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26th April 1998

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The making of ‘The God King’ - Part 1

Bizarre beginnings

By Richard Boyle

I first met Lester James Peries twenty-five years ago on a sun-baked escarpment in the North Central Province, where he was taking some pick-up shots for his film Desa Nisa (The Eyes), which starred Joe Abeywickrema and Sriyani Amarasena. As I approached Lester over the scorching rock, his diminutive yet magnetic figure was instantly recognisable from the photographs of him I had seen in London a few weeks earlier.

Although I was not aware of it then, my first impression of him typified the style and character of Lester James Peries the film director on location. There he was, a cool, calm, almost motionless figure among milling film technicians and production personnel, nattily attired in shirt, trousers and shoes, with his sleeves buttoned at the wrist, and the inevitable floppy sun hat protecting his head.

I was just twenty-two-years-old, fresh from England, and eager to have my first practical film experience. Upto then I had been peripherally involved with the British Film Institute and had worked briefly with Pam and Andi Engel at their small independent distribution company called Politkino, which later blossomed into the more mainstream Artificial Eye.

During the past six months I had had the pleasure of seeing the seminal documentary Song of Ceylon (1935), and of meeting its director, Basil Wright, at a British Film Institute workshop. I had also been introduced to Lester James Peries by way of his masterpiece, Nidhanaya (The Treasure) which I had seen at the 1972 London Film Festival.

In addition, I had met Ram Gopal, the renowned oriental dancer and choreographer (and occasional actor) in connection with a documentary film on his life. He talked at length about his career and mentioned that he had worked on two Hollywood films made on location in Ceylon - both of which, curiously, I had seen in recent weeks on television. One was Robert Parrish’s The Purple Plain (1954), starring Gregory Peck, in which Ram Gopal played the part of Mr. Phong. The other was William Dieterle’s Elephant Walk (1954), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Dana Andrews. For this film Ram Gopal had choreographed and taken the male lead in a Hollywood inspired Kandyan dance sequence.

This cinematic introduction to Sri Lanka came before I knew I was going to the island to work on Lester’s latest production, The God King. When I heard the job was on, I raided the British Film Institute archives of every Lester James Peries production still from Rekawa to Nidhanaya (a collection which I am happy to say I still possess). In addition I spent several memorable evenings with John Gillett - film critic par excellence and contributor to the British Film Institute’s much esteemed magazine, Sight and Sound - talking about Lester and his films.

Kassapa's Audience Hall from atop the palace set, AnuradhapuraIt was at this time that I met Anthony Greville-Bell, the line producer and scriptwriter of The God King, together with his wife, Ann, who was the art director, at their Earls Court house. Flushed with enthusiasm over their recent visit to Sri Lanka and with the project, they showed me some rather crude art department impressions of a Sigiriya film set and related a brief version of the Kassapa story.

Ann Greville-Bell, who had worked mostly in the commercials industry, was unknown to me. But Anthony Greville-Bell’s name was familiar as he had made a minor reputation for himself as the author of several rather off-beat screenplays containing distinctive black humour. For instance, I had already seen his memorable bank heist film, Perfect Friday (1970), directed by Peter Hall and starring Ursula Andress and Stanley Baker.

After the making of The God King, I caught up with the other film for which Greville-Bell is mainly remembered - Theatre of Blood (1973) directed by Douglas Hickox. In this deliciously ghoulish horror film, Vincent Price plays a demented Shakespearean actor whose career is destroyed when the critics trash his performances. With the aid of his daughter (played by Diana Rigg), Price fakes his own death so that he may return incognito in order to take revenge on his critics. He does this by killing them off, one by one, basing the murders and his methods on the plots of the Shakespeare plays he knows so well.

I was soon in Colombo and it was with Greville-Bell that I journeyed by train to Maho Junction in order to meet Lester while he was on location. It is a meeting I am unlikely to forget, as it was the beginning of an intense, eight-month period during which I was at Lester’s side virtually day by day, sharing his elation and despair as this rollercoaster of a film rushed interminably on. It was a unique experience that provided me with an unusual insight into both Lester the man and Lester the film director. A quarter century down the line I realise how privileged I am.

Some years ago, when the producer of The God King, Dimitri de Grunwald, died, Lester wrote a warm tribute in which he mentioned the bizarre beginnings of the film. “It all happened like a fairytale. A Jewish businessman (Ray Torin) had arrived in Colombo to buy a hotel. He ended up buying the idea of filming the story of Sigiriya. In the preliminary discussions between Manik Sandrasagara (the Associate Producer) and Mr. Torin, the hotel sank without trace and the magnificent rock fortress rose up out of the mists of time into a distinctly realisable vision”.

Manik recalls that the seeds of the project were actually sown months earlier, when the niece of the then Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, visited Colombo. Swami Gauribala had arrived from Jaffna to take her on a guided tour, and Manik joined the party. They ended up at Sigiriya where on the Lion Plateau, Swami Gauribala expounded his theory on the esoteric symbolism of the rock. It was remarked that the story would make a good movie. The idea lodged in Manik’s head, although the scale of the project and the finance required seemed daunting.

A flash forward brings us to the time when Bobby Arnolda arranged a meeting in Colombo between Manik and a visiting American businessman and film investor called Ray Torin. Torin began by asking Manik what was his favourite film project. Manik launched into a rendition of Swami Gauribala’s interpretation of Sigiriya. Torin showed immediate enthusiasm and went on to inquire what was needed for such a project. He ended up by asking Manik to sign an agreement the next morning. This Manik did, with Bobby Arnolda and Joe Abeywickrema as witnesses. “We had a film on our hands,” Manik comments. “And Lester was the obvious person to direct it.”

Ray had not been smitten by the historical significance of the story, or anything so cerebral. His fascination was for the glandular. The esoteric, bare-breasted Sigiriya maidens had hijacked his imagination and the film was an excuse to bring them to life. In order to pursue his dream, Ray summoned Manik to London for more substantive talks. Manik was informed that the epic had to be a British-Sri Lankan co-production. A company in London called Tiger Films would service the project - a name which would have been inappropriate just a few years later.

A B-movie producer/scriptwriter called Cedric Francis (responsible for such travesties as Chasing the Sun (1956) and Manhunt in the Jungle (1958), was being promoted by Ray to write the script. As soon as he met Cedric Francis, Manik knew that he was not right. Manik was getting increasingly fed up with Ray’s insensitivity. It was fortunate that Ray took Manik to meet Dimitri de Grunwald, who had come on board as producer. According to Manik they got on well from the start. “We spoke the same language,” he says. The first thing Dimitri did was to bring in Anthony Greville-Bell as scriptwriter.

Lester remembers this juncture clearly. “One night I had a call from Manik in London,” he relates. “He was in a state of great agitational excitement. ‘Who do you think has agreed to be producer?’ he asked. I had not the foggiest notion. ‘Dimitri de Grunwald!’ he said in a dramatic flourish and hung up. I could not believe that Dimitri de Grunwald, the great British producer, would risk so much on a film to be directed and photographed by Asians.”

Meanwhile Manik was asked to set up a Sri Lankan company that could meet all the local costs of production. “Manik’s ingenuity,” Lester comments, “was not only in raising the money but setting up one of the most prestigious boards of company directors”. Manik insists that it was S. Ambalavaner, an authority on taxation, who was able to pinpoint the potential investors from his impressive list of clients. Moreover, Ambalavaner was also instrumental in persuading the then Minister of Finance, N. M. Perera, to consider the film as an export oriented venture, and therefore provide an investment rebate and tax relief.

There is no doubt that Manik has considerable talent in this sphere, and the Board of Global Films, as the company was called, read like a page from Ferguson’s directory. Clifford Ratwatte, who was also on the board of International Films, another of Manik’s companies, was first choice as Chairman. The rest of the Board consisted of N.U Jayawardene, Cyril Gardiner, Joe de Liviera, K. Gunaratnam, P.A Cooray, Douglas Fernando and the Jafferjee brothers.

It is a measure of Manik’s abilities that he was able to convince these leading entrepreneurs to invest in the film; as most were initially rather apprehensive of the projected costs and the percentage of the profits that would accrue to Global Films. It turned out that the vast majority of the profits from worldwide sales were to go to Ray’s Tiger Films. As Lester puts lt, “we plunged into a world of intrigue, double dealing, and shoe-string budgets”.

Before going any further, I must provide readers with a thumbnail portrait of the Late Ray Torin, who was, after all, responsible for my initial arrival in the island all those years ago. My father, a specialist in arthritis, had as a patient one of the investors in Global Films. Anxious for me to realise my dream of working in feature films, my father put me on to Ray. I went to meet Ray at his St. John’s Wood flat feeling nervous and apprehensive. I need not have worried though, for Ray seemed friendly enough as he greeted me from behind an oversize desk.

But then Ray was an oversize character. Corpulent, bull-necked, with a fleshy face bisected by huge square-framed gold spectacles, and with pudgy fingers festooned with chunky, ostentatious gold rings, he was almost elephantine in appearance. He was stereotypically brash, and loved to talk about his rapacious business and sexual exploits. He had a thick voice with a strong American accent.

Invariably he had a menthol cigarette wedged between two fingers and would stop periodically in mid-talk for dramatic effect, give a strange smile and then concentrate on smoking while his audience digested his words. More than anything else, Ray was a frustrated film producer who longed for the power associated with the casting-couch. At least he got a chance to pursue his fantasies with The God King, and he was able to see his name in the credits as executive producer. Without him, the film would never have been made. And he did give me my chance by assuring me a job on the film and sending me along to meet Anthony Greville-Bell.

Lester James Peries surrounded by spear carrying extras at MannarMeanwhile details of the production were emerging. It would be filmed in the widescreen format, TODD AO. There would be Sri Lankan control of and responsibility for most technical aspects of the filming, although there would be a British support team. It seemed it would be a collaborative and equitable co-production. But then co-productions rarely are, and in any case there had to be a catch somewhere, as Lester well realised. The catch, or one of the catches as it turned out, was that to make the package more ‘Westernised’ and therefore more likely to achieve box-office success, Dimitri had decided that three of the leading roles in the film would be played by Brits. “This was typical Dimitri strategy” Lester comments, for the producer had mostly got his films financed by securing co-production deals.

Dimitri may have been a great British producer as Lester asserts. Nevertheless, it was his brother Anatole who has the better track record and greater versatility - for apart from being a producer, he was a scriptwriter as well. Anatole, who died in the late 1960s, was best-known as the producer of such films as Way to the Stars (l945) The Winslow Boy (1948), The VIPs (1965) and Yellow Rolls Royce (1965). Dimitri, on the other hand, had received recognition as the producer of The Millionairess (1960), directed by Anthony Asquith and starring Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers, and The Dock Brief (l962) directed by James Hill and starring Richard Attenborough.

Dimitri was the complete antithesis of Ray Torin. A refined, cosmopolitan gentleman of Russian descent, he was very much an exception to the rule in the slobbish, belly-scratching film industry. “Not for him the obscene fat cigar stuck in the mouth (although he did smoke them) and the barking of orders, nor the retinue of secretaries, yes-men, toadies and nerve-wracked production personnel,” Lester declares. “He was a silver-haired, soft spoken, extremely handsome man; dapper, exquisitely dressed in cream suit and a straw boater to shield him from the blazing sun - and a wife oozing with charm and friendliness”.

Apart from being silver-haired, Dimitri was also silver-tongued, as the film critic and writer-on-cinema, Alexander Walker, has observed. A charming man with excellent public relations, he required all his skills during the making of The God King, when dissension, mistrust and even racial tension welled up and nearly wrecked the production.

That it was not wrecked was also due to another of Dimitri’s characteristics. He had an iron fist in that velvet glove of his and he knew how to use it to quell dissent and get his own way. - (Contd. next week)

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