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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 943

Dr Lester James Peiris, Father of Sri Lankan Cinema –celebrates 90th Birthday.

By T.K.Premadasa

The pioneer who dedicated his wide knowledge of cinematography for amelioration of cinema industry reaches 90th birthday on April 05, 2009. The inestimable contribution made by this great son of Sri Lanka to bring Sinhala cinema to the pinnacle of its glory is historical. At the time Indian film industry had the influence in Sri Lanka monopolizing their power of technology on production of Sri Lankan films, the cultural background was almost South Indian.

Sri Lankan producers were inclined to produce films on commercial basis caused by the want of technical infrastructure. It was this young cameraman contemplated to exert his cinematic know how toward resilience of the film industry by his influence of productions depicting indigenous culture. He is the world acclaimed cinematographer Dr Lester James Peiris who established the global image of Sri Lanka in cinema industry.

Lester James Peiris was born to a well reputed Roman Catholic family in Dehiwala on April 05, 1919 residence of which was known as ‘Sinhagiri’ His father Dr James Francis Peiris was a medical doctor graduated in Scotland. Ms Ann Gertrude Winifred Jayasuriya a student of St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo was his mother who became the first girl to pass the Senior Cambridge Examination from the same school. He had two brothers Ivan & Noel and a sister Erica.

His brother Ivan reputably a skilled painter was a close associate of the internationally famed artist George Keit. Lester’s life was significantly influenced by these professional artists. He started his preliminary studies at St. Mary’s Primary College, Dehiwala later known as Holly Family Convent and later joined St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya.

He was more attentive towards lectures on Arts inspired by the films he was fortunate to watch through projectors found available to him. He was eleven years old when he was awarded a 8 mm Kodasco projector by his father. He started writing to the blue pages of the Ceylon Daily News at the age of 17. In 1939 he joined Times of Ceylon newspaper and displayed his skills under the Indian Editor Frank Moraes and also reviewed books in Radio Ceylon (now SLBC). “The Teacher” & “The Saree” are two short stories written by him. In view of Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne the young Lester enjoyed the presentation of the book called “Cathedral and a Star” authored by him to Pandith Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.

Lester traveled to England in 1947 as advised by mother to join his brother Ivan who was on a scholarship in London. This young journalist of competent skills in journalism wrote articles to Ceylon Daily News column from London on the request of the Editor Moraes under the heading “Letter on Arts from London”. Lester’s debut in production was the "Farewell to Childhood" in 1950 a short film based on the story written by him called "Saree".

The Amateur Cine World Silver Plaque was awarded to this experimental film among the ten best films produced in Great Britain. His second film was “A Sinhalese Dance” and the final film “Soliloquy” was produced in London in 1951 a 20 minute short film based on threefold love story. The Mini Cinema Cup for short films was awarded to this production for its best technical proficiency by the Institute of Amateur and Experimental Film Makers Festival-Great Britain (1951).

On his return to Sri Lanka Lester joined the Government Film Unit (GFU) and worked with Ralph Keene who was the Director of GFU. In the first instance Lester assisted Keene to make a documentary film “Nelungama”. Later two documentary films “Conquest in the Dry Zone” (1954) on 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. He left the GFU in 1955 after his ambition for production of Sinhala films on his own.

Significantly the year 1956 became historic by the revolutionary changes took effect on political, social and cultural fields in Sri Lanka in the interest of the entire nation. “Rekhawa” the debut of his production disporting his extraordinary knowledge in the technique of film industry by Lester James Peiris in December 1956 earned him a commendable reputation as the best production of Sri Lankan Cinema. Starting from his masterly production “Rekhawa” this great Cinematographer accredited with an abundance of knowledgeable skills in film industry has elevated the Sri Lankan cinema to the zenith of its glory by a numerous production of films winning international awards, an inestimable honor to the nation.

Dr Lester James Peiris has featured about 20 films during the last fifty years of his experience in film industry enlivening Sri Lankan cinema with accolade after accolade both locally and abroad.

Sri Lankan nation owes him a debt of gratitude for his immeasurable account of high quality productions of international acclaim namely Rekhawa (Line of Destiny 1956), Sandeshaya (The Message 1960), Gamperaliya (Changing Village 1964), Delovak Athara (Between Two Worlds 1966), Ran Salu (The Yellow Robe 1967), Golu Hadawatha (The Silence of the Heart 1968), Akkara Paha (Five Acres of Land 1969), Nidhanaya (The Treasure 1970), Desa Nisa (The Eyes 1972), The God King (1975), Madol Duwa (Enchanted Island 1976), Ahasin Polowata (White Flowers for the Dead 1978), Pinhami (1979), Veera Puran Appu (Rebellion 1979), Baddegama (Village in the Jungle 1980), Kaliyugaya (The Era of Kalli – The Changing Village Part II, 1982), Yuganthaya (The Changing Village Part III, 1983), Awaragira (The Sunset 1995), Wekande Wallauwa (Mansion by the Lake 2002) and Amma Varune (Mothers 2007).

In addition to his contribution of documentary films to the GFU Lester has produced 10 documentary films on requests by various other institutions. Among them were “Too Many and Too Soon” (1961), “Home from the Sea” (1962), “Forward into the Future” (1964), “Steel” (1969), “Forty Leagues from Paradise” (1970), “A Dream of Kings” (1971) and “Kandy Perahera” (1971).

Appreciative expressions on perceptive vision of Dr Lester James Peiris have been articulated by world renowned professionals invariably on many occasions. It is related in the book authored by Mr Ronald Fernando that the world popular Indian Super Star late Raj Kapoor highly impressed by the movie “Rekhawa” had recommended to Sri Lankan Producer Mr.K.Gunaratnam to utilize the talents of this consummate cinematographer Lester in his future productions.

In consequence Mr Gunaratnam offered the direction of his film “Sandeshaya” to Lester James who excelled a marvelous spell of innate skills in his performance as the Director to bring the film to the pinnacle of its international acclaim.

Remarkably a number of books have been written by various scholars on the biography of this reputable character and his award winning productions. In addition a documentary film by the name “The Foot Steps of an Asian Master” was directed by Neil I.Perera in 1985 and another film “The World of Peiris” directed by Bickram Singhare on behalf of the Ministry of External Affairs, India.

He not only won the First International Award to Sri Lanka in London in early 50s but also achieved the Golden Peacock Award presented by Delhi International Award and Golden Head of Palenque Award from Mexico World Film Festival for "Gamperaliya" a story turned a new page in Sri Lankan cinema as the Best film. It was Lester who represented Sri Lanka with his film "Rekhawa" first at the Cannes Film Festival in 1957. The number of local awards won by him from Rekhawa to Amma Varune is a patent estimation of his exemplary contribution to Sri Lankan Cinema. Recognition of his productions at high degree of excellence by the International Cinema not only demands absolute technique but involves tremendous amount of dedication and determined effort.

In appreciation of his invaluable contribution to cinema he was honored with the title Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the Government of France in 1997, The Lifetime Achievement Award and the Golden Lotus by the Government of India at Delhi International Film Festival and the Asian Cinema Person at Cannes International Film Festival. He has also discreetly performed an extraordinary service as a member of the jury at the International Film Festival with distinctive responsibility. The entire nation is profoundly delighted by the global tribute of high regard extended to this indomitable personality over his intellectual expertise on film industry.

He was felicitated by his own nation with title Kala Keerthi in 1980 Issue of a stamp to mark his Birthday in 2002, highest honor of Sri Lankabhimanaya in 2007, Naming Dickman’s Rd as Dr Lester James Peiris Mawatha and a newly Orchid flower named after Lester James Peiris by M.L.SW.Wanigathunga , Chairman of Lakmalsala Amerasekera. It is significant that he was honored with the Doctorate by the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya in 1985 & 2003 respectively.

The latest facilitation for this doyen of Sri Lankan cinema is honoring of UNESCO , the world’s most presage institution for culture for his Gamperaliya production.

Dr. Lester James Peiris Sonduru Minisa has exalted the image of Sri Lanka in the global cinema with high degree of respect. He is regarded a leading cinematographer along with world renowned Satyajith Ray of India and Akerawar Korusowa of Japan. The brilliancy of resplendent contribution made by Lester to Sri Lankan cinema will be etched in the memories of the citizenry of Sri Lanka.

Chirang Jayathu Lester

T. Premadasa is the head of Corporate Affairs and Communication of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board

- Asian Tribune -

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