Sumitra Peries obituary: ‘the poetess of Sri Lankan cinema’

Peries lived a life of travel and adventure before enrolling in film school in Brixton and going on to become one of the major, politically conscious figures in Sri Lankan cinema.

20 January 2023

By Uditha Devapriya

Sumitra Peries © Courtesy of Sumitra Peries

One of the defining auteurs of Sri Lankan cinema, Sumitra Peries was also one of few international figures from the island nation. Her films capture, in all their nuances and complexities, the torments of being a woman in Sri Lanka and, by extension, in South Asia. They dwell not merely on the rift between rich and poor, but also on the innocence of childhood and the torments of adolescent love. They centre on the woman’s place in what was, and still largely is, a patriarchal society.

Her first film, Gehenu Lamai (Girls, 1978), establishes these themes remarkably well. At its centre is a poor village girl, Kusum, who has ambitions for a better life. Midway through, she falls in love with an affluent classmate who happens to be her cousin. But after a series of incidents that culminate with the discovery of their affair, Kusum’s situation begins to deteriorate.

Sumitra Peries as a teenager
Courtesy of Sumitra Peries

Though hailing from an upper middle-class family, Sumitra came to identify strongly with such women. She was born Sumitra Gunawardena on 24 March 1935 in the village of Payagala and raised in the village of Avissawella, some 30 miles from Colombo. Her mother hailed from a family of affluent arrack distillers, and her father belonged to a household of radical political activists. Two of her paternal uncles became leading socialist politicians; one of them, Philip Gunawardena, earned the epithet ‘Father of Socialism’ in Sri Lanka.

All this shaped Sumitra’s political consciousness from an early age. After she turned 13, a month after Sri Lanka obtained independence from Britain, she was sent to study in Colombo. Devastated by the loss of their mother two years later, her elder brother Gamini “left everything to us and then left the country”. A few years later he got in touch with her: he was in Europe, and he wanted her to join him. “I agreed at once. After scrounging up some money, I got aboard a P&O liner and set sail to the Mediterranean in 1956, on my own. My father had given me his blessings.” She was not quite 21.

Sumitra met her brother in Naples, from where they drove to Malta, where he had a yacht docked and was leading a bohemian life. Dropping anchor across the Mediterranean, she revelled in her new life, “from the people we met to the food we ate”. At Saint-Tropez, she came across Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim making And God Created Woman (1956). It was the first time she had seen a film being shot.

After her brother returned to Sri Lanka, she met her future husband, Lester James Peries, at the Ceylon Legation in Paris. Peries had made Rekava (1956), which heralded a breakthrough in Sri Lankan cinema around the same time Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali had in Indian cinema.

Lester advised Sumitra to leave for England. She did just that, enrolling at the London School of Film Technique (LSFT) in Brixton, where she was the sole female student in a class of mostly white, middle-class males. Among her teachers was Lindsay Anderson, with whom she would remain friends until his death in 1994.

Sumitra and Lester Peries in Sydney
Courtesy of Sumitra Peries

Sumitra excelled in her studies, but finding a job was not easy. Only after knocking on the doors of Elizabeth Mai-Harris, a subtitling firm, did she find work; her fluency in French helped her make her case. But after she began to grow homesick, she returned to Sri Lanka, where she worked as an assistant director on Lester’s 1960 film Sandesaya (The Message). Four years later, they were married.

After working her way up in the industry as an editor, including on a few of her husband’s films, Sumitra directed Gehenu Lamai, which became a resounding success, at home and abroad. David Robinson of The Times lauded it for its “holistic feminine sensibility”.

Its success emboldened her to make nine more films, all of them centring on female protagonists: Ganga Addara (By the Bank of the River, 1980), Yahalu Yeheli (Friends, 1982), Maya (1984), Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuwa Oba Sanda (A Letter Written in the Sand, 1988), Loku Duwa (The Eldest Daughter, 1994), Duwata Mawaka Misa (Mother Alone, 1997), Sakman Maluwa (The Garden, 2003), Yahaluwo (Friends, 2007) and Vaishnavee (The Goddess, 2017).

Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuwa Oba Sanda is generally considered to be her finest work. Based on a short story, the film delves into the torments of a village woman (played by one of Sri Lanka’s finest actors, Swarna Mallawarachchi), whose husband, a rice cultivator, dies after falling off a tree. The whole story is told from the point of view of her son, who can’t understand why she becomes embittered towards everyone in the village after his father’s death. The ending, the most poignant in Sumitra’s entire work, shows the boy writing an imaginary letter in the sand to his uncle, urging him to employ him at the uncle’s shop so that he can relieve his mother of her burdens. In its harsh sun-baked setting and its gruelling depiction of village life, it remains, then as now, unsurpassed.

Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuwa Oba Sanda (1988)

What stands out in these films more than anything is her aesthetic sensibility, a high regard for the right mise-en-scène which, by her own confession, borders on a desire to zoom in and “prettify everything”. Mark Cousins put it best: “using zooms like Robert Altman,” he once observed for me, “she probes shyness and tentative love.”

In addition to her work in film, Sumitra tried her hand in television, having studied the medium in the early 1970s in France, nearly a decade before its arrival in her home country. She also served in a number of official and academic posts, before departing for Paris as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for France and Spain from 1995 to 1998. 

When her husband died in 2018, a series of legal wrangles compelled her to leave her home in Colombo to a nearby suburb. She was still meeting people, particularly young, aspiring directors, and still advising them, while considering story options for her next film. Her death signals not just the passing of an era, but perhaps its very end: a fact Sri Lankans will only too sadly acknowledge.

  • Sumitra Peries, 24 March 1935 to 19 January 2023
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