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Doyen of Sinhala cinema Dr. Lester James Peries passes away

Dr.Lester James Peries unarguably the father of Sri Lankan cinema and the legend who took the Sri Lankan cinema to the world stage, passed away at the age of 99 years yesterday. He passed away while undergoing treatment at a private hospital in Colombo.

Starting his career as a young reporter at the age of 17, Lester wrote to the blue pages of the Ceylon Daily News which was an arts supplementation.

He attended St. Peter’s College- in Colombo- as a teenager, before dropping out to pursue a career in journalism at the age of 17 with the ‘Daily News’.

In 1947, Peries travelled to England on his mother’s advice to join his brother Ivan Peries who was there on an art scholarship. However Lester continued writing to the ‘Daily News’ from England.

Dr.Peries celebrated his 99th birthday on April 5 this year and both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited his residence in Thimbirigasyaya to extend their wishes.

Dr. Lester James Peries will be revered in Sri Lankan history on account of quality – rather than quantity – of his filmography.

Film by film, Dr Peries planted a fresh seed in the industry. Film by film, Dr. Peries introduced a new wavelength.

He did not deliver art. He delivered a whole generation. That whole generation did not think outside the box. They formed a box for the industry.

Rekhava, officially premiered in 1956 incidentally coinciding with the Bandaranaike revolution, broke the prevailing grounds. The film was shot out of the studio premises and was confined to Ceylon.

The dialogues were more natural. The storyline provoked more emotional nuances. Ultimately it went on to be the first feature-length film down the local cinema annals.

It gained entry into the Cannes Film Festival in 1957 – an international honour denied for the films hitherto produced. Yet, this was not consummation. Dr Peries was still experimenting with the subject.

The second feature film, Sandeshaya, was one step ahead, handling a more intricate plot outline: history. That was 1960. Three years later, Peries took over a new trial: a film based on a novel.

Gamperaliya was a few steps ahead with Tissa Abeysekara (known for his natural dialogues, and a revered scriptwriter whose posthumous films continue to emerge), and Reggie Siriwardana entering the scene as writers to the screen.

That was a more groundbreaking work with a number of performers such as Tony Ranasinghe, Henry Jayasena and Trilicia Gunawardane later earning a brand name in their own right. It received a widely acclaimed appreciation from the critics such as Ediriweera Sarachchandra. Reviewed Professor Sarachchandra: “At last a Sinhalese film has been made which we could show the world without having to hide our heads in shame. I want to say a great film has been made of a great novel.”

Gamperaliya was followed by Delovak Athara, Ran Salu, Golu Hadawatha and Akkara Paha. These films show Dr.Peries’ knack as well as a fondness for making films based on fiction. Yet, in 1972, he entered a different plane with the next film, Nidhanaya, originally a short story by G B Senanayake. Dr Peries had the blessings of a powerful script by Dr.Tissa Abeysekara, powerful music by Dr Premasiri Khemadasa and an equally powerful, yet small, skill-studded cast.

Ammawarune, the hitherto final movie, made in 2006 cannot be called the culmination of the Lester James Peries filmography. It is the continuation of the culmination he has already attained in the late fifties through seventies.

He was the first filmmaker who led the Ceylonese cinema into an international platform. That acclaim made things easier for the subsequent Sri Lankan cinema. Film after film, Dr Peries offered lessons on how indigenousness could be employed in filmmaking.

Peries is married to, Sumitra, who is also a renowned film director.