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Alimankada –Behind the scenes

"Chandran wanted the film to be as closely parallel to the novel as possible. He wanted to capture and present the ‘soul’ of the novel on screen."

This is what Mrs Chandran Ratnam – Nihara Jayatilleke – told me as we chatted about how the film Alimankada was made. Fascinating insights were revealed, most interesting details given. When shooting was going on in Wilpattu, Kalpitiya, and Puttalam, Chandran Rutnam as director and producer stayed on location, billeted with the two main stars. Friday afternoon had Nihara driving up north and returning to Colombo on the Sunday night or Monday morning. She was involved with the production and advertising of the film.

The idea of the film began when Chandran, browsing in a Vijitha Yapa bookshop saw and bought Nihal de Silva’s novel – The Road from Elephant Pass, which later won awards. When Nihara flicked the pages she too got interested and so "a tussle broke out between the two of us to grab and read the book each time we found ourselves free, until Chandran told me we needed to get a second copy. When he was on page 174 he put the book down and told me very solemnly that he wanted to make a film of the novel." This was in 2003. He contacted Nihal de Silva to discuss the proposition and found it was fortuitously the very day the book was launched. Nihal de Silva was in full agreement and after formalities were negotiated, Chandran began writing the film script, sending sections as they were done to Nihal de Silva for comment and editing. Chandran would long-hand write or dictate and Nihara would word process. The dialogue was translated later to Sinhala. Nihal de Silva was tragically killed while the writing was continuing.

The script writing took about two years. It was no simple matter as one could well understand. For instance in the book there are eight camping scenes where the fugitive LTTE female cadre and the Sri Lankan Army Captain escorting her, initially exhibit their cold, bitter, racial hatred of each other coloured by deaths of close relatives and friends in raids by the LTTE and army-engaged battles. The two protagonists then gradually begin to discuss matters, each adamant in their held views, until towards the very end of the journey their mutual attraction is recognized and they dare entertain a love relationship.

Sharp critic

I discussed the film and a review of it which appeared in the Sunday Island of 8 November with a very discerning friend whose judgment is considered and valid. He criticized the film for lack of sustained suspense and the fact that the running away with danger on all sides was a walk in a park with picnics at night. I know he was being ultra critical but after my talk with Nihara and hearing all about the making of the film, I want to meet these criticisms. The book was long, it had space to show the intense dislike between the two protagonists and the very slow lessening of tension; also the severe stressful danger gone though. The film lasted approximately two hours and thus the inevitable quickening of pace. Also, only two camping scenes were in the film, thus some of the conversations the two had while preparing a meal and eating it had to be transferred to when they were walking. I countered the criticism about picnics with the counterpoint that people even on the run during the height of our civil war had to eat, and in the circumstances of the two, cooking of stolen food had to be resorted to, albeit on a low fire to prevent detection.

Justified judging it a very good film

It takes expert skill to depict tension and I for one feel the tension came through. We fail to understand what a major production fraught with difficulties and obstacles the filming of The Road from Elephant Pass was. In it had to be shown the Sri Lankan army in action, so also the LTTE. Permission had to be obtained from the relevant authorities. Guns and trucks had to be borrowed; uniforms tailored in strict security and filming carried out in areas easily accessible to the LTTE. Very clever directing and acting were called for since in the scenes of high tension if the slightest careless slip crept in, the scene could easily turn farcical, even comic.

The critic I mentioned earlier took objection to the bird watching indulged in by the two who were dangerously evading the LTTE, the Sri Lankan Army and deserters plus wild beasts and reptiles. "It had to be suspense, pure and unadulterated. So how come they could talk about birds?" I countered his argument by saying that the book had much bird lore, too much in fact in my opinion, and the Director wanted to be true to the novel. Nihara confirmed the fact. "Chandran wondered about it – bringing in discussions of birds. Would it dilute the animosity between the two? But he wanted to be faithful to Nihal de Silva and his novel" Also there had to be a gradual meeting of the two persons emotionally, apart from close physical proximity when in danger. Pointing out birds to each other provided that link for a developing erasure of animosity overlaid by recognition of each others worth.

Production

Shooting started in late 2006 in Hambantota since some of the crew and ‘managers’ were uneasy to travel and stay up north. Problems surfaced, some left and the chief actor selected was not fully committed. As Nihara said, the director – her husband - is a strict disciplinarian and calls for full commitment by his team whether actors or crew members. The shooting was abandoned and Chandran was occupied with an Indian film being shot in Sri Lanka. When he returned to filming Alimankada, an actor to play Captain Wasantha had to be found. Nihara had proposed from the very start that Ashan Dias be signed on.

He had the physique and the correct temperament (strong with a streak of playfulness) and though an altogether new comer to cinema he had acted in a couple of stage plays, albeit English. Chandran agreed and drew out an excellent performance from Ashan Dias, who had the ability to project the Captain on screen in all his attitudes and complexities of character.

Suranga Ranawaka had worked in one of Chandran Rutnam’s offices. Here too hangs a tale. She had been brought in by a senior officer to his office while Rutnam had been overseas. On his return and seeing the new hand he had enquired who she was and pronounced: "That is Kamala, ideal build, slim and straight and can pass off as a LTTE cadre." She had earlier experience of film work, but not acting.

Shooting took 78 arduous days in jungles and stark terrain with persons living in hotels in the area and Rutnam being a severe director cum chaperone. No alcohol intake and no diversionary romantic affairs were some of the rules. "It was definitely not fun," but "the movie took on a life of its own." The actors got on well and the chemistry between the two chief protagonists was good. Otherwise they could not have given stellar performances as they did. The film was completed in August 2008, delayed because Rutnam took time off it to be involved in a foreign film.

Personal

The talk between Nihara and me turned personal, as it would, since Nihara is a very friendly, easy to talk to young woman. Absolutely no airs about her though it was obvious she is a very busy career woman involved in Rutnam’s other ventures – Film Location Services and Asian Aviation Centre (Pvt) Ltd.

She told me her husband, son of Dr James T Rutnam, had migrated to the United States when he was 16, studied, worked, married an American and lived there for 38 years. Then he returned to Sri Lanka and lives happily here. He never gave up his Sri Lankan passport. "I am a Sri Lankan and this is my country," he insists. They prove that there need be no racial discrimination and that total harmony is possible between Tamil and Sinhalese. I got her permission to pass on to my readers of how they came together. "I was flying to New Delhi on some training programme when Chandran noticed me at the Chennai airport where we had a stop over. He thought I was South Indian. He was on the Delhi flight too, but no introductions were exchanged. When I landed in Delhi a friend whom I was staying with asked me to accompany her to a party she was invited to that evening. I obliged and gate crashed the party. Do you know who was hosting the party – Chandran - for Indian film people! He spoke to me. He left the next day having traveled to India solely to host the party. He is a romantic; he once sent me 101 long stemmed red roses." She gave her consent to marriage after a horse-back ride from Vavuniya to Jaffna with a British woman bearing the message of Peace. They were received very affectionately in Jaffna. Her respect for Tamil people is great.

Director, producer and facilitator of films

Chandran Rutnam has been thirty years in the local film industry, providing locations and facilitating the production of foreign films in Sri Lanka and earning a good reputation for himself and the country. Four of the outstanding productions he facilitated among many others were the Indiana Jones film, Jungle Book, Water and Indochine, this last shot in Malaysia with a Sri Lankan crew of over 200 carpenters and technicians. The total production was handled by Rutnam. Indochine won the Oscar that year for the best foreign language film.

The film Alimankada is a great achievement for Chandran Rutnam – script writer, producer and director. Local audiences, even the sharp critics, should concede it was a difficult film to make and it came out authentic. To me it is entertainment of a high order and a tribute to the late Nihal de Silva. A Sri Lankan woman spending the Australian winter here agrees with me and opines that Alimankada is "a brilliant film and good entertainment as it has excitement and tense situations plus fun and even a bit of humour. Shows strong personal relationship, which is wonderful. I was absorbed in the novel and I find the film true to it." Maybe the retort from the sharp male critic mentioned earlier will be: "Oh women!" But the woman I mention had seen the film with a male medical doctor in the group of cousins she went with and he had been in praise of the film.

Greater things are in store for the film. Alimankada is the official Sri Lankan entry to the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film Oscar presented in February. The film needs screening in America and hype built around it as was the case last year with Slumdog Millionaire. It is contending against 65 other foreign language films. It is also being submitted to the Golden Globe Awards.

The film is to have further kudos added on. It will be the first Sri Lankan film to be dubbed in four languages of India (Hindi, Tamil, Telagu and Malayali) and distributed throughout the subcontinent.

We wish the film well and Chandran and Nihara Rutnam many more successes and of course joy and fulfillment.

- Nan

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