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Rekava by Lester James Peries is a classic in Sri Lanka (then the Dominion of Ceylon). Based in a Sri Lankan village, the film tells of Sena, a young boy, and healer, and the social frictions his abilities lay bear. Ensconced in the neo-realism that had developed across continents in cinema in the 1950s, Rekava reflected a part of Sri Lanka that was previously not shown in film.
Lester “is considered to be the father of Sinhala cinema because this was the first of ten big films that was made in Sri Lanka at the time,” explains Sumitra Peries, wife of the deceased director Lester James Peries. The title of father of Sinhalese cinema specifically alludes to the changing meaning of the term Sinhalese. “Sinhala was only a language then,” Sumitra explains. Sri Lanka had also not yet developed local filmmaking practices. “All the styles of acting, the costumes, everything was South Indian… Rekava was the first breakthrough.”
Rekava was well received at film festivals abroad. “It was shown at the Cannes Festival and was very well received,” says Sumitra. “It got a fair run in Russia and a few other countries also.” Beloved in Sri Lanka, the work of her husband would partly inspire her to make films herself later. “Rekava still remains a beloved classic of our cinema. Of the history of our cinema.”
At the time when Rekava came out, politicians were against letting it be screened publicly, as they believed it did not reflect the idealized image of village life they wanted to see. “They said there are bad people and in the village there are no bad people,” Sumitra explains. But the violence depicted in Rekava is reflected in contemporary experiences of violence in Sri Lanka also. “Today we have a lot of violence,” Sumitra continues, “due to external factors such as drugs also coming in so brutalization of society is much more and people are not tolerant and people want quick solutions and they take the law into their own hands, so there is a lot of violence. Maybe there is a lot of injustice too, because populations are growing and economic conditions are not good. So people are bearing a lot of grudges against the powers that govern us, but we – the whole society – have to be mindful.”
The violence depicted in Rekava in a way undid the idealized image of Sri Lankan villagers as gentle and docile. But it also challenged a conventional depiction of village life outside of Sri Lanka. “Even Satyajit Ray’s characters were gentle, good people – in Pather Panchali and all that,” Sumitra surmises. “But our Rekava characters were different – the father was rogue, the mother was fighting for her rights in defense of her child, and the little boy was used by them. So all those symbols were not a part of the society at that time – maybe it was a projection of the future.”
When Rekava came out, Sri Lanka was still known as Ceylon. The country had been under European colonial rule since 1505, and under British rule since 1796. Previously known as the colony of Ceylon, the people gained independence from Britain as the Dominion of Ceylon in 1948, making it part of the commonwealth. Sri Lanka would only come to be known by its current name in 1972.
“The Sinhala film was born just one year before independence, I think, in 1947. And at that time most of the films came from the Parsi theater in India in that style of acting, very theatrical and artificial. So Rekava came as a fresh depiction of real life out there. I think people still value that and they use this as a benchmark for realism.”
Speaking of the violence of the colonized experience, Sumitra says, “I think people hoped for a more just society, but the British also divided and ruled, as they divided us more than anybody else possibly. The Sinhala and the northern half were divided into a lot of isms- caste, Muslim.”
The effects of this violence are still felt in Sri Lanka today. “It would be easy for me to sit there and share these things, but people who have to live out there and who need to find food for their families… things are not comfortable.”
The violent reality that Rekava depicts reflects the grisly socio-economic reality of Sri Lanka today. “Reality is ugly now. There is no poetry in reality anymore.”
But this is where filmmaking as a narrative practice, a tool for social imagination, continues to matter. “How can you paint a picture that is not there? So you have to go to mythology or a dream world with symbolic characters and maybe hope that we are doing something meaningful.”
Lester James Peries was born into a strict Catholic family in Colombo, Ceylon in 1919. Before becoming a filmmaker, Peries worked as a journalist and later became involved in theater in the 1940s. He lived and worked as a journalist in England from 1947 until the early 1950s, when he returned to Sri Lanka to make Rekava, his first film.
Next to Rekava, his film Gamperaliya (1964) also enjoyed immense success, a film he made with the help of his wife, Sumitra Peries.
“I think he wanted to identify with the people of Sri Lanka,” Sumitra says. Both were acclaimed filmmakers in their own right and worked together on creating films that were grounded in realist traditions. “I think our commitment to making films and the joy it gave us came from making or setting up a film or talking about a film or working on film. So for both of us, that was the thing that gave us the energy to carry on.”
Lester’s commitment to human life was a trademark of his oeuvre. His work steadfastly centered the human experience. “I think at that time ethnic issues hadn’t come too much to the surface. People lived like human beings, being human and being kind to another person was important. Humanity was the most important thing. It transcends all barriers of caste and creed and language and everything. So I think he was preoccupied with the greater souls of the human being. And not peripheral things of religious divisions. He always made Buddhist films, but he has not made catholic films. I don’t know why.”
Rather than depicting the ethnic diversity of the country, Lester’s lens was drawn to the things he knew and lives he was aware of. “In his case it’s about village life, the human experience. It was more the Sinhala people that he knew. He made cinema on humanity.”
Sumitra Peries was born in a suburb 30 kilometers outside of Colombo in 1934. “When I was growing up, there was no cinema, hardly.”
After living and studying in France, where she met her future husband Lester, Sumitra went to London where she studied film at the London School of Film Technique in the late 1950s. “I was the only girl, even at that time, from the whole department and all the students, I was the only girl. So I felt privileged at that time.”
Her first commission as a film editor came from Lester Peries, who asked for her to come work with him in Sri Lanka as an assistant director. “I had been in Europe for three or four years. I longed to come back home.”
Sumitra has come to be known for her realist films that depict the social conditions of life in Sri Lanka, with a particular focus on women’s experiences. Coming from a Buddhist Marxist family, Sumitra’s films are replete with allusions to the country’s social-political conditions.
Despite this clear penchant, Sumitra explained, “I don’t believe in using the medium as a political tool. Because I think it should be implicit, not explicit…I’m not a social reformer, as such. But I am an emotional reformer up to a point. Emotionally I like to touch them in some way.” Her works Gehenu Lamai (1978), Ganga Addara (1980), and Yahaluvo (2007) speak to the social and emotional power of her work.
This text was written by Priyanka Hutschenreiter – CINELOGUE’s Marketing Project Manager.