The past several decades of Southasian cinema have introduced technicolour spectacle, summoning vivid evocations of romance, action and history. This is one of the biggest film industries in the world, and today it has transformed into iconic categories of its own. And yet, while uniquely observant, Southasia’s cinematographic gaze often objectifies women, representing them as transcendent symbols of imposed standards and expectations. Although many scholars have written on the region’s mainstream film industry, few among them have noted the contribution of women pioneers – both in the field of representation and in highlighting the importance of women-centric stories.
While attempting a chronology of women filmmaking in Southasia is no easy task, the first key figure in this regard is Fatma Begum. In 1926, Begum made her first film through her own production house, Fatma Films. Later, in Pakistan, ‘Sangeeta’ Parveen Rizvi and Shamim Ara made their debuts as directors, while later in Bangladesh, Kohinoor Akhter, popularly known as Suchanda, followed suit.
What bound these women together was the way their careers developed. Almost all of them transitioned from acting to directing. It was later, with the onset of an experimental ‘new wave’ in Indian cinema in the 1980s, that a new generation of women filmmakers emerged. Directors including Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta took centre stage, helped in no small part by the contacts they managed to establish with filmmakers and film schools in the Global North. One among these remarkable women directors, who continues to stand out in Sri Lanka, is Sumitra Peries.
Spanning the almost eight-decade history of Sri Lankan cinema’s existence, women’s filmmaking has been irregular and fragmentary, similar to how early women filmmakers in the region saw their work shelved and forgotten. Though Sri Lanka’s film industry is largely male-dominated, several women continue to make their mark, and not just in the field of acting. Sumitra’s work epitomises this breakthrough, particularly her dedication to telling women’s stories and revising the representation of women on the screen.
Journey of a filmmaker
With 10 films to her name, and having worked as screenwriter, director, producer and even editor of documentaries, Sumitra has emerged as one of the country’s foremost cultural icons. Her career stands in contrast to that of many of her contemporaries. For one thing, unlike most Southasian women directors of this era, such as Aparna Sen, she never took up acting. Sumitra began her career as an assistant director and an editor, having extensively studied cinema in Europe. Much like Minnette de Silva, the Sri Lankan woman architect who had to surmount numerous obstacles to become one of Asia’s greatest architects – who Sumitra admired greatly – she too had to overcome similar hurdles to rise in the industry.
Sumitra Peries was born Sumitra Gunawardena on 24 March, 1935 in the village of Payagala and later raised in her paternal hometown, Avissawella. Her mother hailed from a family of affluent arrack distillers, her father from a household of fervent political activists. Two of her uncles, Robert and Philip Gunawardena, became leading socialist politicians in British Ceylon. Philip went on to dominate the political stage in the island, earning the epithet “Father of Socialism.”
Although many scholars have written on the region’s mainstream film industry, few among them have noted the contribution of women pioneers.
After Sumitra turned 13 in 1948, the year Sri Lanka gained independence from the British, her family decided to move to Colombo. She then transferred from a Catholic school, St Mary’s College in Avissawella, to Visakha Vidyalaya, a leading Buddhist Girls’ school in the country. The first photograph of Sumitra to appear in the press shows her throwing a discus at a sports meet at Visakha.
Two years later Sumitra’s mother passed away. Devastated by the loss, her elder brother, Gamini, left the country. “He left us everything he had and renounced everything,” Sumitra recalls being depressed by his departure, and being happy when, a few years later, he got in touch with her and asked her to join him in Europe. “I agreed at once. After scrounging up some money, I got aboard a P&O liner and set sail to the Mediterranean in 1956, all on my own. My father gave me his blessings.” She was not quite 21.
Arriving in Naples some time later, Sumitra met Gamini, and travelled to Malta. “He had a yacht docked there, and was leading a rather bohemian life with some friends. Among them was a Frenchman called Claude Graff, who was living with Muffin Mayo, the daughter of the owner of the famous Mayo Clinic in the US.”
In conversation with Sumitra, she gets understandably excited recalling this episode in her life. “I was doing things I couldn’t dream of doing back home. We went off adventuring across the Mediterranean, dropping anchor off one coast after another, meeting people who, like us, had left their homes, families, and belongings behind to live for the moment. Things couldn’t get any more bohemian, and they didn’t. The people we met and befriended, the food we savoured, everything conjured up the promise of a grand life ahead.”
Over the next six months, Sumitra, Gamini, and their friends sailed along the Italian and French coast. At Saint-Tropez she came across Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim making And God Created Woman (1956). Her first glimpse of a movie set intrigued her greatly.
“I didn’t know what to do next. We decided on settling in Lausanne. My brother returned to Sri Lanka, leaving me behind in a world far from home.” But Lausanne failed to grow on her: “I longed to see France on the other side.” After much soul-searching and a train ride, she found herself in Paris “without a penny in my purse.”
On family instructions, she was soon boarded at the Ceylon Legation. There she met a man who was to change the course of Sri Lankan cinema: Lester James Peries, regarded as Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent filmmaker, and before long, Sumitra’s husband.
At the time, Lester advised Sumitra to go to England. She agreed, enrolling at the London School of Film Technique (LSFT). Founded in 1956, the LSFT was located in a suburb in Brixton. Less glamorous than the Mediterranean, it offered Sumitra a more stable home.
Among her lecturers and peers, she remembers Lindsay Anderson, a leading auteur of the British New Wave, vividly. Over time the two of them got to know each other quite well. “He knew Lester long before he met me. The three of us became good friends.”
Sumitra excelled in her studies but finding a job in London was not easy for her. Only after knocking on the doors of Elizabeth Mai-Harris, one of Britain’s leading subtitling firms, was she offered work in the industry. “My fluency in French helped.”
After a while, however, she longed to be back home. On Gamini’s advice, she returned to Sri Lanka. Following a meeting with Lester Peries, she ended up as the only female crew member – one of three assistant directors – aboard his second film, Sandesaya (The Message, 1960). Four years later they married, and remained together until his death in 2018.
Vision and visibility
Another milestone in her long career in cinema began in 1963, editing Lester James Peries’s landmark film Gamperaliya (Changes in the Village), adapted from a novel by one of the country’s leading authors, Martin Wickramasinghe. More than a decade later, in 1978, she ventured into her own directorial debut with Gehenu Lamai (Girls), following it up with nine films, including her most recent film Vaishnavee (The Goddess) in 2018.
Sumitra’s aesthetic sensibility is distinct: according to documentary filmmaker and writer Mark Cousins, “she uses zooms like Robert Altman, probing shyness and tentative love.”
Gehenu Lamai, based on a popular novel by Karunasena Jayalath, contains many of the essential themes that bind Sumitra’s work: the innocence of childhood, the burdens of women in patriarchal societies, the rift between rich and poor, and the torments of adolescent love. Moving away from the formulaic and fantastical song-and-dance fiestas of Southasian blockbusters, her films capture not only the nuances of rural Sri Lanka, but are sharp in their critique of male chauvinism and patriarchy. While bringing female agency to the foreground, Sumitra expertly extends the narrative of the women at the centre of her films to explore dependency, exploitation and manipulation at the hands of men.
Most of her characters come from lower middle-class backgrounds, with a few, like Kusum, played by Vasanthi Chathurani in Gehenu Lamai, hailing from a rural setting. Thwarted in their desires, they often resort to desperate measures. For instance, after discovering that her childhood lover has married someone else, Nirmala from Ganga Addara (The River’s Edge, 1980) also played by Chathurani, commits suicide. In Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuwa Oba Handa (Letter Written on the Sand, 1988), the protagonist is a sensitive young boy whose mother toils hard for him after her husband, his father, falls off a tree and dies. The son writes an imaginary letter on the sand, imploring his uncle to take him away and employ him at his shop so that he can ease his mother’s burdens.
The gendered screen
Sumitra’s aesthetic sensibility is distinct: according to documentary filmmaker and writer Mark Cousins, “she uses zooms like Robert Altman, probing shyness and tentative love.” Expertly capturing the nuances of post-independence Sinhala-language films, Sumitra herself seems to be aware of a certain quality of meticulousness in her work: “I get an urge to recompose the mise-en-scène, even to ‘prettify’ it. I think that shows in the final product.” For Cousins, that reveals what an intuitive and expert visual thinker she is.
By her own confession, her attitude to women was shaped by the women who figured in her life, most prominently and obviously her mother. When asked about the films she likes, she at once mentions Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. “I remember seeing Renée Falconetti’s face and being enthralled by it. I could never forget that face. It came back to me, many times in fact, when I started directing films.”
Despite the high praise Sumitra has won, she has also received scathing criticism. Some critics have labelled her work as “feminine” and accused her of not being sufficiently “feminist”, because of how her female characters succumb to their plight – such as when Kusum from Gehenu Lamai bitterly accepts a life of loveless poverty as her fate. Thus, Wimal Dissanayake and Ashley Ratnavibhushana, the authors of Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, a leading monograph on the subject, critique this realist portrayal to conclude that she “has not gone far enough as a director with feminist interests.”
“I rebelled much against the idea of what a woman had to be in my society, as a girl and as a director. In the end, despite those strictures, I prevailed.”
Sumitra’s response to these criticisms is that she can portray women as someone other than who they are only by manipulating the story. In the few instances she attempts this by merging the trajectory of an exceptional woman and the oppression of society – as in Yahalu Yeheli (Boyfriends and Girlfriends, 1982), the heroine disobeys her father, a powerful landlord, and joins a group of villagers in protesting his hold over them. On the whole, she prefers to stick to principles of the realist-cinema era: “I want to depict women as they are, rather than who they should be.”
Today Sumitra resides in Mirihana, a quiet suburb located away from the bustling capital. Since 1969, she and her husband had spent their life together in Colombo, in a house along a road that continues to bear his name. Unfortunately, owing to certain developments involving the legal title to their residence, she had to leave after his passing away. She hasn’t come to regret the shift: as she admits candidly, “it’s much quieter here, in tune with my sensibility.”
Sumitra’s more recent work has seen her transcend genres and themes. Sakman Maluwa (2003), an elegiac, almost mystical tale of love, sexuality, and jealousy that takes on the trappings of a parable towards the end, won several awards at the Sarasaviya Awards, one of the oldest and most prestigious Sinhala language film events in Sri Lanka. Yahaluwo (2007), a much simpler tale about inter-ethnic amity told through the eyes of a small boy, won much praise at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) held in Panjim, Goa in 2008, even as Sri Lankan audiences barely registered the film. A decade later, Sumitra returned to the director’s chair with Vaishnavee (2018). Based on a story by Lester James Peries, the film is a love story about a man who inadvertently brings a puppet to life, set in the south of Sri Lanka at the turn of the 20th century.
Beyond her contributions to film, Sumitra went on to serve in other capacities, prominently as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for France and Spain from 1995 to 1999 and, during this period, as the country’s Ambassador and Permanent Delegate to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). For her work, she has been recognised by various institutions, including the conferring of an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Kelaniya.
As the last of her generation still active in the industry, Sumitra’s contribution to Sri Lankan and Southasian cinema is indisputable. Currently working on her next project, details of which she is not too eager to reveal, at 88 Sumitra Peries remains open to further possibilities in exploring her chosen medium. While being modest about her achievements, she tells me one thing before signing off: “I rebelled much against the idea of what a woman had to be in my society, as a girl and as a director. In the end, despite those strictures, I prevailed.”