Iconic film directress Sumitra Peries passed away yesterday morning in hospital after a brief illness. She was 87 at the time of her passing and a few weeks away from her 88th birthday.

The multi- talented Peries, who was a screen writer, editor, director, and producer rolled into one, famously redefined the portrayal of women in Sri Lankan cinema. Her renditions of their off-screen reality on the screen became a hallmark of the stories she told through her movies.

Peries debuted as a film director in 1978 with the timeless Gahanu Lamai, a story of young love shackled by culture and tradition.  The movie launched Vasanthi Chathurani’s film career. Peries discovered her while scouting around for the profile of Kusum in the movie. Her co-star Ajith Jinadasa who played the role of Nimal, was another find after he auditioned for Madol Duwa, the Martin Wickremesinghe classic turned movie which was directed by Peries’ husband Lester.

After Gahanu Lamai, which won an award at the Carthage International Film Festival, Peries directed and produced ten more movies including Ganga Addara, Yahalu Yeheli, Sagara Jaalya and Loku Duwa all of which won international awards.  Many were box office hits.  Vaishnavee, which she shot with a red epic camera making her the first film director in Sri Lanka to use digital technology in film making, was her last movie. Peries had a host of national awards and honours conferred on her for her award-winning work for more than 70 years. Among them was the title of Kala Keerthi in 2005 which was bestowed by the government of Sri Lanka. In 2021, the government of Japan presented her with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays and the University of Kelaniya awarded her an honorary doctorate for her contribution to local cinema. The French celebrated her achievements by awarding her a Legion of Honour.


Born on 24 March 1935 in Payagala, Peries’ middle class family roots run deep in Avissawella. Her father Harry Gunewardene was the eldest of ten children born to Don Jacolis Rupasinghe Gunewardene and his wife Dona Liyanora nee Gunasekera.  The couple raised their children in the Boralugoda mahagedara, which could have easily passed off as a hotbed of Marxist political ideology because of the legacy of  Harry’s siblings, Philip and Robert.  Having started the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the two scions of the Boralugoda household were among the pioneers of Sri Lanka’s left movement, leaving an indelible mark on the country’s left politics.  Sri Lankan history acknowledges Philip, more popularly known as the  Boralugda Lion because of his steadfastness to political principles and fiery rhetoric, as the Father of Socialism. Their sister Caroline demonstrated her solidarity by marrying a trade unionist from India. In the next generation, a niece Vivienne Goonewardene who was a LSSP stalwart, was one of the first female ministers in the world.

The fight in her ancestors rubbed off on Peries who chose to rebel against societal strictures and the stereotyping of women.  She opted to be daring than demure. She was barely 21 when she left Sri Lanka on board a P&O ferry to join her older brother Gamini in Europe and from there, they sailed the Mediterranean. Peries eventually headed off to London to study film and it was also here that her path crossed with Lester’s, albeit briefly. They married in Sri Lanka a few years later and celebrated their golden wedding anniversary before he passed away in 2018.

The duo complemented each other’s passion for film making. For Peries, being in film making, traditionally a male bastion, was also groundbreaking. She was Sri Lanka’s first film director and ranked among the few in South Asia. Together, they took the cine world by storm and put Sri Lanka on the world map.

Peries was Sri Lanka’s ambassador to France and Spain from 1996 -1999.  She also represented Sri Lanka at the UN.

Amidst the expressions of grief and sorrow as news of Peries’ death takes hold, the country will prepare to say their final goodbyes on Saturday to a maestro of film.



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