Lester James Peries

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Sri Lankabhimanya Lester James Peiris
Lester 1.jpg
Born (1919-04-05) 5 April 1919 (age 98)
Dehiwela, British Ceylon
Occupation Film director, Film producer and Screenwriter
Years active 1949–2006
Spouse(s) Sumitra Peries (1964–present)
Website www.ljpspfoundation.org

Sri Lankabhimanya Lester James Peiris (Sinhala: ශ්‍රී ලංකාභිමාන්‍ය ලෙස්ටර් ජේම්ස් පීරිස්) (born 5 April 1919) is an internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan film director, screenwriter, and film producer.[1][2][3] An active filmmaker since 1949, Peries has been involved in over 28 films, including shorts and documentaries. He has received critical acclaim for directing Rekava, Gamperaliya, Nidhanaya, Golu Hadawatha, Kaliyugaya, Awaragira and Yuganthaya. His movie Wekande Walauwa, starring Ravindra Randeniya and Malini Fonseka, was Sri Lanka's first ever submission for the Academy Awards. Peiris's films often deal with Sri Lankan family life in rural settings and conflicted characters. He helped create an authentic expression of Sinhala Cinema.[3][4]

Life and career[edit]

Early life[edit]

Lester James Peiris was born on 5 April 1919 in Dehiwela, Colombo, Ceylon. Lester's father Dr. James Francis Peiris had studied medicine in Scotland and also was a former cricketer for a Scottish club. 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.[4]

The Peiris family was a staunch Roman Catholic family that had become Anglicised. Growing up Lester only spoke English at home and celebrated Christian traditions. His only link to Sinhala culture was his grandmother who always didn't trust Western medicine and spoke proper Sinhalese. At the age of eleven Lester was given a 8mm Kodascope 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 his brother 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 British Ceylon did not have its own national film industry at that time.

He attended St. Peter's College- one of the leading Catholic schools 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.[4]

Peiris first real work with production came when he joined a theatre group called Drama Circle. This was a group of like minded individuals which regularly produced modern English plays. Here Lester was engaged in all aspects of the productions other than acting.

Stay in England[edit]

In 1947 Peiris travelled 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, film-making 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.[4]

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 Ceylon to embark on a career on film making.

Back in Ceylon[edit]

On Mr Keene's insistence returning to Ceylon 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.

Personal life[edit]

Lester met his future wife Sumitra in Paris at the home of their mutual friend Mr. Vernon Mendis, but they did not fall for each other until Sumitra returned to Ceylon to work as an assistant in Lester's first movie "Rekava". In 1964, Lester married Sumitra Gunawardene, daughter of Henry Gunwardene and Niece of honourable Philip Gunawardene- at All Saints Church, Borella. The wedding was precided by Rev. Fr. John Herat and was followed by a wedding reception at the residence of Mr. Anton Wickremasinghe. Sumitra has now earned a name for herself as a distinguished film directress today. Lester's brother is artist Ivan Peries.


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 revolutionised Ceylonese cinema, giving it a unique identity. It was the first Ceylonese 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 feature films.


As director
Year Film Cast Language Notes
1956 Rekava[5] Ananda Weerakoon, Somapala Dharmapriya, Myrtle Fernando Sinhala Sarasaviya Awards
Sarasaviya Awards Best Director
1960 Sandesaya Ananda Jayaratne, Gamini Fonseka Sinhala
1963 Gamperaliya[6] Gamini Fonseka, Punya Heendeniya, Henry Jayasena Sinhala
Sarasaviya Best Director Award, entered into the 3rd Moscow International Film Festival.[7]
1966 Delovak Athara Tony Ranasinghe, Suwineetha Abeysekera, Iranganie Serasinghe Sinhala
Sarasaviya Best Director Award
1967 Ran Salu Tony Ranasinghe, Punya Heendeniya, Iranganie Serasinghe Sinhala
1968 Golu Hadawatha Wickrema Bogoda, Anula Karunatileke Sinhala
Sarasaviya Best Director Award
1969 Akkara Paha Milton Jayawardena, Malini Fonseka Sinhala
1972 Nidhanaya Gamini Fonseka, Malini Fonseka Sinhala Won Silver Lion of St Mark (Critics Choice) at the Venice International Film Festival and Screened a London Film Awards to mark 50 years of Sri Lankan cinema
1972 Desa Nisa Joe Abeywickrema, Sriyani Amarasena Sinhala
1975 The God King Leigh Lawson, Oliver Tobias, Geoffrey Russell English
1976 Madol Duwa Ajith Jinadasa, Padmasena Athukorala, Joe Abeywickrema Sinhala Based on Sri Lankan famous novel
1978 Ahasin Polawata Tony Ranasinghe, Sriyani Amarasena Sinhala Sri Lanka's Presidential Award for Best Director
1979 Pinhami Darshana Panangala, Joe Abeywickrama Sinhala First Prize at the Moscow International Children's Film Festival
Veera Puran Appu Ravindra Randeniya, Malini Fonseka Sinhala
1980 Baddegama Joe Abeywickrama, Malini Fonseka Sinhala Diploma at the Cannes International Film Festival
1982 Kaliyugaya[8] Henry Jayasena, Punya Heendeniya Sinhala Screened at Cannes Film Festival
1983 Yuganthaya Gamini Fonseka, Richard De Zoysa, Ramani Bartholomeusz Sinhala Sri Lanka's Presidential Award for Best Director. Entered into the 14th Moscow International Film Festival.[9]
1995 Awaragira Joe Abeywickrama, Vasanthi Chathurani, Kamal Addararachchi Sinhala
2002 Wekande Walauwa Ravindra Randeniya, Malini Fonseka, Iranganie Serasinghe Sinhala Sri Lanka's first submission for Academy Awards
2006 Amma Warune Malini Fonseka, Thesara Jayawardane, Roshan Pilapitiya Sinhala

Short films[edit]

  • Be Safe or Be Sorry-16 min, 1955
  • Conquest in the dry Zone-14 min, 1954
  • Soliloquy-12 min, 1951
  • Farewell to Childhood-14 min, 1950
  • A Sinhalese Dance-08 min, 1950

Awards and recognition[edit]

  • Cannes International Film Festival– "Fellini Gold Medal" Awarded by Unesco for outstanding film career 2003.[10]
  • Sri Lankabhimanya The highest Civil Honour of Sri Lanka (2007).
  • Recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 31st International Film Festival of India (2000)
  • Commandeur (commander) in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) from the French government (1997)
  • Diploma of Honour Venice Film Festival for the film "Conquest in the Dry Zone" (1954)
  • The Mini Cinema Cup for the short film "Soliloquy" for displaying the best technical proficiency by the Institute of Amateur and Experimental Film Makers Festival -Great Britain (1951)
  • Amateur Cine World Silver Plaque for the experimental film "Farewell to Childhood" – ten best films of the year – Great Britain (1950)
  • Issue of a National Stamp dedicated to Lester on 5 April 2002
  • A hybrid orchid was named after Dr Lester James Peries on 11 March 2004 – Ascocenda Lester Peries

The Lester James Peiris and Sumitra Peiris Foundation[edit]

The Lester James Peiris and Sumitra Peiris foundation was inaugurated on 9 June 2011 at the BMICH with an oration by the chief Guest - celebrated Indian film maker Padma Vibushan Dr. Adoor Gopalakrishnan and the Speaker of Parliament Chamal Rajapakse was the Guest of Honour. The Foundation is incorporated through an act of Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The bill of incorporation was forwarded to parliament by Hon. Malini Fonseka on 5 January 2011. The foundation focuses on the following general objectives-

1. To provide assistance for the development, promotion and sustenance of the Sri Lankan cinema and to those associated with it;
2. To promote and foster cinema and related arts and crafts for children and young adults;
3. To promote, improve, develop, provide financial assistance and maintain academic, scientific, cultural, literary, artistic and physical abilities and aptitudes;
4. To promote, propagate and foster humanitarian ideals, democratic and pluralistic values, good citizenship, patriotic concepts and beliefs;
5. To improve, develop, create, foster and maintain talents and abilities in entrepreneurship, research and training in business, technology and management and concept of income generating and self-employment ventures and enterprises; to establish, improve, encourage, develop and maintain research and research facilities in scientific, cultural, educational, economic and all other aspects of human development;
6. To advise and assist the Government, NGOs and individuals in the furtherance of the objectives of the Foundation;
7. To preserve and promote all cinematographic and any other creations of Lester James Peiris and Sumitra Peiris made by them including scripts, manuscripts, books, letters, articles, poems, photographs, audio cassettes, VHS cassettes, CDs, VCDs, DVDs, MP3s and any other audio devices, visual devices and media;
8. To preserve all cinematic equipment and personal memorabilia owned and used by Lester James Peiris and Sumitra Peries;
9. To maintain Archives to promote and preserve all cinematographic and any other creations of any Sri Lankan film maker;
10. To grant prizes, rewards, awards or scholarship to develop, promote and encourage creative talents in general or in particular fields;
11. To organize, conduct and participate in seminars, meetings, workshops, discussions, talks, classes, films, film shows, demonstrations, sports, and recreational activities, and to write, print and publish books, periodicals, magazines, articles and newspapers, in furtherance of the objectives herein specified and specifically in all areas of educational activity;
12. To establish and maintain libraries, workshops and readings rooms, and to equip the same having regard to the primary objects of the Foundation;
13. To publish articles, periodicals or such other literature and information as may prove necessary or useful for the purpose of the Foundation;
14. To undertake and execute any trusts the undertaking whereof seems desirable and either gratuitously or otherwise.

The foundation operates from the residence of Dr. Lester James Peiris, down Dr. Lester James Peiris Mawatha, and is involved in organizing many events annually to promote the film industry of the past and present in Sri Lanka.

The Foundation is spearheaded by its trustees- Dr. Lester James Peiris, Mrs. Sumitra Peries, Mr. Yadamini Gunawardene, Mr. Kumar de Silva and Mrs. Gayathri Mustachi. Also on the board of directors serves Ms. Yashodha Wimaladharma, Mr. Sameera Manabharana Randeniya, Mr. Yasoja Gunawardene and Mr. Nuran Gomez.

The "Lester James Peiris Film Archive"[edit]

The most recent development on Dr. Lester James Peiris is the building of a film archive in his name. From the time he was a young film maker one of his only requests was that the government make way for a proper film archive that would help protect the heritage of the films produced by Sri Lanka. On 5 April 2014, his own milestone 95th birthday, his request was granted when the National film corporation ceremoniously opened the "Lester James Peries Film Archives" at the request of His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapakse. The event was followed by a photographic exhibition of Dr. Peries' life and works.

Literature and records[edit]

There are close to 20 books written about Dr. Lester James Peiris. Please visit the Foundation website to find the list and availability of these books. The most well known of them are LJP Life and Works (Prof. A. J. Gunawardene), Lester by Lester (as told to Kumar de Silva) and Lester (Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne). These are available in leading bookshops around Colombo!

A Music CD has also been produced by The Lester James Peiris and Sumitra Peiris Foundation containing 21 hits from the films of Dr. Lester James Peiris arranged and played on piano by his own Great-grand nephew- Nuran Gomez. It is available at Sarasavi bookshop, Nugegoda.

Some films of Dr. Lester James Peiris which were restored, have been put into DVD format by Torana Video Movies and are available at all their outlets. They can be purchased by the general public.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]