Reminiscing lady celebrity in Sri Lankan films Sumithra Peries’ who bid adieu at 88 years .
The film industry mourns the loss of a true imaginative, Kala Keerthi Dr Sumithra Peries, the octogenarian 88 years old female filmmaker who devoted her life to the art of cinema. She had expired at a private nursing home in Colomobo on the 19th January 2023. From her ground breaking debut film that pioneered new talent to the world, to her numerous award-winning films, Sumithra’s bearing on Sri Lanka’s film industry is indisputable.
Kala Keerthi Dr Sumithra known as the ‘Poetess”( kividiya) of the Sinhala Cinema ,first female film director in Sri Lanka, was Born on 24rh March 1934 to parents ‘ in a Marxist family’ at their ancestral house” Boralugoda Walauwwa” in Talduwa, Avissawela.Her father Henry better known as Harry was a proctor at the Avissawella courts mother Harriete Wickremasinghe. Her father hailed from a political family been the brother of Phillip and Robert Gunawardena.Our present Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena is her cousin brother. Sumithra had three siblings an elder brother Gamini, elder sister Chandralatha and a younger brother Ranjith. She had reminisced a pleasant young era in a conducive environment where a lake had been flowing by the side of her dwelling. Sumithra reminisced though they had a car at home she used to travel in the ‘Buckcki Cart’, how she enjoyed in New Year celebrations, in swings built for her, how she made ‘sellam bath’ etc. Sumithra had quipped that the kids today have no such opportunities only could view such scenes via a cinematic creation.
After her Montessori education at St Mary’s College Avissawela. she had been boarded at Vishaka Vidyalaya, Colombo 4 having lived in a separate house but her mother had expired when she was only fourteen years old. Sumithra had entered Aquinas College for her advanced level. After her mother’s death elder brother six years her senior had left by ship as those days there were no flights to France in search of greener pastures. He instead of practicing as a lawyer possessing a degree had taken this decision. From her younger days Sumithra too has had dreams of educating herself in foreign countries. Her brother Gamini Gunawardena had encouraged her to achieve her dream by asking her to come to France by ‘boat’, then living in a Yacht visiting country to country. Initially she had been admitted to a university in Switzerland which she had disliked and returned to France as it was more developed. When in France her correspondences from native Sri Lanka ,she had requested to be sent to the Sri Lankan embassy. There she had met Dr Lester James Peries’ who had come for a film festival with his new film “Rekawa”.Sumithra had met him again at Ambassador ,Vernon Mendis’ residence. Dr Lester had met Gamini, Sumithra’s brother In Sri Lanka while doing advertising for Rekawa at the Lionel Wendt theatre who had told that her sister Sumithra is in France, not decided yet on what to do.There, Dr Lester had given her a letter to the effect that she had worked for him. Dr Lester had told her instead of learning the language of France for one year to enter the London School of Film Technique, where during a two year course ,she was awarded a Diploma in film direction and production beginning in 1957.Sumithra had been the only female who had studied in that course.
After Sumithra’s diploma her brother had requested her to come back to Sri Lanka to join Sir Lester James Peries’ in his next film ‘Sandeshaya’.But as she needed experience had worked in a London film based firm “ Mai Harris” performing subtilling. As Sumithra had been overseas for over three years had thought it is better to come back to native Sri Lanka to serve in the film industry. On return to Sri Lanka Sumithra had worked as Assistant Director in a film making Company ‘Cine Lanka” of Anton Wickremasinghe who had made the duo, later as directors. The duo Lestor and Sumithra via this close association had fallen in love had tied the nuptial knot in year 1964 had been together for fifty four years until the demise of Dr Lester James Peries’ in year 2018. Sumithra has reminisced that there had been no interference to her film work by her husband who always appreciated what she had done while staying always close to her work. Six years after marriage for one and half years a scholarship had been won by Sumithra in France to which Dr Lester James Peries’ had encouraged her to attend. Sumithra quipped that apart from been husband Dr Lestor had guided her in all matters including life.Sumithra reminisced that for the Metro film festival in Manila Dr Lester had given his ticket to accompany Punya Heendeniya and Henry Jayasena taking the film “ Gamperaliya” for one month which had got extended for three months or so.The freedom given to Sumithra she reminisced as enormous hailing Dr Lester’s immaculate qualities.
The first endeavour of Sumithra had been in the film “Gamperaliya” in year 1960 where she had been responsible for editing which she explained in a television dialog is placing all pictures in the relevant manner, cutting off excess areas.Sumithra became the first female person done editing in a film in Sri Lanka having learnt the craft while in England.Sumithra had quipped that for her to be the assistant director was a more cumbersome process having to look into more areas. Sumithra had also been the editor for other films among them she had liked most Dayananda Gunawardena’s first film “Bak Maha Deege” in year 1969.Sumithra did emphasise that a huge responsible lies on the editing person as the success of a film has a huge say on editing
Sumitra’s ensuing films have been significantly admired which had won numerous awards. Her films discover a varied range of topics which showcase her resourcefulness as a filmmaker. They have been extensively respected by viewers and commentators alike, and have been screened at prestigious film festivals around the globe. Sumitra continued to make films that vibrate many audiences and leave a durable impression on the Sri Lankan and international cinema landscape
Sumithra’s first opportunity for directing was in the film ‘Gehenu Lamai” in year 1978.Though she had got this opportunity earlier she had stayed till she was competent to undertake this task.Sumithra had read the book “Gehenu Lamai” several times before she launched on it.For the role of ‘Kusum” she had searched for two long years having gone to many schools to find the suitable school girl.Afer finding Vasanthi Chathurani from her school in Gampaha was not that interested hence had asked her to read the book ‘Genehu Lamai” to convince herself , had taken permission from her home had commenced shooting at one of Sumithra’s properties in Beddegana as it would be convenient to Vasanthi. As her frames could not be taken Dr Lester had advised to go to her school “Bosco” in Gampaha to commence shooting which was successful as the cameraman Anandan’s daughter ‘Chandi Shyama’ was her colleague which was a success. Sumithra had added that then the real talent of Vasanthi Chathurani was exhibited. After the film was successfully completed Dr Lester had kissed her and added “you’ve done a good job”.Sumithra did quip that Dr Lester was behind her for most of the shooting but reading a book allowing Sumithra to perform independently without his interference.
In the 1980s, Sumitra Peries played a crucial role in defining the potential of Sri Lanka’s film industry. She was a member of the Presidential Commission for two years, tasked with conducting an inquiry into all aspects of the film sector, including its troubles, data, public beliefs, and proposals. Her contributions to this commission have been widely acknowledged as influential in addressing the challenges facing the industry at the time. She played a key role in identifying the issues and providing answers that helped to improve the Sri Lankan film industry.
After “Gehenu Lamai’ Sumithra directed “Ganga Addara” in year 1980 after which many producers had been behind Sumithra to direct more films.Sumithra quipped that all wanted films like “Ganga Addara” which was absolutely not in her favour.Her next direction was “Yahalu Yeheli” in year 1982 cameraman been Donald Karunaratne in which Sumithra had endeavoured with a new camera lens to make a difference but it too had been in the same standard in the same stature as in her previous films. Thereafter it was her direction in “Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuwa Oba.Hinda” In year 1986.Sumithra commended the acting of Swarna and the small child. Then she directed the film “Maya in year 1982 where Sumithra again commended the portrayal of a young girl from St Paul’s Milagiriya.In year 1996 she directed ‘Loku Duwa’ with Malini Fonseka. In year 1997 she reminisced the film directed “Duwaka Mawaka Misa” with Ranjan Ramanayake and Sangeetha Weeraratne. which she could not completed as she was selected as the Sri Lankan envoy in France and Spain. Sumithra had returned to Sri Lanka after a few months to complete it.After Sumithra’s tenure as the Sri Lankan ambassador had directed the film “Sakman Maluwa”,in year 2003, thereafter she directed “Yahaluwo” in year 2007.Then Dr Lestor had written a story on a ‘puppet”, Sumithra too wanted to deviate from her inimitable style joining with Tony Ranasinghe and Dr Lester as then the technology was not that advance. This endeavour had taken a lot of time in year 2018 the film was titled “Vaishnavee” which was incidentally Sumithra’s last film direction. She was the first Sri Lankan director to shoot with one of the most advanced cameras in the modern world: the Red Epic. She shot her last movie ‘Vaishnavee’ with the camera and laid the foundation for the next generation of digital cinema in Sri Lanka. This shows her commitment to set the newest technology to excellent purpose.
This was incidentally her tenth film direction was hoping to continue but could not make her intention to succeed. Sumithra had quipped that for the duo there was no life beyond film directing. Sumithra added that to commemorate fifty years in the annals of Goa film festivals it was “Gamperaliya’ in the forefront as it was the film which won the first ‘Golden Peacock” award also fifty years back.That award and her ‘lifetime achievement” award both were stolen during the funeral of Dr Lester James Peries’ which were able to recover owing to the efforts of the media and police. Sumithra reminisced that the award from the ‘Goa’ festival and the other above two are noble remembrances to all Sri Lankans.The duo had not made many teledramas the most remembered one had been “Golu Hadawatha” starring Henry Jayasena’s son Sudaraka and Anoma his wife whom Sumithra had met at the Hatton National Bank.At a recent interview Sumithra had said she now feels the loss of her husband Dr Lester James Peries’ as he was her best friend in life with superb qualities. Sumithra’s life was dedicated to cinema. But stated “making movies is no walk in the park. However, that is my passion and I would have taken the same career path even in the modern world,” words of the ‘poetess( Kividiya) of Sinhala cinema.
From a family of wealth and political rivalry, Sumitra Peries rose with a unique vision in life. Her upbringing, a catalyst for her art, gave her a perception that set her apart. In a male-controlled world, she fearlessly navigated with endurance and involvement, a legacy inherited. Her films, a reflection of her understanding, explored society and politics, with thought-provoking labelling.
A trailblazer and true artiste, her name will live on for her contributions to the film industry, both national and international. She used her craft to shed light on the world. Sumitra Peries’ will forever be remembered as the shining lady of the film industry.May she attain supreme bliss of Nirvanna
Sunil Thenabadu e mail sthenabadu @hotmail.com..whatsApp 0061444533242