Monday, February 1, 2016

The lonely artist who gave

There are those who have written on the man and his films, who have gone great lengths in convincing the world to turn its critical eye on him. There are others who, while not exactly as well versed in his craft as he is, love and continue to venerate him, because he remains lovable for reasons obvious to all. Like all great artists, as Regi Siriwardena once wrote, Lester James Peries created the standard by which he was and continues to be judged. And adored. He remains an "icon", truly and honestly.

He was (at one point) regarded as a lonely artist, who tried to break into his country’s cultural firmament, and that by capturing the subtlest nuances of feeling and emotion, registered in our people but rarely, if at all, caught by others. True, he wasn’t really an “other”. But owing to the circumstances he was born to, and the childhood he went through, he was almost an “outsider”. Because of this, he tried (as no other artist in this country did) to endear himself to his people. In the end, he succeeded. In the end, we loved him back. And in the end, he was lonely no more.

Lester will turn 97 this year. There are others younger than him, who’ve made more films over a fraction of the time it took for him to make his. That’s a tragedy at one level, but a blessing at another. For the films he made, though intermittent and long in coming, were awaited and watched eagerly. Yes, he directed only 20 films. But Robert Bresson made 13, and he remains loved in France even today.
Rekava was a leap of faith. But like all leaps of faiths, it wasn’t vindicated at once. Sandeshaya was a hit, but that wasn’t really Lester. Gamperaliya, Delovak Athara, and Ran Salu weren’t hits, but they recouped at the box-office. And then he made Golu Hadawatha, and won an entire nation to his side.

Yes, it took time. But that’s how icons operate. They are patient. They are never in a hurry.

Some called him apolitical. Some went further and called him anti-political. The inevitable extrapolation was made, and during the 1970s, people began accusing him of being an elitist. They pointed at the stories he went for, the fact that he selected the family as his base, and argued that at a time when the family unit was shattered and broken apart, he remained obstinate and “bourgeois”.

To an extent, I agree with them. There was a lull after Nidhanaya, which he couldn’t avert. When he returned to his favourite storyline (the Koggala trilogy) and made Kaliyugaya, we were hence eager. For he selected a story where, more than in his other work, the family as a unit was being assailed. “A new leaf and chapter,” we thought of it.

What came up was different, of course. Kaliyugaya the film was about a family that gets diluted, true. But Lester seemed adamant that even in this process of getting diluted, those age-old bonds remained. Even in Yuganthaya and Awaragira, where, more than even Kaliyugaya, he played around with the broken family trope, he was cautious. Just as well, I suppose.

For even in the most strained of circumstances, we as a nation and community endear ourselves to one another. I talked about a lull after Nidhanaya, and I still stand by this. But not for the reasons those who accused him of being “elitist” would want you to believe. No, not because Lester stayed with the family, and the family remained essentially unruffled. Like the best artists, he didn’t manipulate reality and portray an alienated community. He went for a community that survived, even in the unkindest circumstances.

But after Nidhanaya, with Desa Nisa, Baddegama, Awaragira, and Wekanda Walauwwa, something kept him back, something which was missing. With Desa Nisa it was an ending that was too quick to arouse our sympathy. With Baddegama it was a script that (no matter what its defenders said) took the meaning of “adaptation” a little too literally. With Awaragira it was a producer who cut and jumbled up Lester’s usual, smooth narrative-flow.

And with Wekanda Walauwwa, a film which won him praise in France and vitriol in New York, it was a story-line that had believable characters, good actors, and a moving resolution, but also a set of unconvincing plotlines that went somewhere and proved to be irrelevant. I still can’t imagine why Senaka Wijesinghe’s character had to spout so much political rhetoric, not because he was unconvincing, but because his place in the story proved so minimal, that it became out of place with the larger canvas of the script.

I know many will disagree with me and consider it to have been one of Lester’s greatest. I’m not so sure, but I won’t argue. To me, the biggest tribute we can make to him isn’t unconditional praise or criticism, but an honest account of the man’s work. That account remains a far-off reality though, not because people aren’t willing to come forward, but because they really don’t have the time.

I think we should find that time, at least now. Lester is still with us, and he has a phenomenal memory. He is also a living monument, for a good reason. After all, he is the last from those who lived through and added to “1956”, the last of those who, in the pursuit of an identity that could demarcate us well, brought about a synthesis of tradition and modernity.

And as the only living artist from “1956”, whose works bridged the gap between an anglicised past and a country in search of roots, he is alive. He always will be, I suspect. So much so that every time we watch a film of his, live through the experience stamped on it, and realise that notwithstanding his self-imposed ideological parameters he has gone beyond anyone else in filming our sorrows and joys, we will remember that. And be emboldened.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, January 31 2016