It was a scandal that rocked posh Cinnamon Gardens and shook the very foundations of the staid Anglican Church in Colombo. Behind the serene façade of St. Paul’s Church on busy Kynsey Road, murder most foul had been committed, making the agonized cry ‘Et tu Brute’ (You too Brutus) of Julius Caesar echoing from history [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Mathew and me

Acclaimed film-maker Chandran Rutnam speaks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi on why he chose the controversial Vicarage double murder as his latest film

It was a scandal that rocked posh Cinnamon Gardens and shook the very foundations of the staid Anglican Church in Colombo.
Behind the serene façade of St. Paul’s Church on busy Kynsey Road, murder most foul had been committed, making the agonized cry ‘Et tu Brute’ (You too Brutus) of Julius Caesar echoing from history about betrayal, pale into insignificance.

The betrayal in the vestry of St. Paul’s Church went much deeper, it was the “ultimate betrayal” of love, trust and faith…….and the double victims of the star-crossed lovers could not even murmur a protest. For, they were “sleepy, so sleepy” having been literally drugged unconscious by pumping with medication, even though they were not diabetics.

This cloak and dagger story within the cloistered walls of the St Paul’s vestry by one who was not only just a Pastor but also Exorcist to whom many young girls had been take by their parents, is what internationally-acclaimed film-maker Chandran Rutnam will bring to Sri Lankans and audiences across the globe through the silver screen, early next year.

‘According to Mathew’ it will be. (One of four canonical gospels in the Christian faith is the Gospel of St. Matthew)
Back in the early 1990s, when Rutnam was shooting ‘Shadow of the Cobra’ at the Welikada Prison, making a film on the ‘Vicarage Murders’ as the newspapers had dubbed the sensational case, was at the back of his mind. Seated in the Welikada Jail, busily directing ‘Shadow of the Cobra’, a firm tap on his shoulder made him look up. Standing before him was a prisoner. He was a far cry from the “beloved Pastor and friend” who had been part of all the family functions of the Rutnams, birthdays, weddings and funerals, in fact the person who had closed the lid of Chandran’s mother’s coffin.

Attending to the ‘stigmata’ of Fr. Mathew: A still from the film starring Jacqueline Fernandez (seen above too) and Alston Koch

The unmistakable similarities were there, the same long unruly beard and the cross around the neck. In his hand, was a Bible.
It was Fr. Mathew Peiris. This was the priest convicted of the double murder of his lover’s husband, Russel Ingram, and his own wife Eunice. The only difference that Rutnam realized from the time he had bade goodbye as a youth to Fr. Mathew before departing to America, was that the white cassock had been substituted for the attire of a prisoner, jumper shorts.

“Your father was the only one who sent me US$1,000 when I was in prison,” Fr. Mathew told Rutnam that day, before getting down to business. He wanted to discuss not only the making of a movie about the Vicarage Murders but also the payment that he would get. A second meeting followed to decide on the crucial detail of who would play the role of Fr. Mathew.

When Rutnam suggested veteran Gamini Fonseka, there was instant rebuttal. “I will be the actor,” insisted Fr. Mathew. When Rutnam pointed out the simple reality that he was in jail, he assured him, “I’ll be out soon”, as he had appealed against his conviction.  There was another condition that Fr. Mathew placed in no uncertain terms. “Write the script and show that I’m innocent.” But, argued Rutnam, “if you are innocent, there is no movie. There is no drama.”

The drama lay in the fact that they were the most “diabolical murders” by a “serial killer”, says Mr. Rutnam, referring to Fr. Mathew as a serial killer based on many a story, speculation, rumour or allegation that has emerged since research and filming of ‘According to Mathew’ began about six months ago.

Rutnam: Refused to depict Fr. Mathew as innocent in the film

There have been allegations that Fr. Mathew may have been responsible for the death of the Pastor who served before him at St. Paul’s because he wanted to step into his shoes, points out nattily-dressed, suave Rutnam wearing a cap declaring ‘According to Mathew’.

When singer Alston Koch (a first-time actor who plays the role of the villainous priest) came up with the suggestion that an Australian company wanted to fund a movie, Rutnam outlined the Mathew Peiris case. They were enthralled, says Rutnam and six months ago Christie Eliezer was in Sri Lanka poring over archives to come up with the script. Then Rutnam took over “to make the story work on film” by doing the screenplay.

The shooting began three weeks ago in a beautiful home which resembled the vestry of St. Paul’s in Horana and according to Rutnam, 70% of the movie has already been wrapped up. With a lull in activity as Jacqueline Fernandez (whom Rutnam is sure would find this to be her passport to Hollywood) has another commitment, there are only 10 days more of work which Rutnam hopes to conclude in September. That would be at the Lunawa Hospital which portrays the Colombo General Hospital of the 1970s.

Shoot, edit, do a final mix, come up with the print, is how Rutnam describes the film-making process. “Then the marketing people come in and I start looking for another story,” he smiles.

There have been a few stumbling blocks along the way. Conceding that it is a controversial film, he says that the Anglican Church has given no permission to shoot inside or outside St. Paul’s. “I don’t blame them, they don’t want to be reminded of this sordid event, which is best forgotten, but I will never do anything to hurt my religion or the church,” vows Rutnam who himself is an Anglican.
But you cannot keep a film-maker down, he reiterates, adding, “I will surprise everybody, even the church.”

Delving into murder, he is quick to point out that anger, hatred, violence are fore-runners. Murder could be spontaneous or pre-meditated. But the “most lethal weapon” is love. Fr. Mathew used this weapon of love to inveigle the victims into his confidence and trust and then target them for poisoning. The victims were loved and they loved the killer. Their vulnerability paved the way to their deaths.

“I think Fr. Mathew loved Delrene and she loved him,” says Rutnam in attempts to get into the minds of the killers, hastening to add that he accepts people as they are. “As you grow older you are not judgmental, however murder cannot be condoned.” He has, however, changed the name of Fr. Mathew’s lover, taking a moral stand not to hurt the family.

Maybe, he speculates, every time Fr. Mathew drove the devil out of someone possessed, a little bit of the devil entered him. Maybe he was overcome by the presence of Satan, otherwise why those terrible, terrible things. The selling point of this motion picture is the powerful story which Rutnam captures succinctly when he says, “For the love of a woman, he broke God’s commandment”. (‘Thou shalt not kill’ is the Fifth Commandment laid down by God in Christianity)

For Rutnam though, the memory seared into his psyche is the glare and words of venom spewed out by Fr. Mathew on being refused to be depicted as innocent in the film.  “I’m like a scorpion. Anyone crossing me, I’ll sting with my tail,” sent a chill through Rutnam, making him want to get away from “this presence” as fast as possible.

Thereafter, Fr. Mathew blessed him with the words, “We’ll meet again.” Rutnam did meet him again much later on a casual visit to prison– then Fr. Mathew was subdued, as he had lost the appeal. “You do the movie your way,” he told Rutnam.

All these and more…..the arrogance that he could do anything and get away with it and “catch me if you can” attitude of Fr. Mathew as he waits defiantly for the police with bag packed, are part of the love triangle, nay square-murder thriller that Rutnam hopes to wow the audiences with.

Fr. Mathew was an amazing character… of a kind, is Rutnam’s view.

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