The Spielberg of Sri Lanka

By Dinesha Senaratne

Getting to know about Chandran Ratnam is not a difficult task, there have been many interviews, documentaries and news items. But to simply get to know him was indeed a pleasurable task. While it is common knowledge that his adventure began on the set of Bridge Over River Kwai, and went onto bring Bo and John Derek to Sri Lanka, his unforgettable experience working with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and George Lucas: it’s the untold stories that add life to the journey.

Being probably the youngest person on the set of Bridge Over River Kwai, did not seem to handicap Chandran, rather it was made to his advantage. He was quick to place himself alongside Eddie Fowlie as an assistant Property Manager, which recalled him to work very closely with the director: David Lean.

“It was the greatest learning experience for me because I was standing next to David Lean for 9 months. I became popular because I could anticipate his requirements, it was a tremendous thing to which I value to this day”

Accepting responsibility came early than expected for Chandran as it happened that Eddie Fowlie was called on set of another film and had to make an early exit, leaving the Property Master department to this 16 year old boy with a knack for it. William Holden and the production manager were so impressed that they both offered to help him at their best efforts should he ever come to London or Los Angeles. Taking fate into his own hands, Chandran decided to go to London, without his father’s knowledge –who was out of the country at the time-  and without parents money as well. “I had travelled in first class before but this time I didn’t have money and let me tell you, 4th class on a French liner for 20 days, is no picnic”

Following many adventures in London including young ladies, cash flow issues and serendipity moments where he literally bumped into William Holden which landed him the job as his PA and worked on the film “The Key” starring William Holden and Sophia Lauren.  In addition to his PA job, Chandran also offered his services as an extra on set.

Following his stint in England, he left for the United States and as irony would have it, his brother forgot to pick him up at the airport. “My brother didn’t pick me up, I was waiting at the airport and I hear someone saying ‘Chandran’ I look and.. same guy! William Holden! He said what are you doing here? And I said, ‘well you asked me to call you if I was ever in LA”

They helped him get through to his family and while schooling Chandran got a job at The Warner Brothers Studio. “I was working in Prop Department because that’s what I knew, and then I worked in every department in the industry. Costume department where I ironed clothes, cleaned toilets, music department, set department, because initially my idea was to come back to Sri Lanka and open my studio. It’s not easy to bluff me in the industry.”

Along came the adventure with John and Bo Derek – while working at Columbia Pictures-  who were looking to film ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ in Africa. Chandran took the liberty of travelling to Sri Lanka, finding and documenting each and every location as per the script personally, just to convince the team at MGM to shoot the film in Sri Lanka. “I was refused their contact information, as so I called Kenya and asked for the 5 star hotels, there were 5.  I Telexed the entire document to all 5 hotels and got one call back, they said “you are one tenacious lad, we’re coming on the next flight to Sri Lanka”. We went on to become good friends following  the movie’

The experiences kept flowing, his first direction was the story of his parents, Adara Kathawa (1984)and then went onto make movies such as ‘Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom’(1984)  Mother Teresa: In the Name of God’s Poor (1997) , Farewell to the King  (1988) Ghosts can’t do it (1990)  Beyond Rangoon (1995) The Sleeping Dictionary (2004)  Water (2006) and The Road to Elephant Pass (2009)  which went on to win an award at the New York Film Festival.


With all the  experiences at the Acadamy Awards, the Cannes film festivals, Chandran mentioned he had an idea of writing an article, a compilation ‘close encounter of a fleeting kind’ “ I have had so many close encounters of a  fleeting kind with so many famous people. They are not my friends, but I have had their attention for a short amount of time, having a dialogue, an evening, a day, a job together. I could easily come up with 130 different names’

He also mentioned that he will be releasing a 4 volume auto biography in time to come.

Coming soon..

A Common Man

Talking about the upcoming release of “A Common Man” Chandran mentioned how he experienced the evolvement of shooting films over the years. Shooting movies has changed vastly since the comingof digital age, “we had to make certain compromises when shooting with Koddak Raw Stock, we are now able to edit instantly, shoot over and over again without having to make compromises. A roll of raw stock was very costly and it limited you in a way. The digital filming has made the process a lot easier and faster.”

The story behind “A Common Man” : “A friend of mine, had seen the road to elephant pass and loved it and he wanted to be involved in my nest production. He wanted to act in it, and this friend was Manohan Nanayakkara. I personally like to act with people who haven’t acted before. And due to some unforeseen, unfortunate circumstances Manohan was unable to act. And instead of scrapping the idea, he wanted to go through with it, and I was toying with the idea of Ben Kingsley and we got the script through to him and he loved the script. And he agreed to do it and he said one thing, he said ‘I promise you I wont change a word of it’ which was a great compliment for me. And then the status of the movie changed and so we went ahead and got Ben Cross.”

Working with Sir Ben Kingsley “he was the most professional person I have wprked with, when he got off the plane he was in character. He knew his lines and he doesn’t require many takes, he’s so effortless.

Shot entirely in the vicinity of Colombo, and post production completed in Hollywood ‘A Common Man’ is set to be released in the US next year and will be released in Asia following the US release.

Siddhartha Gauthama


“The story of Prince Siddhartha from birth to his enlightment, its in Sinhalese and there were some indian actors involved. I co directed it and it will be released in January by EAP. I have a feeling it will be big. It was shot Down South, Dambulla and Colombo”

Nihal De Silva’s  ‘A far Spent Day’

The script is in the process of being written for Nihal De Silva’s A far Sepnt Day, which is projected to be released for the film circuit in 2014.

Being in the business for nearly 5 decades, Chandran Ratnum believes that the main thing to remember in the business is that “Show business is to entertain, and not philosophize and send messages, if there is a message in your entertainment then its fine. But whatever we do has to entertain you, keep you in your seat. I make movies I like to go see. People may disagree with me on that, but I don’t like to make movies that will get banned, movies are made for an audience and I want big audience.”  (Courtesy The Sunday Leader)


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