From the time he passed the Biblical lifespan of “threescore years and ten” in 1989, Lester James Peries often joked that he was living on “borrowed time”.
Twenty nine years later, 24 days after his 99th birthday, on the Thrice Hallowed Vesak Poya night, he finally breathed his last, never to return.
I know that reams will be written about him as a filmmaker and his outstanding contribution to Sri Lankan and world cinema. Let me thus focus on LJP the human being.
My first meeting with the Perieses was in 1986 with ‘Bonsoir’, the fledgling weekly television programme sponsored by the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and telecast over ITN. We were to find in LJP and Sumitra never exhausting subject matter for future programmes.
Bonsoir’s mission was to bring France and Franco-Sri Lankan ties to Sri Lankan television audiences. It was thus a bonus that both LJP’s and Sumitra’s personal and professional lives were inextricably linked with France.
And so began my friendship with the Perieses. The Bonsoir crew and cameras were frequent visitors to No. 24, Dickman’s Road (now Dr. Lester James Peries Mawatha). The result - Bonsoir’s countless hours of interviews and programmes on LJP and Sumitra.
Years down the line, I had the privilege and unique honour of ‘ghostwriting’ Lester by Lester - as told to Kumar de Silva. This was HIS story on the making of his twenty films, from ‘Rekawa’ (The Line of Destiny. 1956) across half a century to ‘Ammawarune’ (Elegy for a Mother. 2006).
The project took five long years, during which time I spent countless post-lunch hours with him, for days on end, just he and I. There we were, locked up in the office room at No 24 (lest the household dog barge in) my outstretched hand holding a dictaphone held near his face. LJP would talk and talk and talk with great enthusiasm and I would luxuriate in reciprocated enthusiasm listening to his journey back in time. To say he had an elephantine memory is a gross understatement. He was a great raconteur.
Post-lunch, after a heavy rice and curry meal, there were also times when I (very ashamedly) fell asleep while he spoke. But he continued undeterred. When he finally finished ‘relating’ the chapter into my dictaphone, he would apologetically gently tap me on the shoulder and say, “Kumaaar now get up. I have finished”. I would wake up and jump up like a banshee out of hell only to see him with a mischievous smile on his face.
Ever since my first meeting with him, there have been two significant characteristics about the man that struck me most - his great wit and his total absence of malice.
LJP would maintain a very straight face and relate the most hilarious of stories, and then while those around him were bent in stitches, he would wear a dead pan je ne sais quoi face as though they were doing something terribly silly.
Another incident was his very seriously self-imposed diplomatic status when Sumitra was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to France and Spain, and, Permanent Delegate to UNESCO (1995-1999) and LJP was in a sense the ‘shadow ambassador’.
Based in Paris, where they first met in 1956, the couple was often invited out to soirees, diplomatic and otherwise. During these social gatherings LJP would, with yet another of those dead pan faces, say, “You know, my wife Sumitra is H.E. the Ambassador. And who am I? I am the Spouse of Her Excellency. And so I am a S.H.E”. Those around him ended up not knowing whether to laugh or to condole. Such was his un-relentless wit.
During those four years in Paris, in his self-proclaimed role as “S.H.E.”, LJP was a tower of strength to Her Excellency the Ambassador. He preferred to take the back seat. Just as in their life in cinema, this too was a symbiotic relationship. I have not seen another couple in such as harmonious domestic and professional relationship as LJP and Sumitra.
Much of the book, Lester by Lester - as told to Kumar de Silva, we edited on the run. He would first outpour his un-edited recollections on the making of those respective films and with it came spicy stories, pithy anecdotes, hilarious situations et al in his inimitable style … sometimes with a mischievous look in his eyes … sometimes with sadness in his face …
But LJP being LJP, he didn’t ever want to hurt anyone even with a word and so he would hastily add, “Kumaaar shall we omit that part there and that other part there, etc etc etc. Better isn’t it”. I kept to my word and none of those lines ever hit the pages of that book.
Quite unlike the hundreds, if not thousands, of others in this world we live and move in, LJP was one those very few human beings who never, and I repeat, never, had a bad word for another. He moved across all social strata, from Heads of State to the humblest of film technicians, but his simplicity, kindness, and gentleness were the same to all.
When on 13 June 1997 the Government of France bestowed on LJP one of its highest national honours, Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, Sumitra was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France at that time.
It was the couple’s 33rd wedding anniversary and they flew down to Colombo for the investiture at the BMICH. I remember LJP telling me how he had been totally taken aback when he was told of it and how deeply humbled he felt. He is still the only Sri Lankan to be so decorated at that level.
Seventeen years later when on 24 November 2014, the French Government conferred on Sumitra Peries the title of Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters, LJP came to the investiture in a wheelchair. It was an emotional moment for him. He was moved to tears. “This is just so co-incidentally unbelievable. Sumitra and I first met in Paris and now we have come to the full cycle in this climax of our long karmic tryst”, he said to me that evening, his eyes brimming with tears, joy written all over his face.
With successive national and international honours weighing heavier and heavier on his slight frame as the years passed he could easily have acquired pomp and pomposity. Mais non, that was not LJP. While lots of others who have achieved much less flaunt themselves, basking in glory and sometimes reflected glory, LJP remained the same simple man he always was. He was a one of a kind human being. Such men are rare. They are irreplaceable.
LJP was very excited about ‘Vaishnavee’, Sumitra’s current movie and based on his original storyline. The film was in limbo for around five years and he was eagerly waiting for its elusive release. It took a very, very long time. Despite his very poor and, at times, failing health he still hung on steadfastly. ‘Vaishnavee’ was finally released on his 99th birthday, Thursday 05th April at a grand gala at the Regal Theatre in Colombo, yet he was too ill to attend.
The following day when Yashoda Wimaladharma (the Vaishnavee) visited him at his residence, he had held her hand tightly and said, “You know Yashoda, I have been praying every night for the past six years that Vaishnavee will be released”. Three and a half weeks after that release he was gone. Now looking back in retrospect, I believe, despite his failing health, he hung on until the movie was finally released.
LJP is gone, but he leaves behind his twenty children, his celebrated and award-winning body of work, all of whom/which will keep his memory vibrantly alive in this country and across world cinema, across time.
Goodbye, my dearest LJP. You are finally free from all physical suffering and from all physical pain of this incarnation. I grieve. I grieve deeply. You were my “un-official Foster Father” (to quote your own words).
My wish for you is that your journey through Samsara be speedy. My wish for myself is that I will meet you along that journey. Theruwan Saranai !!!
“I had a lot of good fortune in getting the right assistant directors, the right actors, and the right actresses who first acted with me. It is not that you have a pride in that, but you have the luck. After all I always tell them that I’m using their talent…….. the taker is myself and so they give. They don’t have to be thankful to me ….. I should be thankful to them. I’m the exploiter of their talent. At times they don’t understand what I’m saying and say that I get the best out of them … but I do it without much effort”.
- Lester James Peries
Kumar de Silva
(The writer is one of the Founder Directors of the Lester James and Sumitra Peries Foundation)