An elegy for the poetess of Sinhala cinema | Sunday Observer

An elegy for the poetess of Sinhala cinema

22 January, 2023

The world of cinema mourns the loss of a true trailblazer, Sumitra Peries, the octogenarian female filmmaker who dedicated her life to the art of cinema. From her debut film that introduced the world to new talent, to her numerous award-winning films, Sumitra’s influence on Sri Lanka’s film industry was undeniable.

Sumitra Peries (born March 24, 1934) is widely acknowledged as the first Sri Lankan female filmmaker and is affectionately known as the Poetess of Sinhala Cinema. She made her debut in the film industry with her film Gehenu Lamai which was a box office hit and won many awards at the film festivals of the time. Her other notable films include Ganga Addara and Yahaluvo, all of which have been critically acclaimed and have gained a cult following among audiences.

Peries’ contributions to the film industry were not limited to her work as a filmmaker. In the late 1990s, she was appointed as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France, Spain, and the United Nations. During her tenure as an ambassador, she was able to take part in the bicentennial celebrations of Film in its birthplace, France, along with her spouse, Dr Lester James Peries. She was married to Dr Lester James Peries, a renowned Sri Lankan film director and they both were a power couple in Sri Lanka’s film industry. Her contributions to the film industry have been widely acknowledged and celebrated throughout her career, and she has won numerous awards, including the award for the best film director in fifty years of Sri Lankan cinema.

Unearthed talent

Her film Gehenu Lamai is a case in point that introduced the world to the newly discovered talent of the young actress Vasanthi Chathurani. The film was an instant box office success and managed to bag numerous awards at the film festivals of the time, propelling both Sumitra and Vasanthi’s careers to new heights. Buoyed by the success of her first film, Sumitra’s next directorial endeavour, Ganga Addara also featured Vasanthi Chathurani, along with established actors Vijaya Kumaratunge and Sanath Gunathileke. This film too was a box office hit, cementing Sumitra’s position as one of the most sought-after filmmakers in the industry.

Sumitra’s subsequent films have been subjected to international acclaim and have garnered critical acclaim and numerous awards. She has directed many more feature films, each one exploring a different theme and showcasing her versatility as a filmmaker. Her films have been widely appreciated by audiences and critics alike and have been screened at various prestigious film festivals around the world. Sumitra continues to make films that speak to the hearts of audiences and leave a lasting impact on the Sri Lankan and international cinema scene.

In the 1980s, Sumitra Peries played a crucial role in shaping the future of Sri Lanka’s film industry. She was a member of the Presidential Commission for two years, tasked with conducting an inquiry into all aspects of the film sector, including its troubles, statistics, public opinions, and recommendations. Her contributions to this commission have been widely acknowledged as instrumental in addressing the challenges facing the industry at the time.

Breaking through male dominance

In the history of Sinhala cinema, only a few filmmakers have achieved the level of success and acclaim that Sumitra Peries has. As Uditha Devapriya, a film critic and historian, has pointed out, there are only one or two, maybe three other filmmakers who can stand beside her in terms of their impact on the industry, but none of them is a woman. The movie industry, like many other fields in Sri Lanka, remains dominated by men, making Sumitra’s achievements all the more remarkable.

Sumitra’s achievement as a filmmaker isn’t just that she broke through the patriarchy of the field as a woman, but that she refused to let it stand in her way. Throughout her career, as a director, assistant, editor, and in academia, she has refused to let gender enter the conversation and obstruct what she wanted to do. Far from viewing the fact of being a woman as an obstacle, she saw it as non-existent and never let it bother her. In a conversation with Devapriya, Sumitra highlighted this point, stating, “That men dominated the field when I entered it never bothered me.”

Sumitra’s unwavering determination and refusal to let gender barriers stand in her way has been a defining characteristic of her career. Her legacy as a trailblazer for women in the film industry will continue to inspire future generations of filmmakers.

Routes and roots

Born as Sumitra Gunawardena in the village of Payagala, 40 miles from the island’s capital of Colombo, our protagonist grew up amid wealth and political activism. Her mother came from a wealthy family, while her father came from a household of fervent political radicals. Her paternal grandfather had participated in the resistance against colonial authorities, and two of her uncles became leading socialist politicians in British Ceylon.

One of them, Philip, was deeply involved in Marxism and even went to the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War.

Her father, a Proctor, was not as politically active as his brothers, but Sumitra’s childhood home in Boralugoda was open to radical politicians and was often used as a lunch stop and rest-house. Despite her father’s less politically inclined career, the political climate of her home and the influence of her uncles shaped her understanding of the world and the society she lived in.

Sumitra Peries’ upbringing in a family of wealth and political activism had a profound influence on her and her career as a filmmaker. Her background gave her a unique perspective on the world and society, and her ability to navigate the patriarchal film industry as a woman was made possible by her family’s history of resistance and activism. Her films, which often explored the complexities of society and politics, were a reflection of her upbringing and her understanding of the world. Sumitra’s contributions to the film industry, both in Sri Lanka and internationally, will be remembered as a trailblazer and a true artist who used her craft to shed light on the world around her.