Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Celebrating Sumitra Peries

I was 10 when I first saw Sagara Jalaya. The story struck me. So did the actors. Swarna Mallawarachchi gave her finest performance there. She is a farmer's widow who loses everything. She loses her husband and has to look after her son. Friends and relatives verbally abuse her, while she takes their blows as they come. The son pities her. He wants to help. He writes a letter to his uncle asking for a job. A paying job.

That's where the story ends. We aren't told whether he gets that job. We don't know whether he gets to help his mother. Predictably, the ending left me cold. Now when a film does that to me, I generally wonder why. A film must resolve. It must conclude. This one didn't. Naturally enough, I was unhappy. Something was missing. Somewhere.

It took some time for me to understand that while I wanted a film to conclude well, what I'd really wanted was a happy ending. At that age, films were meant to be seen and not studied. Sagara Jalaya was different, hence. There was something in it that appealed to me. I couldn't describe it then and I can't describe it now. But seeing the way Mallawarachchi played her part, I felt sure of one thing: the director had understood and probed into her. Deeply. Given that I wasn't a fan of Sinhala films then, that caught me. At once.

Sagara Jalaya was directed by Sumitra Peries. Peries turns 80 today. She has directed eight films. While not all of them are masterpieces, they are truly "ours". Rarely has a director looked into our women so sharply. Rarely has a director empathised with them so well. More than any other director here, she has filmed their joys and sorrows. If that's not enough to earn her a place, I don't know what will be.

She wasn't just a filmmaker, of course. Right after they married, she edited several films by Lester James Peries. Look at them today to see how much they depend on her expertise. The mirror sequence in Ran Salu, the beach sequence in Golu Hadawatha, and the flashes of memory in Ahasin Polawata: they are all shot meticulously, to the dot. We remember Golu Hadawatha today, for instance, not only for its music, but also for how the right note caught the right mood. Editing figured in there. That's why we treasure it.

Perhaps she carried this with her when she took to directing. From Gehenu Lamai to Yahaluwo, she has a knack for storytelling. She edits sequences in line with a classical structure. It is this structure that guides her. Which is why she never obfuscates. Why she never uses quick cuts and other plot devices to confuse us. They are told the way they're meant to, from beginning to end.

Gehenu Lamai
Not that her films are flawless. For one thing, they tend to depict women sympathetically. But to win this sympathy, she depicts them as victims, not rebels. Vasanthi Chathurani in both Gehenu Lamai and Ganga Addara doesn't flout convention. She submits herself to it and loses everything. Sumitra doesn't criticise this. She just tells the story. Clinically.

All too often, this doesn't satisfy us. It didn't satisfy me. I think she herself understood this. In Yahalu Yeheli, Nadeeka Gunasekara rebels against her father (Tony Ranasinghe), who is a feudal overlord. When he plots against a poor cousin of hers, the entire village opposes him. After they confront and leave him, she follows them. He is left confused. Symbolically, the film ends with a freeze-frame.

Sumitra didn't direct more films like that, however. Thankfully, I should think. She has a vision and reflects it in her films. True, she depicts a patriarchal world. Other directors don't. But then again, other directors haven't come close to her. I can think of only two who could compare with her: Carl Theodor Dreyer and Kenji Mizoguchi. Both are dead. Both examined women reflectively, without sentiment or melodrama. Just like she does.

But she's different. She examines women and their problems so intimately that her films become personal testaments. They aren't always masterpieces, true, but some of them strike through. This might have something to do with how political they are: Yahalu Yeheli, for instance, depicts the transition from feudalism to communalism succinctly. She herself is related to the Gunawardena clan, which has claimed a place as one of our strongest Leftist families. This is reflected in her works. That differentiates them. To the last.

Directors change. Some of them don't. Sumitra has neither changed nor stayed put. Her stories have become increasingly (even excessively) allegorical in recent years. But they all stay true to her emotional centre: the anguish of women. Since I can't comment on this, the final word should belong to someone who can. I quote:

"Although she deals with the loves and lives of women, she is unable, in many of her films, to break out of the patriarchally sanctioned framework that has been privileged and has held sway in Sri Lankan cinema. Consequently, despite her best intentions, she ends up reinforcing the traditionalist views of society and the roles ascribed to women."

All Greek to me, but that goes a long way in establishing her strength and weakness. She has delved into our mothers and daughters and portrayed them frankly. While other directors have challenged our patriarchal society, they ended up contriving their stories. Women always triumph there, yes, but those triumphs are never true to life.

That is why Sumitra Peries is so different. She depicts a savage world. Women suffer and they bear what they suffer. Her films almost never end on a happy note. But then again, given how patriarchal our society has become, they can't end happily. Having realised this, she has gone beyond other directors in criticising our values. She is not a feminist. She doesn't need to be. She's honest. At the end of the day, when we are to judge her worth, that'll be enough.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com