When I pointed this out to Lester years ago, he had one answer to give: “No one can take away my name. To my last day, I will remain Lester James Peries.”
Lester did well on that pledge. He remained Lester, until that last day. But while he remained who he was, he gave back to the country of his birth, and the culture of the majority of that country, in ways which surpass the contributions of those other cultural revolutionaries. This is not to belittle Amaradeva, Chitrasena, and Sarachchandra. But their cultural impediments were minor compared with those which bedevilled Lester. As the man himself put it to Malinda Seneviratne around 15 years ago, “Cinema salvaged me. It brought me to my roots. I had a Western education. I was born into a staunch Roman Catholic family. That was two removes from the heartbeat of my people.” By the time he completed his last work, Ammawarune, had got closer to that heartbeat. And why? Because he did a better job at delving into the sentiments of the same community which had bred chauvinists and charlatans in the form of spokespersons. He was an outsider looking in. And he did a better job at looking in than those spokespersons.
While he remained who he was, he gave back to the country of his birth, and the culture of the majority of that country, in ways which surpass the contributions of those other cultural revolutionaries
All this came to me last Monday, the 28th of May, at St Mary’s Church in Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya, where Lester’s family held a memorial service for the man. A quiet, largely family affair, it was nevertheless attended by outsiders, i.e. those who had known him throughout the better part of their lives and even those who had known him for a couple or so years (like this writer). Contained though it was, it fascinated me, not so much owing to the facts I came across with respect to Lester’s fidelity and adherence to his faith, but more pertinently owing to my understanding that he was that rare man: someone who had an identity of his own, far removed from the identity which he had helped resuscitate through the arts, and one which he never let go even when he was (as he continues to be) lambasted for moving into a specific, limited milieu and canvas.
Where should I begin? Most probably at the end of the service, with two remarks made by the two individuals who delivered the memorial address and the eulogy to the man being commemorated, Nirasha Perera (Lester’s grand niece and the original singer of “Ran Tikiri Sina”) and the inimitable Professor Carlo Fonseka. I’ll start with Nirasha.
She brought up several anecdotes. Humorous anecdotes. Lester was very, very close to his two brothers and sister, and was especially close to Ivan, whom he stood by when the latter suffered a nervous breakdown in London. “Their bond remained all through their lives, and Uncle (Lester), who was fond of his brother, always argued that he had been the favoured son and that Ivan was the more gifted sibling.” Apparently the three brothers and in particular Lester had been very mischievous as children, getting into all sorts of trouble at home. “He used to climb the tree at their residence in Dehiwela, and his grandmother, who was of a very ill temperament, got up into such a fit out of concern that she would shout at him to get down. These entreaties would work only if he was given the five cents he almost always asked for to buy some comics.” The grandmother had been a benign influence, moreover: “Contrary to what many people think, Uncle was never really removed from the Sinhalese culture. She was the link he had between his anglicised upbringing and that culture, since she spoke virtually no English at home.”
Lester and Sena did not hail from the same milieu (the latter came from the Anglican elite), but in terms of class origins they reckoned with the same basic problem: economic privilege on the one hand and a lack of rootedness on the other
Lester’s run-ins with accepted officialdom were a given the moment he rebelled against the priest at St Peter’s who taught his class apologetics. “He was insistent on me joining a seminary,” he once recalled for me, “And when I told him, ‘Father, you need a vocation to become a priest’, he would retort, ‘Nonsense! You decide to become a priest and you become a priest, just as you decide to be a doctor and you become a doctor.” Later on, these run-ins continued, especially throughout his years in journalism (“Twice my facts were challenged, twice I was under threat of dismissal,” he recounted to the late A. J. Gunawardena) and at the Government Film Unit (especially that incident where, having seen him brilliantly edit a documentary, he had to defend Titus Thotawatte against his England born Supervising Editor, to no less a figure than the Director of Information), and this interplay of rebelliousness and placidity continued with his film career as well. He was no joker, but his wit (a characteristic sample: “I drink so much Nestomalt that I might as well call it ‘Lestermalt’”) was, as Nirasha aptly noted, subtle and also sharp. Even the most cynical of human beings, like me, could not fail being swayed by it.
Professor Carlo Fonseka has a way with words and he quite probably gets to his points the same way he gets to his diagnoses as a medicine man: gradually, painstakingly, but with purpose and resolve. While the eulogy at the service more or less reflected the eulogy he had written and got published for the man’s 93rd birthday back in 2012, it nevertheless seemed to ring even more sincere and contained within itself a fresh lease of life the second time around. “Let us recall that he belonged to a special subgroup of gifted people in this country,” he informed us, as he proceeded to class Lester alongside James Peiris and his son Charles Jacob Peiris, better known today as that great singer and cultural renovator, Devar Surya Sena, who “composed a Sinhala liturgy based on the Gajaba Vannama.” Lester and Sena did not hail from the same milieu (the latter came from the Anglican elite), but in terms of class origins they reckoned with the same basic problem: economic privilege on the one hand and a lack of rootedness on the other. (His paternal grandmother hailed from the Jayawardena family, who owned half of Dehiwela.) When Lester told Malinda that the cinema salvaged him, he was echoing what Devar Surya Sena felt, years before the man even conceived the story of Rekava, when, in 1929, he organised a concert at the Royal College Hall which featured, for the first time in the history of the hall and the country, a selection from our folk songs, ballads, and vannams.
Surya Sena’s forays into those vannams were reflected several years later in Lester’s forays into films which depicted the identity that had produced those vannams. Here I quote Tissa Abeysekara (whom as Professor Fonseka noted would have been, were he alive, the person delivering the eulogy) and a critique he made of those who, like Surya Sena, seemingly transcended their uprooted lives in an effort to reclaim their cultural heritage: “None of these artists, however successful they have been in their chosen fields, have attempted to turn this conflict within themselves (between their lives and their art) into the source of their creative passions.” His indictment, incidentally, was that “within the socio-cultural crisis of the anglicised upper crust of colonial Ceylon” there was a Great Theme, much like the theme of familial bonds in Lester’s films, which could have been turned into a veritable motif for the cultural sphere of postcolonial, independent Sri Lanka. This begs a pertinent question: how did Lester resolve this crisis within himself?
The man destined to be the father of the Sinhalese cinema, in other words, came from a background which had historically been at loggerheads with the Sinhalese
He was, admittedly, two removes from the heartbeat of his people. If so, how close was he to his own identity, and how did he bring about a reconciliation between that identity and the identity he reached out to? “Uncle Lester said that while he did not pray openly and loudly, he prayed every night, softly, but devoutly,” Nirasha told us, and I wasn’t surprised. When it was suggested that a movie was made of Dona Catherina, the Queen of Kandy whose reputation remains controversial owing to her Catholicised upbringing, Lester shot down the idea, arguing that to go ahead would be to offend the same people, and public, he had helped discover themselves through his work. The man destined to be the father of the Sinhalese cinema, in other words, came from a background which had historically been at loggerheads with the Sinhalese. Whether he transcended this conflict is for another article. For now, though, I’d like to end by paraphrasing what the Bishop of Chilaw, the Right Reverend Father Dr Valence Mendis, contended by way of summing up that link between identity and art which Sarachchandra alluded to in his memoirs:
“Years ago, when I was young, I watched Akkara Paha. Later, I watched Yuganthaya and Desa Nisa. Akkara Paha is about a bright student neglecting his scholarship and later returning, broken, to his family, who accept him. In it I felt the story of the prodigal son. Yuganthaya is about the inevitability of revolution in the face of intense oppression and exploitation. In it I felt the parable about living and dying by the sword, and the injustices of the world. And in Desa Nisa, I came across love and compassion, and this love and compassion struck the student of theology in me. They were markedly about Sinhalese Buddhists, yes, but they were also about the fervent, devout Catholic that Lester was.”
The good Father, it seems to me, got it right. All the way.