Monday, November 3, 2014

A Tribute to Sumitra Peries

The cinema has certainly changed. During the silent years the woman was a sentimental sufferer, whose plight won both heart and mind. How differently do today’s films treat their women – how very much the opposite! They are still heroines, true, but gone are any traces of silent fortitude: they have relinquished their silence and have become defiant rebels. Mae Clark got her face squashed with grapefruit in The Public Enemy back in 1932: today’s women are epitomised in Thelma and Louise, where both its heroines defiantly flee the law after killing a rapist.

Today’s women do not bear their suffering for long: they rebel in their own, special way. And today’s filmmakers win acclaim for depicting their rebelliousness. Filmmakers who have bridged the gap between these two kinds of women – who have remained in middle territory – are not hard to find, and from those who have, we can proudly claim Sumitra Peries as our own. She celebrates her 79th birthday tomorrow, and, from the looks of it, she is just as active and determined as she has always been.

I am at a slight loss as to how I should begin this little tribute to her. Convention would demand that I do so with her childhood. That should be the case. After all, snippets of her childhood and teenage years – her upbringing under the shadow of a powerful political family (the Gunawardena clan hailing from Boralugoda); her education at Visakha Vidyalaya (where she was branded a “leftist”); her voyage along the Mediterranean in search of her pipe-smoking brother (one which certainly raised eyebrows!); and her schooling at the London School of Film Technique towards the end of the 1950s (the only woman enrolled there at the time) – would fit a Hollywood scrapbook!

Sumitra felt a vague inclination towards the cinema as a teenager: sailing across the Mediterranean in search of her brother, Gamini Gunawardena, she felt her heart stirred by photography, what she called the “urge to recapture”. Reminiscing about those months she would say: “The European sojourn infused me with enough inspiration to last a lifetime of cinematography.” Like Stanley Kubrick and Jean Renoir, it was still imagery – impressions of life caught within single, still frames – that would move her into filmmaking.

That voyage would be the first of two incidents that would figure in her later career: the other being, of course, her encounter with one very determined and insightful filmmaker in 1957 at Cannes. The film was Rekava, and her acquaintance with its director, Lester James Peries, would later befit its English title – “The Line of Destiny”. From then on – starting with Peries’ second feature, Sandesaya (1960) – she would flank both his craft and his life: they would marry on June 19, 1964 at All Saints’ Church in Borella.

Wickrama Bogoda and Anula Karunatilake
from Golu Hadawatha
Acting primarily as Peries’ editor, Sumitra’s craftsmanship during these pre-directorial years was meticulous, precise: one can even infer the influence of still photography, with its emphasis on the “right effect or impression at the right moment”, on it: as can be seen, for instance, in the sequence of the protagonist coming across his lover on the carousel in Golu Hadawatha, or the wordless sequence by the mirror in Ran Salu. Music and editing conjoin seamlessly in these scenes, and that this was not limited to just Peries’ films was proved by her work in Bakmaha Deege (1969), for which she would win the Critics Award for Best Editing.

All this, of course, predated her directorial career. It was in 1978 when, handpicked by Sumitra herself, a young Vasanthi Chathurani quietly moved us to sympathy in Gehenu Lamai. At a time of fervent social revolt, Sumitra’s women battled against, and often yielded to, conventional bondage: a motif that binds all her films, something which she would often be criticised for. Even in her most commercial film, Ganga Addara (1980), she emphasised this aspect, epitomised by that final scene of the heroine (played again by Chathurani) drowning herself in the same river by which she frolicked as a child with her lover, and by which that same love was denied to her by her father: a fitting symbol of female suffering in the face of male dominion.

Sumitra Peries has directed 10 films overall, including her most recent, Vaishnavee, a magic realist tale that is yet to see the light of day. With each film one can notice their heroines becoming less confined and more defiant. In Yahalu Yeheli (1982), for instance, she did away with the woman as silent sufferer altogether: the heroine (Nadeeka Gunasekera) at the end of the story openly disobeys her father (Tony Ranasinghe) to help out with her community, in stark contrast to Chathurani in Gehenu Lamai, whose only reaction to injustice is to bemoan her cruel fate.

Sagara Jalaya (1988), undoubtedly her bitterest story, depicts a woman who discovers the hypocrisy of everyone around her after her husband, a farmer who had been the envy of the village, dies. And as with Gehenu Lamai, here the suffering borne by the woman spills over to her child too: and that final scene, notable for its absence of any music, is all the more harsh because we realise that, saddened by his mother’s plight, the child can do little more than to write a letter to his uncle in town asking for a job, so that he can ease her burden.

All her films are noted for examining their women in diverse ways: sometimes in quiet pianissimos, sometimes in raging fortissimos. But her sympathy for them remains intact. Well, 79 years will have passed tomorrow, and, with credits both as editor and director, she has entered other fields as well. She was head of production for Worldview International from 1988 to 1990, and served on the Board of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies at Kelaniya University during the early 1990s. More impressively, however, she was once our Ambassador to France, an appointment that fittingly coincided with the cinema’s 100th birth anniversary (the year was 1995).

She has won more plaudits and recognition than that, of course: Diplomas at the Moscow (for Yahalu Yeheli), Tokyo (for Ganga Addara and Sagara Jalaya), Nantes (for Loku Duwa, 1998), and London (Duwata Mawaka Misa, 1997) Film Festivals; OCIC Awards for Yahalu Yeheli and Sagara Jalaya; the Rana Thisara Lifetime Achievement Award (1993) in recognition of a lifetime dedicated to her country’s cinema; and the Deauville Film Festival Golden Lotus Award (2001) for her contribution to Asian cinema. She has won much more than these: spatial constraints, however, have limited a complete list.

But perhaps the most perennial acclaim she can win are the words of Professor Carlo Fonseka – the “Mother of the Father of the Sinhala film”. If you can’t understand what that could mean, then I suggest you immerse yourself more in the history of our cinema. For me, that is the profoundest summation of a woman whose close bond with her husband has not deterred her from carving out an independent, free-ranging career of her own – truly, thus, the Mother of not just the Sinhala film, but also of its very own Father!

And, on eve of her 79th birthday, let us all put our hands together and wish: “Chiran Jayathu!”