Another hallmark for the golden couple of Sinhala cinema

The launch of the Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries Foundation
Kala korner by Dee Cee

It was one of the rare occasions when everything went to schedule and the audience left feeling highly satisfied. There was a touch of professionalism and finesse in the whole operation. Obviously a lot of thinking had gone into planning the 'do'. I am referring to the launch of the Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries Foundation at the BMICH last week.

Informal gathering: Dr. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Lester James Peries, Prof. Wimal Dissanayake and Sumitra Peries.
Lester James Peries receiving memento from Dr. Adoor
The veteran with leading lady of the silver screen Malani Fonseka and others

The usual head table seen at book launches and similar functions was missing. Instead the VIP guests and the Trustees of the Foundation sat on comfortable settees on the stage. I didn't see any seats reserved for invitees. Everyone mingled freely choosing to sit wherever they wanted to. When someone spotted Film Corporation chairman Kumar Abeysinghe seated in a rear row and asked him to move up, he indicated he was quite happy where he was. And when his name was called up to light the 'pahana' he walked up, lit the lamp and returned to the same seat.

Everyone was so pleased when Lester walked up from the side and sat down. He hardly gets about now. Of course, he couldn't afford to miss the big day.

Trustee Yadamini Gunawardena (few may have known him as the son of minister Dinesh Gunawardena) welcomed the guests and outlined the objectives of the Foundation. It was short and sweet. A message from President Mahinda Rajapaksa was read out by Ravindra Randeniya.

When Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa pressed a key on the laptop brought to him and launched the Foundation and its website – www. - yet another landmark was recorded in the illustrious career of the doyen of Sri Lankan cinema and his equally talented wife.

An announcement was then made that the Bill incorporating the Foundation had just been passed in Parliament. It had been proposed by actress Malini Fonseka and seconded by the well-known speaker J.R.P. Sooriyapperuma. Being incorporated by an Act of Parliament means serious business. The trustees will have to work hard to see that the objectives are fulfilled. Preserving the cinematic creations of the Peries couple, the establishment of a 'National Cinema Archives' for which Lester had been agitating for the past five decades, enriching the art of filmmaking and promoting Children's Cinema in Sri Lanka are among the laudable objectives.

The celebrated Indian film director Padma Vibushan Dr. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, in a short address described Lester as "a remarkable filmmaker – one of the greatest living filmmakers in the world today". Preservation of films made by the man who laid the foundation of a national cinema in Sri Lanka should be one of the key objectives of the Foundation, he said. He recalled how ever since he watched 'Gamperaliya' ("the most unexpected film", as he put it) when it was screened at the Indian Film Festival in 1965, he had been a great admirer of Lester.

"Both our countries are blessed with humidity and heat which are the real enemies of films", he quipped referring to the daunting task of preserving films.

Inaugural oration

When Professor Wimal Dissanayake went up to deliver the inaugural 'Lester James Peries Oration' and announced that he had been given thirty minutes to speak in English and follow up with a summary in Sinhala of not more than 7-8 minutes, I don't think many of us took him seriously. We are so used to speakers going well over the time given to them and really don't know when or how to stop when they are before a mike and see a big audience. Moreover, Wimal's theme was 'Sinhala cinema and the social imaginary: The work of Lester James Peries' – quite an exhaustive one. Being a disciplined orator he didn't exceed the time limit – a new experience to most of us. His time management was perfect.

It was a pleasure listening to him – he was so lucid and his style of presentation was so simple and straightforward with hardly any jargon being used. Introducing Lester as "unquestionably the greatest filmmaker that Sri Lanka has produced", he also placed him as one of the greatest of Asian filmmakers.

The focal point of his talk was the idea of cultural modernity intersecting with the notion of social imaginary which, he said, marks an important point in the history of Sinhala cinema and identified Lester as the person responsible for the conjunction. His trilogy 'Gamperaliya', 'Kaliyugaya' and 'Yuganthaya' based on three highly acclaimed novels by the foremost Sinhala novelist Martin Wickremasinghe precipitated this moment, Wimal said. "With 'Rekawa' Peries inaugurated the art cinema in Sri Lanka; it constituted a formidable challenge to the existing and bemused film culture, such as it was. However, it is with 'Gamperaliya' that he found a perfect concordance between the chosen experience and the desired supple form leading to a cogent lyrical poise." He then went on to elaborate on how the three films capture admirably the social fabric of Sri Lanka. The Foundation should upload the website and publish Wimal's oration "hot hot", as they say.

Wimal has been for many years the Senior Fellow at the East-West Center and the Head of its Film Programme. He was also the professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Hong Kong. He is now much in demand as keynote speaker at numerous international forums. The trustees had picked the ideal person for the inaugural lecture and it certainly was an auspicious beginning. In fact, Wimal did mention that Yadamini, who, I learnt, had studied in the US had invited him. A fine start it was.
There were no other speakers and we retired for refreshments after the vote of thanks.

Having enjoyed spicy 'Ganga Addara' coconut crusted pearls of 'Sagara Jalaya' , 'Delovak Atara' temptation, 'Baddegama' kurakkan roti & kohila canapé, 'Kaliyugaya' fish salad sandwich, 'Wekande Walawwa' polos stuffed 'Akkara Paha' maalu miris, and 'Ransalu' wrapped mousse made out of 'Madolduwa' anoda, we left having spent a really fruitful evening.

While walking out, it just crossed my mind that Kumar de Silva, a trustee who preferred to take a back seat, would have had a lot to do with the planning having proved that he is a man with a lot of 'Adahas'.
It certainly was a fitting tribute to Lester who celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of winning the first-ever international award in 1951 when Great Britain awarded him the 'The Mioni Cinema Challenge Cup' for 'Soliloquy', and Sumitra who completed half a century in the film world joining the set of 'Sandeshaya' as a young assistant director to Lester.

It's yet another occasion to wish them long life and strength to continue with their 'daayakathwaya' to further improve Sri Lankan cinema.

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