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Remembering Lester on his 100th Birth Anniversary: The Father of Sri Lankan Cinema

2019 Apr 5

It was a red letter day for the entire nation when Rekava made it to the big screen sixty-three years ago. A movie shot entirely on location, with minimal dialogue sans overstated gestures, Rekava showcased the friendship between two childhood friends amid the simplicity of rural life in Sri Lanka. At a time when the Sri Lankan film industry was largely influenced by South Indian styles – with most films being filmed in India with unnatural dialogue that did not radiate national value – Lester James Peries’ film marked a significant turn that revolutionized Sinhalese cinema.

Rekava, 1956

The doyen of Sri Lanka’s film industry, Dr. Lester James Peries was gifted to this world on April 5th, 1919. He is considered the father of Sri Lankan cinema, having directed over 20 feature-length films and other documentaries, most of which earned critical nationwide and international acclaim. At the tender age of eleven, Peries was gifted an 8mm Kodascope projector by his father, in which he watched Chaplin’s silent films, and his interest in film only grew stronger with the years. By the time of his passing, Peries had directed over 28 films, earned the title of Sri Lankhabimanya- Sri Lanka’s highest civil honour, won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 31st International Film Festival of India in 2000, named Commandeur in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in1997, and was awarded the Fellini Gold Medal by UNESCO for outstanding film career 2003. Lester was also the first person to represent Sri Lanka at the Cannes Film Festival in 1957 with his film Rekava. He was also honoured with a Doctorate from both the University of Colombo and the University of Peradeniya in 1985 and 2003 respectively.

Born to a staunch Roman Catholic family that had become Anglicised, Lester had no childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker and was never involved in school plays. During his childhood, British Ceylon did not have a national film industry either. Having received his education at St. Peter’s College, he went on to pursue a career in journalism, working with both the Daily News and The Times of Ceylon thereafter. Peries’ first encounter with film production was when he joined a theatre group called Drama circle.

After travelling to London in 1947, he made his debut production with a short film named “Farewell to Childhood.” This earned him the Amateur Cine World Silver Plaque. “A Sinhalese Dance” and “Soliloquy” were two other productions that ensued. Peries joined the Government Film Unit upon his return to Sri Lanka where he was first involved in assisting several documentary films.

Following his debut film Rekava, Dr. Lester James Peries directed a number of feature-length films that came to become the hallmark of Sinhalese cinema. His other productions including Gamperaliya, Nidhanaya, Golu Hadawatha, Kaliyugaya, Awaragira and Yuganthaya are names that are familiar to any film enthusiast in Sri Lanka. A more recent film of his, Wekande Walauwa qualified as a submission for the Academy Awards while Nidhanaya was named one of the top 100 films of the century by Cinémathèque Française.

Wekande Walauwa, 2002

He is recognized as a pioneer of Sri Lankan cinema largely due to the fact that he was the first filmmaker to go the extra mile in creating a unique Sri Lankan identity in his productions. His debut film, Rekava (“The Line of Destiny”) was the first film to be shot outdoors with a suited dialogue and a setting that beautifully related the importance of indigenous value. The fact that the film was produced entirely through the hard work and commitment of a team of solely Sri Lankan technicians and artists is also reason for applause. Father Mercelyn Jayakody, Sunil Shantha, Indrani Senaratna, Irangani Serasinghe, Mallika Pilapitiya, Winston Serasinghe, Gamini Fonseka and K. A. W.Perera who were major contributors to Rekava and Peries’ other films also went on to become major stars in the film and music industry and set a high standard for those who followed their steps.
On his birth anniversary, we remember a highly respected and exemplary figure who contributed on a monumental scale to take Sri Lankan cinema to new heights. Although his passing left a huge dent in the hearts of the Sri Lankan citizenry, his films and his influence will, beyond doubt, touch the hearts and minds on this generation and the generations to come. For this, we are beyond grateful.

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