Cinematic Great
Lester James Peiris

World recognised Screen Writer, Film Maker and Director extraordinaire

Compiled by Kumar de Silva and Tina Edward Gunawardhana

The early days

Lester James Peiris was born to a well reputed Roman Catholic family in Dehiwala on April 05, 1919. His father Dr James Francis Peiris was a medical doctor who graduated from Scotland and his mother was Ann Gertude Winifred Jayasuriya. Lester had two brothers Ivan (the celebrated artist), Noel and a sister Erica. Lester began his education at St.Mary’s College, Dehiwala and then later joined St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. From his young days he was more attentive to the arts and was inspired by films he was able to watch through projectors made available to the family.

The rise of his creative talents

Lester was first awarded a 8mm Kodasco projector by his father when he was eleven years old. By the time he turned 17, he was pressured by his father, to train for the priesthood, but he gave up his studies after a year and turned to writing about theatre and cinema. He started writing to the Ceylon Daily News and three years later he joined the Times of Ceylon newspaper as a young journalist. During this time Lester also reviewed books for Radio Ceylon. Given his penchant for writing, Lester by this time had also written two short stories, ‘The Teacher’ and ‘The Saree’. In 1947 on the advice of his mother, Lester travelled to England to join his brother Ivan who was on a scholarship in London. While in London, Lester continued to write articles to the Ceylon Daily News under a coloumn ‘Letter on Arts from London’. Lester’s fascination with English literature and culture of the immediate post war period was part of the English avant garde. During this period he made several short films including ‘Farewell to Childhood’ (1950).

Starting out at the Government Film Unit

On his return to Sri Lanka Lester joined the Government Film Unit (GFU) and worked with Ralph Keene who was the Director of GFU. At first Lester assisted Keene to make a documentary film ‘Nelungama’.  Later two documentary films ‘Conquest in the Dry Zone’ (1954) on the malaria epidemic and ‘Be Safe or Be Sorry’ (1955) were produced for the GFU by his own creation. The film ‘Conquest in the Dry Zone’ won the Diploma of Honor at the Venice Film Festival in 1954. By 1955 Lester had directed 12 shorts in the UK and Sri Lanka and he bade farewell to the GFU as he wanted to realise his ambition of producing Sinhala films on his own.

The films he produced

His debut ‘Rekawa’ made in 1956, is considered groundbreaking for its realistic portrayal of the ethos of the rural Sinhalese, in a newly-independent Ceylon. ‘Rekawa’ was a gentle portrait of a young boy who becomes a village healer – with tragic results. Although well received at Cannes, it did not win any awards but won wide critical claim and with this film Lester had started charting his own line of destiny. In 1964 Lester married Sumithra Gunawardene who later herself emerged as a director of feature films and television drama. His subsequent films included ‘Sandeshaya’ (1960), ‘Gamperaliya’ (1964), ‘Delovak Athara’ (1966), ‘Ran Salu’ (1967), ‘Golu Hadawatha’ (1968), ‘Akkara Paha’ (1969), ‘Nidhanaya’ (1970), ‘Desa Nisa’ (1972), ‘The God King’ (1975), ‘Madol Duwa’ (1976), ‘Ahasin Polowata’ (1978), ‘Pinhami’ (1979), ‘Veera Puran Appu’ (n 1979), ‘Baddegama’ (1980), ‘Kaliyugaya’ (1982), ‘Yuganthaya’ (1983), ‘Awaragira’ (1995), ‘Wekande Wallauwa’ (2002) and ‘Amma Varune’ (2007).  His final contribution to the film industry was ‘Vaishnavee’ which premiered on his 99th birthday. While Lester created the concept and the story, the film was directed by his wife Sumithra.

In all of these films Lester’s major preoccupation was with the Sri Lankan family in the process of dissolution. For him the family was the microcosm of the social, political and economic changes in the world outside. This made his films more relatable to the masses and in turn endeared him more to his appreciative audiences.

Winning awards

After receiving his first nomination at the Cannes Film Festival in 1957 with his film ‘Rekawa’, Lester’s film ‘Gamperaliya’ earned him not only the ‘Golden Peacock for Best Film’ at the International Film Festival of India in 1963 but also the ‘Golden Head of Palenque Award’ from the Mexico Film Festival. In 2003 at the 56th Cannes International Film Festival, UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsura presented the Organisation’s ‘Fellini Gold Medal’ to Lester James Peries. His movie ‘Wekande Walauwa’, was Sri Lanka’s first ever submission for the Academy Awards while the film ‘Nidhanaya’ was included among the top 100 films of the century by the Cinémathèque Française. Internationally and nationally Lester won numerous awards. In 2007 the Government of Sri Lanka conferred on him the ‘Sri Lankabhimanaya’, the highest civilian honour. In 1997 the French Government awarded him the ‘Commandeur in the Ordre des Arts et des Letres’.

The father of Sri Lankan cinema

Having dedicated his entire life to making films, which earned him the respect and recognition of his peers from across the globe, Lester was involved in the film world until his death. In an era where Sri Lankan film was heavily influenced by Indian cinema, Lester changed the face of Sri Lankan cinema. A contemporary and close friend of Satyajith Ray, Lester James Peiris is considered the father of Sri Lankan cinema who created an international and national identity for Sri Lankan films.