Scholastic exploration into rich cinematic legacy
The coffee table book entitled Sumitra Peries, Sri Lankan filmmaker,
by Vilasnee Tampoe -Hautin is not a conventional biography of a
filmmaker but an insightful rendering of life and times of a unique
personality whose trailblazing career is almost synonymous with the
evolution of Sinhala cinema from claustrophobic studios to a truly a
medium of mass appeal.
The author offers a grophic account of how Sumitra Peries entered
into the field of cinema having roamed Europe and travelled extensively
in the Mediterranean by yatch which had a lasting impression on future
filmmaker's artistic sensibility. Sumitra meeting Lester James Peries in
Paris virtually changed her course of life.
"As Ceylon's diplomatic envoy to France, Vernon Mendis arranged for a
screening of Rekawa to be held at the Musee Guimet for the benefit of
the expatriate community in Paris. Sumitra, who was a part of the
audience, still remembers her reaction: "When I saw Rekawa, I thought
why the hell shouldn't I take to cinema as well? " ...The release of
this momentous film was also the beginning of two brilliant careers.
Few would disagree that the Peries collaboration has been not only
for their mutual enrichment, but also for the benefit and cultural
elevation of millions of cinema goers" writes Vilasnee aptly chronicling
the colourful and equally eventful personal history of Sumitra Peries.
The book is full of off the screen events which shaped the
professional life of Sumitra Peries and her life-long commitment to the
medium of cinema.
One of the interesting as well as informative chapters is Peak Years,
Creativity and success (1978-2007) which virtually sums up Sumitra's
prolific career in cinema commencing with Gehenu Lamai which was
released in 1978. The film based on popular novel by Karunasena Jayalath
was well received by local as well as international audiences and film
critics praised it as a unique creation.
The author recounts, "David Robinson of the London Times had written
to say that Gehenu Lamai had a 'holistic feminine sensibility in the
best sense of the term'. Yet it was not feminist film and Sumitra points
out that the grace and the 'sensibility' of the film also came from the
way she handled the camera and her recourse to a telephoto lens.
Technically speaking telephoto lens gave the picture more perspective,
with other advantages such as making it easier for players to focus on
their acting, and deliver dialogues more smoothly, since the camera was
placed at a distance from them. Nevertheless, Sumitra feels today, if
she were given the choice, she would opt for simpler, more direct
Gahenu Lamai also left a lasting impression in Germany where its
images were described as ' haunting' and 'beautifully composed'. German
reviews insisted on the elegant direction authored by Sumitra, with
'long peaceful scenes accentuated by artistic, but unobstructive
photography'. The main locus of Gehenu Lamai is the grey area where
tradition and progress meet, where traditional values comes into contact
and conflict with modernity. The film's stylishness and delicacy had not
prevented an " aura of pessimism" and a certain moodiness from pervading
the narrative, with final message that 'virtue does not always lead to
The chapter also describes Sumitra's second successful venture Ganga
Addara/ River's Edge (1980). "Released in 1980, Ganga Addara/ River's
Edge was also Sumitra's first film in colour, receiving no less than ten
awards at the Sarasaviya Festival. It also ranks as one of the country's
earliest colour productions ...in addition to being acclaimed the Best
film, Sumitra's second production was selected by the Japan Foundation
to represent Sri Lanka at South Asian Film Festival in Tokyo in 1982.
That same year, the Tokyo Journal of December 1st wrote that the
'surprise of the festival' were two films by a Sri Lankan duo: Sumitra's
Ganga Addara and Lester's Baddegama (1980). "
Sagara Jalaya is one of the famous movies by Sumitra Peries. The
author quoting Sumitra herself says "Sumitra describes Sagara Jalaya as
being a difficult film to direct and her favourite.
The film is based on a novel by Simon Navagattegama.... It its film
version, Sagara Jayala was deemed to have attained high overall
standards, bearing testimony to Sumitra's commitment to quality. "
Like in her previous ventures, Sagara Jalaya was hailed as one of the
best creations and "NHK Television of Japan bought the film in 1986.
Equally recompensed with German television screening it on Channel Two
that the same year, the OCIC conferred on Sumitra the award for best
The author ventures into an important facet of Sumitra's cinema
personality in the Chapter 8 of the book entitled A woman director
-feminine or feminist? .
" Sumitra concentrates on women, who, in Sri Lanka have been
influenced by patriarchal values, evolving within a framework of a
traditional, colonial and post-independent society. Be they
introspective analyses of women in crisis situations or more pragmatic
investigations of their diverse confrontations , her films have
constantly brought into sharp focus the way rural and urban women are
perceived within a patriarchal society.
However, making films that gravitate around the trails and
tribulations of women in such society drew the comment from Wimal
Dissanayake, ' unable ...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"
In chapter 9, the author focuses Sumitra Perie's views on diverse
styles and cinematic genres. The author states "Sumitra believes that
film must also be a moving experience in more than just the literary
sense of the word.
While she incessantly highlights the lyrical and aesthetically
pleasing, the 'art film' experience, Sumitra also resolutely remains,
does not have to be academic, dry or boring. ....She concedes that one
needs all types of genres, styles and content matter to cater for a
whole gamut of audience tastes, from those who perceive film as a means
of entertainment or to escape to those who expect a film to do more than
titillate their senses.
More particularly, the sustenance needed by the cinema industry as a
whole is often derived from entertainer box-office gains. "
The author describes how Sumitra stresses the importance of
commercial films to a vibrant film industry. However, in no uncertain
terms, Sumitra describes that character and stature of a culture is
defined by 'good serious films'.
In conclusion, the author offers Sumitra's concerns over the future
prospects of cinema in Sri Lanka. The author concludes , " Lamenting the
absence of a cinema institute 'sharpen their sensibility' , something
that most European countries have been blessed with, and which have
enable their talents to be groomed, she maintains, that in future,
cinema cannot be more ' business and commodity to be marketed'.
The public should also widen their horizons and gain more knowledge
on quality cinema. Sumitra feels that this can still be achieved by
watching more films of better quality."
What is obvious is that Sumitra Peries's biography is not merely an
account of her life and times but a book of lasting value which could be
used as a reference authorised work on one hand and an extremely
absorbing biography giving insight into a unique and colourful
personality behind the lens.