To Sir with Love by Punya Heendeniya

When I selected this heading, I may have been inspired by the ’60’s film classic “To Sir with love” in which the “Sir” was immortalised by Sydney Poitier. The “Sir” I am going to eulogise here is the bard, the father, the legend, and the epitome of Sri Lankan cinema Dr. Lester James Peries.

My film career was short, spanning just over a decade and on average I did only one film a year. Considering the brevity of my career, which I ended on my own accord to get married, I had the privilege of doing three major films “Gamperaliya”, “Ransalu” and “Kaliyugaya” with the Master.

His subtle form of talking to the viewer through pictures and symbols more than words and speeches is captivating. Gamperaliya - the novel by the peerless Martin Wickremasinghe was superbly suited for him to transform it into a cinematic masterpiece. This was his third feature film. I know how much effort was put into this production - he has admitted that he had to sell his property to finance this film. He worked for nothing but the love of cinema. Sumitra was a tower of strength to him.

When I was called upon to play the role of Nanda in the first half of the ’60’s, Dr. Peries had already revolutionised Sinhala cinema with “Rekhava”. I had done four films under South Indian directors, the last being “Kurulubedda” which Dr. Peries had seen. Even though it tells the story of simple village life with many a glistening facet of artistic writing, sadly it lacked that subtle elegance. I was trying to disentangle myself from this genre, and improvise a suitable acting method for myself. So when I was called upon by Dr. Peries to play Nanda - I was on cloud nine.

Gentle giant

I quickly got absorbed into the natural LJP mode. Working under him was effortless and we were never under pressure. The filming of “Gamperaliya” went on for nearly a year and I was there from beginning to end. Throughout this period and later with “Ransalu” and “Kaliyugaya”, I had never seen this gentle giant ever getting restless, raising his voice or giving orders. He was a director par-excellence. When he saw potential, he had this phenomenal knack of drawing out the spontaneous best with his cool disposition.

His preternatural calm was the dominant trait of his art too. His composure was therapeutic and the cast and crew became mesmerised by this demeanour and instantly became a docile group of workers. The “gentle-giant” oxymoron suited him very well; he was gentle in his stature and attitude but colossal in his creative power and thinking capacity.

Creative power

There is many a symbolic depiction that runs through “Gamperaliya” to tell the inner turmoil of Nanda, Piyal and Jinadasa. I like best the moment that he created instantly to show Nanda’s wavering indecisiveness whether to accept Piyal’s marriage proposal or not. He captured a restless dancing reflection of a basin of water in the meda-midula of the Mahagedara falling on the wall.

Another instance in “Ransalu” which was not scripted was the transformation of Sujatha from a heavily adorned girl to a simple white-clad pious damsel. He made Sujatha cover half the reflection of her heavily painted face and then cover it fully, thus closing that opulent chapter of her life. These are only two instances from thousands of unforgettable poetic moments he created.

Wit and humour

He was full of humour and wit, all within the boundaries of honourable decorum. I recall an incident in “Gamperaliya”, how the producers spared no effort in finding the correct props such as crockery, cutlery, furniture, costumes and even boxes of matches to show the Victorian era. In the scene where Nanda falls ill she was given a drink of malted milk sent by the nouveau riche Piyal. I had to use a hard-found antique cup and saucer. The scene called for me to throw the cup away with the drink when Nanda finds out the malted milk is a gift from Piyal.

For the rehearsal we used an empty condensed milk tin over the saucer and I inadvertently tried to throw both the tin and the saucer away together. Quipped the Director, “Punya you are trying to throw both Peeris and Belek away,” – referring to himself and Willie Blake, the director of photography.

During Sumitra’s tenure as the Ambassadress to France he used to say “Now I am the SHE (Spouse of Her Excellency) and Sumitra is the HE (Her Excellency)”. It was a pleasure to have the illustrious couple living “next door” to me across the Channel during this period.

His generosity knew no bounds and he always shared the overspill of accolades and rewards with the cast and generally unsung crew, saying it is always team work that made it possible.Dr. Peries had admitted ghost directing some of the scenes of Parasathumal and he directed some of my scenes there too. At that time Gamini Fonseka was extremely busy with film work and Dr. Peries stepped in to help the producer, though he never allowed his name to appear on credits.

We were invited for the Mexican film ‘festival of festivals’ with Gamperaliya, after it won “The Golden Peacock Award” in New Delhi. I come from a rural background and my parents were reluctant to send me to the other side of world. This was in the mid-sixties, the transitional period from ocean travel to air travel. Realising my predicament, Dr. Peries transferred his invitation to Sumitra, who was the editor of the film. My parents’ inflexibility relaxed and I was able to go.

Changement au Village

Cinema lovers should salute Frenchman Pierre Rissient who took the initiative to restore “Gamperaliya” at the University of Southern California. The film was screened in 2009 at the Cannes film festival under the “Restored Classics” category and was accorded red-carpet treatment. It went on general release in France under the title “Changement au Village.”

Many a song of praise has been sung to this master film maker who ranks with the likes of Satyajith Ray, Kurosawa, De Millle and Spielberg.

He breathed cinema, talked cinema, thought cinema, dreamt cinema, produced cinema, directed cinema. He married cinema and his wife is cinema. This celebrated Master considered his creations as his offspring.

His timeless masterpieces have left an indelible imprint on Sri Lankan and World Cinema. He has been my most revered guide and mentor. 

‘To Sir with love.’ May you attain your desired realm of bliss.

- From the Face Book of Punya Heendeniya

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