The headline which screams from the lead story of the newspaper is ‘New page in history of nation’, but the eyes of the bearded priest are riveted on a smaller three-column story. It is a newspaper of February 5, 1978, that the priest is reading but what holds his attention is not that J.R. Jayewardene [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

In the robes of a priest dubbed demonic

Singer-turned-actor Alston Koch who plays Fr. Mathew Peiris in the film ‘According to Mathew’, talks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi on the difficulties of taking on a role based on factual happenings

The headline which screams from the lead story of the newspaper is ‘New page in history of nation’, but the eyes of the bearded priest

‘Fr. Mathew ‘ in his study

are riveted on a smaller three-column story.

It is a newspaper of February 5, 1978, that the priest is reading but what holds his attention is not that J.R. Jayewardene has been sworn-in as the first Executive President of Sri Lanka but that “Reynold’s body is to be exhumed”.

Yes, singer-turned-actor Alston Koch aka Fr. Mathew Peiris has turned back the pages of time to 1978 and is perturbed by that news item, as is evident from his furrowed brow. The news item is on the order to exhume the body of the husband of his lover.

Fr. Mathew is no stranger to Alston and although he has been living in Australia for a long time, he had encountered this revered priest on TV. Fr. Mathew’s reach had been so great that when Australia was facing a severe drought in the 1970s he had been invited to find water through divine power. “He did find water,” says Alston.

Earlier walking sedately out of a room of the Kumbukke walauwwe close to Horana, the priest in cassock with a cross around his neck, is quick to give the blessing in the form of the sign of the cross. There are smiles all round when the tea-boy asks in a loud whisper:

“Fatherta te dunnada” (Did you give tea to Father?), before filming begins on another day on the sets of ‘According to Mathew’ under the direction of acclaimed Chandran Rutnam.

‘Fr. Mathew’ realises the game is up through a news item about the exhumation. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

While the carpet is straightened and the cane chairs are put in place, and Rutnam directs that the camera should come from off-shoulder and push in, Rutnam’s son James instructs the crew to “fold the newspaper in two”. As the camera pans in it also catches the images on the wall of the Christ with a child and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“It is a difficult role to play as it’s based on factual happenings,” points out Alston during a break in shooting as we chat to him in his “study” at the Vicarage which is part of St. Paul’s Church, down Kynsey Road, now recreated at the walauwwe.

I have to be the man himself, he says, explaining that when one plays the lead role in a film based on incidents that were on the lips and minds of every Sri Lankan, one has to be seriously conscious of portraying the man as he was in reality.

The film is based on court records and Alston has spent months of study going into every detail and listening to people from all walks of life, including altar boys, priests, Anglican Church administrators of the time and even the doctors who had close links with the Peiris family.

A “very rare” part of the whole bizarre story is that some actors are playing the same “role” they played at that time in real life, laughs Alston, citing the example of Dr. Lakshman Weerasena.

Alston has to don the cassock of a priest dubbed demonic who not only killed his wife, Eunice, and Randy Reynolds (as Russel Ingram is known in this murder-thriller), the husband of his paramour Daphne (name-changed from Delrene) but around whom hangs clouds of suspicion of several other murders. One being the Pastor at St. Paul’s whose place Fr. Mathew stepped into.

‘Fr. Mathew’ with Director Rutnam

Many people including doctors who had been young interns at the General Hospital in Colombo at the time when Eunice and Russel were admitted, literally comatose, induced by anti-diabetic medication have come forward since the Sunday Times brought to light the film’s pathway during the early shooting of takes last year in July. This has resulted in Director Rutnam even re-writing the hospital scene.

During the break in filming, we got much information not only from well-wishers but also bad-wishers, laughs Alston, but not from families linked to these tragic incidents. “Yes, there was a lot of pressure not to act, not from the church but from friends who wondered why I wanted to go down that road.”

For Alston, there is heightened tragedy as he knew Russel Ingram in school, having been a few classes junior at Wesley College. He was from “a very cultured Burgher family and excelled in sports”, recalls Alston.

Poignant are the memories for Alston as they are now filming at the Wesley grounds.

Fr. Mathew also comes out as a good man who helped a lot of people who were down in life. “Maybe he had a Jekyll and Hyde personality,” conjectures Alston, while adding that the chemistry between Daphne (played by former Miss Sri Lanka and Bollywood actress Jacqueline Fernandez) and himself is superb.

Having secured Jacqueline for ‘According to Mathew’, Alston is confident that this beautiful actress would break into Hollywood. “She is very methodical and serious about any role she takes on. Her finesse and command of the Queen’s English will see her in Hollywood soon.

What of Alston? Will he be skyrocketed to fame through his portrayal of this Pastor and Exorcist?

Alston sure seems to be tapping into a reservoir of talent within, like he says the calculating and manipulative Fr. Mathew would have done with “some kind of power” within him, only he knew about.

Alston the singer

His credentials as a singer are not in doubt and now he has set his sights on acting and acting not a minor but an intriguing and complex role as his first foray into movies.

The latest among Alston Koch’s many accolades as a singer is being inducted into the Grammy Foundation as a member and being invited to the Grammy Awards which he was unable to attend due to the filming in Sri Lanka.

While a few months ago his album was No. 2 in the Southern Hemisphere, he has been bestowed the title ‘Funk Master’ by the Music Academy for being the ‘Success story of 2012’. He is also the only Sri Lankan, perhaps the only Asian, to have won four ARIA (Australian Record Industry Association) awards for platinum and gold record sales.

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