Thursday, September 4, 2014

By way of thanking Martin Scorsese

I wrote this letter by way of thanking Martin Scorsese for having restored Nidhanaya last year. The letter was written in April this year. Words cannot do justice to him. There have been attempts made here to salvage our cinema. They have always been too little, too late. Scorsese is different. We as Sri Lankans ought to be grateful for that. And for him.

Dear Mr. Scorsese,

How does one begin a letter of appreciation? I do not pretend to be an avid letter-writer. On the contrary, I rarely write them, and when I do, I am almost never sure as to the adequacy of their feeling. What I want to appreciate here, dear Sir, is, first as a Sri Lankan, second as a passionate lover of the cinema, your successful restoration of what is considered to be this country’s greatest film – Nidhanaya. For seven years we thought it lost. Then, inadvertently, we found it in India, and we feared it would get lost again.

But then, you, with the World Cinema Foundation, sought to restore it to the glory and pristine freshness with which it had always meant to be seen. I admit none of us has actually seen this 4k copy of the film – not even its director, who owing to his health was unable to head the delegation that went to Venice to see it – but of its brilliance I am quite sure! It may interest you to know that this was the second such restoration of a Sri Lankan film, the first being Gamperaliya, also by Nidhanaya’s director, seven years ago, by the UCLA.

It is to people such as yourself, and not to bureaucratic policymakers slugging out their duties till the very end, that we (my countrymen and I) owe this token of gratitude. I remember with what desolation Lester James Peries, the founder of our cinema (and Nidhanaya’s director) broke the news of his greatest film’s loss (the equatorial climate is not friendly to celluloid, as our National Film Corporation learnt that day); I also remember the lack of anger or malice, which a lesser artist would have exhibited in such a situation, evident in his face when he did so.

That Nidhanaya was discovered (it still remains a mystery how it got to Pune!), and that its restoration fittingly coincided with Dr. Peries’ 94th birthday, leaves one little to ask for. Indeed, Dr. Peries is still as lively, as energetic, in his mental faculties, as he always has been. He celebrated his 95th birthday a few weeks back, an event which again coincided with another milestone in our cinema: the opening of Sri Lanka’s very first National Archives, to record and preserve various films, archival documents and such-like for the benefit of generations to come.

Admittedly this seems a little too late, especially in an era where restoration has become more important than preservation. But in a country as ours, where politicking has unfortunately all but completely left cultural activity stale and neglected (there is no real Ministry here to overlook the cinema, for instance), the clichéd adage “Better Late Than Never” sticks in my mind. I am not adulating the present administration, but it remains to be said that in the 66 years of independence since 1948, it is the only government that has given film preservation any serious attention. I, for one, hope that restoration of our greatest films – so many of them to list, in fact – will not be a thing too far off into the future.

My acquaintance with Dr. Peries – which came about more by accident than will – has been instrumental in my appreciation of my own country’s cinema, which, as you will realize later on, is not at all that satisfactory presently. Andrew Robinson wrote The Inner Eye on Satyajit Ray, while Donald Richie wrote The Films of Akira Kurosawa on that inimitable giant of the cinema. But no serious book has been, as of yet, written on Lester James Peries – a pity, given that he is still among us. I do not rightly remember who it was that said it, but Dr. Peries ranks with Kurosawa and Ray among the pantheon of filmmakers that introduced Asian cinema to the world. All three hailed from the same tradition, from which other directors – Ghatak and Sen in Bengal, Ozu and Mizoguchi in Japan – emerged.

There are various directors here – Dharmasena Pathiraja, Wasantha Obeysekera, Prasanna Vithanage, Asoka Handagama, Vimukthi Jayasundera – who owe the wide success of their conception of cinema to Peries. The only serious verdict granted to him that I could find were these words – “belonging to the tradition of Renoir and Flaherty”. I found them in the notes to a Museum of Modern Art retrospective on him, conducted in 1970, the year he made Nidhanaya. In Sri Lankan cinema he is unsurpassed, particularly as an experimenter who sought to redefine the contours of our films. I doubt he can name a single influence that has dominated his craft, because, like all true experimenters, he is original (which is more than what one can say of our film industry today).

It is most unfortunate that we in Sri Lanka had to count on India as our foremost cultural influence – unfortunate not because of Indian culture itself, but because many of our own artists, moved by the slick exterior of that culture, expressed themselves through superficial gloss that was genuine only as products of chic advertising photography. Nowhere was this truer than in cinema. Dr. Peries has rightly said that our film industry had a false start. Kadawunu Poronduwa (The Broken Promise, 1947) was our first sound film. It was shot completely in a studio in Madras, and was filled with melodramatic cadences only Mrs. Amanda Mckittrick-Ros could have equalled in bathos.

The entire first decade of our cinema continued this sorry trend, reusing old formulas and adapting Indian stories that would never have fitted the canvas of Lankan life. Even the titles of these films – Kapati Arakshakaya (The Cunning Guardian), Perelena Iranama (Dashed Dreams), Sangavunu Pirithura (The Concealed Letter) – reveal their essential, glossy artifice.

But from here onwards, we differed a little from India. Long before Satyajit Ray, India produced Bimal Roy, who despite having commercial tendencies in his films (Do Bigha Zameen, Madhumati) was, I have read, influenced heavily by neo-realism. Sri Lanka never produced a Bimal Roy. We continued, on the contrary, with the “slick”, manufactured brand of realism only opium factories could have equalled in strength.

In a way, a similarity can be drawn between Peries and Ray. Bengali cinema too, like our own, was stultified and desultory by the time Ray started to make Pather Panchali. Like our cinema, Bengali films at the time consisted partly of “to the letter” adaptations of popular novels. Eager to exploit the racial sentiments of our people, commercial film producers churned out adaptation after adaptation of propagandist, Ros-like passionate outcries of anti-Western, mild chauvinism. I am happy to tell you that most of these films, or at least certain sequences from them, can be watched for free on YouTube. They are actually quite insightful for any student who wishes to examine our cinema.

The odds against Ray, therefore, were roughly the same as those against Peries. Rekawa, his first film, came barely a year after Pather Panchali had been made. No two films, coming from the same subcontinent, could have resembled each other more. Pather Panchali went to Cannes. So did Rekawa. Of course Ray’s debut was a hit at the box-office, while Rekawa failed (our audience at the time expected nothing short of opium dreams at the cinemas – this was clearly not something they were after). Derek Elli later called it as being “every bit as important a first film as Pather Panchali”. It is astonishing to realize that neither director knew of what the other was doing at the time – perhaps the only example in film history of such a thing happening.

But here too, I think, a difference can be drawn. Ray’s efforts were vindicated after a matter of three or four films, and audiences grew to love his approach to the cinema, as did local critics. I am not so sure with regard to Peries. Ray’s films derived support from the box-office – that is not to say they were big hits, but rather that they managed to recoup their costs respectably from Bengal (“Whatever comes from abroad is extra,” Ray once said) – whereas our critical fraternity and audiences (I am not disparaging them) were unforgivably slow in their appreciation of Peries.

This explains why, between 1957 and 1967, he made only five films, whereas Ray had made 14. Not because Peries was more concerned with the quality than quantity of his output – however valid that may be in his context – but because, being a maker of serious, un-commercial films in Sri Lanka, he was being ignored by an audience that still clung onto glossy remakes of South Indian films.

One of our ablest critics, Philip Cooray, called him the “lonely artist”. If he was, which we are sure of, it was because his preoccupation was to communicate with his countrymen, his compatriots, through a more refined form of art – not the sort of refinement one sees in a film by, say, Bresson or Kubrick (two directors who shared the same film-to-year ratio of Peries), but a refinement that asked its audiences to appreciate a more indigenous, genuinely felt cinema. A cinema of the heart was what he had been aiming at all this time, and yet, owing to politics and audience prejudices, I do not think – and I am slightly troubled by this – that he ever achieved his potential. He came nearest to it in Nidhanaya, but since then his films never reached the standard set by that remarkable masterpiece.

Many, including me, are convinced that the only Asian filmmaker who remained close to Satyajit Ray’s craft was Peries. This is not because other filmmakers had nothing in common with him. But in terms of pace, style, attitude and a willingness to assimilate Western humanism, as Ray himself once remarked, Lester James Peries was his “closest relative East of the Suez”. Ghatak and Sen were his compatriots in Bengal, true, but both differ from him in their near obsessive, conscious examination of social issues, which often – as in Ghatak’s Ajantrik or Sen’s Bhuvan Shome – takes precedence to a robust, humanist approach to their characters.

Kurosawa, one is tempted to call Ray’s closest ally – particularly owing to his willingness to take in Western tradition – but his dictum “movies must move”, his penchant for violence and his continual use of universal themes make him share little with Ray, whose films are noted for their slow pace, their absence of violence, and their use of regional and simple themes, at second glance.

And as for Ozu and Mizoguchi, their almost anachronistic refusal to imbibe Western film technique – as witness a film like Ugetsu Monogatari and its flowing, scroll-like use of the camera – makes them, again, differ from Ray’s liberal synthesis of Orient and Occident (indeed, after Tagore, many consider Ray as the greatest artist Bengal ever produced for that very same reason). This leaves us with Peries, who in all respects was more likely than not Ray’s closest friend in the East. It shall always be so, I very much suspect.

At this point I would like to make a little suggestion to you, dear Sir. Nidhanaya is definitively Lester James Peries’ most atypical film. Because of this, it is difficult to assess his oeuvre, and his attitude to filmmaking. Judging them purely on Nidhanaya’s merits would be like judging Hitchcock’s on The Trouble with Harry, or Clouzot’s on Miquette et sa mère. Admittedly traces of his slow-paced humanism, and his notable lack of concern for mundane social issues, are present in it; but I can with all frankness say that in no other film by Peries does its protagonist commit suicide at the end, which is what, if you may remember, happens in Nidhanaya.

This is the closest Peries ever got to being described as a cynic. Out of all his films, Nidhanaya is the only one in which its main character realizes that he had a capacity for change right throughout, but failed to make use of it, instead driving him onto an irrationality that would only mean death. Shakespeare immediately jumps into my mind when thinking of him – Willie Abeynayaka is more Othello than Macbeth, purely because, like Willie and the Ola Leaf manuscript that is the root of his murderous obsession, Othello was moved into killing Desdemona by a jealousy rooted in nothing more than hearsay and irrationality. Peries’ films had hitherto ended on hopeful notes, with their characters always finding reconciliation.

Perhaps this was owing to the prescient vision with which he made Nidhanaya. In his own words, it is his most controversial. It was an indictment on the political regime of the day, and came at a time when revolution was seething underneath. Maoist and Marxist radicals were beginning to incite unemployed youth to violence as a response to an increasingly overbearing State.

Unlike other socially and politically “aware” filmmakers, however, Peries does not reserve criticism for the government alone in his film: the character of Willie Abeynayaka, who dabbles in superstition to escape his financial troubles, can just as validly symbolize the graduates themselves, who dabbled in extreme ideology before violence would overpower them.

It is ironic, moreover, that within a year of Nidhanaya’s release, one of the bloodiest insurrections in the history of our country happened. It left more than a thousand dead, many lying in the streets by the dozen. In this way, I feel, Peries was more prescient about the things to come, as one would say, than even some of our most avowedly political filmmakers and artists around that time.

It is also ironic that some of those same so-called political artists leisurely bite away at Peries when given the opportunity to do so – “elitist” and “indifferent” being the two commonest adjectives they use to describe his films. Coming from artists (I myself have interviewed some of them, and have, so to speak, caught them in the act) who seem more concerned with portraying their attitude through abstruse symbols and political slogans than actual human beings, this is not surprising – but this does not pare down my disappointment. Another unfortunate tendency amongst some of our artists, predominantly singers, but also filmmakers, is to disparage one another’s career with personal malice.

The exception, towering above them all, is Peries. I do not know whether you have personally talked with him, dear Sir, but doing so for 30 minutes straight will make you realize what a modest – an intensely modest – man he is. Neither submissive nor overbearing, he almost sounds, and looks, as though from an altogether different era. Like the true Oriental artist (here I quote Ray again), he is all “calm without, fire within”. His ability to make fun at himself, take offence at nothing, makes him perhaps the least self-cantered artist in a country where, unfortunately, filmmakers, vocalists, composers, playwrights and the like all jab one another to boost their egos.

Unfortunately, however, his being the exception has not spared him from jabs by other artists. No doubt influenced by the Czechs and the Nouvelle Vague, these politically inclined directors I spoke of earlier disparaged Peries as a “Big Papa”, a purveyor of what the French called “Cinema de Papa”. In fact an almost literal translation of that phrase was used to describe him – “Appochchi Ge Cinemawa” (Cinema of the Papa) was a pamphlet, I’ve been told, that was issued at the premiere of a film by one of these directors. Fashionable and easy, but plainly imitative and artless.

This ruthless, uncalled for disparagement did not even escape a collection of his own essays, the foreword to which was written by a noted political activist who, for no good or constructive reason, wrote point-blank that she “did not like some of his films”. Perhaps in a journal or a book of criticism that would have done, but in a foreword to a collection of his essays? Highly uncalled for, but perhaps such “activists” derive a fetishistic pleasure from disparaging his films.

Peries himself once told me, wittily and not without humour, that he was considered a “roadblock” by them during the 1970s. This may well explain the turn of the critical tide that greeted his post-Nidhanaya period, an era where political turmoil meant that films about middle-class life, families and individuals (which were what he made, and continued to make) were fashionably unfashionable.

Personal malice and politicking, of course, have always been impediments to any creative artistic resurgence, and we in Sri Lanka, sad to say, are in such a situation. One could, for instance, spot a hint of truth in the Cahiers du Cinéma’s criticism of Clouzot: after all, it is said that the great man himself, though naturally embittered, accepted their refusal to take his films seriously. Laudable though such criticism may have been, could the same have been said of our own self-labelled Cahiers’s criticism of Peries? I for once doubt it. Who, after seeing Nidhanaya, can do otherwise?

This brings me to the third subject of my letter. Mr Scorsese, I know for a fact that, partly owing to reasons highlighted above, the cinema of my country has never gotten the sort of international recognition it would have deserved. There are perhaps hundreds of films here that, owing to momentary glitches sustained alongside brilliant sequences (an essentially Sri Lankan flaw, I’m afraid), have never reached the dizzying heights they aspired to. Within Sri Lanka’s 67 years of cinema, probably only around 50 or 60 films have been made that deserve really serious attention. Lester James Peries’ films, of course, are at the forefront of these.

Unfortunately, very few filmmakers and critics abroad looked at Sinhala cinema with at least passing interest – Roger Manvell, Donald Richie (who organised the 1970 MoMA restrospect written of earlier), Pierre Rissient, and of course Lindsay Anderson, who was a close friend of Peries were some of them. I feel that some great masterpieces from our cinema have, hence, been missed by the world. They are our contribution to world cinema, and that they have been missed, and not just missed, but wilfully neglected, by our own people, leaves one little to hope for. The sort of neglect accorded, say, to Ghatak’s films, of which A River Called Titas was restored last year, thanks again to your wonderful organisation.

Peries has made 20 films. With the possible exception of two or three of them, all his other films, I believe, would deeply interest you as a passionate lover of the cinema, as well as a maker of films. Nidhanaya, for instance, was one of three films he made for a major film production company (Ceylon Theatres). Taken together, they represent Peries at his apex, the kind of work one could expect from a filmmaker who, when provided with freedom and financing, could turn even the most glossy stories into works of art that could belong only to the cinema.

Golu Hadawatha
Golu Hadawatha (The Silent Heart), made in 1968, was his first, and it is counted as being the most genuine love story filmed in this country. Based on a sentimental romance novel, it was the film that vindicated Peries in the eyes of the public, for it was his first box-office hit. Like Ray’s most heartfelt films, it is at once universal and regional – beneath the nuances of emotion and feeling that could be caught only with Sinhala people (we are, though chatty, a people that show feeling through the subtlest gestures), its essential human aspect would appeal to every cinemagoer, from every part of the world. Ray himself is said to have preferred it to his other films.

Akkara Paha (Five Acres), made in 1969, was the second, and may well be his least appreciated here. Once again, the reason for this was politics, pure and simple. It eluded audiences chiefly because Marxists saw it as an elitist apologetic for the resettlement programs initiated by the government of the day. The plot of the film, briefly, traces the downfall of a peasant and ambitious family, brought about by a weak but essentially kind-hearted son. When their resources are stretched to the limit, they are “saved”, in a sense, by this resettlement scheme, although at the cost of travelling to the far outreaches of the country. Were it not for the MoMA retrospective (where it was screened), I doubt it would have ever been appreciated by critics here at all.

Of his other works, Gamperaliya, as I said before, was the first Sinhala film to be restored by foreigners. Considered his first real masterpiece (his first two films, though daring in their approach to rural life, failed because they betrayed the director’s lack of experience in their subject-matter), it won awards at New Delhi and Mexico, and, in a government conducted poll in 1997, was listed as the second greatest film made here, right after Nidhanaya. Based on perhaps the most significant novel ever written in Sri Lanka, it traces, in a manner nearly akin to the most poetic and rural of Renoir’s films, the downfall of the village aristocracy with the onset of commerce. Unfortunately no 4k restoration of it has yet been done.

Delovak Athara (Between Two Worlds), which is my personal favourite, and which too was screened at the Museum, was Peries’ third original story. Indeed, his biggest strength – and this was largely owing to the talented scriptwriters he had at his disposal – was his ability to concoct original stories. It proved what an auteur like Peries could do with the resources of the cinema even with the thinnest of plots. After all, isn’t that a hallmark which Godard was famous for (as an additional point, a critic here at the time described it as the closest our cinema had gotten to the Nouvelle Vague)? Its main incident – an accident – is one around which the entire story, its set of characters and every other incident revolves. Every “vantage point” in the film, so to speak, can be approached only from the accident.

The incident, in other words, serves as a sort of springboard for the development of the characters. Its lack of popularity abroad, however, was owing to the milieu it was based on. City-life (the film’s setting was in Colombo) was, back then, not much preferred by an international audience that had come to expect village-rooted stories from our country. For good or for bad, it did not find much of a following abroad. But it contains perhaps the finest use of photography one can hope to find in any of his films. Watching it, one is reminded of the most poetic of Renoir’s films, for its sympathetic, witty and at times “conscious” attitude towards its protagonist, who became, in my view, the very first “Everyman” in the history of our cinema.

The protagonist’s qualms over having caused the accident – and the fact that his parents implicate their servant-boy to save him – would have done quite well for a social drama (or melodrama), but Peries wisely steered from that territory. Locally it was a mild success at the box-office, but some young critics here, erroneously, wrote that it had plagiarised from Juan Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist, which, as you may well remember, also includes an upper-class man facing his conscience after killing a man on the road.

Rest assured that no such plagiarism could have been possible: Peries was too original an artist to do that. The only element common to both films, ironically, was the accident itself, but while in Bardem’s melodrama-neo-realist masterpiece it is used as a sort of indictment on bourgeois society, Peries never lets it go beyond being a tool to examine his society from a humanist, sympathetic point of view.

Why I say it is Renoirean is not because he has imitated his style, but watching its characters breathe, talk and act, and its remarkable use of the camera, one is instantly reminded of a film like, say, La Règle du Jeu. In fact there is a sequence in the film, towards the end, when the camera up-closes on the protagonist’s face. The effect of it, I can safely say, is quite similar to that of the close-up of Marcel Dallio’s face by the calliope in La Règle du Jeu. In both instances the camera is as delicate as a painterly canvas: it records, but does not express too much.

Dallio’s face, as you will remember, was that of a man overcome by pride for his latest musical acquisition, but who is too modest to express himself (it is said that Renoir had to shoot multiple takes to capture the look on his face perfectly). Similarly in Delovak Athara, the camera in this sequence is used to highlight the protagonist’s confusion: he is troubled enough as he is by the accident, but now his qualms grow sharper with the servant-boy being implicated in his crime.

At the same time, however, he has grown too pampered and served upon to merely go up to the Police Station and confess: hence the “two worlds” of the title. It may well have had the most poetic use of the camera in all his films, Nidhanaya notwithstanding (with Nidhanaya one is reminded of Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, that is to say, its noir-like feel, particularly strange because, like Lewin’s adaptation of Wilde’s novel, Nidhanaya cannot be classed under “film-noir” at all).

Lastly, Ran Salu (The Saffron Robes). It is, admittedly, Peries’ most melodramatic film, and there is a good reason for it – it was his only film whose script and dialogues, not to mention plot, had all been written up by someone else: he had no say in them at all. The writer of its story was P. K. D. Seneviratne, a poet from the Colombo school, which had been famous for its Hardy-like evocative praises of village life over city life. Their romantic conception of the village was reflected in Ran Salu, which, though set in Colombo, still championed rustic simplicity. It recounts the gradual transformation of a city-bred girl into a virtuous woman influenced by Buddhism.

If the story sounds lacking in authenticity, and seems too contrived in its championing of Buddhism, well, it may be that it suits the structure of a simple morality play. There are two antagonists – man and woman – who, Westernised, indulge in amorality before the girl, made pregnant by the man, is ruined by his cruelty. In the end the girl is won over to the nunnery by the protagonist, and the story ends on a hopeful, if not spiritually reflective, note: in all, a blend of religion, sex and morality.

Not that the film lacked any appeal. Though it wasn’t a notable critical success at home, it won the Gandhi Prize at New Delhi, and would later be brought for broadcasting by Irish television. And though it has not been restored yet, the THIS Buddhist Film Festival, in Thailand, did convert its 35mm reel into a watchable Beta version some years ago.

These are just some of his films, dear Sir, that I firmly believe will sustain your interest as a follower of cinema. By no means am I making a plea for them to be restored immediately, but, more pertinently, for you to be notified of their existence, for only by watching them all can you at least hazard a guess as to their director’s style and vision. Of course, their director has been forgotten by some, but today, fortunately, he emerges as the true, much-loved giant that he had always been.

It seems unfortunate, moreover, that his apex should have been reached at a time when the New Wave had become fashionable, the results of which, for him, have been less than satisfactory. By contrast, some of the Cahiers’s most treasured icons included Renoir, Bresson and Howard Hawks. It was not blind adulation, mind you, but adulation manifested with reason. No such valid reason existed for our New Wave’s rejection of Peries, except perhaps their view of his craft being “elitist”: in our country, it is fashionable to attach such labels to filmmakers whose films demand even a modicum of sympathy and honesty from the audience.

Indeed, the cameraman of Nidhanaya, who himself was a maker of glossy, Madras-styled commercial films, once described Peries as a “Hollywood artist” to me. Normally that wouldn’t mean much, except that, even today, our directors prefer to follow Bollywood than Hollywood. I do not call for them to blindly follow either, but nor would I want them to ignore what is undoubtedly the place where art and commerce intermixed so successfully as did nowhere else, and Tinsel-town, for all its studio and star systems and its “go for the money” attitude, has on the whole been far more agreeable to auteurs than Bollywood.

I feel that I have been somewhat lavish in my praise of Lester James Peries. Well, this is not because of a nostalgic reverie or age-old conservatism on my part towards him or the past in general, but because in no other country has the Father of its cinema been so isolated, so lonely, so underappreciated, as in here. One of his bon mots has been that the Indian film, which for most of us here still remains a source of perpetual pleasure, is “neither Indian nor film”, a witty saying which not many will find appealing. Or, as Satyajit Ray once wrote, India “took one of the greatest inventions of the West... and promptly cut it down to size.”

As I have written before, we in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) did the same with our cinema too. Why? Such a thing, Mr Scorsese, seems to be a phenomenon peculiar to the South Asia – and yet we know that South Asia has had as enriched and vital an artistic heritage as Greco-Roman civilisation. Was it not South Asia that produced Kabir, Tagore, Ravi and Uday Shankar, the Ajanta Caves, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Mughal architecture, and of course Satyajit Ray? Why, I ask myself at times, was it that the West’s most profound artistic invention since the sonata form in music could be mutilated by so cultured a people?

To answer this, let me rephrase my question – why did the cinema, in the silent era at least, develop so profoundly in the United States, a country which, viewed dispassionately, has had fewer centuries of civilisation and history than any in here? The answer, for me, remains that owing to its lack of a proper literary tradition, America was so vitally able to transform the most infantile of all the arts into one of the most far-reaching inventions of the 20th century. When sound did emerge, it was not ironic that a country most noted for its artistic sophistication should have continued this transformation.

Admittedly, with the emergence of various experimenters in this new art form in France, the cinema became more regional, less universal. Buster Keaton was universal. So were Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. I doubt such a thing can be said of Octave from La Règle du Jeu, or Edward G. Robinson from Little Caesar.

It was true that Keaton’s and Chaplin’s milieu was based in contemporary, urban settings unique to their countries: but with the admission of sound, the need to emphasize this regionalism, and the transmuting from the universal to the particular, became more pronounced. The fact that the artists who emerged in this age were human beings, pretty much like you and I – grossly flawed, but still redeemable – would have invested them with a wide appeal, but even that was constricted by the setting they were made to perform in.

What of South Asia? Unlike in France, where music halls, theatre halls, concert halls and even vaudevilles and cabarets afforded its people an array of entertainments, here in South Asia, despite its civilisation, we did not have, and indeed could not afford, such a thing. The closest thing to a theatre-hall culture India ever conjured up, which held a wide appeal, was the Jatra play. Later, the South Indians and the Parsees transplanted their dramatic forms in here.

What the former exported here was christened “Nadagam”: I say “christened” because this crude form of drama derived slight inspiration from Christian missionaries, who found in it the perfect vehicle through which to preach the story of Christ, and the Gospels, to illiterate villagers. By the 20th century, however, all it had succeeded in becoming was a grotesque hybrid – a form of theatre that attempted to be genuine in its depiction of rural life, but which was constantly thwarted in that attempt by its own failings, not least of which was a tendency to over-exaggerate even the most mundane incident in a play.

Like in India, no proper cultured form of entertainment existed for us in Sri Lanka. The cinema, hence, became even a form of ritual for the hundreds of thousands of illiterate villagers, to whom it had become both affordable and mysterious. This was further intensified by the fact that very many businessmen, intent on making the most out of this innovative art form, formed so called “mobile picture halls” that travelled from one village to another, almost like a circus. In fact, one of our ablest filmmakers here, Sugathapala Senerath Yapa (who, like Peries, was lambasted by the political film movement here during the 1970s) became influenced by the cinema through these same picture halls.

To most villagers, undoubtedly, the cinema would have been the most magical thing in their lives. How, we can imagine them asking themselves, could real people be caught making real speeches in locations (I won’t say real locations, because they were shot in studios) and then, for the second time, be screened for us to see and hear in all their glory and mannerisms on a big screen. It was unfortunate, at this stage, that what the vast majority of villagers got to see were Bollywood offerings – with the occasional Bengali product as well.

The tastes of these villagers, understandably, became more pleiban, vulgar, you could say, and the result of all this was that, when the first filmmaker of this country (B. A. W. Jayamanne) set out to make films, he invariably went for the Bollywood-influenced melodrama (it did not help, moreover, that his films were all adaptations of his own plays, all of which were essentially “nadagam” in style and speech). “Go for the money” was what would have worked in his mind from film number 1.

Well, for the entire first decade of our cinema, the trend and pattern of our films had already been blessedly decided by this man. Together with his brother and sister-in-law (who appeared as the chief actors in his films), he concocted story after story, all revolving around the same theme – man meets woman, croons ballads of love in almost every other scene, becomes cruelly estranged from her by external forces, and finally reconciles when the bad guys are routed and thwarted.

This was, of course, until Peries (who once told me that Citizen Kane moved him to filmmaking proper – he was an arts critic at the time) came around to shoot a film completely outdoors, with stage actors and non-professionals, and with a limited, shoestring budget. It has been nearly 60 years since Rekawa was made, and Peries’ erstwhile dream – the setting up of a National Archives – has now been realised. Even if preservation may have given way to an era of restoration, never mind, for without the impetus for preservation there would have been no talk of restoration in the first damn place!

Sri Lanka has a serious cinematic heritage behind her, but all too often – Peries himself has not escaped this – serious artists have been subjected to malice, jealousy, spite and the occasional, unjustified diatribe (there was a director here, whom I interviewed, who once claimed that neo-realism – which he said had all but died in the world today – was taken on by Ray and Peries at a time when it had perished in continental Europe: an irony, given that he himself stated that his first film had striking similarities to Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, which as you will remember is nothing but neo-realism from frame number 1!).

I do not know, dear Sir, what the situation in your country’s film industry is, but I suspect that, Day of the Locust, Sunset Blvd and All About Eve notwithstanding, it is not as prone to jealousy and ill-will – not to mention narrow-mindedness – as ours is. Viewed in this regard, I suppose the fact that there not having been any serious attempt at writing a book on his craft is unsurprising. The sad truth is, no one seems bothered to do so, serious filmmaker and writer or not. The exception, which seems refreshing to even hear of, was a book entitled Lester James Peries: Life and Work, which unfortunately was a half-finished affair owing to its author’s sudden death.

A more complete book – Lester by Lester – is remarkably full of personal reminiscences and experiences, which I know will prove fruitful for any lover of our cinema, but does little to seriously examine his craft, in the same breadth as, say, Robinson’s The Inner Eye. There is so much in this grand, humble maestro’s work that simple shrieks for attention and study – which would even merit the attention of a University dissertation – but for some reason has eluded most of us

Films have now become, as we know, part of our cultural subconscious. No documentary, however well narrated or filmed, can compare with the realism imbibed by City Lights, The General and Modern Times. For what the documentary lacks – spirit, élan – the so-called “fiction film” has in abundance. This is not to discount the influence that documentaries have exerted on such visionary filmmakers as Resnais, Ray or even Clouzot. Indeed, even Lester James Peries, before turning to filmmaking, worked in our country’s Government Film Unit, where he came under the influence of John Grierson and Ralph Keene.

This work as a documentarian, with its painful fidelity to locales, manifests itself quite abundantly in his later films. There has only been one filmmaker in the history of the medium who conjoined lyricism, cinema and documentary all in one, and Robert Flaherty, I have been told, is one director Peries has gone to again and again. Renoir he counts as another subconscious influence; Ozu too, as well as Ray – but in the final analysis, he is himself.

Grierson and Keene notwithstanding, however, I doubt that Peries’ humanism, and his attitude to human relationships and emotion, could have been influenced by his work as a documentarian. There is too much of imagination and creativity in him to suggest such a thing.

We in South Asia have a proud cultural backdrop against us. Something went wrong, however, when businessmen decided to turn the West’s most far-reaching art form into a tool for earning money. The results of this are still apparent today: on the one hand, you have stories which, no matter how appealing and innovative they may seem, are replicas of the same formula, and on the other, filmmakers who have managed, in their quest for overturning every form of cultural convention there is in this country, to let technique supersede content in their films.

What most Lankans look for, dear Sir – and their intelligence as cinemagoers has indeed risen since B. A. W. Jayamanne’s days – are 1. a vigorous attitude to human relationships; 2. a robust awareness of the country’s cultural fabric; and 3. respect, however slight it may be, for that culture. I am not suggesting that filmmakers here should tread the line of least resistance like timid ants – which is more than what one can say of our commercial filmmakers – but that they should be more aware that imitating Jean-Luc Godard or Alain Resnais or even Francois Truffaut will bring them everything except the one thing without which no artist can survive for long: public acceptance.

This acceptance over here must, necessarily, come not from France, or Germany, or even the Maldives, but from Sri Lanka. No amount of postmodern yarns or metaphysical abstractions can hide dishonesty of treatment, and no amount of controversy parading as the “truth” can subvert what our audience expects of any artist. Paraphrasing what Ray once said, “de Sica, not Andy Warhol, must be our filmmakers’ inspiration.”

Life is art, art life: this I have always believed. After all, isn’t that what your own films – Mean Streets, Raging Bull, The Departed – engage in: the presentation of life, however gritty it may be, rooted in a particular milieu, yet transcending it at times to show us an aspect of human beings that is at once regional and universal? Plain imitation, like plain refusal to dabble in foreign art forms, can only lead to a film culture that withers away into the dust. The biggest lesson, I think, that our self-labelled “serious” filmmakers are yet to learn. Will they ever learn it? I sincerely hope so. Their biggest teacher – how else can I conclude my letter to you? – can only be Lester James Peries.

Thanking you,
Yours Faithfully,

Uditha Devapriya.