Why Sumitra Peries matters | Daily News

Why Sumitra Peries matters

Exploring the complexities of love and self-discovery in her final film Vaishnavi:

One disadvantage of having a close relationship with a celebrity is that your own talents may be overlooked and judged in comparison. This was likely the experience of Sumitra Peries, who passed away recently. Despite having her own unique abilities, she was often overshadowed by her husband's stardom.

Indeed, Sumitra Peries accomplished a great deal in her career and should be remembered for her contributions to the field of filmmaking. No artiste can go on making masterpieces. All they can do is produce masterpieces and initiate inspiration for successors. It is not productive to dwell on their passing, but rather to appreciate the impact they had on the industry and the inspiration they provide. Peries has left a lasting legacy and her work continues to inspire others to follow in her footsteps.

In 1956, while Ceylon was undergoing a cultural revolution, a seven-year-old boy accompanied his family to the Regal Cinema to watch the new film in town, Rekhawa, in which his aunt, Iranganie Serasinghe, starred. Sixty-two years later in 2018, that same boy, the country's Prime Minister at the time, Ranil Wickremesinghe, returned to the same theatre to attend the 99th birthday celebration of Rekhawa director, Dr. Lester James Peries. On that day, April 5, his wife, Sumitra Peries, premiered her final film, Vaishnavi, as a birthday present to her iconic husband. Unfortunately, Dr. Peries was unable to attend the event due to poor health, but his presence was deeply felt nonetheless. He was too precious to be present anyway as Dr. Peries breathed his last a few days later.

Vaishnavi was a priceless gift from Sumitra Peries. The film showcases her maturity as a creative artist, transcending the boundaries of gender. It offers audiences the chance to fully immerse themselves in Peries' unique filmic style, different from that of her celebrated husband. Through Vaishnavi, we can fully appreciate the depth and range of Peries' talents as a filmmaker.

The Vaishnavi narrative makes headway with two phases and Osanda is in the centre. Both phases point to the rise and fall of Osanda’s romance, though set against two opposed backgrounds: traditional and surreal. The bridging link is his art: puppeteering and sculpture. The crescendo occurs gradually in the second phase when Osanda’s romantic encounter enters the Pinocchio-inspired magic realism realm.

Sumitra Peries demonstrates her unique approach to filmmaking in Vaishnavi by using subtle techniques instead of more flashy methods to keep the audience engaged. The true excitement of the film arises at the climax, when Osanda's female puppet comes to life, showcasing Peries' ability to create powerful emotional moments without relying on typical cinematic tricks.

To the viewer, Osanda appears as a typical, God-fearing young man. However, he reveals his true passion by sculpting a naked female figure. His foster father expresses excitement and longing for the puppet, a natural reaction for most men. However, his female cousin becomes jealous and upset by the sculpture's sensual nature. The female puppet, with its subtle feminine curvature, comes to life and turns Osanda's life upside down, creating a complex and layered story that delves into themes of desire, art, and self-discovery.

Vaishnavi can be considered a thriller because of its tension-filled elements and how it makes the viewer feel like a participant in a suspenseful game. The confusion arises from the beliefs and superstitions associated with village life. The celestial beings are believed to be divine and free of mortal emotions such as anger. However, the tree goddess, or the embodiment of Vaishnavi, commits acts that are not considered divine or holy, such as causing chaos in Osanda's ancestral home. This raises questions about the nature of her actions, whether it's driven by sexual wrath or something else. If it is the former, the point that Peries is trying to convey becomes clear: that jealousy is a powerful and destructive force in the lives of women.

The conflicting point in the transition from the first phase into the second elaborates why the tree goddess handpicks Osanda. In the very first instance, according to the lady exorcist, the goddess is out on a mission to avenge Osanda who felled the tree which was her abode. But then the next instance, the goddess reveals that she wanted to comfort a lovelorn Osanda.

Compared to the second phase, the first phase could be given a blanket term: plot-wise junk. But it serves in its own right to the development of the second phase. Plot-wise junk it is, though that is exactly where Peries dazzles as the director. The sequence is an almost flawless visual treatment of the pre-Independence with buggy carts roaming the jungle-like paths, toddy tappers walking the tightrope up above, transparent chemises of the yesteryear ladies and much more.

Humans are blessed with the most wondrous things on earth. But they always look for blessings without. How far can a man go in order to feel loved and reciprocate that emotion? Osanda is a naive young man – at least, that is how we are introduced to him – and a nerd immersed in his art too ignorant to understand the simple fact that love is beyond being physical. He was happily talking to the puppets as long as he knew deep down that they are lifeless. Once an inanimate object comes to life, it makes him quieten. It is simply an awed expression of Osanda’s hypocrisy veiled in innocent ignorance.

Osanda, a six-inch-tall character, is left speechless when a celestial being questions him about his expectations in love. The celestial being's final statement, "remember, love is a spiritual bond," may come across as trite, but it holds a deeper meaning. It raises the question of whether we truly understand the nature of love or if it is just a reflection of our own selfish desires. Through Osanda's realization, the audience is given the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of love and its spiritual bond.

Vaishnavi, among other works in her filmography, is Sumitra Peries' lasting legacy and gift to her audience, which survives her departure.

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