Lester, as he was known, had celebrated his 99th birthday on Apr 5 in the presence of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and a host of his film land colleagues.
Peries was born on April 5, 1919, and developed an early love for cinema after his father gifted him an 8mm projector. Peries dropped out of college to work as a journalist, and was also involved with theatre. He travelled to London in 1946 to meet his brother, the future painter Ivan Peries, where he trained in filmmaking and made three experimental short films, including Soliloquy.
Before the advent of Lester, Sinhalese cinema was a carbon copy of Tamil cinema from across the Palk Strait, with all its songs, dances and over-acting. Till the mid 60s, a good number of directors, producers and music directors were from Madras and Salem. This meant that Sinhalese cinema did not reflect Sinhalese culture authentically. But Lester changed it all, despite his Westernised upbringing and his sojourn in London.
He was not prolific, having made only 20 feature films in a career spanning five decades. But what he made were classics, which have stood the test of time.
“Lester James Peries is acknowledged as the pioneer of authentic Sinhala cinema. It was he who created, in every sense of the term, an indigenous cinema in both substance and style. It was also Lester who first gained worldwide recognition for Sinhala cinema,” writes DBS.Jeyaraj, a Sri Lankan film critic.
Peries’ classics were: ‘Rekava’ (Line of Destiny), ‘Gamperaliya’ (Changes in the Village) and ‘Nidhanaya’ (Treasure). Though he lived in an age of political churning, with Sri Lanka going through rapid political changes, Lester did not make political films as such. In fact he made “Amma Waruney” a subtle anti-war film at the height of the war in 2006 when the trend was to make the soldier a hero. This film highlighted the plight of a widow in those times.
Lester’s stories were about the family as he viewed the family as the microcosm of society. Lester’s greatest movie however was “Nidhanaya”(Treasure) made in 1970. It won the Royal Lion award at the Venice film festival. It is also included in the global list of 100 best films to be ever made that was compiled by the Cinematic Institute of France to mark the World Film centenary.
Legendary Lester James Peries passed away on Sunday in Colombo. He was 99. He is survived by his wife, Sumitra Peries, a well-known filmmaker in her own right and former diplomatic ambassador.