Last evening, at the gala opening of the European Film Festival in Colombo, I sat two rows in front of a living treasure of the Asian cinema and watched his recently restored 1964 cinematic masterpiece, a cultural treasure in its own right.
The doyen of the Lankan cinema, Lester James Peries, made Gamperaliya (Changes in the Village, 35mm, 108 minutes) based on the Sinhala novel of the same name, written by Martin Wickremasinghe, himself a leading light of Lankan literature during the 20th century.
The movie was groundbreaking in Sinhala cinema, and was shot entirely outside of a studio using one lamp and hand held lights for lighting (at a time when most films were still being made within studios). Although not an immediate commercial success, it was critically and internationally acclaimed, and won the Golden Peacock at the Grand Prix International Film Festival in India and the Golden Head of Palenque in Mexico, both in 1965. It was one of the first Lankan films to be internationally recognised.
Gamperaliya was the first independent film made in Sri Lanka. There was no film studio involvement, and the film maker and friends invested Lankan Rupees 170,000 to make it (roughly USD 30,000 at the time, although today the same amount of the much weaker Rupee converts to less than USD 1,500).
Critic David Chute wrote: “Gamperaliya launched a revolution, not only in the way films were made but also in content…[director] Peries sought an alternative to the Bollywood-influenced melodramas that dominated commercial cinema…With an elegant narrative style comparable to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, [the film’s] aesthetic choices also have a moral dimension.”
Gamperaliya is two years older than myself, and although I’d watched it on television, I had never seen it in a cinema on a large screen with proper sound. It was a real treat. For nearly two hours, I was transported back to two periods of recent history: the newly independent Dominion of Ceylon (not yet renamed Sri Lanka) in the early 1960s when the film was made, and the early 20th century colonial Ceylon where the actual story takes place. To engage in such time travel in the company of the maestro film maker himself was a unique experience.
However, it was sobering to reflect how many who were involved in the creative effort to make Gamperaliya are no longer with us. Among them are screenplay writer Regi Siriwardena, actor Gamini Fonseka and co-producer Anton Wickremasinghe. It was only a few months ago that Tissa Abeysekera, who started his long and colourful association with the Lankan cinema by working as a dialogue writer and assistant director in Gamperaliya, abruptly departed.
Lester, who turned 90 in April 2009, was making a rare public appearance. We were told that this is only the second time he has ventured out since he retired from film-making two years ago. He looked a bit frail, but walked up and down the isle supported by his wife Sumitra Peries, his partner both in life and cinema.
In some ways, cine film is even more prone to the decay of elements than humans. Gamperaliya was almost totally lost. Last evening’s celebrated reunion of the master and his masterpiece was the outcome of a major restoration that involved substantial efforts and investments by concerned cinephiles on both sides of the Atlantic.
Gamperaliya was rescued from the brink of disaster. A few years ago, UNESCO launched a project to collate a World Heritage of cinema and selected another film of Lester’s, Nidhanaya (Treasure, 1972) as a work of art that should be preserved for future generations. But when Lester and UNESCO representatives went to the Sarasavi studio in Dalugama, north of Colombo, where almost all the films made in Lankan cinema are kept, they found that the master Negative (the Mother Copy from which fresh copies could be made) was burnt due to vinegar syndrome – a condition when negatives start deteriorating.
“This was not due to the failure of anybody in Dalugama studio or the National Film Corporation but due to the failure of all governments that came to power since 1956. The late journalist Ajith Samaranayake and many others fought for a film archive but we were not able to persuade any government,” the disappointed film maker was quoted as saying at the time.
This news reached Pierre Rissient, a French national and a guardian of Lankan cinema who is attached to ‘Pathe’ one of the biggest film companies in the world. He urged Lester to help restore the equally important film Gamperaliya, which was also in a state of decay but could still be salvaged.
In one email, Rissient wrote to Lester: “Dear Lester you made a great masterpiece, not only of the cinematography of your country but also universally. It is your duty to make possible this restoration; it is not for your friend Pierre, but for the world.”
So Pierre Rissient pursued this and arranged for it to be carried out at the film restoration unit of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). The UCLA Film and Television Archive is the largest university-based collection of film and television materials in the world,
Some 14 sound reels and 14 picture reels of Gamperaliya, weighing 60 kilos, were couriered to UCLA in May 2007. The film was restored to the visual and audio perfection by Rob Stone and Jere Guldin. The restoration with latest digital sound and visual quality will enable the film to be shown all over the world after 45 years.
In May 2008, the restored Gamperaliya was screened at the Cannes Film Festival under the section ‘Restored Classics’.
At the time, Lester wrote to Pierre Rissient: “It is a tremendous campaign that made it possible for Gamperaliya to survive and your incredible faith in our film that made this miracle possible. We do hope and pray that there is no serious deterioration that will destroy any chances of a glorious restoration. Sumithra and I thank you and are joined by the Sri Lanka film industry for your valiant effort.”
And all of us movie lovers in Sri Lanka and across the world join them in this gratitude, for saving the cultural treasure that is Gamperaliya.
Essay by D B S Jeyaraj, April 2009: Lester James Peries – Liberator of Sinhala Cinema