Moviemakers have coaxed Sri Lanka into costume more than once—that’s her masquerading as a small Indian village that needs Harrison Ford’s whip-cracking assistance in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and there she is again, looking like Thailand and the site for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). In Tarzan, the Ape Man(1981), you’re supposed to mistake her dense forests for those of Africa, and in Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005), she slips by as the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. This chameleon-like adaptability and its strategic location should have made Sri Lanka one of the most popular film location destinations, but a 30-year war ensured that big productions weren’t willing to risk bringing actors and crew into the country. With the island’s relatively tenuous new political stability, that has begun to change.
A land of different worlds: Sir Ben Kingsley in A Common Man which was shot in Colombo and will release in early 2012. Columbia/The Kobal Collection/AFP
The most dramatic sign of this change is the making of what is being billed as Sri Lanka’s first crossover film to star an Oscar-winning actor. Earlier this year, Sir Ben Kingsley was in Colombo for 25 days of filming A Common Man. The movie, written and directed by local film-maker Chandran Rutnam, also stars actor Ben Cross (of Chariots of Fire fame) and is scheduled for release worldwide in early 2012. The director says he wrote the script with Kingsley in mind. In it, the actor plays “the Man”, a mysterious character pitted against the police forces led by Cross. Once you’ve heard this, the film’s tag line will tell you the rest: “Five bombs in the city. The clock is ticking.” Rutnam is best known as a producer and the head of Sri Lanka-based Asian Film Location Services. However, his most recent film, an adaptation of Nihal de Silva’s award-winning book, The Road from Elephant Pass, won him international recognition when it made the final five in the Best Film category at the New York Festivals 2011 Television and Film Awards. “It was Road from Elephant Pass that really opened doors for me,” Rutnam said in an interview, adding that he hoped to recreate some of that magic with A Common Man.
The latter’s success will hinge on the intensity of the onscreen rapport between his two leading men. “They’re opposites, and they finally meet in the last scene,” says Rutnam. “You’ll see it on the screen…their chemistry was excellent.” According to the director, the movie is a thriller, and the dramatic tension is likely to be generated as the audience finds their loyalties bouncing back and forth between the characters of Kingsley and Cross. The two men play hide and seek across several locations in the environs of Colombo, with one particularly tense scene taking us 17 storeys up on to the rooftop of a high-rise still under construction. Other scenes were shot near the airport and in a local college and so there isn’t a patch of rainforest in sight. This is a movie that, for better or worse, won’t be relying on all the visual clichés associated with tropical islands.
For most foreign film-makers, however, the stunning scenery found outside the city remains the main attraction. Rutnam himself has capitalized on this more than once. The director claims George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg as friends, and his company has supported almost every notable foreign film production in Sri Lanka. Now that he has taken the director’s reins himself, Rutnam is moving at a steady trot and even has his next project lined up: a film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Toomai of the Elephants featuring Pierce Brosnan and Omar Sharif will begin filming in March. For the film, Rutnam intends to import a cast of animal actors from Hollywood (among them a venerable, experienced star will be chosen to portray the character of the old elephant Kala Nag). However, Rutnam intends to use Sri Lanka’s beautiful jungles as a backdrop.
As the action heats up, his company has begun to see new challengers. Among them is The Film Team—the production company that recently facilitated the making of Mehta’s Winds of Change. The filming of Midnight’s Children was an extraordinary marathon of 60-odd locations, shot over 70 days with more than 200 people on each set. It may have just made the reputation of this fledgling company. At the head of the company is the well-connected actor Ravindra Randeniya. “The sheer magnitude of the film was a challenge,” he says. Shooting took place primarily in Colombo, in locations ranging from the golf club and a prison to the stately colonial homes found in some of the city’s oldest districts. More than a few scenes were shot down narrow, “ghetto like streets”, hedged in with residences and thick with people. It meant that the team had to work hard to recruit the local populace to their cause.
By altering the signage and the appearance of the extras, the same train station was made to masquerade as a station in India and then as one in Pakistan. Elsewhere, entire houses were built to bring Rushdie’s vision to life. The basement where Nadir Khan (“the Hummingbird’s” personal secretary) cowers for years, was constructed under the premises of a Colombo school and a Magician’s Ghetto with 50 homes was erected in a playing field in Applewatte (complete with flat roofs for star gazing at night). In the film’s final scenes, the ghetto was dramatically razed to the ground—a key scene that Mehta had to capture on her first try.
With Winds of Change scheduled for release in late 2012, The Film Team says they’re now in talks to begin work on three other American and European projects by the end of the year. “What we’re selling is the beauty of an island,” says Randeniya, explaining that the diminutive scale of Sri Lanka’s geography allows film-makers to hop between very distinct locations in very short periods of time—from beach to forest to mountain, nothing is more than a few hours away.
A still from The Bridge Over River Kwai.
For most part, film-makers tend to be warmly welcomed here. The economic development deputy minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene recently told AFP, “We are encouraging foreign artists and film crews to shoot in our country to experience its beauty.” For those who accept the invitation, the first order of business, getting the National Film Corporation of Sri Lanka to approve a script, can take as little as two weeks, says The Film Team. That certificate, once issued, will get your production the cooperation of the armed forces, the police and any other government body you care to call upon, explains Randeniya. Add to this a populace not prone to protests, and you have a space where even controversial film-makers can go about their business with relative ease, he believes. Yet, the most obvious partners seem the least interested—Indian film-makers remain wary of Sri Lanka.
When Mani Ratnam visited Sri Lanka in August 2008, it was to meet The Film Team and scout for possible locations for his movie Raavan. His original intention was to film the bulk of the movie here, says Randeniya, but a storm of negative publicity driven by politics in south India put a stop to that. For Randeniya, it’s a frustrating situation: “From our point of view, we have the world’s biggest film-making industry next door, but we’re isolated from them.” His only compensation is that the Europeans and Americans appear more enthusiastic, with some of their post-production outfits even considering opening Sri Lankan branches.
Boris Clavel of the Paris-based Luxart is among them, and says he hopes to set up shop in Sri Lanka within the year. While travelling can be expensive and ill-considered development often robs scenic sites of their virginal air, the main complaint for would-be film-makers is that the country’s post-production facilities are still poor. Boris believes the right technology will take it up “one step…maybe even two or three”. Like Randeniya and his colleagues, Boris is optimistic. He sums up the mood well when he says, “It’s very exciting. Everything is happening now in this part of the world.”
Published in LiiveMint on October 14, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Sanka Vidanage.