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cinemas of the south
Lester James Peries: A Pioneer of a Tradition
It might be useful, before examining his major works, to pay some attention to his social background. This background, in an important sense, inflected his work and is closely tied to his undoubted strengths and failures. He comes from an anglicised, upper middle-class family which was more conversant with western culture than the wellsprings of indigenous forms of life. He had his early education in English. His father was a physician who was trained in Scotland. Lester James Peries, from his young days, evinced a deep interest in literature and imaginative writing. He later left for London where he began his career as a journalist. While in England he pursued his interest in journalism and at the same time studied carefully the art of European cinema, and the modes of literary and cinematic criticism. His interest in cinema began to dominate his thinking, and after he returned to Sri Lanka was able, as an employee of the Government Film Unit, to work on a number of documentaries side by side with a number of gifted European filmmakers.
The Line of Density was Peries' first feature film. His experience as a documentary filmmaker had a profound influence in the shaping of what was conspicuously absent in the Sinhalese films made until then. All in all, The Line of Density signified a new and consequential departure for Sinhalese cinema. While in England, he made a number of short documentaries like Soliloquy (1949), Farewell to Childhood (1950) and A Sinhalese Dance (1950). In 1952 he returned to Sri Lanka and started working as an Assistant Director in the Government Film Unit under the well-known film director Ralph Keene. It was during this period that he completed such documentaries as The Conquest of the Dry Zone (1954) and Be Safe or Be Sorry (1955). His experience as a documentary filmmaker stood him in good stead in his later efforts as a feature film maker.
In order to understand the deeper impulses of Peries as a filmmaker, and the distinctive social and cultural trends of the time, it would be instructive to pay closer attention to his maiden feature film The Line of Density. This film represented an unequivocal repudiation of the existing modes of filmmaking in Sri Lanka. He reacted against the then regnant style of film directing by decisively throwing overboard the formula to which cinema was happily wedded. Instead of shooting his film inside the studios, which was of course the accepted practice of the time, he shot the entire film on location; sound was also recorded on location. He abandoned the highly theatrical style of acting and the declamatory mode of delivery that were indelibly stamped with the power of melodrama, in favour of a more controlled and realistic style of acting. Indeed the word 'controlled' is central to the way he looked at the art of cinematography. He did not compel his images to glow and weep excessively. He demonstrated a commendable grasp of the possibilities of the medium - the purposeful and economical use of camera, editing, framing etc. - that was conspicuously absent in the Sinhalese films made until then. All in all, The Line of Density signified a new and consequential departure for Sinhalese cinema.
The Line of Density is set in rural Sri Lanka. The film opens with a tilt-walker cum musician arriving in the village of Siriyala. He has with him a monkey who performs various antics for the amusement of his audience. Two thugs from the village attempt to rob him. Sena, a young boy from the village prevents the robbery. In gratitude, the stilt-walker, who is also an accomplished palm-reader, volunteers to read tile boys palm and predict the future. He foretells that Sena will become a famous healer and bring honour and prestige to the village. It so happens that one day, when Sena and his friend Anula are playing with a kite, Anula suddenly loses her eye-sight. The village physician who attends to her is unable to restore her eye-sight. Sena touches her eyes, and miraculously Anula regains her vision. As a consequence, Sena now acquires a reputation in the village as the boy with the magic touch. His father, who is a felon, together with the notorious money-lender in the village, seeks to exploit this situation for their own monetary gain. They organise a healing campaign to impress the villagers. A rich landowner brings his son for treatment, but unfortunately the boy dies. The villagers are outraged; they are convinced that it is Sena's fault. To make matters worse, the village of Siriyala begins to experience a severe drought. The villagers are compelled to endure severe hardships. They are outraged by the turn of events. However, at the end, peace and tranquillity returns to the village of Siriyala .
This, in essence, is the story of The Line of Density. Clearly, it is a little naive in conception, and represents an outsider's view of peasant fife. However, the director succeeds in large measure in presenting it cinematically, with a commendable measure of restraint, alien to Sinhalese cinema as it had evolved up to that point. Many westernised critics in Sri Lanka found it to be a moving experience and a significant work of art. It gained wide critical recognition internationally, winning high praise at some of the most prestigious film festivals, including Cannes, Edinburgh, and Karlovy Vary. However, the indigenous intelligentsia, the generality of the discerning Sinhalese film critics, while applauding Lester James Peries' attempt to make a serious film, using imaginatively the resources of the medium, found the central experience of the movie highly contrived and unrepresentative of the felt life of the peasantry. In a word, it betrayed an inadequate and uncertain grasp of Sinhalese culture. However, this film, through its firm commitment to serious cinema, succeeded in generating an interest in the more educated classes of society in the possibility of developing an artistic cinema in Sri Lanka.
The next significant landmark in the growth of Sinhalese cinema is Lester James Peries' The Changing Village (Gamperaliya) made in 1965. Based on the celebrated novel with the same name by the leading novelist in the country, Martin Vikramasinghe, this film marked a turning point. It was an unqualified critical success, equally appreciated by the westernised and local intelligentsia, and a serious tradition of filmmaking was born. The Changing Village won the Grand Prix (Golden Peacock) at the International Film Festival of India held in New Delhi. The jury, which included Lindsay Anderson, Andrej Wajda, Georges Sadoul and Satyajit Ray, commended it for the, ".poetry and sensitivity with which it explores and illuminates personal relations." Local moviegoers were no less enthralled by it, and experienced a justifiable pride and a hope for the future. The Changing Village signified the opening up of a new cultural and representational space with immense possibilities.
Through vividly realised characters, the film deals with the collapse of the feudal social order and the emergence of the middle class. This is indeed a social transformation, a great moment to those societies emerging from the shadows of feudalism to encounter the fissiparous forces unleashed by modernity - Kaisauvatte Muhandiram and Matara Hamine are husband and wife and they represent the decaying social order; Nanda is their daughter. Clearly, the family has witnessed better days. Piyal is a young and attractive teacher who is entrusted with the task of giving tuition to Nanda. However, he belongs to an inferior social class. Although Nanda is attracted to Piyal, marriage is out of the question because of the wide social gap that exists between them. Instead, Nanda marries Jinadasa, a man who has the approval of her parents. Her married life is full of hardships, but being a loyal and devoted wife who obeys the dictates of tradition, she endures it all. As their economic situation deteriorates, Jinadasa resolves to leave home and search for gainful employment. In the initial few months, she receives letters from him; after that nothing is heard from him. Meanwhile, Piyal does well for himself and becomes a successful businessman. It is learned that Jinadasa had died in a hospital, penniless and miserable. After a while Piyal and Nanda get married. One day, when Piyal is on a business trip, Nanda receives a telegram informing her that her husband is deeply ill in a remote hospital. Nanda, understandably perturbed, rushes to see him. There, much to her surprise, she realises that the man who is dead is not Piyal, but Jinadasa. After this, Piyal and Nanda come together, achieving a depth of understanding and attachment, and having come to terms with the past. Peries transforms this story into a film that carries complete conviction.
When Martin Wickramasinghe published his celebrated novel in 1945, it was greeted - and justifiably so - as a landmark in Sinhalese fiction that ushered in a new era. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, the most eminent literary critic of the time, praised the novel for its authentic depiction of peasant society in Sri Lanka and the sureness with which the imported art form of the novel was allowed to develop along indigenous tracks of sensibility. He valorised the novel for capturing effectively the inward life of its characters and the complex ways in which social formations over-determine character.
Lester James Peries' The Changing Village (1965) was instantly recognised as a superior work of cinematic art that, drawing on the aesthetics of neo-realism, captured persuasively a slice of Sri Lankan reality. The anglicised classes that had been greatly impressed by his early films felt that in this film the director had not only displayed once again his mastery of the medium but also a deeper understanding of the cultural formations of Sri Lankan society. The indigenous intelligentsia was appreciative of Peries' earlier attempts to create a meaningful and authentic Sinhalese cinema, free of the crudities that had come to be associated with it. Nevertheless, they were somewhat disappointed by the artificiality and contrived ness of The Line of Density ; they found in The Changing Village a wonderfully honest work that touched the fives of the people in interesting and complex ways. Here, for the first time, the literary culture and the film culture had come together to produce a work both memorable and significant. Martin Wickramasinghe, the author of the novel, and Saxachchandral the foremost literary critic, were unstinting in their commendation of the film. The more discriminating of the Sinhalese movie going public, who had been disenchanted with the puerile melodramas that were served up as works of cinema, found in The Changing Village the cornerstone of a new and significant cinema. Hundreds of thousands of readers who had grown to love Wickramasinghe's novel over the past two decades saw in the film a cogent trans-coding of it in cinematic terms.
With The Changing Village, a tradition of serious and artistic filmmaking was established in Sri Lanka. This birth of an artistic cinema was vitally connected with the notion of cinema as a cultural practice and the cultural production of nationhood. National cinema can be profitably understood at four levels of apprehension. First, it can be explored in terms of economics where questions of industry, film culture and nationhood acquire a deep significance of meaning. Second, it can be analysed in terms of textuality, that is in terms of content and style and the impact of cultural formations on them. Here, the important issues that merit detailed probing are the cogency of the experience that is presented and the ways in which the ideas of nationhood are inscribed in it. Equally important were the cultural situation of the styles of presentation and the means by which films as cultural texts relate to the larger cultural discourses that they inhabit. Third, the concept of national cinema can be investigated in terms of the self/other binary, the operative question here being the uniqueness of the cinema vis-à-vis the other cinemas that impinge on it. For example, in the case of Sri Lanka , the South Indian cinema was from the very inception a formidable force to contend with, and so Sinhalese filmmakers who were bent on creating a national cinema always sought to define their creations in opposition to the main body of South Indian films. Fourth, national cinema needs to be examined in terms of other highly legitimated modes of symbolic expression with deep roots in the national soil and the consciousness of the people, like art, poetry and drama. When seen in relation to these different aspects of national cinema, The Changing Village can be said to have signified the birth of a new cinema. All these different dimensions demand sustained analysis. Unfortunately, we cannot, within the brief compass of this essay, undertake that task here. We shall leave it to a future occasion.