Sunday, March 29, 2015

Memories of two giants

Like every other work of art, movies tend to come and go. They are advertised and in other ways promoted. They are targeted at certain audiences. We have family films and those made for children, even though some are clearly aimed at adults. Other genres crop up too, but at the end of the day these distinctions are forgotten and their stories remembered. Through this, their directors are celebrated too.

Sri Lanka can't really boast of a cinema culture. Our cinema began in 1947 and ambled along. At certain points it did rise up. But there were slumps, and very often these continued for too long. We saw directors rise and fall, but we also saw visionaries come and stay. The cinema, after all, is the youngest of all art-forms, and everyone from Sergei Eisenstein to Christopher Nolan has ensured that it's also the most powerful. It's only natural that icons from this field don't crop up that frequently, therefore. Not even here.

But we still have Lester James Peries. We still have Sumitra Peries. Together, these two have forged ahead. They have marked themselves well and earned a place in our cultural firmament. True, eight or 20 films over 50 years isn't much. But we're not talking about quantity. We're talking about other things. Like depth. Honesty. Breadth. The thing with both Lester and Sumitra is that they have all these. And more. Much more.

Two years ago, I attended an event at the BMICH. It was the second Lester James Peries Oration, organised by the Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries Foundation. There were guests who came and spoke. Professor Sunil Ariyaratne, who has a knack for improvising and speaking straight from the heart, gave the first speech. I listened.

He pointed out some facts. He pointed out Lester's childhood and how insulated it was from his country. He explained how different Lester's and Sumitra's ancestries were. Characteristically, he commented on their traditional political preferences and how different even they were. The audience laughed. He laughed. Having won his listeners, he got serious.

Ariyaratne explained how close the two of them were. He also said, quite correctly, that this bond brought out masterpieces. I'm sure he implied that they could not have been made alone. They needed both giants. Together. That's where he made an interesting observation. He claimed that in no other country had a filmmaking couple lived and worked for long. He brought up James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, but then he rightly mentioned that they were divorced. He added that this has not been the case with Lester and Sumitra. Aptly.

I can't think of another couple who can compare with these two. Certainly not Cameron and Bigelow. Not that we haven't seen couples making films together. Robert Flaherty, who shook the world with his Nanook of the North, needed his wife Frances. The two went together and this showed in whatever he made. As Roger Manvell put it in his tribute to the man, Frances understood what he did and shared his near-nomadic life, so isolated from the civilised world. She stood by him. To the last.

Unlike the Flahertys, however, Lester and Sumitra are directors in their own right. Both of them have gone after individual careers. Both have made a mark for themselves, here and elsewhere. Both have set out trademarks that make their work distinct. That's where they become giants. All the way.

Personally, I believe that their films define my country. They have all caught my people. They have understood that we rarely break down into emotion. A smile here, a wink there, can express what tears and rages never can. That is why the characters they depict never resort to histrionics. Sometimes they do, as seen in both Awaragira and Loku Duwa. These are exceptions, though. They depict people who are frustrated with life and near to bursting with anger. Naturally enough, they break apart. But not always. Lester and Sumitra know this.

All this is peripheral. Beyond the point.

Sumitra Peries turned 80 last week. Lester James Peries turns 96 next week. Together the two of them have given much. They have contributed to our culture. They have defined us well. True, not everything they have made is perfect. But then again, which director has ever been perfect? Which film has ever been praised without that proverbial pinch of salt?

I have met these two icons over the last two years. I haven't come to know them that well. The best I can come up with is a personal tribute. Nothing more. But as a Sri Lankan and human being, I have always appreciated what they've done. They made up my childhood and taught me about my country. What Martin Wickramasinghe did through the pen and Sarachchandra did through the stage, they did through celluloid.

They say that history is best perused by the art and culture of any given period. I agree. Both Sumitra and Lester occupy a place in our culture. Their films speak from the heart and not the head. They depict a world we know and live in. Which is why they appeal to us. At once. Maybe that's the biggest tribute (personal or otherwise) I can pay them. Knowing them has been a privilege. It will be so for many years to come, I suspect.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, March 29 2015