My first real encounter with cinema was through a VHS tape that was bought when I turned 16. I had heard and read of T. E. Lawrence, I knew what he had done and I was entranced by his exploits, but I hadn’t seen David Lean’s film. Lawrence of Arabia, then, was the first film I watched with any serious intent (not that I hadn’t tried before). By the end of the second hour, it ceased being a work of art. It instead became a miracle: “What a bold, mad act of genius it was, to make it, or even think that it could be made” was how the late Roger Ebert reviewed it.
There’s a sequence in Lawrence of Arabia I go to again and again. Gasim, a member of a contingent led by Colonel Lawrence to launch a surprise attack on a city, succumbs to fatigue and falls down from his camel one night. This is in the Nefud Desert, so rescuing him was out of the question. Lawrence, however, goes back, to the consternation of his de facto deputy and rival, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). With the expedition halted, one of the man’s aides, a boy called Daud, awaits him on a camel in the heat and sun. What unfolded next convinced me that some things could only be depicted in the cinema. Daud looks on, Maurice Jarre’s music slowly picks up and a barely visible dot crops up in the distance. Daud trudges on nervously, sees that dot growing to a figure and sees that it’s (who else?) Lawrence. Jarre’s music rises to a crescendo, Daud starts shouting in joy and we see our hero with the man he went back to rescue. The camera cuts to a long shot of the man and the boy riding towards each other and converging. I watched this on TV: I am praying for the day I’ll see it on the big screen (which is what its Super Panavision 70 setup was born for, come to think of it).
But I’m digressing here.
I met Lester James Peries for the first time four years ago. He was 94 at the time. I don’t remember the exact day and month. I do remember waiting for him in his verandah, though. I also remember a small figure, clad in a sarong and a shirt (signifying the synthesis of East and West in him, perhaps) beckoning me to the sitting room. We sat, he smiled, and conversation ensued. After a few preliminary introductions, we swerved off to the movies. Halfway through that conversation, he asked me the inevitable question: “What kind of cinema do you like?” “David Lean,” I blurted out at once, half-expecting him to assent to my choice.
Lester smiled. We sat in silence, awkward because I badly needed a comment from him on the man who’d taught him and his crew how to replicate rain in the final sequence of Rekava. Because no answer was forthcoming, I asked him as to what he thought of Lawrence of Arabia. His reply? “Those were big budget epics, not my kind of cinema.” Being an idealist who’d grown up on T. E. Lawrence, I was rather flabbergasted. I therefore asked as to what his favourite film was. “I can’t pick on one,” he smiled, “But if I were forced to, I’d take a risk with Citizen Kane.”
That was the first day. The weeks flew by, I went on with my life, and at the end of the month, I returned. For the next three years, I made it a point to visit him, to talk with him, to get from him those little anecdotes that made up the man. Predictable though his cinema was, I learnt soon enough that his perspectives on his field were (for the lack of a better way of putting it) quirky. Here then is the first of a series of sketches on him, his work, and his conception of the medium he worked in.
Lester James Peries’ fascination with the American cinema has gone unnoticed by the critic. For the most. This omission can be attributed to several factors, not least of which is his relationship with the French cinema: more than any other country, let’s not forget, it was the country of Cocteau, Renoir, and Bresson that pushed him to the movies. That painterly outlook reminiscent of the best of Renoir’s films (like La Règle du jeu and Boudu Saved from Drowning) shows quite discernibly in Lester’s work. The Italians helped. So did the British. But those were not his only influences.
If the French are akin to painters (as with Cocteau and Renoir), the Americans are akin to technicians (as with Ford: “Directing is not a mystery, it’s not an art”). For the former, the creative process could best be birthed instinctively. For the latter, that process was secondary to the studio system. The director of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, was an enfant terrible in that respect: he was considered a “prestige failure”, the same unlovely sobriquet Lester earned in much of his career.
Welles’ influence on Lester comes out most strikingly in one respect: his eye for witty, nimble cutting. The final argument between mother and son in Delovak Athara, the arguments among mother, father, and daughter in Ran Salu and the bedside feud between brother and sister in Nidhanaya: here the camera is a dextrous participant, revealing the characters’ insecurities in gushes and torrents. They sometimes touch on comedy (think of the farcical argument between the protagonist’s and his fiancée’s families over a tea-tray in Delovak Athara) and then suddenly culminate on a different, unresolved note.
In this respect, Lester was closer to Welles than to Hollywood. When in 2012 Vertigo bested Citizen Kane in Sight & Sound’s annual list of the 10 greatest movies of all time, I was stumped, not so much because Vertigo was inferior (it wasn’t) but because it seemed to reflect my generation’s discontent with letting Welles’ first and greatest work remain at the top. About a year later, talking with Lester, I asked him as to what he thought. Here’s what he said:
“Some films are specific to their time. They age. Others are not. They are timeless. For me, Hitchcock’s films are for the most seasonal, framed as they are to the period they were made in. His discoveries were in the realm of editing, for he was primarily an entertainer: those discoveries therefore belong to the technician’s workshop. Welles, on the other hand, innovated on so many other fronts: cinematography, editing, even acting, to name a few. That is why, despite what your generation may think, Kane remains for me the true landmark. Not even Vertigo can dispute that.”
To my mind, therefore, his two greatest influences came from two utterly different industries: continental Europe and the United States (of Orson Welles). His films, at that level, can be assessed on how much of a balance he kept between these two, which is how one can differentiate between Gamperaliya and Nidhanaya. The former was the inevitable consequence of Rekava and the more mainstream Sandeshaya, while the latter was the culmination of the creative freedom he was granted by the only producer that stayed with him for more than two films, Ceylon Theatres.
In my next piece on the man, I’ll try to make a contrast between these two, not to show what the superior objet d’art is but rather to show how two seemingly similar films, adapted from a largely realist and modernist literature, can explain the balance Lester kept between the painterly thrust of continental Europe and the chiaroscuro boldness of the Americans. For the time being, though, I am done.