News » Charith Abeysinghe
I used to work in the same office complex as Charith Abeysinghe, in the early days of UKLanka Times, when the magazine was housed in a tiny building that was also home to a Foreign Exchange business, a money transfer service, a transport business, a property office and assorted bits and pieces. As I walked in each morning, past the Foreign Exchange counters at the front, Charith would be the first person I’d see. He looked utterly bored. The work wasn’t complicated or particularly stressful.
It was a plum job for a young guy new to the UK. It was particularly nice in the summer months as holiday makers heading for the Balearic beaches in their skimpy bikinis stopped off at the Foreign Exchange windows before heading for the airport. But Charith always stood nonchalantly leaning against one of the counters, hands in pockets, gazing into the distance. It was as if he was paying penance of some sort. But as I look back now, I can swear that there was a slight glint in his eyes; a hunger for bigger things. It was as if he was silently counting down the minutes until the realization of a dream.
It’s early Spring 2008 in North London and Charith and I are at the sprawling Pinewood Studios complex, walking past a warehouse the size of Colombo and dedicated to 007. We are here as Charith oversees the final edit of his first film production, “Julia”, at the spiritual home of British cinema, the first time ever that a Sri Lankan film has had anything done to it at Pinewood. People, seemingly old hands at the studio, come up to greet Charith as we make our way to the editing suites; people who have worked with the likes of James Bond and Harry Potter. It’s an amazing sight, particularly for me as the fobbish image from three years ago plays in my head, interspersed with this film producer. This really is the big time. And I’m not the only one who’s in slight amazement; “We were shooting in Hertfordshire one day and people started coming and taking pictures thinking it was some major Bollywood film”, Charith says. “That was the first time I knew that this was going to be as big as I imagined it would be.”
For the uninformed, 26-year-old Charith Abeysinghe was born and raised in Sri Lanka before travelling to England 5 years ago. His first love is music; he was a lounge singer doing the rounds at Colombo’s five-star hotels before becoming the lead singer of the popular but now-defunct band The Islanders. During his initial days in London he worked in Foreign Exchange before branching out and setting up his own business in Stratford two years ago. The business however was merely a means to an end and first financed a successful Sinhala language music album in 2006 which was hugely popular in Sri Lanka. His business then financed ‘Julia’, which has already become the second most expensive Sri Lankan film ever made. The plot revolves around a girl (imaginatively named ‘Julia’) whose choices take her on a slightly convoluted journey through prosperity and stability, heartache and terror, decadence and ruin and back.
The names against the credits in the film include a motley who’s who of Sri Lankan cinema; actors such as Ravindra Randeniya, Veena Jayakody and the outstanding Sriyantha Mendis. Musicians such as Bathiya Jayakody of Bathiya and Santhush fame as well as Uresha Ravihari and acclaimed cinematographer Donald Karunarathne. Charith Abeysinghe meanwhile wears the hats of the conceiver, financier, coordinator, producer, editor, general run-around guy and of course the chief antagonist in ‘Julia’. It’s exhausting work and clearly evident from the dark circles under his eyes.
From what I’ve seen from the unedited version, ‘Julia’ is pure, cringe-worthy, clichéd, escapist cinema with soppy dialogue, iffy acting and characters who have the depth of a baby bath. To his credit however, Charith isn’t under any illusions about what he’s touting. “I didn’t start out with the intention of creating an art house film. You go to the cinema to be entertained, to have a laugh, to escape the rigours of the outside world for a couple of hours. I wanted to create something that would appeal to everyone and not just for film experts.” In a sense he shares that philosophy with the likes of James Cameron, the man responsible for the equally cringe-worthy, clichéd, escapist, ‘Titanic’. What’s more, Charith has avoided the narcissistic temptation to play a sugar coated hero who runs around trees and saves damsels in distress from impossible situations and whose IQ equals the circumference of his bicep, i.e. 15. Instead he plays a nasty, opportunistic, con-man who seduces the main female character and runs around trees, singing with her.
The production values however are fantastic. It’s the first Sri Lankan film ever to have been shot entirely in High Definition. The locations are exotic and expensive; in a Sri Lankan context of course. The spectacular aerial shots over London alone must have cost a small fortune, what with hiring an aircraft and convincing the authorities that the crew weren’t going to take over the plane and fly it into Buckingham Palace to disturb the Queen’s afternoon tea. Scenes filmed on Green Belt land in Hertfordshire and picturesque villages in Buckinghamshire are alluring. The music videos are straight out of 50 Cents’ book of tricks with dozens of scantily clad Indian dancers strutting their stuff in perfect harmony; it is escapist cinema at its best. It is the perfect panacea for a people ravaged by a war, runaway inflation and diminished hopes for the future.
But all of these factors are mere peripherals to the story of Charith Abeysinghe, a man on a single minded mission, in all probability to failure, but nonetheless pursuing a dream with a vigour and passion that most people would wish for throughout their entire lives. ‘Julia’ is a tremendous achievement in that Charith has created something that has never before been seen in Sri Lankan cinema. The stats are worth pondering over a bit; a budget of nearly half a million pounds; filmed entirely in stunning and extremely expensive High Definition; finished using resources from the UK, India as well as Sri Lanka and featuring an eclectic mix of talented personnel.
The most remarkable thing is that every little aspect of the film has been taken a step further than normal or necessary. Beautiful imagery from England would have merely been enough; but Charith insisted on aerial cinematography. High Definition technology is neither understood nor demanded by the average movie-goer in Sri Lanka. The backing dancers used in the musical sequences are professionals flown in from India after Charith had failed to find anyone good enough in Sri Lanka, even after an exhaustive auditioning process in Colombo. 48 hours of film footage is currently being edited into a two-hour movie at a state of the art suite at Pinewood Studios. ‘Julia’ will be promoted via a Pop Idol-like song and dance competition to be held in Sri Lanka. And in a final proclamation of aggrandisement, the world premier will be held at Leicester Square.
To say that Charith Abeysinghe is slightly mad is perhaps accurate. He could have just sat at home with his comely wife and baby son and enjoyed the fruits of his labour by going on Holiday to Croatia, buying some cars, shoes or whatches. But he chose not to. His film – and ‘Julia’ truly is ‘his’ film – is a slap in the face to a very Sri Lankan predicament; complacency borne of contentment. It’s evident in every aspect of Sri Lankan life, be it IN Sri Lanka or the UK; the travel agency owner who’s content to spend his entire life issuing airline tickets so long as it pays the mortgage and never look beyond into other, myriad possibilities afforded by the travel industry. It’s evident by the professional who is content wearing the same tuxedo to the same Dinner Dance year in year out and socializing with the same people he has socialized with for the past quarter century and not look beyond into other worlds within society. It is evident by our singular lack of imagination or drive to push ourselves to achieve ever greater heights.
Most people would have been content taking their hard earned pounds to Sri Lanka and realizing the dream of making a movie. But Charith decided to go beyond what had been achieved and what could be achieved. It’s not merely the financial aspect of putting together this film; the hassle was equally extraordinary; hanging around for weeks waiting for permission to film in and above London and being forced to take out a £5 million public liability insurance. Being a first time producer with no prior credits meant the rejections came thick and fast in the initial stages from the likes of former beauty queen Rosy Senanayake and other stars who scoffed at the young upstart and his ambitious plans.
Julia’ may turn out to be the folly of the Sri Lankan century but that is beside the point. The underlying point is that Charith has had the courage to stare an entirely probable defeat in the face and go through with his game with all his heart and soul. Everything that he has worked for in the past six years of his young life has been the means to this end dream. Why do we need to go to the moon when there are enough problems here on earth? Why would anyone make a 200 mile per hour car when no one will ever be able to exploit that kind of speed on an average road? Why sacrifice an entire life training to run the 100-meter dash in 9 seconds? Because it is the nature of some to want to explore what is possible. It is the nature of some to give a two-fingered snub to conventional wisdom and contentment and look beyond the horizon. We all have dreams and aspirations and ambitions. But only a daring few have the courage to see them through.