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Sunday, 20 November 2011





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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 approaches.

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 succes'. "


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 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 director. "

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 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.



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