She has been called, among other things, a “poetess” of our film industry. Professor Carlo Fonseka lays out a more nuanced description: the “Mother of the Father” of the Sinhala cinema. Both go some way in grasping her pithily, but there’s something that seems to elude commentators here, something she herself has held back from them. I am of course not suggesting that words can’t do justice to her, but then again, in an industry where words are a distraction and the image is held as sacred, filmmakers remain indefinable even through the eyes of the biographer. This week’s star is no exception to this, I believe, and thankfully so.
With more than five films to her name, Sumitra Peries deserves as much introduction as all those other directors here who forged a personal idiom in their work. She has her views on film craft, and after much discussion I doubt I’ve even come close to finding out what they may be. So rooted in their settings, and full of empathy for their women, those films of hers (made at a time when men were said to make the moves in the industry) stand out, though not always in a way which attracts unqualified praise. Inevitably: in this country, after all, praise has never been free of caveat.
Sumitra’s biography has been written extensively many times before, so delving into it lengthily will serve little purpose. After all, snippets from her childhood and teenage years – her upbringing under the shadow of a powerful political family (the Gunawardena clan hailing from Boralugoda); her education at Visakha Vidyalaya (where she was branded a “leftist”); her voyage along the Mediterranean in search of her pipe-smoking brother; and her schooling at the London School of Film Technique towards the end of the 1950s (the only woman enrolled there at the time) – would fit a Hollywood scrapbook!
And in a way, this may be what has infused that sense of daring and courage we see in many of her films. To start things off I put to her that most of the criticism levelled at her films is based on how THEY think she views the women in them. Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema captures this best: “Although she deals with the loves and lives of women, she is unable, in many of her films, to break out of the patriarchally sanctioned framework that has been privileged and has held sway in Sri Lankan cinema.” I would disagree: the fact that a patriarchal society overwhelms the wives, mothers, and daughters resident in her films doesn’t take away our sympathy for them, something most critiques of her seem to miss.
Sumitra is cautious in her reply. “The women in my films almost always lose, yes. But in my world they are the sufferers. I can’t manipulate reality, and the reality in my day was pretty much presented in my first few films.” What this implies, of course, is that her later films were different, and I would agree: Nadeeka Gunasekera from Yahalu Yeheli is not Vasanthi Chathurani from Ganga Addara or Gehenu Lamayi. In the latter two films, all the woman can do is to either bemoan her cruel fate or kill herself in the face of oppression. In the former film, that woman has changed: she is independent enough to defy both family and father, features of the same “patriarchally sanctioned framework” that critics find fault with.
To consider this as her signature is both correct and wrong. Women reside in Sumitra’s world, true, and it is through the deeply felt poignancy of their plights that our empathy is evoked. But reading her work this way misses out several other aspects to her work. I think she herself sums this up best: “I’m not ‘committed’ in an excessively political way. But I don’t think you have to be political to evoke sympathy for the downtrodden.”
I think the central trope that binds her films is based on gender differentials. At times however, this is superseded by another trope: class differentials. How even or uneven her films are can be judged by how well these two tropes coincide. In Gehenu Lamayi, for instance, the central drama of the conflict – between the landed bourgeoisie represented by Ajith Jinadasa and the peasantry represented by Vasanthi Chathurani – is rarely if at all subsumed by the tension generated by the romance between the two. In Ganga Addara, on the other hand, the central conflict, which is represented by the class-gap between Chathurani and Sanath Gunathilake, is effectively made an instrument of melodrama.
Many of her films were vindicated at the box-office, particularly Ganga Addara. In an industry which has almost always sustained an inverse relationship between critical and commercial appeal, this too is notable, though perhaps not surprising: Sumitra has frequently gone for adaptations of authors who have struck a chord with youth, particularly Karunasena Jayalath.
I noted at the beginning that the labels like “poetess” do scant justice to Sumitra. I still stand by this. They imply that she’s “different”, that her films are “feminine” in some outlandish way, and that her empathy for women comes out from personal experience. No, I don’t deny that a film like Gehenu Lamayi has an experience. But demarcating her as a poetess due to this betrays the same “framework” which the authors of Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema find to be affirmed in her work. How? By implicitly considering her films as “quirks” in our cinema, “freakish” in their conception and by their views on gender relations.
I’ve come across comments like this as well. Suffice it to say that they are crass and ridiculous, if at all for the reason that they tend to devalue her stature as a courageous filmmaker on her own right. I point this out to Sumitra by telling her that notwithstanding the honesty and courage invested in her work, many of her critics are bothered only by the fact that despite the director being a woman, the women in her films are never vindicated. I add that had she heeded their call and altered the way her characters are portrayed, they would lose half the authenticity and spontaneity that distinguish them to date. She smiles. By way of agreement, I’d like to think.
In this sense I think the observation made at the end of the essay on her in Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema is misplaced: “Clearly Sumitra has not gone far enough as a director with feminist interests. But then no one else has either.” To judge films made about women with the criterion one uses for feminist pamphlets is, in my mind, a little erroneous, something driven home by the fact that NONE of the directors (in her day) venerated for their empathy towards women can be classed under the “feminist” tag. Why judge her films on this basis ALONE, then?
These reflections provoke debate and discussion. That’s not for an article or two. That’s for an entire book. No one to my mind, however, has approached Sumitra Peries’ life and work this way, a pity considering how enriched her works are if they’re read in more ways than one.
This is certainly exemplified in her masterpiece, Sagara Jalaya. I tell Sumitra that the ending of that film, with the fiercely independent Heen Kelle (Swarna Mallawarachchi, in her best role) left at a crossroads and her son writing a letter to his uncle asking for a job, is the most powerfully intense in the history of our cinema. The anguish reflected in that sequence, in my opinion, is hard to replicate even today. That goes a long way in evoking sympathy for woman and child in light of contemporary reality, certainly a better way than that demanded by those who claim that her work is unsatisfactory on the basis of feminist ambitions.
Sumitra Peries, in short, has (like her husband, I should add) been subject to relentless and not always justifiable criticism, much of which has centred on a crass and downright incorrect reading of her work. Let me put it this way: I’ve come to appreciate works of art for how they relate to context and reality. The best praise the artist can receive (we’re told) is that his or her work is perennial DESPITE this. But I’m not happy with such a categorisation of art. I’d like to alter this, hence: the best praise an artist SHOULD get is that his or her work resists the strands of time, and is always subject to transformation in the hands of the critic, from one period of time to the other.
Judging by this, Sumitra has (happily) had her share of praise. As I pointed out before however, that praise has not been unqualified, inevitable in a small industry (and country) such as ours. This isn’t to say that she’s gone unnoticed. It’s just that, when it comes to analysing her conception of the cinema, people have let their biases for or against it colour their verdicts on how well she has stuck by it. We need to reevaluate her radically, I believe. And fast.