The fifth in a series of sketches of the films of Lester James Peries.
Critics are so obsessed over separating the good from the bad, the merited and the prized from the spurned and the forgotten, in an artist’s career that they forget that what made the latter possible was the lesser aspects of the former. No one can deny that the later Hitchcock was bad (very few would contend otherwise), but no one can seriously deny that the Master of Suspense was being anyone other than the Master of Suspense in his later “lesser” films (Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, but not Frenzy and the deliciously enjoyable Family Plot). The bottom line is this, therefore: what make the later forays of a director possible, more often than not, are his earlier excursions into lesser territory. This was as true for Hitchcock as it was for Satyajit Ray or Lester James Peries.
20 films over 50 years are not, to be honest, adequate to pass judgment on Lester’s generally disregarded works, which fall under two broad categories: unqualified failures and unrealised masterpieces. Of those 20, interestingly however, only one can be singled out as a failure on any terms: The God King, back then the most lavishly financed production the West got involved with in the East (Kurosawa had backed out of Tora! Tora! Tora!). The God King was an unmitigated failure precisely because it was that: a production financed by another part of the world, over which technicians appointed elsewhere held sway. The final product – a strange mishmash of Manciewicz’s Cleopatra and Mehboob Khan’s Aan – was as confused as the story of its troubled production, which as Lester recounted deserves an entire book to itself.
The God King is so bizarre: its dialogues so outrageously and unintentionally funny (its campy flavour reminds you of Richard Burton’s deadpan monologues from The Exorcist II: high-flown, profound, yet colossally empty), and the rift between its epic vistas and its anything-but-epic plotline so naked (not for one moment does this rift relax, which is why it reminds me of what Gore Vidal once wrote of Ben-Hur, the 1959 version: “Any attempt to make sense of it would destroy the story’s awful integrity”). Majestically conceived, majestically shot, it was ahead of its time in some respects (for Sri Lanka); in other respects, though, it was and remains as empty and hollow as the final battle between its antihero and his brother.
There is as much of Lester in The God King as there was of Kubrick in Spartacus, and coupled with the fact that it failed financially and critically, this means that it was the first and only detour in the man’s long career. To call it symptomatic of the kind of movies he was directing at that time would be stretching things too far, yet those who conflate the one with the other do so because the time he was in, and the material he had to work with, indicated a shift in the quality of his work that was discernible. But still, extrapolating from this and separating what is considered to be his lesser work from his masterpieces would be an injustice to him because, as I mentioned, much of what critics saw as lacking in his earlier work made its way visibly to his later forays.
David Shipman in his monumental two-volume The Story of Cinema (for which he watched more than 5,000 movies) wrote about Lester in a chapter on the Indian cinema and Satyajit Ray. Having seen every film of his until Ahasin Polawata, except Sandeshaya and, rather strangely, Golu Hadawatha (he makes no mention of them), Shipman contended that inasmuch as Ray was great, Lester was hardly his inferior. But the Western critic’s lack of familiarity with the lives of ordinary people from this part of the world – be they Apu or Charulata or Nanda or Nissanka – showed clearly in Shipman’s indictment of Lester’s work as slow paced. Here he separated Ray and Peries: the former’s films, while also slow, were more richly detailed. Even otherwise great essays as Delovak Athara and Akkara Paha were brought down: the former, “otherwise interesting, fails,” while the latter, at 132 minutes, is “overdue.”
Even Philip Cooray’s book on the man, The Lonely Artist, reflects and affirms in part Shipman’s views, ironic considering that Regi Siriwardena’s foreword repudiates the indictment in clear-cut terms: “I remember an irritated Mexican critic writing of Gamperaliya who said that every line spoken by the characters seems to be preceded and followed by a long silence. In this quality of his films, however, Lester is true to Sinhala life.” Which is true of course: fiercely open we as a people are, we are nevertheless content not in revealing in gushes and torrents our torments and sorrows, but in hinting at them (as Anula Karunatilake does in Golu Hadawatha). But what is pertinent to note here is not whether Lester was being true to life as seen within (David Shipman on Gamperaliya: “I’m not sure whether it reveals the ‘inner lives’ of its characters”) but what flowed from this quality of his: the weaknesses that would adorn even his real masterpieces.
It has been said that our movies are long and overdue and this because of poor planning, editing, scripting, and logistics. Such problems certainly did beset Lester, and they beset independent filmmakers even today, but while they are issues for which the director shouldn’t be held accountable, they do give rise to other issues which are in part at least those of the director. In Lester’s case, slow paced (tiring or otherwise) as his lesser works are, the qualities which they share with his earlier career are so discernible that they can’t miss the careful, discriminating viewer.
In his films, first and foremost, we come across a rift between the individual and his or her society: Sena and the rural peasantry in Rekava, Piyal and the feudal aristocracy in Gamperaliya, Nissanka and the urban bourgeoisie in Delovak Athara. This rift translates into another: between the individual and his or her milieu. The incongruity that results from it is very much present, and accounts at least partly for the strengths of Gamperaliya, Golu Hadawatha, Akkara Paha, and Nidhanaya over the weaknesses of Desa Nisa, Ahasin Polawata, Kaliyugaya, Awaragira, and Wekanda Walawwa.
It’s interesting to observe that almost all his later films were based on the uprooted elite, the aristocracy that he had eulogised in Gamperaliya and laid to rest in Nidhanaya. But in those two films the tensions as such, between our protagonists and their social backdrops, were, while unresolved (Nidhanaya ends with one murder and one suicide), never contradictory; the personal never transcended the milieu. You infer this when you compare Ahasin Polawata with Nidhanaya: both rely on pretty much the same technique, the flashback, but while the inhibitions of Willie Abeynayake are squarely the inhibitions of a decaying elite, the quirks of Sarath are (as Regi Siriwardena observed) never rooted in anything substantive.
Much of the critical drubbing that Lester endured from the late seventies to the early nineties – with Ahasin Polawata, Baddegama, Kaliyugaya, Yuganthaya, Awaragira – can be rooted in the lack of reconciliation between the milieu and the personal in those films, which isn’t to say that he deserved that drubbing: on the contrary, they were symptomatic of the thinly disguised confusions that young critics entertained (our Marxist critics never really understood that the personal experience of a work of art need not always be at the cost of its political relevance; they always wanted political symbols for it to be “relevant”). But I believe that the weaknesses apparent in these five films – Ahasin Polawata with its depiction of Sarath; Baddegama with its miscast cast; Kaliyugaya with the discrepancy between its brilliantly sustained first half-hour and the rest of its duration; Yuganthaya for its lack of engagement with the political; and Awaragira with its quickly cut ending – can be traced to a sustained incongruity between the individual and his or her backdrop.
And yet these are not unsalvageable films: hidden deep within, in several sequences, are feats of astounding technical craftsmanship. With a lavish score by Premasiri Khemadasa that identifies its protagonist with a poignant motif, Kaliyugaya’s first half-hour is a triumph in the use of the flashback in our cinema; Baddegama, while visually weak in many scenes (in Leonard Woolf’s novel Silindu imagines seeing demons in the forest after he angers Punchirala, the exorcist; in the film the director and the scriptwriter provide a literal transposition of these imaginings, with demon faces leering from the trees and the bushes) does bring out some great performances from Joe Abeywickrama as Silindu and Nadeeka Gunasekara as Hinnihami (though not Vijaya Kumaratunga, whose portrayal of the small-time, naive Babun was at odds with his urbane background); while Awaragira is a monumental family epic (with Ranjan Ramanayake’s finest performance to date, a pity considering that he never got offers for more films like it) that ends in a terrible murder by the daughter (Vasanthi Chathurani) of her own brother (Kamal Addararachchi) over her tormented love for her abusive husband (Lucky Dias, in one of his more memorable roles): the sequence, finely shot and edited, reminds me of the murder of Zhinovy in Wajda’s Siberian Lady Macbeth, which was also about a woman torn between two men.
Perhaps the most fitting epitaph to these later and lesser forays of Lester James Peries is this: in the end he gave what he had, genuinely but discriminatingly. And in the end we got out of them what we could have, again genuinely but discriminatingly.
Written for: Daily Mirror, October 31 2017
Posted by Uditha Devapriya
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