Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Lester James Peries: Conversations with an Icon

There are people who merit introductions and people who don’t. I’m not sure which of these two categories I should put this week’s star under. Lester James Peries, after all, is a book that has been written, revised, edited, and even frilled, by those who claim to present a faithful account of the man and his career.

Let me put it this way then: his is a story which has seen countless days, nights, months, years, and decades. To do justice to them all, therefore, is most certainly beyond my task. There comes a time when so much ink is wasted on inessential details, that to get to the essence of any man becomes difficult. Peries is our foremost filmmaker. He is a “father” to many, young and old. Maybe that’s the best way I can introduce him for you.

Lester was (as everyone knows) born on April 5, 1919. His father, James Peries, had been a doctor and a madcap over cricket. His mother, Grace Jayasuriya, had been the first in her school to pass the Cambridge Senior Examination. While Doctor Peries had been educated at Royal College, he sent his son to St. Peter’s College, nearer to their ancestral home in Dehiwela.

He had been the eldest son in his family, with two younger brothers and one elder sister. But while his father had instinctively taken to medicine, both Lester and his brother Ivan had taken to art. I ask him whether this was reinforced while at school, and he tells me that while St. Peter’s did encourage a robust art culture, he didn’t really get to express his artistic temperament in it. He did, however, win several prizes at essay competitions.

Lester remembers many things. His memory is phenomenal, which may account for his philosophical attitude. He reflects on his school days with quiet nostalgia. Nearly everyone who has read up on him would, of course, remember an argument he once had with Father Peter Pillai, the legendary priest who had also taught at St. Joseph’s. Apparently Father Pillai had wanted him to follow his path. “He tried to make me take to the priesthood,” Lester chuckles, “I said I wanted to be a writer or journalist. He pooh-poohed the idea.”

I ask him whether the Catholic ethos instilled by his school influenced him in any way as he went on with his career. He says he doesn’t think so. “I wasn’t rooted in my culture,” he tells me a little ruefully, “Even today, I can’t speak Sinhala properly. We were actively forbidden to look into or be interested in other cultures. Going to a Buddhist funeral was out of the question. You had to pay penance if you did such a thing.

“The other problem was that we were anglicised. The Church, having distanced us from our roots, inadvertently sped up a process of westernisation. Some of us became snobs. Others, like Ivan and me, began looking at ways to reclaim our lost roots.” Having a language deficiency wouldn’t have helped them here, which is probably why they fell back on a purely visual medium.

Lester’s first ambition, as I mentioned above, was to become a writer or journalist. He met Lionel Wendt while writing for his Matriculation exam, and at once came under his influence. “Wendt was publishing a fortnightly paper called Kesari. He encouraged me to write for it, which I did. This intensified my resolve to become a writer on my own.”

I ask him what authors he took to, and with a chuckle he says there were so many of them. “Ernest Hemingway was my idol,” he tells me, “I admire him for the way he wrote: his austere, to the point style. That was what I aimed at.” He also remembers Proust: “I bought every volume of his ‘Remembrance of Things Past’. My God, what a bunch they were!”

In the meantime, he got a job writing for the Times of Ceylon as well, being hired in 1939. Two years later, Orson Welles would release Citizen Kane. I ask him whether this film had any impact on him, and he at once agrees. “Orson Welles was my hero,” he remembers, “I was simply awed by Kane. The techniques it innovated, especially deep focus cinematography, have stayed with us ever since. Sometime later, when I had become a director, I toyed with the idea of making a Citizen Kane based on our own press baron, D. R. Wijewardena.”

Needless to say, it became an unrealised project. I wonder, however, whether such a venture would have merely been an “adaptation” of a foreign film. The story of Charles Foster Kane, after all, bears some affinity to that of Wijewardena.

This isn’t the only way one can compare Lester with Welles, of course. There is another comparison that can be made. It surfaces clearly in the sequences in their films which feature heated arguments. The final encounter between mother and son in Delovak Athara; the exchanges between the religiously-inclined daughter and her conservative-urban parents in Ran Salu; and the feud between the protagonist and his sister in Nidhanaya – in these instances, the camera become a dexterous participant in the argument, emphasizing the characters’ own insecurities. There is that same sense of dexterousness in many of Welles’ own argument scenes as well, notably in The Magnificent Ambersons, which briefly touch on comedy and then suddenly culminate on a touching, unresolved note. Welles’ influence on Lester, therefore, is not that easy to miss.

Lester then left to England in the war years, acting as the Times London correspondent. He saw quite a number of plays and films during this time, especially the more continental ones. There was one incident which he remembers in particular, however. “It was almost a call to home,” he says quietly, suppressing emotion, “That was a concert with Herbert Rajapaksa. He sang a song which stayed and has stayed with me ever since.”

This was Sunil Shantha’s “Olu Pipeela”. It had strung Lester’s heart, and soon enough, he was on his way home. “I heeded the call to home. I knew that I would be earning much less than what I was in London. But back then, being the idealist I was, I didn’t give a tinker’s damn!”

Back in Sri Lanka, he joined the Government Film Unit, where he met two of his most frequent collaborators in the years to come, Titus Thotawatte and Willie Blake. Together, they made some acclaim-worthy documentaries and short films. But the stability of a government job wasn’t enough for these three, and soon they got an offer they just couldn’t refuse. “My cousin, Christopher Peries, wanted to make a feature film with us. I knew I couldn’t pass up on this, because part of my wanting to come back to Sri Lanka was to strike my own path as a filmmaker. Both Willie and Titus encouraged me to take the offer, which I did.” His parents and his superior at the Government Film Unit firmly opposed the idea, but in the end, both parties relented.

Perhaps it was a legacy of his tryst with literature, but Lester admits that he was always more comfortable with fiction than with historical recreation. Maybe this is why some of the authenticity in his fictional films far surpasses his historical epics in terms of honesty of treatment, but the point is that he wanted a “story” in his first film. “Sarath Wijesinghe was to be our Chairman in the ‘Company’ we had set up to make films.” Wijesinghe was a firm supporter of the Bandaranaikes though, and soon after their debut he left the group, Chitra Lanka, and dissolved it to join politics. “That’s the thing with our film industry,” he informs me rather sadly, “You have producers coming up to you with offers, making films, and then leaving you.”

Lester has always been a maker of films about human beings. This has been the case from his debut, Rekava, onwards. I put it to him that this meant that when a “committed” cinema emerged here in the 1970s, he would have been pilloried by those who disliked his type of stories.

He chuckles at this, and admits that he was considered a “roadblock” by some of those directors. “They work with symbols,” he confesses, “I work with human beings.” This reminds me of a quote by Hillaire Belloc: “They work in stone”. The reference was to Greek epic poets. Perhaps a comparison can be struck between them and the “socially engaged” propagandists who emerged here in the 1970s. No doubt Lester has made the human condition part and parcel of his films, just as nearly every filmmaker he admires, from Robert Flaherty to Pedro Almodóvar, has.

I tell him here that while he considers himself “uprooted” owing to an anglicised childhood, his films have been incomparably faithful to Sri Lankan life. He replies to this by saying that he tried to be faithful to every nuance of Sri Lankan life. “This was especially true in Ran Salu. P. K. D. Seneviratne scripted the film. I told him just how much I trusted him over the way Buddhism was depicted. His was the only script which I didn’t change to my liking.”

Everybody has his favourite film by a director. When it comes to Lester James Peries, mine would have to be Delovak Athara. Perhaps this is owing to the compressed narrative structure in that film. “We consciously went for the New Wave when we made it,” he explains, “The entire story revolves around one incident and one character. This meant that the acting had to be top-notch.”

The innovativeness in that film, however, isn’t just to do with its narrative structure. I tell him that what appealed to me was how admirably the film eschewed emotion, which led Philip Cooray to call it an “intellectual film” in his review. “Cooray called it the closest the Sinhala cinema got to the Nouvelle Vague,” he says, “He even compared Willie Blake, who shot it, to Raul Coutard, who was the legendary Jean-Luc Godard’s cameraman.”

I come here to the subject of film movements and styles, and mindful of Sidney Lumet’s witty dictum of style being the “most misused word since ‘love’”, ask him whether he subscribed to any one set of theories when making films. He admits that it’s difficult for him to think of any one film movement, but does say that the Italian neo-realists moved him. “They were painters, actually,” he observes, “See how beautifully they depicted poverty. That’s what neorealism did. There are some commentators who say that it ‘died’ in continental Europe at the time Satyajit Ray and I took to it in Asia, and after Vittorio de Sica made Umberto D. All stuff and nonsense. Neo-realism never died. It never will die. Even the most ‘committed’ filmmaker is influenced by it.”

Lester reveres the neo-realists and holds them in esteem. No doubt this is to be seen in several sequences in Rekava, particularly those of village life playing out in real life. Still, this shouldn’t mean that he has reduced his entire outlook on the cinema to the Italians.

“What moved me in the works of de Sica and Rosselini was their fidelity to life. Look at a film like Bicycle Thieves. It’s timeless, no matter what one may say of it. In contrast, take a film like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Despite the ‘fire and brimstone’ allure in it, it merely encapsulated only one period of history. That’s why out of that entire film, we mainly remember the Odessa steps sequence.” He dislikes on-the-surface allure in films, and it would be unbecoming of me if I don’t say that he has to the best of his ability stuck by this principle in his career.

Apart from the neo-realists and the New Wave, what else has shaped Lester’s craft? I’m most certainly not a film critic, and an academic thesis is not what I’m aiming at here. Perhaps it is that spiritual quality which is to be found in pretty much every film of his. I ask him from where he got this quality, and he replies “from my country”.

I mention Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Carl Theodore Dreyer, three of the most austere, Christian, and spiritual filmmakers, and he agrees that they did move him. “Bresson is another idol of mine,” he states, “He made fewer films than I did over the same time period. But he had the support of the critical establishment of the day.” I ask him here why he didn’t make a Catholic film here, and not a little ruefully he says that he never got a good idea for a story with such a setting in the first place.

Lester is also a voracious reader, particularly of books on the cinema. I ask him whether he started out with books and theories, as some filmmakers are wont to do today, or whether he opted for experience as his biggest teacher. “Both,” he admits, “You must remember that I lived at a time when ‘criticism’ meant explaining an experience felt and lived through, unlike today, when what goes for criticism is academic hotchpotch.” He tells me that with the advent of postmodernism, film criticism became a pursuit for those who wrote from ivory towers. “As a result, serious cinema has become an intellectual pursuit.” There is a tinge of bitterness here, so I press him on.

“We were more open to experience back then. Today, experience is ‘written’ in the books you read. So you tend to think that you don’t need to get hands down to make films. I’m not saying that you need to grind your nose when pursuing artistic ambitions, but it’s also true that there is spontaneity and creativity in making films. This is inhibited when textbooks prescribe what ‘good filmmaking’ is and what it isn’t.”

Film criticism standards, he implies, are coterminous with film standards, and when the one begins to retire into an ivory tower, so does the other. I couldn’t possibly have agreed more with him. As a final point, he adds the following: “People like D. W. Griffith and Orson Welles learnt it the hard way. We are indebted to them because they made life easier for us. The only way we can repay that debt is by contributing to what they innovated on.”

It is here that we come to Satyajit Ray, who once called him his “closest friend East of the Suez”. I tell Lester that while many would like to compare him to Ray, there still must be those points of differences which separated them somewhere. He agrees with this. “Ray was a giant. His depiction of poverty was unpalatable to critics from both the East and West. He was the first Eastern neorealist. But he was also optimistic. Take any of his films, and you will understand just how he affirms human goodness. He never has villains in his stories. Humans are frail in his world, but in the end, they are vindicated no matter how imperfect they are. Sometimes, this makes his endings a little too optimistic to be real.”

I ask him whether he distanced himself from Ray’s attitude on this count, and he agrees. “Some of my stories have even been called ‘nihilistic’.” I ask him to elaborate on this.

“Take Delovak Athara. There’s no doubt at all that the ending is slightly pessimistic. But a happy ending was precisely what we WEREN’T aiming at. We wanted a dejected ending, one that would reconcile the protagonist Nissanka to his conscience. It was a way out for him, but it didn’t leave many viewers happy. There was one acquaintance of mine who pointed this out to me very frankly.

“According to this fan of mine, Delovak Athara had a promising start, built up to a promising climax, and then was corrupted by a very unsatisfactory ending. So in short what viewers wanted were happy endings. This is precisely the kind of mentality we were trying to do away.” He adds that even Sandeshaya upset a few viewers with its ending, where the entire village of the Sinhalese rebels is burnt down by the Portuguese without as much as a house or hut left intact.

Lester is not too unhappy with how our film industry is operating today. He cautions however that filmmakers should not go overboard with academia. “We have so many promising directors from the new generation,” he tells me, “They have realised that a film industry cannot subsist on state support alone. This is how an avant-garde culture of sorts has developed. It’s true that some of the films made by these directors can get amateurish, but in terms of honesty of treatment, they are spot on.”

I mention here about our collective dissatisfaction with the kind of populist, religious epics churned every year by directors who can hardly be called filmmakers, and he gently reproves me: “It’s true that they may not be professional filmmakers. But that doesn’t de-validate their films. It’s a personal vision which goes into their works. So raising a hue and cry against them isn’t very productive.” I tell him that most of these works bear a close (and unholy) resemblance to those of DeMille, and he agrees: “Every film industry has a DeMille.”

There’s more I can rattle on about, but perhaps Lester himself wraps it up best: “What we need is a robust film culture. Art cannot exist for its own sake. Form and content are best when together, not when apart. Unfortunately, I feel that some of our filmmakers, in their quest to be more controversial than others, ignore this. Whether this will continue or not will be a question on which the future on our cinema rests.”

Lester James Peries, as I mentioned above, is a book that has been authored by various people at various times. And yet, there is so much in him that has escaped the critical eye. He is undoubtedly a giant in this part of the world, precisely because he shares with both Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa that one trait which proved crucial for the advancement of Asian cinema: the synthesis of East and West. Lester is no prig beset with conservative notions about filmmaking. The true worth of the man, I feel, is yet to be done full justice to. Until then, my countrymen and I can only wait. With baited breath.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, December 23 and 30 2015