Around legends are many stories. Some told, some untold. When the legend is modest,the untold, remains in the crypt, until, a ranconteur unfolds them. We were fortunate that someone high up in our newspaper knew not only Chandran intimately, but also another Sri Lankan cinema legend who started their careers in the same era and a friendship blossoming into cherished memories….
David Lean and his team arriving in Sri Lanka for location shooting’ had already made its mark, and Lean and party signed on the likes of Sesha Palihakkara, Gamini Fonseka. Also included in the local crew was someone called Chandran Rutnam. How he came to be there is another story we will tell after this. Gamini Fonseka being a respected crew member had a good salary and accommodation to boot. Rutnam on the other hand was only a ’ hand’ with the film bug deep in his blood on a one hundred rupee retainer and no accommodation. However, young Rutnam from an affluent Colombo socialite family was a big spender. In Rutnam’s words, “My pay was hundred, but my parties for them were thousand rupees a night.”
Invariably, Gamini, Rutnam ended up in high spirits after shooting, and one night when Gamini was retiring he had wanted to safely deposit his not too steady friend in his room. When Rutnam said he had no accommodation but had to trek the dark night to the village billet, Gamini reacted, “Why the hell are you outside, share my room.” The next day in true Gamini Fonseka fashion he had berated and blackmailed the foreigners to give young Rutnam a room, promotion and a pay hike. So, began a lasting and a friendship of mutual respect, where Rutnam describes Gamini as a warm and sincere human being.
Now, the other story how Rutnam ended on location. They had a large house at Guildford Crescent, in Colombo 7 with an annexe. One day young Rutnam spotted a foreigner looking at the annexe and on enquiring found that he was looking for accommodation. So, he badgered his mother and father to let the annexe. The man came replete with a stunning beauty as a companion and was an avid coffee drinker. Young Chandran and his brothers by then were competing each other to take coffee to peep at the sunbathing beauty. The man was Eddie Fowler, the property master for Bridge on the River Kwai and David Lean’s best friend.
And that is how a Legend was born…..call it providence.
Rutnam’s next will be Toomai of the Elephants. On a ten million dollar budget, it is one that it’s Producer, Director and co-writer Rutnam vouches would be a cinematic venture of epic proportions. About a young boy who wants to be like his father, the keeper of the elephants. It’s got it all; mythology, warmth, action and excitement, all the elements of a blockbuster movie. And… it takes is a good director.
“And I think I have what it takes,” says the veteran. “It’s the one, I’ll put all my eggs in. I’ll use all my experience, contacts and research in this project.” Rutnam is quite passionate about Rudyard Kipling’s short story. “It’s not about Mowgli, but another story in the Jungle Book.” Most miss this great story lost within the masterpiece, says Rutnam. It promises to be a family movie full of warmth. “Which is what sells in the world market,” contends Rutnam. He’s hoping to hit a home run on Toomai of the Elephants.
Distribution is a whole new ball game, says Rutnam, one in which his friends in high places would no doubt come in handy. “I worked in Hollywood for 40 years and the friends I made back in the day are now on the top rung in Hollywood. It’s movers and shakers.” One such being Star Wars: Rogue One Producer, he had not contacted his friends in Hollywood yet and will do so only after the movie is made. It’s apparent that the whole production is very calculated.
Local talent and setting? No spoilers, but, a hint, “They are the biggest actors in the world.” Rutnam specifically mentions India. The story set in India will be shot in Kerala, India; Sri Lanka and Los Angeles.
To the past
When he was 17, David Lean came to Sri Lanka to make The Bridge on the River Kwai. Rutnam has always loved movies, but this provided a unique opportunity for Rutnam to get up close and personal. In fact, him and the crew became so close that when the crew left, Rutnam also left without telling his father. They were making another movie, The Key, in London and Rutnam was given a job in it. During this time Rutnam developed a close friendship with William Holden who acted in both The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Key. He took Rutnam to Hollywood and got him a job as an assistant in Warner Brothers.
He majored in film editing at the University of Southern California. “I felt that if you could be a good editor you could be a good director. Editing is a process where you can either make or break a film.”
But Rutnam was a man on a mission. He didn’t want to just work in Hollywood, but to learn the trade so he could come back to Sri Lanka and start his own studio. From art, camera, prop and wardrobe departments he worked in almost every department passing every promotion that came his way. “That’s why I can’t be bluffed that easily.”
Film location services
He brought Bo Derrek to Sri Lanka to make Tarzan the Ape Man. His company, Film location services were formed by him around this time, which brought many films to Sri Lanka. Rutnam reveals that it was the only one stop location service company in the world at the time although now there is a proliferation of such companies.
The company just wrapped up a movie titled the Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindi film done by a Dubai-based company to be released this year. “First we have to affirm that there is nothing detrimental to Sri Lanka in the script. Then we evaluate and give them a budget. We also source their equipment and the personnel who work on the film.” The company is in charge of the general supervision of the Line production duties of the film. “Make it happen without any hiccups.” Rutnam took 200 people, including carpenters, to Malaysia for the film Beyond Rangoon released in 1995.
Rutnam partnered with Malaysian film production company Southeast Asia Film Locations Services to produce Sleeping Dictionary starring Jessica Alba, which was released in 2003.
Rutnam jump started the film industry in Malaysia. “The Malaysians learned from us to form their own companies,” revealed Rutnam. It was Rutnam and his company that created the film industry boom in Malaysia. In fact, they were so pleased that the Malaysian Government sent Rutnam to Cannes to represent Malaysia.
It was while working with Derrek he first met Trump. Twenty-five years ago he co-produced a movie with Bo Derrek. It was shot in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, State of Vyoming and New York. They needed to shoot a millionaire, and what better candidate than Trump. Trump happily obliged and the one day part was shot in the Trump Tower board room.
Rutnam remembers Trump as being very hospitable to the production team. “We used to shoot with film back in the day. The film was sent to the lab and they scratched it. We had to do it over and it was very embarrassing to ask him. But he was very understanding and gave the production team another day to reshoot it.”
He was the associate producer of Mother Teresa: In the Name of God’s Poor in 1997 staring Geraldine Chaplin; Sri Lankan Production Supervisor for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 1984 starring Harrison Ford. He says he had the fortune to convince them to do it in Sri Lanka instead of India. “Indian problem was red tape,” explained Rutnam. “Rules changed from state to state. By the time they get permission, we had already got permission and made the movie. But they are more film-friendly now.” His wall was adorned with photos of cinema moguls the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Bo Derrek attesting to his illustrious career. He says that big people are very humble.
The first film he directed was Adara Kathawa, a story based on his mother’s and father’s love affair. His father Dr. James T. Rutnam is a Tamil and mother Evelyn Wijeratne Sinhala. He also borrowed from Romeo and Juliet creating a tragic love story. “Although in my parent’s case it wasn’t a tragedy.”
He produced and Directed Janelaya in 1990, inspired by the 1954 movie Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock. “The killer does not speak one word in the movie. All he does is smoke,” says Rutnam of his movie. He produced Lester James Peries’ film Mansion by the Lake in 2002. “Lester was much respected at Cannes Film Festival,” says Rutnam revealing the motive behind producing it. “Lester has not made a film in 15 years by the time. He was in the height of his talent, but nobody gave him a film.” Then Swarna Mallawarachchi came to him with a proposal. Rutnam was shrewd enough to know that if Lester James Peries made a film it would make it to Cannes. “My motive was a little selfish,” admits Rutnam. “My motive wasn’t money. I wanted to go to Cannes.” And sure enough it was shown in Cannes and Rutnam and his wife had their moment of glory on the Cannes red carpet with Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries.“The movie was an absolute flop, as in it didn’t make money.” But he wasn’t in it for the money.
Rutnam is a man of many talents and interests; one being flying. His last movie ‘Me Wage Premayak’, was inspired at his flight school sighting a flight instructor doing a macho walk for the benefit of the ladies. “If it strikes my fancy I make a movie.”
Back to the future
By the way, he is now a published writer. It was a therapeutic means of getting back on a bunch of double crossing friends, admits Rutnam. A western style Rutnam donning a cowboy hat adorns the cover of Ayyo Bonnie, The good, the bad and the very ugly. On top left corner flashes a red warning to those who have crossed our cowboy, ‘Soon to be a major motion picture’, which Rutnam confirmed. “There’s only one actor who can play Bonnie and that’s Mr Randeniya. If he’s available and willing I will cast him,” says Rutnam with a glint in his eyes.
Interestingly, the whole book is peppered with movie slang, such as ‘in like Flynn’, ‘Duck you sucker’, ‘Asta la vista, baby’ and movie names such as The Lackey, Naked Spur, For a few dollars more, Colt. 45 and Wild Bunch.
Ayyo Bonnie is an anecdote about a four friends who double crossed Bonnie, character based on Rutnam. “They deceived me, behaved unscrupulously and showed no gratitude whatsoever,” says Rutnam. “I had to vent my anger. My relief was writing the book.” Of course he was scrupulous enough to use fake names, but people in the industry would know who he is talking about. “After writing the book, I’m completely relieved of that stress.”
Rutnam went on to describe his pet project. “One of them is a well-known man in the industry, Bonnie is now a joke, a non entity. He jumps from one political party to another from the green to the blue, but now he’s looking to jump right back to the green.” Rutnam revealed that Bonnie was a great high jumper in school and pole vaulter.
“They took my business away from me for ten years during the previous government,” revealed Rutnam.
Speaking of the local film industry, Rutnam is full of hopes. “There are some very promising young directors, Kalpana and Vindana Ariyawansha. It’s a beautifully done unusual film. In my time it was very difficult to make a movie. Either your father had to be filthy rich or you had to have a fairy godfather or an NGO willing to pump in money.” As a result, many talented potential filmmakers fall through the cracks, explains Rutnam. “But making movies is not expensive today. Anyone can do it now. They can make a short film and show off their talents. We didn’t have that luxury.”
Ranminithenna Tele cinema village
When asked about the Ranminithenna Tele cinema village, Rutnam said that it was the biggest debacle in cinema history. “It’s an absolute waste of money, done for all the wrong reasons.”
Rutnam had been trying to establish a studio in Digana in a land provided to him by the government. “About 25 years ago I got an English architect to plan a cinema park.” Replicas of the Nipon and Queens hotels were to be constructed in the cinema park as film sets. “Ravindra Randeniya and a few others who used to work for me were privy to my plans for Digana. As soon as the government changed and Mr Rajapaksa became the president, Randeniya jumped ship and took my plans along with him. He showed Mr Rajapaksa the plans. Being the film buff he is, former President Rajapaksa jumped at the idea,” says Rutnam.
“But my plan is 25 years old. It’s out dated. With blue screens and greens screen what not I can shoot myself in my own room and put the Eiffel Tower in the background.”
He rebuked that Randeniya sold an old bill of goods to former President Rajapaksa. Rutnamrevealed that after an investigation over the exorbitant amount of money spent on the project, the same group of people is now rebuilding it at a higher price.
A Common Man
Speaking of A Common Man, Rutnam says that he was lucky to find local producer Mano Nanayakkara. Having watched Rutnam’s 2009 movie The Road from Elephant Pass, Nanayakkara approached him with a proposal to make another movie. Rutnam sent him the script for A Common Man and Nanayakkara took an immediate liking to it. “He asked me who I had in mind. And when I said Ben Kingsley, I didn’t expect him to say yes,” admitted Rutnam. But he did at the cost of a million dollars.
But when Rutnam went to the airport, he was confronted by an inflamed Ben Kingsley. “Apparently he had not been happy with the reception or the flight. He was not very friendly at the airport.” While going back from the airport, Rutnam remembers telling his producer, “I don’t think I can work with this guy.” But they had already paid him. Half an hour after he’s landed Ben Kingsley wanted to meet him. “And he was a changed man, he was very nice. When I once addressed him as Mr Kingsley he said, ‘call me Sir Ben Kingsley’,” says Rutnam. By the end of the movie they had such high regard, that Ben Kingsley addressed Rutnam as ‘Sir’.
Rutnam is the only South East Asian film Director to have won the Best Director award at the Madrid International Film Festival since Satyajit Ray won it 50 years ago. When asked about this milestone awards which included Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor awards at the Madrid Film Festival, Rutnam admitted that he does not care much for awards. “I know the award game. Awards are not necessarily given to the best picture. There’s a lot of influence. But I am proud of it nonetheless,” says Rutnam.