On Lester James Peries


There comes a time when so much attention and writing are focused on one man, that in the end so little of him do we actually get to know. This is inevitable wherever so much ink is wasted on inessential details. I am not for one moment suggesting that nothing informative has ever come out of it all, but it cannot be denied that fame and renown sometimes invest commentators with a sense of awe that compels them to write extraneously. Critical reassessments rarely ever dig into the crucial subject at hand. In Sri Lanka, such is the case with its foremost filmmaker, Lester James Peries. I can only hope that what I write of him here will not be considered “extraneous”.

Peries is known primarily for having introduced a measure of realism into our film industry. This was an inevitability at the time, something that would have come off sooner or later here. It is right to think of him as the catalyst for our film culture’s blossoming, not only because no other film director in the country had an impetus to bring it about, but because he was the ideal man to lead the revolution.

At the time of Rekava’s release in 1957, Satyajit Ray had already made Pather Panchali. The neorealist movement in Italy had, in effect, died out with De Sica’s Umberto D. some years back. The most far-reaching film journal had been established in France – the Cahiers du Cinéma, which would sow the seeds of avant-gardism in the New Wave to come. The age of the studios and the stars still subsisted in Hollywood, but as a prime mover it was seeing its dying days – auteurs and filmmakers of gritty violence, like Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah, were working in Hollywood. Socialist realism as a guiding principle of filmmaking was quickly being rejected in East Europe, and Wajda was making Kanal.

In short, continental Europe and the U.S.A. were all championing a mode of cinema that was more committed, grittier, while still reining in the poeticism that had marked it out earlier. In the East, yet largely unmoved by these strains, filmmaking was still clinging to artificial, studio-driven, conventional formulae. Japan came off quickly from this trend: directors in that country were able to quickly, and effectively, absorb what they had learnt in foreign films into their own culture.

In Bengal a similar thing was happening, though it would take two or three more films for Satyajit Ray to establish his country’s cinema fully in the world. Essentially, Ray and Peries were both poets in their craft; and to this end both went for a near-lyrical but honest mode of cinema in their culture. Ray always spoke of neorealism as the main inspiration that propelled him to movie-making. The same elements of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves – shoestring budget, non-professional actors, outdoor shooting – made an impression on him while shooting Pather Panchali over three years.

What of Peries? Much has been written on what moved him into his career – his work as a maker of four amateur films while in London, his short but fruitful stint at the Government Film Unit, where he befriended Willie Blake and Titus Thotawatte. Watching Rekava now, it would be ridiculous to class it under any title other than a “cinema of realism”, or, as Georges Sadoul once noted, a “model of poetry and honesty”.

The truth is that neither Ray nor Peries knew of each other’s work – perhaps the only example of such a thing happening in film history – and, admittedly, startling similarities can be found in both. Nonetheless, this does not go to validate Rekava purely in the mould of Pather Panchali. For a more formative set of influences on Lester James Peries, we would have to look elsewhere – into France, the American cinema, and his own work as a documentarian – to catch at least a fleeting glimpse into what actually influenced him.

The “Gallic flair”

First, the French cinema. It is significant that in its silent days, all the pioneers of the cinema should have hailed from America. The lack of any proper literary or theatrical tradition there would have helped. It is also significant that with the admission of sound, the need to pronounce cinema’s regionalism was established. This meant that the country noted most for its patronage of the arts should have continued cinema’s evolution thenceforward.

Two things happened in France. For the first time, a film industry posing as an alternative to Hollywood’s studio system was established. Secondly, all the French filmmakers of this time – Carné, Clair, Vigo – invested a unique sense of poetry in their films. This cannot be defined; it can only be seen and experienced. Any analysis of the French cinema in this regard must centre on one man and one man alone: Jean Renoir.

It was Renoir who actually revolutionised his country’s film culture, and he did this with a series of tongue-in-cheek, satiric films that pilloried the middle- and upper-classes. La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu are his two masterpieces, and both were his most satiric. Made on eve of the Second World War, however, his mordant pillorying of the aristocracy did not sit in well with authorities, and Renoir was forced into exile to Hollywood.

One way to think of Renoir’s poetisation of the cinema is by accounting for his father’s influence on him. Time and time again, Renoir would deny this. Pierre Renoir, the famous impressionist painter, nonetheless did exert an influence on him, however slight it may have been. One sees this abundantly in Renoir’s depiction of locales in his films. The best example for this is Boudu Saved from Drowning, a satiric take on bourgeois “humanism” and hypocrisy, where the actor Michel Simon is a rugged, overbearing ruffian who resents his saviour, a well-to-do bookshop owner, for having saved him.

The film portrays Boudu as a satyr-like ruffian wholly unfit for Parisian middle-class life. The natural surroundings in the countryside, to which he retires happily in the end, form a stark contrast with the Parisian suburbs, and seeing them one can probably guess at how much of Renoir the painter was transplanted into Renoir the filmmaker. This was not, however, restricted to Jean Renoir’s depiction of the countryside, as seen in La Bête Humaine, where he proved himself adept as a poet of the city as well as of the village.

Peries subconsciously imbibed two traits from Renoir – his penchant for depicting natural locales without exaggerating them, and his deft handling of his characters in relation to them. It is, admittedly, valid to speak of Rekava as a neorealist masterpiece in the Sinhala cinema, but in his handling of actors, their relationships with each other and with their surroundings, as well as his painterly outlook on village life, Peries was closer to Renoir than Ray ever could be.

The film that best illustrates this is Renoir’s The River, shot in India in 1951. In later years, Ray, who accompanied Renoir as he went scouting for locations, would hold a more negative view of the film – “more clearly revealing of his (Renoir’s) ‘Frenchness’ than his French films”. It is not difficult to see why. Beneath a deceptively “Indian” exterior, the film was essentially Gallic in outlook – it did not, for instance, feature a single Indian character other than the Indian girl at the romantic centre of the story.

The real strength of the film came not from its topography, but from Renoir’s handling of human psychology, particularly the relationship between the main family members with the American G. I.’s presence in their household, and their reaction to the death of the little son. To top all this, the film was based on a novel that had been written by someone who was an outsider, so to speak.

This was not the case with Pather Panchali, which was based on a popular novel written by a Bengali novelist. Ray himself admitted his shortcomings as a city-bred individual with no real prior experience with village life, but in the process of filming the story, he overcame this deficiency. The real problems with the shooting were, as with Rekava, largely logistical – and financial.

Rekava differed from both these in that it was based on an original script. This primarily meant that the crew would have to learn “on the job” – with the script as their guide, it was difficult to hang onto any other source as a guiding principle. Improvisation would have to figure in a little. But it would not be wrong to assume that Peries’ first film shares more than a little with Renoir, owing to the painterly attitude taken by him and Willie Blake towards village life.

The title sequence, for instance, follows a group of villagers cultivating paddy, which has absolutely no bearing on the story itself, but which was revolutionary and daring for its time. Similarly, in Renoir’s film, the opening sequence depicts a group of Indian workers by a jute mill. But it would be wrong to think that Rekava’s main focus is on its environment alone – as Regi Siriwardena later would observe, the main focus is on its emotional centre, which exists between the mother and son. Why many film critics or audience members did not realize this at the time can be seen clearly when comparing Peries’ craft with that of another trend that was making itself felt in the local film scene at the time.

This was the trend shaped by the Colombo Poets, centering on the script-writer and poet P. K. D. Seneviratne. The first film of this school, Kurulubedde, was released around the same time Rekava had been, and was one of three features considered then as being the first “authentic” film of our cinema – the other two being Rekava and Sirisena Wimalaweera’s Podi Putha. This is not really true. Apart from the fact that Rekava actually focused on its mother-son relationship, it shared little with the Colombo Poets’ romantic outlook on village life, which at times falsified human relationships.

Rekava was castigated in certain quarters on two counts – its omission of any religious element, and its brutal depiction of a superstitious, unsympathetic and at times murderous village mob, which tries to harm the little boy. In the year of its release, Satyajit Ray had made Aparajito, the sequel to Pather Panchali, which did not sit in well with local audiences because of an equally brutal, but moving and honest, depiction of a mother-son relationship, unconventional by Hindu society’s standard. This is not to suggest that Peries’ film was realistic purely because it was unconventional, at least by the Colombo Poets’ view of its subject-matter.

However, viewed from the outset, Peries’ omission of a Buddhist temple, so baffling to local audiences and critics, was story-wise a right choice. Buddhism would have presented a form of sobriety to the villagers’ murderous superstition, and in omitting it Peries ensured us an unflattering, stifling but at times all too real indictment on his subject-matter. To say that Rekava heralded a new era in Sinhala cinema because of its “beautiful” locales is simply not true. It was more so because of his deft handling of the mother-son relationship, which, to his last film, remained one of his greatest strengths.

Like in the case of Ray, one of Peries’ assets was his close working collaborations with his actors. Neither rigid nor lax, Peries would impress upon them the full need to be authentic in whatever they were doing. Fortunately for him, every major actor he worked with, from the Moscow-trained Henry Jayasena to the Old Vic-schooled Irangani Serasinghe, subscribed to his views.

This ensured, in Rekava especially, that any “picturesqueness” of the surroundings was tempered by a robust, if not downright unorthodox, handling of human psychology – which was more than what could be said of the romantic style of films like Kurulubedda and, later, Sikuru Tharuwa. In his use of certain professional actors like Serasinghe and D. R. Nanayakkara (himself a regularly featured actor in several films of Kurulubedde’s mould), Peries partly did away with the principles of neorealism and inadvertently went for the French cinema. He imbibed their Gallic view of landscapes only partly, however, and certainly not at the cost of losing his footing in the land of his birth.

The American factor and documentary-making

The American cinema’s influence on him is less easy, almost impossible to identify. It is highly unlikely that Peries ever absorbed Hollywood’s on-the-surface, studio-centred culture. What is evident in the little we see of it in his films is proof of Peries’ eclecticism – taking “what you think is good and what you think you can use”, as Ray once put it.

Primarily, the director from the American cinema whom Peries relates to and admires more than anyone else is Orson Welles. There are two reasons for this. The first, more general in context, was his experience at seeing Citizen Kane for the first time. The effect it had on him was unimaginable, akin to Rashomon’s impression on Satyajit Ray 10 years later. He counts on Kane as the film that attached to his mind most vividly, and would see it more than 10 times as time would pass.

The second aspect is harder to define, but it surfaces most clearly in the sequences in his 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 aristocratic protagonist and his sister in Nidhanaya – in these instances, the camera becomes a dexterous participant in the argument, emphasising 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.

Ray’s films feature arguments differently – like in Mizoguchi’s films, his characters never spill out their reserves of emotion, but “cut to the quick as few films can do”. That is why his scenes of argument are more relaxed, less nimble; whereas Peries lets his own spice up with sharp invectives, differing camera angles, and unresolved finales.

Other than this, it is difficult to imagine any other influence exerted on him by Hollywood. In the three “historical epics” that he made – Sandeshaya, The God King, Veera Puran Appu – a slight trace of John Ford can be seen, particularly in his handling of the actors featured amidst wide stretches of land. Certainly, he professes admiration for Ford (“the poet of the West”, as he called him), alongside D. W. Griffith, whom he sympathised and identified with for his later wasted career. DeMille he regarded with some criticism – “he never pretended to be anything more than a showman, who treated the cinema more as a circus than a serious medium”.

What Peries got from Hollywood was Welles and, to a lesser degree, Ford. One can imagine him at the opposite pole from, say, Chandran Rutnam, whose adulation of Hollywood amounts almost to a deification, though in his context, the admiration professed for it is in all regards valid.

Imagining Peries’ work as a documentarian is easier. His short stint at the Government Film Unit led to two things. One was his befriending of Willie Blake and Titus Thotawatte. The other was the development of a high regard for natural locales, which manifests itself abundantly in his films. Though he has never named him as a primary influence, it is hard not to see Robert Flaherty’s near-ethnographic handling of rural life in them. But this would be putting things a little too widely. Documentary work preceded many an illustrious film career, such as in the cases of Resnais, Clouzot, and the cinema vérité school.

Not every case influenced the filmmaker in his handling of landscapes, however – in Resnais’ case, it allowed him free, imaginative rein in editing, while in Clouzot’s case, as an intermission in his career, it supplemented his brutally honest handling of camerawork, lighting and editing in relation to his depiction of savagery and bitter cynicism as a filmmaker.

In Peries’ case, it aided him in his attitude towards locales, as evidenced in the woods sequence in Golu Hadawatha or the village scenes in Akkara Paha. It served to set him on the path of a truly indigenous, and universal, filmmaker, very different from the Colombo Poets. While I do not dispute Flaherty’s “ring of truth” present in Peries’ films, I also cannot deny that what primarily induced it was Peries’ own fascination with his country’s landscapes and people.

Apart from these influences, one can validly think of the New Wave in relation to him as well. One of Peries’ most visible strengths was his ability to use every aspect of the cinema within the thinnest plot-lines, a hallmark that even Jean-Luc Godard was known for. The best example of this is seen in Delovak Athara, which the critic Philip Cooray described as being “the most Western of his films”. While Satyajit Ray’s use of New Wave technique was largely, at the time, limited to freeze-frames (as with the ending of Charulata), Peries absorbed it more readily.

The sequence in Delovak Athara with Nissanka (Tony Ranasinghe) trying to contact his friend (Suwineetha Weerasinghe) after giving her address to the police is a case in point – what holds it is the elliptical style that remarkably sustains and elicits our interest right throughout. Towards the mid-point of his career – with Golu Hadawatha, Desa Nisa, and most prominently Kaliyugaya – the freeze-frame and jump-cut are used frequently without disturbing the story’s largely classical structure. Kaliyugaya, of course, is in this regard Peries’ most “innovative” and “unusual” film, because while it did not do away with the plot-line, its many layers of meaning and chronology ushered in a density largely unseen in the Sinhala cinema at the time.

An ultimatum

It is very doubtful, of course, that a single filmmaker or movement could have influenced Peries. Essentially, his films all dwell on a single theme – the rift between individuality and society. His fascination with the family as a cinematic unit, so to speak, is nearly akin to that of Ozu in Japan, with the exception that Ozu was more static in his shots.

Peries and Ray, possibly alongside Kurosawa, are the only filmmakers in the East who sought, and found, a style of filmmaking apt for their culture through a synthesis of East and West. In Peries’ case, my view is that the French exerted a more than passing influence on his craft, and though he himself has written and spoken of his adherence to neorealism, it remains clear that it had a little less to do with his films than it had with Ray’s.

Peries’ brand of humanism was different to that of Ray too – while Ray always peppered his stories with an unyielding affirmation of human goodness, Peries’ world was occupied by the good and the bad, in which neither side actually won over the other. He later spoke of Ray’s attitude to humanism, in a radio broadcast – “As Eric Rhode says, in-spite of poverty and waste Ray is an optimist… and this optimism is both his greatest strength and basic weakness” – subtly distancing his attitude from that of Ray.

This, admittedly, left room for bitterer, more cynical endings in his films, more so than in the other’s. Ray’s faith in humanity, which put him at the other extreme from his contemporary Ritwik Ghatak, is not too much to be met in Peries’ films. With the gap between individual choice and society as his preoccupying theme, human goodness sometimes sours, and sometimes, as with that tea-time gathering sequence in Delovak Athara, takes on near-farcical hilarity.

His most moving finales, in Gamperaliya, Desa Nisa, and Akkara Paha (which has probably his most bittersweet finale), are also tempered by a lack of any real resolution – not every stone is turned, so to speak, for them to be truly “happy”. Peries’ nuanced wit and humour, evidenced for instance in that tea-time gathering scene, was a trait that is to met in Ray’s films too, but on a less urbane, contemporary and “polished” level. Peries was adept at it in the same way Renoir had been in his La Règle du Jeu.

Jean Renoir, in the final analysis, may have exerted a more indelible impression on Lester James Peries than we can think of or suppose. If Bengali cinema took on a realistic route through the works of De Sica and Rossellini, then Sinhala cinema took that same route through a more “Renoirean” path, coloured in its own way by the neorealists and the GFU.

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An open minded guy who likes books, movies, and clean fun. Likes to associate with respectable, honest, and open people who are not conformists. You can ready my articles at my blog - www.fragmenteyes.blogspot.com

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