By Uditha Devapriya
Sri Lanka’s oldest living filmmaker, Sumitra Peries, rubs shoulders with pioneering intellectual artists from South Asia, including her childhood heroine, Minnette de Silva. Yet, with the exception of a comprehensive biography of Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin, no writer has attempted to place his life and work in the pantheon of South Asian cinema. A version of this article appeared in Himal Mag Southasia late last month.
South Asian cinema explodes in a riot of color and spectacle, delivering a blend of romance, action and story. Despite its modest size, it is one of the largest film industries in the world, worth around 180 billion rupees (about $2.4 billion) in India alone. Today, it has morphed into a category of its own, blending different genres and, at least in India, earning the nickname “masala cinema”.
However, while many scholars have written about this industry, few seem to have noted its contribution on a rather unlikely front: women’s cinema.
As surprising as it may seem, several women have established themselves as directors in South Asia. Although it is difficult to attempt a chronology, the first such director is considered to be Fatma Begum. In 1926, when Lillian Gish considered ending her career with DW Griffith and MGM offered her a six-film deal, Begum made her first film through her own production company, Fatma Films. Later, in Pakistan, Parveen Rizvi and Shamim Ara made their directorial debuts, while much later, in Bangladesh, Kohinoor Akhter followed suit.
What united these women was how their careers developed. Everyone had to go from acting to directing. It was later, with the appearance of a New Wave in Indian cinema in the 1980s, that a new generation of filmmakers, including Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, took center stage. The one notable exception to this trend, which continues to stand out, is outside of India.
Long orientalized for its sandy beaches and mist-covered mountains, Sri Lanka boasts an obscure but vibrant cinema. Although dominated by men, women have also imposed themselves there, and not only as actresses. Among them, one name stands out: Sumitra Peries, the oldest living filmmaker in the country.
With 10 films to her name, Sumitra has become one of the country’s most important cultural icons. His career contrasts with that of many of his contemporaries. For one thing, unlike most South Asian female directors her age, like Aparna Sen, she never started acting: she started her career as an assistant director and editor. Moreover, unlike them, she traveled a lot and studied cinema in Europe. It’s what makes his work, even his life, stand out.
Sumitra Peries was born Sumitra Gunawardena on March 24, 1935 in the village of Payagala, 40 miles from the island’s capital, Colombo. His mother came from a wealthy family of arak distillers, his father from a family of fervent political radicals.
While Sumitra’s paternal grandfather had participated in the resistance against the colonial authorities, two of his uncles became prominent socialist politicians in British Ceylon. One of them, Philip, whose association with Marxism had taken him to faraway places, such as the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War, continued to dominate the country’s political scene.
By contrast, his father, an overseer, had not been so politically inclined: barring an unsuccessful attempt to enter the country’s Council of State in 1936, his career was largely overshadowed by his brothers. Nevertheless, Sumitra recalls, “our house in Boralugoda was open to radical politicians. They made it their lunch break and their rest home.
After he turned 13, in 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence from the British, his family decided to move to Colombo. She transferred from a Catholic school, St Mary’s College, in her father’s village of Avissawella, to Visakha Vidyalaya, the main Buddhist school for girls in Sri Lanka. The first photo of her in the press shows a girl throwing a disc at a sports meeting in Visakha, exuding a youthful and defiant ardor.
Two years later, his mother died. Devastated by the loss, his older brother, Gamini, left the country. Sumitra remembers how, a few years later, he asked her to join him in Europe. “I immediately accepted. In 1956, I boarded a P&O liner and set sail for the Mediterranean, all alone. She was not quite 21 years old.
Arriving in Naples, Sumitra meets Gamini and travels to Malta. “He had a yacht moored there and led a rather bohemian life with friends.”
Over the next six months, Sumitra, Gamini and their friends “sailed along the coasts of Italy and France, savoring the Mediterranean”. In Saint-Tropez, he sometimes saw Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim filming And God Created Woman. Her first sight of a film set intrigued her greatly.
“I didn’t know what to do next. We decided to settle in Lausanne. My brother returned to Sri Lanka, leaving me behind in a world far from home.
Lausanne failed to grow on her: “I wanted to see France, on the other side.” A train and taxi ride later, she was in Paris, “without a penny in my bag”.
On instructions from her family, she was soon interned in the Ceylon legation. There she met a man who was to change the course of Sri Lankan cinema – with a significant, if underrated, contribution from her.
It was Lester James Peries, widely regarded as Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent filmmaker, and before long, her husband.
Lester offered Sumitra to go to England. She accepted and enrolled at the London School of Film Technique. Founded in 1956, the LSFT was located in a suburb of Brixton. Less turbulent than the Mediterranean, it offered Sumitra a more stable home.
Of her lecturers and peers at the School, she remembers Lindsay Anderson the most. Over time, the two got to know each other well. “He knew Lester long before he met me. The three of us have become very good friends.
Sumitra excelled in her studies, but finding a job in London was not easy for her. It was only after knocking on the doors of Elizabeth Mai-Harris, one of Britain’s leading captioning companies, that she was offered a job in the industry. “My fluency in French helped me,” she recalls.
After a while, however, she felt like going home. On Gamini’s advice, she returned to Sri Lanka, becoming the only female crew member in Lester Peries’ second film, Sandesaya (The Message, 1960). Four years later, they married and remained together until Lester’s death in 2018.
In 1964 Sumitra started editing films. More than a decade later, in 1978, she ventured into directing with Gehenu Lamayi (Girls), followed by eight more films, including her most recent, Vaishnavi (The Goddess), in 2018. She would go on to serve in others as well, notably as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for France and Spain from 1995 to 1999.
The essential themes of Sumitra’s work are in Gehenu Lamayi: the innocence of childhood, the burdens of women in patriarchal society, the gap between rich and poor, the torments of adolescent love. Without the song-and-dance sequences of South Asian blockbusters, his films are sharp, often searing, in their critique of male chauvinism.
Most of his characters are from the lower middle class, with a few, like Gehenu Lamayi’s Kusum, being from the rural peasantry. Thwarted in their wishes, they often resort to desperate measures: after discovering that her childhood lover has married someone else, for example, Nirmala from Ganga Addara (At the Edge of the River, 1980) commits suicide. In Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuwa Oba Handa (Letter Written on the Sand, 1988), considered by many to be his finest work, the protagonist is a sensitive young boy whose mother works hard for him after his husband, his father, falls of a tree and dies. The son writes an imaginary letter in the sand, imploring his uncle to take him away and employ him in his shop so he can lighten his mother’s burdens.
Sumitra’s aesthetic sensibility is distinct: according to British filmmaker Mark Cousins, “she uses zooms like Robert Altman, probing shyness and hesitant love”. Sumitra herself seems aware of a certain quality of meticulousness in her work: “I often want to recompose the staging, even to embellish it. I think it shows in the final product. For Cousins, it reveals “what a great visual thinker she is”.
From Sumitra’s own faith, his attitude towards women was shaped by the women who featured in his life, including his mother. Asked about the films she likes, she immediately evokes The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer. “I remember seeing Renée Falconetti’s face and being fascinated by it. I could never forget that face. It came back to me, several times in fact, when I started making films.
Despite the acclaim it won, it also received scathing reviews. Some critics called her work “feminine” and accused her of not being “feminist” enough, due to the way her female characters succumb to their fate – such as when Gehenu Lamayi’s Kusum bitterly accepts a life of poverty. without love as his “destiny”. Thus, the authors of Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema conclude that she “has not gone far enough as a director with feminist intentions”.
With Lester James Peries in Sydney
Sumitra’s response to these criticisms is that she can portray women “as someone other than they are only by manipulating history”. In the rare cases where she does attempt this – as in Yahalu Yeheli (Boyfriends and Girlfriends, 1982), where the heroine disobeys her father, a landlord, and joins villagers who protest her hold over them – one notices a tinge fireworks. But overall, she sticks to a realistic principle: “I prefer to portray women as they are, rather than as they should be.
Today, Sumitra resides in Mirihana, a quiet suburb about 10 kilometers from the capital. She and her husband spent their married life in Colombo, in a house along a road that bears her name. Yet, after her death, due to some unfortunate circumstances involving the legal title to their residence, she had to vacate her premises. She did not come to regret the change: “It’s much quieter here, in accordance with my sensitivity.”
Still active and working on her next project, at 87, Sumitra remains open to the possibilities of her medium. It goes without saying that his work stands out in the world of South Asian cinema. While remaining very modest about her achievements, she confessed one thing the last time I met her: “I revolted against the idea of what a woman should be in my society, as a girl and a director. . In the end, despite these restrictions, I prevailed.
The author can be contacted at [email protected]