Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Chandran Rutnam story

I have come to believe that filmmakers are not "stars" in the conventional sense of that term. This "truism" is hard to sustain, though. If we are to judge them on the basis of how they explore the human condition, then yes, they cannot be classed under (popular) stardom. But filmmakers, like actors, are susceptible to the changing tides of fame. They can get serious. But not all the time. They are human, after all.

Put pithily, if we are to judge every filmmaker on the criterion by which we judge Satyajit Ray, Yasujiro Ozu, or Robert Bresson, movies would cease to entertain. I remember what a young director once told me in this respect: "The world needs its Wes Andersons. But without the Spielbergs and Lucases, it would be quite dull to live in." Chandran Rutnam, director, producer, and bon vivant cine-phile would no doubt agree.

Chandran was born to an "artistic family". His mother, Evelyn Wijeratne, had been the sister of Donald Wijeratne, the famous studio man. His father had been more tilted towards literary pursuits, an "English scholar" as Chandran describes him. He was educated at S. Thomas' College Guruthalawa, where he came under a set of influential teachers. He remembers four names in particular: Dr R. L. Hayman, Father A. J. Foster, Bradman Weerakoon, and Duleep Kumar. "They instilled a sound set of values in me. I am grateful."

Even at an early age, he had been an avid film-goer. "When the 1950s came my friends and I would watch as much as two or three movies a day." They had seen "the good, the bad, and the ugly", meaning whatever they could lay their eyes on. One day, while all this was going on, a man had approached his mother, asking whether she would permit him and his team to use one of her houses to shoot a film. She had flatly refused, but young Chandran, sensing opportunity, had coaxed her into giving permission.

"That man was the property master for The Bridge on the River Kwai," he tells me, "Soon enough, I talked him into giving me a job on the set. He obliged. I was hired for 100 rupees a week, a stipend even then but nothing compared to the experiences I got." In his own words, he "excelled at work", and when the man had to leave the country to be in charge of another film, he had readily given Chandran his job. "That's how I became friends with William Holden and David Lean, and with the rest of the cast and crew," he adds with a smile.

The friendships had survived the shooting of the film, and after production wrapped up the production manager had asked him to "look me up" should he ever come to England. "That's the cue I must have been waiting for. Two weeks later, I went to England. When I was in Dorset at the bus-stand, I heard my name being called. I turned around. It was William Holden. He had seen me, beckoned me to his car, and asked me to come with him to a film he was acting in."

Holden was paired with Sophia Loren in a film called The Key, directed by Carol Reed. He persuaded the production manager to take the young Chandran in as his personal assistant. "The manager relented straight away, seeing how friendly Holden was with me, and when shooting was complete, Holden came up-to me just like that and said, 'If ever you are in Hollywood, look me up'."

He remembers what happened next: "I went to Hollywood. I looked him up. And I ended up working at Warner Bros."

All these no doubt left an indelible mark on Chandran's mind. He had been an assiduous worker at Warner Bros, working in different departments without accepting any promotions and climbing up the career ladder. "I spent time there purely because of one thing: to build my own studio in Sri Lanka. That was my dream." No doubt his fertile mind would have seen and approved of the dedication and efficiency which Hollywood had come to be associated with. With his head full of ideas and ideals, he returned to his motherland.

That was several decades back. "I still don't have a studio," he tells me, "My dream hasn't come true." He is woeful. Noticeably.

So how did he turn to making films? Countless biographical sketches have gone through the same story: the friendships he struck with American directors, the story behind Asian Film Location Services, and the various films he produced and became famous for. There's something that they have missed, I suspect, so I ask Chandran to elaborate on the reason why he chose to become a director in his own right. He smiles and reflects on his career.

"I suppose that's to do with the kind of directors I worked with. I worked with David Lean, Carol Reed, John Boorman, George Lucas, and Spielberg. All of them were from the West, where the way films are conceived is totally different to the way they are here. That isn't to say I worked with 'showbiz' directors only, of course: I was involved in RĂ©gis Wargnier's Indochine, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1993. I must have been unconsciously imbibing their views on the cinema, which is where I can’t leave out one person whose films have struck me more than anyone else's: Sergio Leone." I ask him whether Leone exercised a big influence on him, and he affirms it: "You see Leone in many of my films, to be honest."

This is where I get down to discussing film craft with him, and he readily fires ideological salvos. "In Sri Lanka, the trend in my day was to go for East European film-making. I didn't follow that trend." I ask him to explain what he thinks a good movie should be, and he replies that as long as it keeps the audience in their seats throughout its entirety, "the director has achieved what he should aim at." The worst criticism a movie can get, according to Chandran, is that it's boring. "Don't ever call MY films boring. I say this for two reasons: One, no two movies should be the same. I can go on making variations on the same story, but I don't do that. I've made eight films, and with eight different plots. Two, I always believe a good narrative should boil down to a good story. If it keeps you waiting for more even if you want to go to the bathroom, that's enough for me."

Hollywood's impact on Chandran manifests itself in two ways, as I see it. One is his devotion to efficiency and his flair for organisation, values he no doubt received in America. The other is his (justifiable) distrust over what he calls "fancy names". When I bring up neo-realism, for instance, he pounces on me. "What do you mean by that term?" he asks me. I stammer - "depiction of poverty", "non-professional actors", "improvisation" - and he laughs. "I don't subscribe to those," he jokes, "I can't make movies on poverty. I make them for only one purpose: entertainment." For Chandran, entertainment is the highest justification for the cinema's existence, a point he drives home when he says that "fancy names, and critics who rant and rave over them, will neither save nor sustain this industry."

His biggest scorn, however, is reserved for "avant-gardism". Characteristically, he again asks me to offer definition. I mutter it out - "personal films”, “slipshod camera style”, “improvisation.” To these he supplies his own rejoinders – "What use is a film that elicits interest only from the director’s wife? Its appeal MUST be broad!"

I put it to him that even American filmmakers were adored by these avant-garde directors, most prominently from France, and he grins. "Alfred Hitchcock was an icon to some of these people. He didn't know what the hell they were talking about. Even about him!" I try to retort to this, but then it occurs to me: he is correct.

And he is spot on. Movies weren't first made to explore serious, overwrought themes, after all. They were made to entertain. Chandran's own career confirms this: with eight films to his name, he is probably the most atonal director in our country, with each of them following unique and yet crowd-pleasing plot-lines. And he is modest about his involvement in them: "I don't think the director is an 'auteur'. Filmmaking is a collaborative art. My tea-boy is as important as my editor. True, some are more important than others, but while on set everyone has a role to perform. I need them all."

These are opinions. Observations. They hold water. I guess I can safely say this about Chandran Rutnam, hence. With eight films directed (his latest, Me Wage Adarayak, was screened at Regal several months back), almost 20 produced, and almost 40 with which he has had some association, he is no dogmatist.

Perhaps what our cinema is in need of is a director who knows that being biased towards "fancy names" will get our directors nowhere. I may be speaking for the rest of my countrymen when I say that Chandran Rutnam is just that person. In a country where the cinema is increasingly becoming a source of aesthetic delight for a select, elite few, he may well be our answer. We should heed his call, then.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, December 16 2015