Sunday, January 17, 2016

Chandran Rutnam on life with the movies


For a man who has sought to redefine our film industry, Chandran Rutnam may well regard all he has done until now as “stepping stones to higher things”. After all, no other serious filmmaker here has tried so hard to connect Art and Commerce as he has. For such an enterprise a film education of a very high order is needed. Needless to say, he has got it.

Connecting art and commerce is, I suspect, harder than doing with one to the exclusion of the other. This is something that has already been done in the other arts. The introduction of the sonata form in music and the freeing from perspective in painting are the two best examples for this. There art and commerce mixed successfully.

But is it possible in the cinema? To answer that, we need to look at the place where such a thing has been achieved, and where Chandran Rutnam has not gone away from without an active schooling. If Hollywood were a textbook, I suspect he would have been one of its most assiduous readers.

This is where we go back in time. Rutnam’s reminiscences begin in 1956, when he became the prop-master, to his delight, for the production of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Working ardently in return for a weekly pay of 100 rupees, not only did he excel in his work, but he also won the admiration and friendship of two personalities who would leave an impression on him for the rest of his life. One was David Lean, who directed the film. The other was William Holden, who played the American lead role in it.

Two things happened there. The production manager of the film asked Rutnam to “look me up” if ever he forayed into England. As Rutnam put it, “I went to England two weeks later, and I looked him up.” In England he met, of all people, Holden again, and he wound up as his personal assistant for the production of The Key, in which Holden co-starred with Sophia Loren. Then the second coincident happened. On the eve of his departure, Holden invited the up-and-coming artist to Hollywood, and, should he be there, to “look me up.” Again, in Rutnam’s own words, “I went to Hollywood, and I looked him up.”

If ever I were asked what the two most far-reaching things to happen to filmmakers in my country were, one would be Lester James Peries being tipped for the top prize at Cannes after the actress Maria Schell saw Rekava, by then a local flop despite its daring style, while in Colombo. The other, without any doubt, would be Chandran Rutnam’s foray into Hollywood through David Lean and William Holden.

For the next decade or so, he would work, with painstaking dedication, at Warner Bros., gaining innumerable experiences along the way. Disregarding his salary, he would deliberately pass up promotional steps along the career ladder for the sake of working in different departments, gaining hands-on-experience which no other director in our country ever would. Upon his return to Sri Lanka, however, his preoccupation was not to make films, but to build our country’s first ever film studio. That was over a quarter-century ago. We still haven’t got a film studio of our own. Rutnam is noticeably glum at this point. “My biggest disappointment,” he says of it.

Alston Koch and Jacqueline Fernandez in According to Matthew
So what exactly is it that binds his films together in common? Certainly not their stories – as he himself has told me, he has no predilection for any one theme in particular. To this end he differs very little from Lumet, a director who refused to thread his films with one common, trademark theme. Rutnam’s stories are all atonal. But one thing binds them: an inimitable blend of Hollywood and the indigenous that, I suspect, few filmmakers in his country can reckon with. If Janelaya (Witness to a Killing, 1990), his homage to Cornell Woolrich and the classical Hollywood thriller, seems more authentic, and genuine, than most other like-minded thrillers made here today, it is mainly because of those years of training he gained in the US without losing his footing in his home country.

Mere imitation of Hollywood is not what especially distinguishes Janelaya today. No “on the surface” glitz and style can ever be validated in his films – it is what lies beneath them, along with the influences imbibed by him, that accounts for their boldness. In Janelaya, arguably his most explicit homage to Hollywood filmmaking, a boy witnesses a murder outside his apartment window. Like the proverbial “boy who cried wolf”, however, no-one believes his story. The mute murderer (played in an award-winning performance by Ravindra Randeniya) and his accomplice (Anoja Weerasinghe) try to kidnap and silence him, with the result being a tense encounter atop a high-rise, uncompleted building.

The story could have been embellished in a hundred different ways. But Rutnam limits it to the most essential details, sparing all frills and, in the process, heightening the tense relationship between the boy, his skeptic parents (Tony Ranasinghe and Swineetha Weerasinghe), and the two murderous neighbours. He has told me it was a remake of a Hollywood thriller (not, incidentally, by Hitchcock) – on my first viewing, however, I felt no such thing. It is distinctly Sri Lankan to the core, the sort of Hollywood homage that could only be authenticated in our context by a director of Rutnam’s capability.

What lies behind all this are two of the most straight-forward assumptions of the cinema one can ever come across. For Rutnam, who can never be called an “auteur” in the conventional sense of that term, and who has never developed a predilection for any particular subject-matter, cinema is entertainment. Usually, this would be an object of ridicule in a country where “entertainment” has been mixed up with “frivolity”, but for Rutnam, the word is the highest justification for cinema’s existence. “What I want to achieve is a film that keeps you to your seat, no matter what urge you may have.” The solemn Hitchcock would have made the same statement. “You would have to design your films just as Shakespeare did – for an audience,” he once remarked. For Rutnam, this statement is nothing short of the truth.


This explains his fascination with American filmmakers, especially Spielberg and Hitchcock, whom he met. It seems to have reinforced in his mind two things – a flair for organisation, brought on by a near-decade spent working in Hollywood, and assuredness with a sense of readiness in shooting a film.

The latter is also a Hollywood trait, but Hitchcock seems to have figured in a lot there also. “When I asked the Master, sitting behind a desk in a room wallpapered from ear to ear with the storyboards for his next film, as to when he would finish it, he facetiously replied, ‘I have already finished it. All that’s left to do is shoot it.’ ”

It is difficult to imagine this Hitchcock elsewhere than in Hollywood, just as it is difficult to imagine Chandran Rutnam subscribing to any school of filmmaking other than Hollywood’s. His guiding principle in his art? “Three words: a good story.” The response, I feel, of only a strictly and truly professional filmmaker, perhaps the only example we can show from our country.

The second, and more radical, assumption he has made is not to subscribe to any film-school labelled with what he contemptuously refers to as “fancy names”. He holds equal derision for both neo-realism and avant-garde – miles apart in their respective goals, but still held together by the quirkiness of their names. Arguably, both neo-realism and the French New Wave can be counted among the most far-reaching influences exerted on our film industry ever since Lester James Peries made Rekava in 1957.

Rutnam’s suspicion over those “fancy names” is by no means invalid. For him, nothing exceptional in filmmaking was preached by either school. When I brought up the neorealist cinema’s championing of non-professional actors, he guffaws – “Is that unique to them? I’ve been using non-pros all my life, and you can hardly class me under their brand.” When told that neo-realism sought to portray poverty as it was onscreen, he guffaws again – “You can’t show the same thing again and again. That'd be quite dreary.”

His biggest skepticism, however, is reserved for the avant-garde movement. “What is the true meaning of that word?” he asks me. I mutter my own definitions: “personal films”, “slipshod camera style”, “improvisation”. To these he supplies his own rejoinder: “What use is a film that elicits interest only from the director’s wife? Its appeal must be broad.”

Indeed, a valid film, he seems to be saying, is not one that makes every concession imaginable to the box-office, but which extends its appeal to the lowest common denominator without insulting the intelligence of the audience. It can hardly be said, after all, that Shakespeare toned down the poetry of his dialogues just so to kowtow to his audience. A reasonable compromise between Art and Commerce – this is what, in Rutnam’s view, will validate films as the most universal art-form in the world.

I can safely say one thing about Chandran Rutnam. With eight films directed, 13 produced, and almost 40 with which he has had some association, he is no dogmatist in the local film industry. Perhaps what our cinema is in need of, more than any other thing, is a director who has no prejudice or predilection, and who is eclectic enough to appreciate that being steadfast over notions of “avant-gardism” will get filmmakers nowhere. Chandran Rutnam may just be that person. In a country where cinema is increasingly, and shockingly, becoming a source of aesthetic delight for a select, elite few, Rutnam may well be our answer.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, January 17 2016