Chandran Rutnam – the man who brought Hollywood to Sarawak!


Chandran with the author and Jessica Alba – ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’, Kuching 2000.

I HAD my first introduction to feature film locations scouting in Sarawak 32 years ago in February 1987, when I had first met Sri Lankan film producer and director Chandran Rutnam. He was the man from Hollywood who brought Steven Spielberg to Colombo to shoot major segments of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom three years earlier.

I happened to be in between jobs as the Toyota assembly plant at Sarawak Motor Industries (SMI) had closed down, and my next job with BMW at Auto Bavaria was only due to start a year later. My then associate, who was financial controller at Inchcape, Ralph Marshall had been roped in by Chandran to handle the shoot here in Kuching as his associate producer. Ralph introduced me to Chandran to be his local assistant.

At this year’s Asean International Film Festival (Aiffa 2019) held in Kuching last week, Chandran Rutnam was honored for his many contributions to the Malaysian and Sarawak film industry throughout the years – a period spanning over 35 years and seven major features.

Among his more than 30 film credits to be found on the Internet Movie Database (, Chandran’s personal and direct contributions to the feature films he had brought to Malaysia, and Sarawak in particular to shoot were:

* ‘Farewell to the King’ (1987), Director: John Milius, Stars: Nick Nolte, Nigel Havers

* ‘Sleeping Dictionary’ (2000), Director: Guy Jenkins, Stars: Jessica Alba, Hugh Dancy, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer

* ‘Fifty/Fifty’ (1992), Director: Charles Martin Smith, Stars: Robert Hayes, Peter Weller, Ramona Rahman

* ‘Beyond Rangoon’ (1995), Director: John Boorman, Stars: Patricia Arquette, Frances McDormand

* ‘Paradise Road’ (1997), Director: Bruce Beresford, Stars: Glenn Close, Frances McDormand

* ‘Indochine’ (1992), Director: Regis Wergnier, Stars: Catherine Deneuve – this movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film the following year

* ‘Victory’ (1996), Director: Mark Peploe, Stars: Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill

Chandran has also led the Malaysian delegation to the Cannes Film Festival.

Chandran was born to a Sri Lankan Tamil father Dr James T Rutnam and a Sinhala mother Evelyn Wijeratne. He was a 16-year-old school boy when David Lean arrived in Sri Lanka in 1957 to shoot his second world war epic ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’.

The film production had hired a house belonging to his parents for a location set and Chandran had hung out at the sets volunteering odd jobs until finally he was hired as a stand-by props assistant and a gofer for the film crew.

Showing his early skills at public relations and being friendly with all the cast and crew on the film set, he had also befriended among others the main star William Holden, who had spent his down time with him chatting about the film business. Even in those days it wasn’t the glamour and ‘bright lights, big city’ as depicted in the movie magazines and journals – the film locations business boiled down to just waiting on the film set for their part to be called to perform.

Chandran with Steven Spielberg in 1984.

But his big moment came when it was time to shoot the blowing up of the bridge – at the film’s finale of ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ – which was shot on location at the scenic Kitulgala river in central Sri Lanka (still known as Ceylon in those days). The crew had laid out only a couple of yards of rail track on either side of the bridge, not enough to show an approaching train. Chandran’s job was to run through a stretch of the jungle on one side working up smoke with a pair of smoke bellows. Of course those who saw the final cut of the film only saw the smoke, synchronised with the chugging sounds of a rapidly approaching train!

Chandran had then dropped out of school and went to London to pursue his dream of a career in films; he later moved to Los Angeles and attended the film school at the University of Southern California and the San Fernando Valley College of Law.

While working in the Hollywood studios, Chandran’s big break in selling Sri Lankan locations to international filmmakers came when he managed to convince John Derek, the director of ‘Tarzan the Apeman’ in 1980 to shoot the entire film starring his wife Bo Derek (famous for her big hit movie ‘10’) in Sri Lanka rather than Africa. His film locations services company started with a big bang!

He was so successful and had impressed both the Dereks so much that eight years later they both returned to shoot ‘Ghosts Can’t Do it’ in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In that movie, even Donald Trump, the present Potus, had a cameo role in one scene, and according to Chandran, they had to shoot that particular scene twice just to get it right.

Towards the late 1980s, the number of feature films going to Sri Lanka to shoot on locations had dwindled down to a trickle due to the continuous war between the government and the Tamil Tigers. Hollywood had put a clamp on Sri Lanka as a dangerous country to shoot in.

Chandran decided then to bring all his prospective clients and future film shoots to Malaysia. He had first scouted in Ipoh, Melaka, Penang, and Langkawi and had made a number of films there.

Chandran at Aiffa 2019 Kuching with Indian actress Sangeetha.

Chandran made his first visit to Kuching in early 1987 and was very impressed with what he saw. He said that we had everything that Hollywood could ever want or need that they could also find in Sri Lanka, except for three things – we don’t have elephants and tigers, trains and railways, and there are not enough Indians to call for as extras.

Over the years, we have actually lost a number of film shoots due to the lack of those three essentials; and there’s a fourth as well – we have too much rainfall throughout the year which makes it a dicey and expensive proposition, especially for the film insurance companies.

Today, Chandran and I have re-established our working relationship in film locations and film production services, and he is actively promoting Sarawak once again as a prime film location to Hollywood. The recent troubles and tragedies in Sri Lanka have also meant that once again Hollywood will have to look elsewhere for their tropical, exotic, jungle locations – and we certainly fit the bill perfectly!