Dream locales in Lanka
Chandran Rutnam markets his country to international film makers as the perfect alternative to shooting in India.
"WATERS" NEW SETS: The Varanasi Ghats recreated at Bolgoda lake, near Colombo.
WHEN Deepa Mehta's "Water" is released, viewers won't make out that the film, set in 1930s Varanasi, was shot not by the Ganga, as originally planned, but by the side of a lake outside the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.
That is what Chandran Rutnam says he promised the film-maker, distraught at having to abandon the shooting of the film in India after mobs led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) destroyed the sets at Varanasi and in other ways made it impossible for her to continue the project.
In 2004, when Mehta decided to make the film in Sri Lanka four years after she pulled out of India, Rutnam's Film Services Location recreated the Varanasi ghats at the vast Bolgoda Lake near Colombo.
"Deepa was very happy with the sets, and she completed the filming in just two months," says Rutnam.
Passing off as India
Rutnam, a Sri Lankan, markets his country to international film makers as the perfect alternative to shooting in India — less red-tape and political interference, therefore, easy clearances, no protestors. Plus the advantage of a range of locations that can pass off as places in India, from the sea-side to the hills.
Add a quarter-century of experience that Film Location Services has working with international film crews, says its affable owner, and directors can forget about everything else and concentrate on making the film.
That is more or less what Mehta told an interviewer after completing the film: "There were no hassles in getting permission for shooting. We made a film without politics coming in our way. I'd have loved to make the film in India. But I couldn't. Anyway, I don't think my film suffers because of the transposition. I didn't have to look anxiously over my shoulders at who's shooting the next volley at my film. I could just focus on making the film. That fear is a real impediment to creativity."
Rutnam describes himself as a vulture, circling over international film-makers who decide to make a film in India.
"We call the producers and tell them, `give us a call when you run into problems'," he says. "Then we cut to the chase."
That is exactly how George Lucas shifted "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" — the one with the late Amrish Puri — entirely to Sri Lanka. Before that, only some scenes were to be shot in the island.
"We were sitting in this hotel, Lucas and Robert Watts, the producer of the film, and I. Lucas had already prepped the film to be shot in India and just about started building the sets. He got a call that the Indian authorities wanted him not to use the word `thugee', or `maharajah' in the film. He made the decision right there to move the whole thing to Sri Lanka," says Rutnam.
The film was shot at Indian villages recreated in Sri Lanka, and on location in Kandy, where the climax scene, filmed over a magnificent gorge, has Amrish Puri yelling inexplicably in Sinhalese.
"(Steven) Spielberg asked me how to say `come' in my language, and when I told him, he asked Amrish to say it. I protested that it was not Hindi, and he said, `Chandran, who the hell will know the difference?'" recalls Rutnam.
That is why in one scene towards the end, viewers saw Amrish Puri scream "Yanna", ordering his army to get on a dodgy rope bridge that Harrison "Indiana Jones" Ford and his co-stars were trying to cross to reach the other side of the gorge.
Lucas was among the many from around the globe who expressed support for Mehta after the vandalising of the "Water" sets, with a full-page advertisement in Variety magazine in which he promised he would never shoot in India.
`Jungle Book Two'
Rutnam says almost all the films in the shooting of which Film Location Services has assisted show India; most recently "Jungle Book Two" and a number of television films set in India, including one on Mother Teresa, complete with Calcutta slums and rickshaws.
"When a filmmaker comes to Sri Lanka for the first time, he brings a crew of 40. After working with us, when he comes the next time, he brings only 10. We have everything to make a motion picture: sets, crew, props. But more than the equipment, we have a crew who have worked on international films, and are used to the pace of international directors," he says.
Rutnam counts Errol Kelley of Film Location Services among of the world's best set designers. Kelley assisted in creating the sets for "Indiana Jones ... " and was the art director for the acclaimed Catherine Denevue-starrer "Indo-Chine".
"Recreating Varanasi at Bolgoda was not a difficult task for Errol. He did a great job," says Rutnam.
But shooting in Sri Lanka can sometimes prove problematic: the BBC had to hastily scrap plans to shoot "Midnight's Children", based on Salman Rushdie's book, when the island's Muslims objected that nothing connected to the author of the "blasphemous" Satanic Verses should be permitted in Sri Lanka.
Rutnam was not associated with the ill-fated production, and claims somewhat immodestly — that had he handled the facilitation, the film might have ended up being made.
On the off-chance that vested interests might attempt to disrupt the shooting of "Water" even in Sri Lanka, Mehta gave the film the working title of River Moon.
An entirely new set of actors (Lisa Ray and Seema Biswas replaced Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi) helped to carry off the fiction — at least for a large part of the two-month shooting — that this was an entirely different film.
"Only after the filming was over, and the footage was shipped safely out of Sri Lanka that we said it was `Water', the third part of Mehta's trilogy after `Fire' and `Earth'," says Rutnam.
Sarala, an eight-year-old girl from Galle in southern Sri Lanka who had never acted before, played the central role of the child widow in the film, managing to learn Hindi for her dialogues.
One of the spin-offs of bringing foreign film-makers to Sri Lanka, Rutnam says, is the opportunity to showcase local talent — such as Kelley and Sarala — that the small home-grown film industry is unable to exploit fully.
Rutnam, who began his career as a props assistant for David Lean when the famous director shot "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in Sri Lanka in 1956, has also made his own films, in Sinhalese. One is just out and he is working on another, based on The Road From Elephant Pass, an award-winning novel by Sri Lankan writer Nihal de Silva.
What was shot
These were some of the international films shot in Sri Lanka:
In the 1950s:
"Outcast of the Islands"; "The Purple Plain" (with Gregory Peck); "Elephant Walk" (with Elizabeth Taylor); "Beachcomber", and; the classic and winner of seven Academy awards, "The Bridge on the River Kwai".
"Tarzan the Ape Man"; "Light over the Water"; "Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy"; "The Further Adventures of Tenessee Buck"; "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"; "The Iron Triangle"; "Ghosts Can't Do It; Jungle Book Two"; "Water".
SELF-MADE: Chandran Rutnam.
Looking back ...
CHANDRAN RUTNAM was a 16-year-old school boy when David Lean arrived in Sri Lanka to shoot his Second World War epic, "The Bridge on The River Kwai". The film crew hired a house that belonged to his parents for the shooting, and Rutnam hung out at the sets volunteering odd jobs until finally, he got hired as a standby props assistant and gofer.
His big moment, Rutnam recalls, came when it was time to shoot the blowing up of the bridge — the film's finale — on location at the scenic Kitulgala river in central Sri Lanka. The crew had laid out only a couple of yards of rail track on either side of the bridge, not enough to show an approaching train. Rutnam's job was to run through a stretch of the jungle on one side working up smoke with a pair of smoke bellows. Of course, those who saw the film only saw the smoke, synchronised with the chugging sounds of a rapidly approaching train.
Lean's production team took eight months to put up the bridge that took only 30 seconds to destroy for the climactic scene of the film. On the day of the filming, the cameraman forgot to give the signal to set off the fireworks that would send up the bridge and the train with it. The driverless engine rolled over the bridge, pulling the train into a gully. But such was the efficiency of the crew that they managed to pull together for the scene to be shot again the very next day.
The experience of watching and working with Lean and his crew, Rutnam says, changed his life forever. To the consternation of his parents, he chucked school and went to London to pursue his dream of a career in films. He later moved to the United States, where he went a film school in Los Angeles, while doing jobs in Hollywood studios. Rutnam's break in selling Sri Lankan locations to international film-makers came when he managed to convince John Derek, director of "Tarzan the Apeman", to shoot the film starring his wife Bo Derek, in Sri Lanka rather than Africa.
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