Sri Lankan Film Director Lester James Peries (LJP) recently sat down for an interview with The Sunday Times Sri Lanka in which he discussed how Leonard Woolf’s anti-imperialist 1913 novel based on Woolf’s experiences as a colonial civil servant in Ceylon, Village in the Jungle, inspired his 1980 film Baddegama.
Peries calls Leonard Woolf’s novel a “masterpiece.” From the interview:
Justifying the efforts he made to bring the novel closer to Lankan viewers, he said ‘Village in the Jungle’ is a masterpiece, authored by a literary giant of the twentieth century – the only fiction written by a colonial ruler on Lankans.
The novel projected the lives of peasants in a village surrounded by the jungles of Hambantota. The author, who was the Government Agent of the Hambantota District and thus himself an agent of imperialism, revealed the insensitivities and injustices of the colonial masters. Woolf was also one of the first who saw the cracks in the British Empire.
LJP was attracted not just by the narrative and literary excellence alone. He saw its sociological and political relevance which pushed him to search for a Sinhala translation.
Peries also celebrates the lasting influence of Woolf’s novel:
LJP points out that the novel written in 1913 has survived for over hundred years and inspired not only film-makers but authors like Christopher Ondaatje who in the hundredth year of Woolf’s arrival in Ceylon in 1904 retraced his footsteps to the real village “Malagasnugawala” which is likely to have been Woolf’s “Baddegama.”
In 1960 Leonard and his partner Trekkie Parsons visited Ceylon and although Leonard was nervous about how he would be perceived by Sri Lankans due to, as the article describes, his role “as a former agent of imperialism,” he was warmly welcomed:
[Leonard] had feared he would be vilified as a former agent of imperialism but found himself commended for the part he played which contributed to the then British government rethinking their role which helped Ceylon to gain Independence. Woolf, as LJP points out, had done a great service to Sri Lanka.
In 1980, Baddegama was invited to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight.
You can watch a short clip of the film Baddegama (with English subtitles).