Friday, November 7, 2014

The Adamant Artist

Lester James Peries
It has been more than 50 years since Lester James Peries made his third film, Gamperaliya. Since that time a lot has happened – armed insurrections, political turmoil, a civil war, and of course the inevitable changes of attitude from one generation to the other. Lester remains a potent force in this country, notwithstanding all those cacophonies, for the vision he so painstakingly maintained in his films in them all: take one of his earlier films and compare them with a more contemporary work, and you will find only small, hardly noticeable differences.

He has been called the “lonely artist”. But, as someone once noted, aren’t all artists, working from a genuine sense of art, lonely until their audiences realise their worth? To me a more fitting title would be the “adamant artist” – what better phrase, after all, can sum up a filmmaker who for 50 years has never once swerved from his vision for the sake of novelty and experiment?

But while fixing this label or that on him maybe easy, it is no light task to find out what exactly it is that binds all his films together. In fact, I’m inclined to believe there are several. When compared with most of today’s directors – Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton, the Wachowski Brothers – whose motifs can be at once identified from the way they’ve been displayed for all to see, Lester is a filmmaker whose style can elude us at times. Why?

For the simple reason that, unlike Nolan’s emotionless, cold psychology of characters, Lester is a filmmaker who is less concerned with on-the-surface, immediate plotlines, instead focusing on the innermost core of his stories. The Batman Trilogy, so noted for its innovative spark and style, seems to totter and limp along when compared to the intricate nuances of emotion caught in Lester’s films.

With his films one is immediately reminded of the most sublime of symphonies – Beethoven’s Fifth, for instance – where the key motif, played every few minutes or so, is relayed to us so subtly, that unless we crane our ears to listen, we can easily miss it. And yet, without it, the whole composition can lose its meaning.

“The greatest musical instrument we have in this country”. That was Lester writing on Amaradeva. Well, the same can be said of him, if we are to change it and describe him as the “greatest camera” we can ever get – even today. “You feel as if the camera was eavesdropping on life, catching people unawares, capturing forever their … shifts of feeling”. That was Lester writing on Satyajit Ray. Well, the same can be said of him, if we are to accord him the status of a camera’s delicate vision.

But what exactly makes up his cinema? The question, vague to some, is, I think, best answered by examining the patterns that bind his films together. If I were asked to name one such pattern, it would be this – an economy of emotion, which I think underscores sympathy for his characters.

Delovak Athara
Sometimes – as with Sandeshaya and Weera Puran Appu – he delved into a superficially romantic universe where good combated with evil. But in almost every other film, his characters are essentially redeemable, though still tainted with flaws. There are instances in his films where seemingly “good” characters suddenly reveal their darker side. To me this is best shown in the character of Piyal, from Gamperaliya, who in a fit of jealousy declares heartlessly to Nanda that, if it wasn’t for his money, she would never have been able to perform the last rites for her dead husband.

Cézanne had a lifelong obsession with the apple in his paintings. Van Gogh had one with cypresses. Well, Lester James Peries had his career-long obsession too: with the family. For him it was the emotional centre that guided his stories. One need only look at his films to see how indispensable it is to their plots. The protagonist’s dilemma in Delovak Athara is intensified by a doting mother and father; the emotional imbalance of the male lover in Golu Hadawatha is at least partly soothed by the unconditional love of a brother and sister-in-law; and the degradation of traditional values in Kaliyugaya is highlighted by the deteriorating relationship between Nanda and Piyal.

It's no small wonder that, in Awaragira and Yuganthaya – two films that were slightly criticised in their time – the family becomes disintegrated and alienating to its characters, which in turn underscores the faulty lines that break apart, sometimes violently (Awaragira ends with two murders), at the end. For Lester the family was indispensable to his stories. Without it, he seemed to be saying, no world would survive for long. It is a testament to this obsession with it that his last two films, Wekanda Walauwwa and Ammawarune, were enriched and almost beatifying in their portrayal of the mother, the emotional centre of the Sri Lankan family.

He had his detractors, of course – critics who saw in his concern with middle-class families and individuals the mark of an indifferent elitist; audiences that grew irritated by long passages of silence; and certain directors who saw in his concern for individuals a shying away from more socially-pronged storylines. To paraphrase a saying of Hitchcock, Lester did not seem to them to have gone beyond his usual proscenium arch.

Only the foggiest mindsets, it can safely be said, could have moved them to such conclusions. Certainly, long passages of silence abound in his films. But they are instrumental to his vision of the “minutest changes in sensibility” making up the “true drama” of cinema. For him, the gentle look of tenderness, the subtlest change in mood, reveals more about his characters’ intentions than any expressive or emotional outbursts (that seems to make up most of what goes for “good” cinema here today).

I can think of so many examples from his films – the carousel sequence in Golu Hadawatha, the heroine’s transformation into a virtuous woman by the mirror in Ran Salu, and the waltz in Nidhanaya. These reveal the innermost core of the characters in them, be it Sugath’s feeling of betrayal at seeing his former lover riding on the carousel with another man, or Willie Abeynayaka’s growing tenderness for his wife in that three-minute dance sequence. As no words are registered in these instances, I think it is best to describe them as belonging purely to the cinema: no play or novel could have replicated their intensity.

If I may go further, I would even deign to call these sequences as examples of Pure Cinema – where all the resources of the film medium are used to awaken an un-definable, almost spiritually transcendental feeling in all of us. It is no small wonder that his films share much with the tradition of Satyajit Ray and Yasujiro Ozu – two directors who, like Lester, portrayed evocatively and sympathetically the lives of the people they featured in their stories. The same, it can be said, goes for every other filmmaker, both during and after his time, who is comparable to him: all, like him, following in the tradition of Western humanism.

Slowness of pace, therefore, though antithetical to a society that prefers knife-edge cutting and nimble, on-the-surface tension to a gradual development of plot and character, is his hallmark: it has been for all his films, even, as Sandeshaya shows, in his less than acclaimed departures.

One can imagine a hostile reception greeting his first few films – Rekava and Gamperaliya were not successful at the box-office – until, in Golu Hadawatha, he finally achieved what even the most serious, least commercial artists wanted: public acceptance. It has been nearly 60 years since Rekava was made, and Lester James Peries still remains the much loved artist, in Sri Lanka, he has always aspired to, and has always been.