The living legend’s career spans many milestones in film making. He started his career in film making with The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957 and his newest ‘According to Mathew’ is premiering in April this year. His 60-year- career transcends the 1950s, the golden age of Hollywood, during which he had the distinction of working with the likes of Sir David Lean, Steven Spielberg and Hitchcock. In fact, his experience is only matched by the greats such as Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. Meanwhile, he never failed to cultivate good working relationships with actors such as William Holden and Alec Guiness while on the sets of Bridge on the River Kwai, and Harrison Ford in the Temple of Doom and many more Hollywood greats plus the legends of Sinhala cinema as Gamini Fonseka, Lester James Peris and many more.
This is the story of Chandran Rutnam who has made celluloid his theatre. But from there we come to the present in a two part series that looks back on the past and brings out a man who has made cinematography his life, a part of his inner being, being reflected in his works, which story is amply illustrated in how he has tackled the narrative of Father Matthew Peiris in the movie ‘According to Mathew’.
Despite the Wikipedia page referring to it as a romance, crime and thriller, Rutnam reveals that it’s not a thriller. “But if you watch it for the first five minutes, you won’t get up from your seat,” he contends.
No bathroom breaks or popcorn, you’re hooked. If the trailer is anything to go by it’ll be an intriguing movie experience, even for those who are privy to the infamous murder case in Sri Lanka.
“According to Matthew”, a film based on the 1979 double murder for which Anglican priest Father Matthew Peiris of St Paul’s Church, Kynsey Road Punchi Borella and his mistress Dalreen Ingram were sentenced to death World Premiers on April 7.
Dalreen Ingram was the wife of Russel Ingram who was poisoned to death by Fr. Matthew who also got rid of his wife Eunice the same way in a crime that shocked the country. Fr. Matthew had an extra-marital affair with Dalreen Ingram who also connived in the murders.
The Nation spoke with the film’s Director Producer Chandran Rutnam about his movie “According to Mathew” made with a budget of a million dollars.
“I attended the same church. He even stayed a few days with me in Los Angeles,” said Rutnam.
“The Fr Matthew that Rutnam knew was an altruist who took poverty-stricken children to the US for surgeries. He got the best doctors in the world to work on them,” said Rutnam of his late pastor and friend.
Their re-union after Fr Matthew’s incarceration was a fluke accident. “I was living in Los Angeles and came down to make a movie on the Indonesian serial killer Charles Sobhraj,” said Rutnam.
Rutnam was shooting on location at the Welikada prison for the movie which was done by an Australian company when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around to find the convicted Fr. Matthew in prison shorts wearing a cross, Bible in hand.
Father Matthew convinced Rutnam to make a movie of his story. He invited Rutnam to write a screenplay. Rutnam went to him with what’s called a treatment, a summary of a screenplay and Fr. Matthew asked who Rutnam had in mind for the lead role.
“I said Gamini Fonseka. Because he was the best we had and he would have fitted the part,” recalled Rutnam. But Fr Matthew insisted that he played the lead role. He maintained his innocence and strongly believed that he would get out. “I said ‘if you’re not guilty, then there is not much of a story’, said Rutnam.
Then Fr. Matthew said: “Chandran I am like a scorpion, anyone who crosses me I will sting with my tail”.
Father Matthew being a popular exorcist and having had purported dealings with the devil didn’t sit too well with Rutnam either.
To cut a long story short, Rutnam knew enough. He left under the pretext of an urgent appointment and never looked back. That was 25 years ago. Father Matthew’s case was appealed and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 1997 he was pardoned and one year after his release he passed away.
It was Rutnam’s friend and singer Alston Koch who read the script and encouraged Rutnam to reinstitute his project. Koch brought in both the funding and actress Jacqueline Fernandez.
“I’ve seen his good side and heard of the bad. So I think I’m the best person to do the movie. Anyone else would have been rough on him, because they wouldn’t have known the good side,” said Rutnam.
“Father Matthew was a powerful man and was unafraid,” revealed Rutnam. “He had the attitude that he could do anything he wanted and get away with it.”
When asked whether his acquaintance with Fr Matthew influenced his story-line, Rutnam affirmed saying: “After I made the movie a lot of people came out with their personal experiences with Fr Matthew. If I had made a movie of that, it would have been an XXX movie. Rasputin had nothing on my good
Was Rutnam biased? “Being partial to anything sometimes just happens. I try not to be biased. I went by the court records,” says Rutnam.
“It’s a controversial movie. But then there is nothing wrong with controversy in my business,” says Rutnam.
The Anglican Church was against him and so was Dalreen Ingram’s family. When asked whether he had any conflicts of interest because he was a Protestant, Rutnam answered in the negative. “I was born a Protestant, but I’m a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Hindu. My attitude is that we all do different things in different names. There’s only one God. I’m God-fearing, I pray. But I’m not ashamed nor do I regret making this movie,” Rutnam declared.
“We don’t have to let a policeman into our house just because he’s wearing a uniform. But they think they can just barge in and do anything and are not accountable. The clergy with their robes whether it’s Buddhist, Hindu or a Catholic with a cassock does not give him the passport to do anything.”
Rutnam pointed out that Fr Matthew could walk into the hospital and prison as an ordained priest unannounced just because he was Fr Matthew. “In Sri Lanka, we hide the abuse committed by powerful people, by name, by position, costume. But this does not give you a licence to abuse this privilege,” said Rutnam.
He maintained that such issues should not be swept under the carpet.
Although he was trying to make a point he maintained that he does not make movies to make a point, “I make movies to entertain. American film producer Samuel Goldwyn once said that if you want to send a message then go to Western Union and send a telegram. Fr Matthew was a great personality, admirable in many ways. So I believe I did the right thing,” said Rutnam.
No Church allowed him to shoot in their premises. He was turned down everywhere he went. He ended up having to build sets for the church interior and exterior. “But we didn’t have the kind of budget to replicate a whole Church,” he said.
When Rutnam’s request for shooting outside another St Paul’s Church was declined by the administration of the Church, Rutnam said to the priest: “We’re filmmakers, we’re magicians. So I will perform magic.” And he did.
When asked how “According to Mathew” differs from all the other movies he made, Rutnam admits that it is completely different from anything he has done. “Because it’s based on a true story and it’s probably the best movie I have made,” said Rutnam.
He is still very fond of his Road from Elephant Pass. “I wanted to do justice to the book. And it’s a story about two people,” he said.
He explained that throughout the movie the camera focuses mostly on two characters. “It takes a lot of work not to bore the audience but it worked,” he claimed.
Was it difficult to make a movie about a friend that would cast him in bad light? “It was many years after our friendship and by then I had learned a lot of bad things about him (Fr. Matthew)”, said Rutnam.
When asked whether “According to Matthew” is on par with Hollywood movies, Rutnam says: “Of course. We make Hollywood movies for others all the time. Why not make one for ourselves. People from Hollywood come and thanked me for line-producing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But line-producing is the actual production of the movie. If we can do it for Paramount Pictures, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg why on earth can’t we do it for ourselves,” he said.
But he admits that “According to Matthew” is not an epic, but is definitely good enough for Hollywood.
Rutnam says that he made the movie for the American market. The movie was originally done in English and then dubbed in Sinhala. He revealed that he plans to dub it in Tamil as well.
“What’s important about this movie is the story. True Jacqueline is famous in our part of the world and she and Koch did a marvelous job, but it’s the story that’ll sell,” he contends.
He said that the Sri Lankan market can sustain a big production. “Having said that, I do not neglect the Sri Lankan film industry. I love to make Sinhala films. “Me Wage Adarayak” was a Sinhala film. But I also have to make a living,” says Rutnam.
When asked about working with a rookie like Koch, Rutnam says that he prefers working with new people, so he can mould them into what he wants them to be. “I’m not against established actors. I use them as my supporting cast. But I prefer to use new actors in my lead roles,” he says.
And was he able to mould Koch into the Matthew that he wanted? “It wasn’t easy,” says Rutnam. “I almost strangled him more than a few times. But in the end he surprised me. It’s an award-winning performance.”
When asked about the chemistry between the actors and the director, Rutnam revealed that he is never the one to socialize with actors. “I’m very professional. Having said that Jacqueline was very professional. She knew her part, she was well researched. She knew her lines. Alston was a bit lackadaisical, but I straightened him out.”