Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 12 August 2012
Ran Muthu Duwa (Island of Treasures), the first colour Sinhala feature film made in Sri Lanka, was released exactly 50 years ago this week, on 10 August 1962.
Ran Muthu Duwa was a trail-blazer in the Lankan cinema industry in many respects. It not only introduced colour to our movies, but also showed for the first time the underwater wonders of the seas around the island.
It was different from many formulaic Sinhala films made since 1947, and included elements of underwater treasure, ancient legends, human treachery and, predictably, some romance. It may not have been great art but was a box office hit. An estimated one million people saw it during the first release: a tenth of the island’s then population.
But the cultural influence of the film went well beyond the box office. It starred talented young actors who soon became big names in Sri Lanka’s film industry. It also launched or catapulted the careers of many other creative and technical professionals.
The unlikely instigators of this venture were two Englishmen who had settled down in newly independent Ceylon in the mid 1950s. Ran Muthu Duwa was written, filmed and directed by Mike Wilson, who was variously talented as a diver, photographer, writer and filmmaker. Its financier was Arthur C Clarke, himself a diver and already a leading author of science fiction and science fact.
They teamed up with the energetic Lankan artiste Shesha Palihakkara. Their company, Serendib Productions, produced Ran Muthu Duwa and two other movies.
Shesha had originally trained in India as a classical dancer, worked with Chitrasena and performed in Europe. He had made a name for himself by acting as an astrologer and stilt walker in Rekawa (Line of Destiny, 1956) by Lester James Peries, a turning point in the Lankan cinema.
Both Mike and Shesha also had had minor associations (as an extra and a makeup artist respectively) with David Lean’s Oscar-award winning Bridge on the River Kwai, filmed on location in Ceylon in 1956.
But neither man had made a feature film of their own. In fact, Mike had just one finished production to his credit: in 1958, he wrote, shot and directed the country’s first underwater documentary film: Beneath the Seas of Ceylon (25 mins).
Like its more famous predecessor, Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1935), this too had been sponsored by the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board. According to film historian Richard Boyle (who befriended Mike years later), this 16 mm film contains “some breathtaking scenes of Rodney Jonklaas taming some very large groupers, and then being chased by sharks.”
Jonklaas, zoologist and diver, was Clarke’s first scientific contact on the island and collaborated in several diving expeditions in the 1950s and 1960s. He went on to have his own associations with factual and feature film making, but that’s another story.
More relevant and intriguing is how the cinematic story of Ran Muthu Duwa was inspired by the serendipitous discovery of an old shipwreck off the southern coast of Sri Lanka by these pioneer divers.
In March 1961, while diving off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, they stumbled upon an old shipwreck undersea some 13 km off the Yala National Park. It was close to the British-built lighthouse on an offshore outcropping called the Great Basses Reef (called ‘Maha Ravana Kotuwa’ in Sinhala).
They later established that the wreck was of a Muslim trader ship that had sunk in 1703 while sailing with thousands of freshly minted silver Rupee coins.
Shortly afterwards, they were looking for a way to raise money to further explore and salvage the wreck. They dreamed of buying their own boat, which would cost at least US$ 10,000 (at that time).
The idea of an action adventure film, with underwater scenes, emerged from the Serendib trio’s brainstorming. Some reports say it was Shesha’s idea. Whoever suggested it, Mike immediately started writing a screenplay and planning the ambitious production.
The film’s storyline revolved around a group on the track of a treasure galleon sunk off the (fictitious) island of Ran Muthu Duwa (literally the island of gold and pearls). Any resemblance to real life events was coincidental…
Despite his celebrated imagination, Clarke was not immediately convinced that it was such a good idea.
“…The whole idea of making such a film was obviously absurd,” he later recalled. “Though I had always maintained that Mike had the right temperament for a movie director (this was seldom intended as a compliment), it was ridiculous to imagine that we could produce a complete two-and-a-half hour Technicolor feature. I had been to Hollywood…and had seen the enormous resources required for even the most modest film.”
Of such impetuousness is artistic legend made – sometimes. In this instance, their gamble paid off.
Mike assembled a cast and crew that included some of the finest talent in the film industry. To get over his limited Sinhala proficiency, he engaged Tissa Liyanasuriya as assistant director and to write dialogues.
The film was shot on location in and around Trincomalee, just as the news of the real treasure discovered off the Great Basses Reef was beginning to spread in the local media.
The film’s cast included Gamini Fonseka, Joe Abeywickrama, Jeevarani Kurukulasooriya, Austin Abeysekera, Thilakasiri Fernando, Shane Gunaratne and Vincent Waas.
For the villain (Renga), who famously fought underwater with the hero (Gamini Fonseka), Mike cast a boxing champion turned diver who was working in their diving company: Hector Ekanayake.
Maestro Amaradeva made his debut as a music director in this film. Its three songs, written by Sri Chandrarathne Manawasinghe, became highly popular and have sustained appeal for half a century.
Editor Titus Thotawatte was one of the most technically accomplished film and TV professionals in the country. He and Liyanasuriya both went on to direct their own movies, as did Gamini Fonseka.
Ran Muthu Duwa made good money, too: certainly enough for its diver-filmmakers to buy that boat. One industry watcher notes that this film made an income record in Sri Lanka that wasn’t broken until 1979.
Serendib Productions made two more films before its partners went their own ways. Clarke would soon collaborate with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey that redefined science fiction movie making. Mike Wilson would continue his creative trail before denouncing everything to explore spiritual realms as Swami Siva Kalki. Shesha would also give up film making after sometime, dabble in other pursuits and make a brief return in the 2000s.
Now they are all gone. In fact, only a few cast and crew members survive. And sadly, not a single print is left in Sri Lanka which lacks a film archive. Only some DVDs are in circulation, apparently of poor quality – as seen from what fans have uploaded to YouTube.
In the mid 1990s, Clarke explored prospects for a re-release (and possible remastering). With some effort, he located a print at a Technicolor archive in Europe, but the logistics and costs of bringing it over proved too daunting – especially without a firm commitment from any exhibitor.
Clarke had only a VHS recording of the film, made off a TV broadcast, but that didn’t deter him from enjoying the movie – or singing its praise.
He has the last word: “I have never grown tired of watching the scenes of dawn over the great temples, the sea-washed cliffs of Trincomalee, the lines of pilgrims descending Adam’s Peak, and the mysterious underwater sequences. For a first attempt at professional movie-making, it was an outstanding effort.”
Read Richard Boyle’s 1997 tribute to Mike Wilson: Enigmatic Mr Wilson