sumithra peiris

Sumitra Peries: The woman we forgot


The High Level Road, which connected Colombo to the Kelani Valley, was completed the year Sumitra Peries was born, in 1934. The results were extraordinary. 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 Sinhala and 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 colonial 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 Road, Skelton Road, Layard’s Road.

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 almost a year ago and Sumitra no longer lives in the street 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. 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 artists and figures, once wrote of the hours he spent with them.

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.

When Vasanthi Chathurani breaks down at the end of Gehenu Lamayi, when she commits suicide at the end of Ganga Addara, and when that 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, after a proposal, 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 fell down dramatically.” The value of the money they had invested, in other words, 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.

By Uditha Devapriya

Photographs courtesy of Manusha Lakshan and the Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries Foundation

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