Lester James Peries was born on April 5, 1919 in Dehiwela, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Lester’s father Dr. James Francis Peries had studied medicine in Scotland and his mother Ann Gertrude Winifred Jayasuria was a graduate of St. Bridget’s Convent in Colombo. Jayasuriya notably was the first student to pass the Senior Cambridge exam at the school. Lester had three siblings: Erica, Ivan and Noel.
The Peries family was a Roman Catholic family that had become anglicized. Growing up Lester only spoke English at home and celebrated Christian traditions like Christmas. His only link to Sinhala culture was his grandmother who didn’t trust Western medicine and spoke Sinhalese. At the age of eleven Lester was given a 8mm Kodasko projector by his father as a gift, which ran Chaplin’s silent movies. At that time, his only interest in films was when he and Ivan would haunt the cinema to watch foreign film serials which ran day after day. Lester was never involved in school drama productions, and had no idea he was going to be a film director especially since Sri Lanka did not have its own national film industry at that time.
He attended St. Peter’s College in Colombo as a teenager before dropping out to pursue a career in journalism at the age of 17. He found his first work with the Daily News writing for the blue pages which was an arts supplementation. In 1939 he joined the Times of Ceylon working under Indian editor Frank Moraes. He also reviewed books on Radio Ceylon for a short period.
Peries first real work with production came when he joined a theater group called Drama Circle. This was a group of like minded individuals which regularly produc ed modern English plays. Here Lester was engaged in all aspects of the productions other than acting.
Stay in England
In 1947 Peries traveled to England on his mother’s advice to join his brother Ivan Peries who was there on an art scholarship. Moreas suggested writing a column from the country to be published in the Times which became “Letter on the Arts from England.”
During that time, filmmaking was taking off in the UK with about 400 amateur film clubs around the country. In addition, Lester’s passion for the cinema was developing and he met another Sri Lankan with similar interests, Hereword Jansz. The two youngsters decided to make a film together despite Hereword having his doubts about competing with established, well-funded clubs. They began with Lester writing the script and directing while Hereword did the filming with their limited camera equipment.
Their first effort `Soliloquy` (1949), a short film, won the Mini Cinema Cup for displaying the best technical proficiency. This work was followed by three other experimental films.
In 1952, the editor John Hockin told Lester of an interesting assignment he had for him – an interview with the new head of the Government Film Unit of Ceylon. At the end of the interview, the head of film unit Mr Keene inquired after Lester’s own interest in making films. He knew about Lester’s talent because he sat on one of the juries that presented the upcoming director with an amateur’s award. Keene suggested that Lester return to Sri Lanka to embark on a career on film making.
Back In Ceylon
On Mr Keene’s insistence returning to Sri Lanka in 1952, Lester joined the Government Film Unit as the assistant to the chief producer, Ralph Keene. Two major documentaries that he helped Keene with were `Heritage of Lanka` and `Nelungama` and he also directed `Conquest in the Dry Zone`, a documentary on controlling malaria and `Be Safe or Be Sorry`, a witty study on errant motorists.
At this time, a second cousin of Lester’s suggested starting a company to produce Sinhala films by securing funds and bringing down all the necessary equipment. Lester resigned from Government film unit in 1955 and entered into the partnership contract with newly formed Chitra Lanka Limited to produce 2 films of which only one in the name of “Rekava” became a reality.
Lester’s closest colleagues at the Government Film Unit, William Blake, a cameraman of Dutch descent and Titus de Silva (Titus Thotawatte), an editor, resigned with him and later worked together on a number of films.
Many of Lester’s movies were critically acclaimed in international fora.
Lester met his future wife Sumitra in Paris but they did not fall for each other until Sumithra returned to Sri Lanka to work as an assistant in Lester’s first movie “Rekava”. In 1964, Lester married Sumitra Gunawardene in All Saints Church, she has earned a name for herself as a distinguished directress today.
In 1956, Lester made his entry into national cinema with the globally acclaimed “Rekava“, which was a story based on village life. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. With this film he revolutionized Sri Lankan cinema, giving it a unique identity. It was the first Sri Lankan movie to be shot outdoors. Although it was acclaimed internationally it was not a commercial success. Afterward he made many award-winning films such as “Gamperaliya” in 1964 based on Martin Wickramasinghe‘s famous novel; “Delowak Athara” in 1966; “Golu Hadawatha” in 1968 based on the novel by Karunasena Jayalath; “Nidhanaya” in 1970; “Yuganthaya” in 1983 and many more. He has directed over 20 films.(WIKIPEDIA)
Photos of the Birthday party -click