Sumitra Peries: The woman we forgot

Photo by Dayan Vitharana

The High Level Road, which connects Colombo to the Kelani Valley, was completed the year Sumitra Peries was born. The results were dramatic. Land prices went up, people began moving in, and marshy, hitherto uninhabitable lands along the route were filled up to make way for palatial houses. Colombo encountered a dramatic shift over this: by the time the Road was complete the epicentre of the city had moved from Pettah, Maradana, Kotahena, and Mutwal to a wasteland known as the Maradana cinnamon gardens. With Race Course and Royal College moving to this wasteland, the elite pounced on it. The transformation was quick.

Not surprisingly the new epicentres of the city reflected ethnic, class, and even caste patterns. Vinod Moonesinghe tells me that the elite, when they were not searching for land in Colpetty, Cotta, and Cinnamon Gardens, built residential bungalows towards the beach. With the High Level Road complete, there was a land grab in the area from Thummulla and Bambalapitiya on the one hand to Thimbirigasya and Wellawatta on the other. The distinctions became clear: while Bambalapitiya and Wellawatta became colonial enclaves, the area from Thummulla to Thimbirigasyaya became more Buddhist, all the way to Narahenpita and Kirulapone.

Havelock Town also became a colonial enclave, and over the years it became a residential area for administrators; the locals lived farther away. After the establishment of the Colombo Municipal Council in 1865 the surrounding areas were occupied by colonial bureaucrats, and as such the lanes there were named after them after they had passed on: Elibank, Skelton, Layard.

Sumitra Peries and her husband Lester came to live in one of these lanes, which connected Havelock Town to Bambalapitiya, in 1969. People refer to it as Dickman’s Road even now, of course, though it was renamed Lester James Peries Mawatha when the man regarded as the father of our cinema turned 92. Every time I pass that lane, however, all I can think of is one thing: why did they name it Peiris and not Peries? It’s one of those mistakes you forget and pass by, but to me it’s perturbing, since it shows that they weren’t even bothered to get his spellings right.

Lester passed away more than a year ago and Sumitra no longer lives in the road named after her husband. A few weeks back, she moved to Mirihana. The move for me was symbolic, because the house she and her husband lived in was more than just a house; it was a cultural epicentre, one which every other artist entered and left (though they never quite left).

I can think of actors, scriptwriters, editors, and cinematographers who visited that house; I can count the number of those who haven’t on my fingers; and I can think of one or two figures in the industry who, in their early years, spent hours talking with Lester. “I still chew the cud of those days in my idle moments,” Tissa Abeysekara, speaking for all those figures, once wrote of the hours he spent with the two.

But then, whenever someone talks of Lester and pays tribute to him, they miss out on the person who stood by him when he could no longer stand for himself. They forget Sumitra. It’s as though she never lived. Why?

All in all, the critical fraternity in Sri Lanka didn’t do justice to her. Partly this has to do with the fact that while Lester rebutted his critics, she never once wrote. She was, as she put it, more a filmmaker than a poet, which is saying a lot given that her films reek of a cathartic lyricism to be found elsewhere only in her husband’s work.

In Vaishnavee, Yashoda Wimaladharma does what Gamini Fonseka did more than 20 years ago in Loku Duwa: divert the story to an entirely different mood and terrain. Fonseka did it rather effortlessly, since a man who was depicted as THE hero (and OUR hero) for over 30 years couldn’t just be depicted as a beastly womaniser without jolting the audience. What could hence have been a weakness on the director’s and the editor’s part, therefore, proved to be the best point about the movie. Fonseka’s intrusion into the story isn’t forced, or compelled artificially. As the father of the protagonist’s friend, he was expected. He is as hilarious as he is dislikeable; a near-perfect culmination to a near-perfect career.

What Fonseka achieved in Loku Duwa, Yashoda tried to achieve in Vaishnavee. But Sumitra, who directed both, intended something different. The first half of Vaishnavee is about the innocence of its locale and characters. The second half turns the tables on everyone, including our protagonist, Osanda, and his cousin, Ruchira, when Yashoda’s unnamed puppet-come-alive starts “terrorising” them. Yashoda is by default an actress who can convey both empathy and coldness, sometimes at once. But one senses an incongruity in Sumitra’s movie, partly owing to her. We never properly understand her intentions, and her passing remark right before the story closes (that love can’t be taken for granted) is at best vague.

Some of the best movies are born from moral simplification. The morality of Vaishnavee is rooted in Osanda’s feelings of hurt at being rejected by his betrothed, who elopes with another man. What complexity we are given, as viewers, we get through his impulse to carve what he liked about his betrothed into a puppet: in effect, he is using the puppet to visualise what he could not get from the woman he was to marry. So when that puppet does come alive, she is as confused as we are as to why Osanda does not take to her. And so she does the inevitable. She taunts him. It’s the kind of moral simplification discerning artists go for in their later careers.

Elegantly composed, indulgently shot, the movies of Sumitra Peries have never been reviewed with the frame of reference they deserve. Critics have pigeonholed her, either as a feminist filmmaker or as her husband’s wife. Even the writers of that otherwise ambitious book, Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, end up condemning her on the basis of feminist ambitions she probably wasn’t even aware of. By categorising her as a woman’s director, they rationalise her artistic failures as failures of intention and ambition. The fact that her best work, Sagara Jalaya, was unnoticed when it was first released speaks a lot about who is being selective and unfair by her.

I think Sumitra’s greatest achievement has been her ability to transform popular fiction into serious cinema. By serious I am not pigeonholing her: I am merely suggesting that when compared to the emotional hysterics of Leticia Boteju, Edward Mallawarachchi, and (to a lesser extent) Karunasena Jayalath, her movies are more composed. There are sequences of astonishing power which are held back so poignantly that they can only belong to the cinema: Vasanthi Chathurani bemoaning her cruel destiny at the end of Gehenu Lamayi, Ravindra Randeniya murdering his lover (Geetha Kumarasinghe) and her daughter in Maya, and Geetha discovering her lover’s duplicity in Loku Duwa. Watching these makes one realise that her foray into the movies was informed, not by the romanticism of Renoir (as with her husband), but by the austerity of Bresson and Dreyer.

Sometimes however, she gives into what can only be described as a tendency to overindulge. One sees it in Gehenu Lamayi (the last half-hour), Ganga Addara (Nirmala’s wedding), Yahalu Yeheli (Mudithalatha fighting with her cousin on a stack of hay), and Loku Duwa (towards the end). One does not see it in Sagara Jalaya, because it’s her least imperfect movie: consequently, even in sequences which might have been overindulgent by the standards she set for her other work (like the final confrontation between Heen Kella and her sister), we are subtly made to forget how overwrought they are. In that sense Loku Duwa was a sequel of sorts to Sagara Jalaya, since both are about women as hard-done-by fighters (unlike Mudithalatha from Yahalu Yeheli, who could only be depicted as a fighter by having the narrative manipulated).

Shooting “Loku Duwa” (Photo courtesy of Ranjith Rubasinghe)

Critics have pinned her down as a woman’s artist, forgetting that her movies aren’t about women, rather about women trying to be more than who they are. To be sure, they are sometimes subservient to a largely patriarchal world, but even then they aspire for more than they have.

In that sense Kusum in Gehenu Lamayi is more rebellious than her sister Soma (Jenita Samaraweera), who dreams of life in the movies. She falls in love with a man she is cautioned against marrying (owing to her social standing), and in the subsequent clash between her desire and insecurity, we come across our cinema’s first real tragic female figure, overshadowing even her sister’s tragedy, which we anyway expected given her hubris.

Sumitra came to the movies as a director when a veritable onslaught of directors and actresses and scriptwriters ensured that women would be depicted as the fighters they had been told not to be all their lives. These actresses came in a particular order: Nadeeka Gunasekara, Swarna Mallawarachchi, Anoja Weerasinghe. But there was a contradiction in some of the movies which featured them. Fearless, daring, and frequently aggressive, they were represented as harbingers of intense, sometimes forced eroticism, which repelled us from them. (A case in point was Tissa Abeysekara’s Mahagedara, where Geetha Kumarasinghe, who was supposed to awaken our moral conscience, actually nauseated us, thereby making hypocrites of us all.) Even in otherwise landmark productions like Hansa Vilak and Thunweni Yamaya, the eroticism was intellectualised, not felt.

None of Sumitra’s movies depict sex, but what eroticism there is, she doesn’t nauseate us to the point of titillation. After the unforgiving violence of Duwata Mawaka Misa, she returned to form with Sakman Maluwa, where love is no longer expressive, complicated, repelling. On the contrary, her later work, right until Vaishnavee, is morally both simple and profound, simple because her craftsmanship comes through effortlessly, and profound because even her most banal sequences enchant us.

Given that it’s her most recent movie, Vaishnavee indicates the latter point well: its characters, like Osanda’s father and grandmother, are defined in clear-cut, empathetic terms. They are not overwrought simply because she doesn’t need them to be. She has reached that place where a director can go on shooting a character talking, talking, and talking in a static, square frame while retaining the audience’s interest.

It’s a truism that can be sustained anywhere that directors, unlike novelists, painters, and composers, tend to become more frenzied as the years pass by. This is especially true of continental directors: Tarkovsky, Bresson, Resnais, and Antonioni. They hold on to their cinematic style, often adamantly (because after all they think that’s the only style that matters). Sometimes this works, often it does not, which is why the later Bresson is not as great as the early Bresson and why the later Resnais is more bearable, and in some respects better, than the early Resnais. Sumitra belongs to the ranks of the former. But this is to overlook her real achievement.

When Vasanthi Chathurani breaks down at the end of Gehenu Lamayi, when she commits suicide at the end of Ganga Addara, and when the boy writes a letter on the sand to his uncle (“to come work for you so that I can help my mother”) in Sagara Jalaya, we stand away, encountering another’s helplessness, helpless ourselves. We share in her protagonist’s suffering, but we can’t really go beyond pity; she brings us closer to yet also distances us from their plight. Some of the most poignant films I’ve seen have this quality, and it is there in her films.

For the critics this was not enough. Ananda Jayaweera in a review called Gehenu Lamayi “an anti-women film to beat them all”, irrelevant considering the films he compared it to: Duhulu Malak (where the wife, after dabbling in infidelity, returns to her husband), Veera Puran Appu (where the wife stays away from her husband’s exploits), and Ahasin Polawata (where the wife puts up with her husband’s irrational anger). The truth was that there was nothing anti-women about Sumitra’s films; to say otherwise would be to consider some of the most sympathetic portrayals of women in cinematic history as, what else, anti-women.

Sumitra wasn’t just a filmmaker, of course. She led other lives. She was passionate about botany, chess, and the bohemian life she lived with her brother, Kuru, when the two of them dined and wined in Naples and Malta aboard a 34 foot yacht that later anchored off the coast of the French Riviera. Like her father, who had a passion for history, and her brother, who had a passion for prose and poetry, Sumitra did her studies in a conventional stream (science) and realised she was not going to follow a conventional career (medicine). It was during her stay in the Riviera that, as she told me once, “we began to question our purpose in life.”

She realised her limitations early on. “I didn’t have the discipline to be a writer or poet and I certainly did not have the training to be a historian.” That was when she picked up her first passion, photography. She got so engrossed in it that when she returned to Sri Lanka years later, she would regularly take photographs of her cousins, nephews, and nieces, and cover weddings of relatives with a 16mm Bolex camera.

From there she decided on what path she would take. Soon afterwards she went to Switzerland and enrolled at the University of Lausanne to study French, so that she could “get into a school for photography in France.” But by the time she was “done with Lausanne”, circumstances had compelled her to take to another path. She found herself in the Ceylon Legation in Paris, where she met Lester and was advised to go study at the London School of Film Technique.

At London, she remembers, “I picked up everything I could about the cinema and I made friends with many of those who would become the leading figures in the Free Cinema Movement in Britain.” Among these figures was a director who would until his death remain close to her and Lester, Lindsay Anderson.

What happened next, we know: she returned to Sri Lanka, was called aboard Lester’s second film, Sandeshaya, and married him in 1963.

Right after she became the editor of Lester’s first few films, she carved a path as an editor of documentaries. Her first job was a film about fishing, Home from the Sea, which had Gamini Fonseka and Sujatha Thotawatte (Titus’s wife) as a fishing couple. It was followed by three other documentaries: Forty Leagues from Paradise (about Sri Lanka, done for the Tourist Board), Too Many Too Soon (about family planning, done with Lester), and a piece on the Kandy Perahera. These were followed in the eighties by a few stints in television, including adaptations of Gehenu Lamayi and Golu Hadawatha, all of which fitted in with her feature films.

None of these works, documentary, feature, silent, or short, bore fruit. She came quite close to a box-office hit with Ganga Addara, but that was produced by someone else. Of the money it earned she probably got a pittance. She also came surprisingly close to a hit with her debut. In fact the money earned from Gehenu Lamayi was “enough for us to buy a new house”, but the problem was that after the government changed in 1977, “the rupee’s value fell down dramatically.” The value of the money they had invested was not the value of the money they would recoup.

Another director, facing these circumstances, would have given up. Sumitra didn’t. She went on to make nine more films, not all of which stood up to the standard she tried to reach in her first four films and reached in her fifth, Sagara Jalaya. We are all richer for this, but I wonder every time I pass that street she no longer lives in: did we ever make her feel that we appreciated what she did? Someone told me that we like to draw and film and paint and dance, but we are averse to helping those who draw and film and paint and dance. We are a nation of “ungratefuls”, in that sense.

The writer can be reached at

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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