Lester James Peiris -ලෙස්ටර් ජේම්ස් පීරිස්

LESTER-2Father of Sri Lankan Cinema .

Written by T.K.Premadasa for on 2009-04-04 for Asian Tribune

The pioneer who dedicated his wide knowledge of cinematography for amelioration of cinema industry reaches 90th birthday on April 05, 2009. The inestimable contribution made by this great son of Sri Lanka to bring Sinhala cinema to the pinnacle of its glory is historical. At the time Indian film industry had the influence in Sri Lanka monopolizing their power of technology on production of Sri Lankan films, the cultural background was almost South Indian.

Sri Lankan producers were inclined to produce films on commercial basis caused by the want of technical infrastructure. It was this young cameraman contemplated to exert his cinematic know how toward resilience of the film industry by his influence of productions depicting indigenous culture. He is the world acclaimed cinematographer Dr Lester James Peiris who established the global image of Sri Lanka in cinema industry.

Lester James Peiris was born to a well reputed Roman Catholic family in Dehiwala on April 05, 1919 residence of which was known as ‘Sinhagiri’ His father Dr James Francis Peiris was a medical doctor graduated in Scotland. Ms Ann Gertrude Winifred Jayasuriya a student of St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo was his mother who became the first girl to pass the Senior Cambridge Examination from the same school. He had two brothers Ivan & Noel and a sister Erica.

His brother Ivan reputably a skilled painter was a close associate of the internationally famed artist George Keit. Lester’s life was significantly influenced by these professional artists. He started his preliminary studies at St. Mary’s Primary College, Dehiwala later known as Holly Family Convent and later joined St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya.

He was more attentive towards lectures on Arts inspired by the films he was fortunate to watch through projectors found available to him. He was eleven years old when he was awarded a 8 mm Kodasco projector by his father. He started writing to the blue pages of the Ceylon Daily News at the age of 17. In 1939 he joined Times of Ceylon newspaper and displayed his skills under the Indian Editor Frank Moraes and also reviewed books in Radio Ceylon (now SLBC). “The Teacher” & “The Saree” are two short stories written by him. In view of Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne the young Lester enjoyed the presentation of the book called “Cathedral and a Star” authored by him to Pandith Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.

Lester traveled to England in 1947 as advised by mother to join his brother Ivan who was on a scholarship in London. This young journalist of competent skills in journalism wrote articles to Ceylon Daily News column from London on the request of the Editor Moraes under the heading “Letter on Arts from London”. Lester’s debut in production was the “Farewell to Childhood” in 1950 a short film based on the story written by him called “Saree”.

The Amateur Cine World Silver Plaque was awarded to this experimental film among the ten best films produced in Great Britain. His second film was “A Sinhalese Dance” and the final film “Soliloquy” was produced in London in 1951 a 20 minute short film based on threefold love story. The Mini Cinema Cup for short films was awarded to this production for its best technical proficiency by the Institute of Amateur and Experimental Film Makers Festival-Great Britain (1951).

On his return to Sri Lanka Lester joined the Government Film Unit (GFU) and worked with Ralph Keene who was the Director of GFU. In the first instance Lester assisted Keene to make a documentary film “Nelungama”. Later two documentary films “Conquest in the Dry Zone” (1954) on Malaria epidemic and “Be Safe” or “Be Sorry” (1955) were produced for the GFU by his own creation. The film “Conquest in the Dry Zone” won the Diploma of Honor at the Venice Film Festival in 1954. He left the GFU in 1955 after his ambition for production of Sinhala films on his own.


Significantly the year 1956 became historic by the revolutionary changes took effect on political, social and cultural fields in Sri Lanka in the interest of the entire nation. “Rekhawa” the debut of his production disporting his extraordinary knowledge in the technique of film industry by Lester James Peiris in December 1956 earned him a commendable reputation as the best production of Sri Lankan Cinema. Starting from his masterly production “Rekhawa” this great Cinematographer accredited with an abundance of knowledgeable skills in film industry has elevated the Sri Lankan cinema to the zenith of its glory by a numerous production of films winning international awards, an inestimable honor to the nation.

Dr Lester James Peiris has featured about 20 films during the last fifty years of his experience in film industry enlivening Sri Lankan cinema with accolade after accolade both locally and abroad.


Sri Lankan nation owes him a debt of gratitude for his immeasurable account of high quality productions of international acclaim namely Rekhawa (Line of Destiny 1956), Sandeshaya (The Message 1960), Gamperaliya (Changing Village 1964), Delovak Athara (Between Two Worlds 1966), Ran Salu (The Yellow Robe 1967), Golu Hadawatha (The Silence of the Heart 1968), Akkara Paha (Five Acres of Land 1969), Nidhanaya (The Treasure 1970), Desa Nisa (The Eyes 1972), The God King (1975), Madol Duwa (Enchanted Island 1976), Ahasin Polowata (White Flowers for the Dead 1978), Pinhami (1979), Veera Puran Appu (Rebellion 1979), Baddegama (Village in the Jungle 1980), Kaliyugaya (The Era of Kalli – The Changing Village Part II, 1982), Yuganthaya (The Changing Village Part III, 1983), Awaragira (The Sunset 1995), Wekande Wallauwa (Mansion by the Lake 2002) and Amma Varune (Mothers 2007).

In addition to his contribution of documentary films to the GFU Lester has produced 10 documentary films on requests by various other institutions. Among them were “Too Many and Too Soon” (1961), “Home from the Sea” (1962), “Forward into the Future” (1964), “Steel” (1969), “Forty Leagues from Paradise” (1970), “A Dream of Kings” (1971) and “Kandy Perahera” (1971).

Appreciative expressions on perceptive vision of Dr Lester James Peiris have been articulated by world renowned professionals invariably on many occasions. It is related in the book authored by Mr Ronald Fernando that the world popular Indian Super Star late Raj Kapoor highly impressed by the movie “Rekhawa” had recommended to Sri Lankan Producer Mr.K.Gunaratnam to utilize the talents of this consummate cinematographer Lester in his future productions.

In consequence Mr Gunaratnam offered the direction of his film “Sandeshaya” to Lester James who excelled a marvelous spell of innate skills in his performance as the Director to bring the film to the pinnacle of its international acclaim.

Remarkably a number of books have been written by various scholars on the biography of this reputable character and his award winning productions. In addition a documentary film by the name “The Foot Steps of an Asian Master” was directed by Neil I.Perera in 1985 and another film “The World of Peiris” directed by Bickram Singhare on behalf of the Ministry of External Affairs, India.

He not only won the First International Award to Sri Lanka in London in early 50s but also achieved the Golden Peacock Award presented by Delhi International Award and Golden Head of Palenque Award from Mexico World Film Festival for “Gamperaliya” a story turned a new page in Sri Lankan cinema as the Best film. It was Lester who represented Sri Lanka with his film “Rekhawa” first at the Cannes Film Festival in 1957. The number of local awards won by him from Rekhawa to Amma Varune is a patent estimation of his exemplary contribution to Sri Lankan Cinema. Recognition of his productions at high degree of excellence by the International Cinema not only demands absolute technique but involves tremendous amount of dedication and determined effort.


In appreciation of his invaluable contribution to cinema he was honored with the title Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the Government of France in 1997, The Lifetime Achievement Award and the Golden Lotus by the Government of India at Delhi International Film Festival and the Asian Cinema Person at Cannes International Film Festival. He has also discreetly performed an extraordinary service as a member of the jury at the International Film Festival with distinctive responsibility. The entire nation is profoundly delighted by the global tribute of high regard extended to this indomitable personality over his intellectual expertise on film industry.

He was felicitated by his own nation with title Kala Keerthi in 1980 Issue of a stamp to mark his Birthday in 2002, highest honor of Sri Lankabhimanaya in 2007, Naming Dickman’s Rd as Dr Lester James Peiris Mawatha and a newly Orchid flower named after Lester James Peiris by M.L.SW.Wanigathunga , Chairman of Lakmalsala Amerasekera. It is significant that he was honored with the Doctorate by the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya in 1985 & 2003 respectively.

The latest facilitation for this doyen of Sri Lankan cinema is honoring of UNESCO , the world’s most presage institution for culture for his Gamperaliya production.

Dr. Lester James Peiris Sonduru Minisa has exalted the image of Sri Lanka in the global cinema with high degree of respect. He is regarded a leading cinematographer along with world renowned Satyajith Rai of India and Akerawar Korusowa of Japan. The brilliancy of resplendent contribution made by Lester to Sri Lankan cinema will be etched in the memories of the citizenry of Sri Lanka.

Chirang Jayathu Lester

T. Premadasa is the head of Corporate Affairs and Communication of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board– Asian Tribune –

What stands out in the work of Lester James Peiris is his humanism

by Dr. Sarath Amunugama

Our ideals – moral, social and poetic – must be defended with intelligence as well as emotion: and also with intransigence” – Lindsay Anderson.

I am grateful to the organizers of this event for inviting me to deliver the Lester James Pieris oration for 2012. I am particularly grateful because it enables me to pay a well deserved tribute to a close and affectionate friend of over half a century. Indeed, Lester has dominated Sinhala cinema for the selfsame fifty years and perhaps a little more. He is one of the few remaining cultural icons in our country and is a giant of Asian cinema. Thank you Lester and our best wishes go to you.

Since our friendship goes back a long time I would like to begin with a reminiscence of an early meeting with Lester. He had invited me to visit Balapitiya where he was shooting scenes for “Gam Peraliya” in the Mahakappina Walauwa. In those days film crews were on location for long periods and had time for much fellowship and special visits from friends, and particularly from the Producer who turned up from time to time to pay the bills and make sure that the Director, his players and the technical crew did not pave the way to his premature bankruptcy.

I was lucky in that I had the privilege of making the journey from Colombo to Balapitiya in the company of Martin Wickremasinghe and Regi Siriwardena in Mr. Wickremasinghe’s car. I was too intimidated to participate actively in their discussions during the journey. Anyway, Regi was rather reticent probably fearing, as it is usual in films, that once the screen play is written the novelist is unhappy that some favourite parts are left out and new episodes added. To add to the tension was the frequently expressed view of Mr. Martin Wickremasinghe that cinema cannot do justice to literary works, probably based on his experiences with South Indian films which were than the main cinematic offerings to Sinhalese audiences.

We were invited on that day because a key scene was being shot in Balapitiya. It was the marriage scene of Nanda and Piyal. We all crowded round the verandah of the Mahakappina Walauwa; out stepped the wedding couple and I vividly remember Lester deploying his new players from the stage, namely Tony Ranasinghe, G.W.Surendra and Wickrema Bogoda to give a sense of the festive occasion. There were also several foreigners in the crowd to suggest that Piyal was now building his fortune in Colombo. Crackers went off, a prop man tugged at an overhanging decoration and confetti floated down on the couple.

When the film was released I eagerly looked forward to this scene, only to find that many of the details that stuck in my mind had been edited out. Nevertheless, I remember well Lester’s detachment; his whispers to the cameraman and very gentle suggestions he made to the players which became a hall mark of his directorial style.

Since then we have had many pleasant meetings; many discussions. I also had the pleasure of seeing all his films from the documentaries he made for the GFU to his latest efforts. What holds his works together? What common thread binds his work? This is a legitimate question made contemporary by the Auteur theory which was first presented by the Cahier de Cinema group in France, and has today become a popular approach in understanding the work of cinematic giants. We look back at a large number of films of a Director all stamping a personal vision, a distinctive style and rhythm and, indeed, their cinematic language and idiom.

After all if we could see in Picasso or George Keyt a distinctive vision and style, why cannot we do the same for the masters of the moving image? If we can delve into the psychology, even pathology of great painters and writers, the origins of their ‘oeuvre’, the influences on them, the effects of ideology and even of the market place and of the continuous evolution of their work, why cannot we follow the same methodology in examining the body of work of the great film directors of the world? Will it not help in separating the artist from the journey man?

If we adopt the Auteur theory to look at the body of work of Lester what stands out is his humanism. Humanism has been defined as “Any system, mode of thought or action in which human interest, values and dignity predominates”. While similar ideologies have prevailed in many regional traditions, we are here concerned mostly about humanism as it developed in western society after the Renaissance and became a strong influence on Lester James Peiris. While he progressively delved into Sinhala Society and culture he was also a cosmopolitan intellectual. A similar claim can be made about Satyajit Ray. Philip French calls Ray “a great film maker rooted in his complex Bengali culture and at the same time a detached cosmopolitan intellectual”

Whatever some nationalist thinkers say, almost all the distinguished creative artists and literary figures of Sri Lanka have been largely influenced by their readings of great works of western literature. Martin Wickremasinghe, Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amarasekera and Siri Gunasinghe have all been influential by classical western writers. We will later see the strong impact of outstanding pre-revolution Russian writers, particularly Anton Chekov, on Wickremasinghe which links him to his cinematic interpreter Lester, whose works have been described by international critics as “Chekovian.” Anton Chekov is the bridge between Wickremasinghe and Lester. Indeed in a later film Lester directly adopted Chekov’s “Cherry Orchard” just as Ray’s “Ganasatru” was an adaptation of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People”

Wickremasinghe was a voracious reader. He read the Russion classics of Tolstroy, Dosteovsky Chekov and Gorky. That fed his inherent humanism which grew out of his close observation first of village life in South Sri Lanka and later of the metropolis of Colombo, which was being transformed by the beginnings of native capitalism. Lester on the other hand was a product of the English speaking Colombo upper middle class. His father was a well to do doctor. I was always intrigued by the appearance of a grave looking doctor in Lester’s films like Gam Peraliya, Nidhanaya and Madol Duwa, usually giving very rational and unhurried diagnosis, which only confirmed what the cinema audience already knew was a critical situation.

Lester with his fascination with English literature and culture of the immediate post war period was part of the English “avant garde”. This was a group of people like Auden, Spender and Gascoyne who were transformed by the war and contemporary ideologies. It was an aesthetic movement based on humanism which shook the foundations of an out of date, class bound English culture. This is a long and fascination story which may be nearer to us than we think, thanks to many recent publications regarding this period. For instance, we read of Tambimuttu and his desperate efforts to help many of those talented poets even though he himself lived in abject poverty.

It was not all poetry however. Due to the war effort British documentary films with their praise of the working man and woman, the young British soldiers, seamen and particularly the fighter pilots, created a new humanism – a regard for the dignity of the individual who faces great odds. This approach was seen in the work of John Grierson. Close to Independence, Mr. DS Senanayake was persuaded to set up the GFU. Its first equipment came from a group of Italians who had come to this country to shoot a feature film. Their producer had lost interest and the new government hired them to set up a Film Unit.

With time the Italians left and the British took over. Fortunately they hired superb film makers like Ralph Keene who began to trawl London for likely assistance. Many of those early film makers of the GFU like Lester James Peiris, Titus Totawatte, Hettiaratchy and Irvin Dassanaike had been involved in varying degree with film making in England and brought with them a sophistication and technical competence quite different from that of the Indian film industry. Also there were other associates like Sumiththa Amarasinghe, who had studied in India.

Here is a quotation from G S Fraser’s. “The Modern writer and his world” which well describes the milieu in which young artists including those from Sri Lanka who were plucked out to come back to their country, lived. “I remember around 1946, young writers sharing sparsely furnished flats, giving parties with mulled Algerian wine and weak bitter beer, talking eagerly through the night, trying to call into existence, as if by magic, a ‘London Literary World”.

I do not have the time to go into all the details of Lester’s pioneering ventures; the breakout from the GFU, Rekawa as the first authentic Sinhala film, the introduction of a new film language different from the prevailing South Indian tradition, his evolution towards a depiction of local, particularly Buddhist, culture and society and the first manifestation of Sinhala film in the regional and International critical arena.

I will therefore devote the rest of my lecture to an examination of Lester’s cinema based on the Martin Wickremasinghe trilogy or triptych “Gam Peraliya”; “Yuganthaya” and “Kaliyugaya” which illustrates the director’s humanistic approach. I must say straight away that these three films have to be viewed as works of cinema and not mere translations of Wickremasinghe’s novels to celluloid. As John Hood remarks on a parallel relationship between Tagore and the cinema of Satyajit Ray, “I have discussed all these films, not according to their worthiness or otherwise as cinematic representatives of Tagore, but as cinematic works of art by Satyajit Ray. As literature and cinema are two categorically different art forms, there seems to me to be little point in decrying the independence of one and insisting on its difference to the other”. Unfortunately many of the critics of these films when they were released failed to understand such a difference. So it was also with Lester’s Baddegama which led to many controversies.

Wickremasinghe’s three novels and Lester’s three films based on them cover four generations of a Sinhalese family group with origins in the deep south. Members of the family make the transition from a small village to the top of the country’s business ladder. It is a tale which resonates with Sri Lanka’s social experience and psychology. While many of our “Socialist” oriented critics have flayed a dead horse about the emergence of capitalism, as depicted in these novels, I would submit that it is the characterization of these “dramatis personae” that is most remarkable and is linked to the author’s close observation of and deep understanding of the complexities that go to make up their lives. It is only to appreciate the unique and complex nature of the behaviour of characters before us that we glimpse the undercurrents of social changes.

Only an insensitive Marxist or an ultra nationalist will create puppets who appear and disappear according to the ideologue’s preferred vision. On the other hand, it is the sensitive interplay between the individual, his psychology and the evolving social background that makes for good art. “Sarachchandra writing The Sinhalese Novel in 1950 made this point about Gam Peraliya. He wrote “The Changing Village is a true tale of village life than anything that has appeared before. In its stark realism, it introduced us to characters whose attitude of life and mode of behaviour are unique. He presents these new types of humanity to us with a deep understanding of their psychology and the environmental conditions that served to produce such a psychology”.

While the novel can always meander into anthropological and psychological commentary, a frequent technique of Martin Wickremasinghe, a film must perforce concentrate on event, action and character. As we see in the trilogy many of the subsidiary characters have been dropped and only key events have been highlighted. But it is a special characteristic of Lester’s cinema, as it is of Satyajit Ray, that the director has a good lining up of the sequences which enables the viewer not to stray too far from the original story. So does the composition of the visual images that go to constitute such a sequence. He is very restrained in his camera work, frequently using the mid-shot and using close-ups only for telling effect.

In Gam Peraliya and Kali Yugaya it is the role of Nanda which is brought to the fore. It is Nanda whose dormant feelings for Piyal are squashed by the traditional mores. She accepts life with Jinadasa only to be buffeted by a series of, perhaps inevitable, events caused by changes in the wider world. In Kaliyugaya, which to me is a much better film than Yuganthaya, she is married to Piyal but a letter from her first born, Alan, from London cruelly gives a different “take” on the life that Piyal has created for his family in Colombo. By any standard the playing of Punya Heendeniya in these two films is outstanding. She brings an emotional charge to her role that keeps the viewer transfixed.

As a director, Lester must be given full credit for focusing on the playing of this central character. The nuances of feeling of Nanda surrounded by people who have strong and simple feelings like Anula, Piyal and Savimon Kabalana not only makes her a sympathetic character but also takes us to a world of moral choices and sensitivity of feelings which help us to take a more tolerant view of the human condition. Who are we to pass judgment on such people who grapple with their own existential conditions? Lester’s compassionate but unflinching vision helps us to celebrate the wonder of human life. I am reminded of John Hood’s description of Ray “Quite apart from his artistic and technical brilliance, he was a film maker who celebrated humanity”.

In both Lester’s films it is the woman Nanda who is the focus of attention. It is a mark of genuine humanism that he does not magnify her virtues nor overlook her blemishes. To quote Hood again, “The director reveals his characters frailties almost as reasons for loving them, while his concern for what is known in art as ‘realism’ is none other than a respect for truth”.

Yuganthaya on the other hand has been dominated by the towering presence of Gamini Fonseka as Savimon Kabalana. Linked to Piyal and Nanda through marriage to their daughter Nalika, Kabalana has built up his business empire with a ruthlessness characteristic of primitive capitalism. He too has rural origins but by the time the film begins he has reached the pinnacle of success and wants his elder son, Malin, to succeed him. In this he is cruelly disappointed because the London returned Malin, like Samasamajist leaders, disowned their fathers as well as their wealth. Here too Lester uses Martin Wickremasinghe’s insights personally observed, while being a journalist in D R Wijewardena’s Lake House, to build up the character of Kabalana. Yet he too has his virtues, as Malin acknowledges. Finally he is vanquished by the very person who was closest to his heart, his son and in the last close up of Gamini, Lester gives us a view of the agony of a father’s incomprehensibility. This close up reminded me of the close-up in Eisensteins “Battleship Potemkin”.

In the final scene we see the red shirted Malin being carried on the shoulders of the victorious workers. We are left with the question – is this the dawn of a new era? Or is Malin only a naïve do-gooder – well educated but with no real hard and bitter experience that characterized his father’s life? Are the workers genuinely fond of the boss’s son or is it only play acting by a group of ignorant opportunists who only want to dismantle an efficient economic machine so that they can get more pay and less work?

Lester dangles the question before us: Is this a new beginning for the Left? Unfortunately as real life events unfolded somewhat later in time, it was only the beginning of the end.

(This is the text of the Lester James Peiris 2012 Oration delivered by Senior Minister Dr.Sarath Amunugama)


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