Manik the Maverick and I
By Richard Boyle
A few weeks before he died in a Singapore hospital on May 18th last year, Manik Sandrasagra, the mercurial former impresario and film director reborn as a heritage guru, phoned and said he’d come over and buy two copies of my book Sindbad in Serendib, one for himself, one for his brother. We had an affable chat, unusually revisited our sketchy cinematic past, and he referred in particular to one project we never made, “Bloody Mary”, urging me to at least resurrect the story.
As for the inscription in his copy of the book, I knew it was time to acknowledge that I would probably never have arrived in Sri Lanka if not for him: my destiny played out elsewhere and almost certainly less fulfilled. And I had to express thanks for his crucial contribution to my understanding of the island over 35 years.
When he reversed his vehicle out of my driveway and grinned at me on departure, my usual caprice of him being Toad of Toad Hall behind the wheel (he matched the Wind in the Willows character’s physical form and driving methods precisely) dissipated, and instead I had thoughts on the nature of goodbyes: how we mostly utter them with the assumption that they are impermanent not final.
I never saw him again.
This ultimate meeting seemed ordained.
To write on Manik Sandrasagra to fit the limited space in a newspaper is tricky. There were so many facets and phases to his life. There were so many incidents of note. How can all this be encompassed in anything but a lengthy biography? And then there is the truth that while his friends will probably appreciate some biographical documentation on his first death anniversary, others will be disinclined to read anything about him.
For Manik, although he was a ‘gem’ had a fault, a flaw in clarity, inclusions - whatever relevant gemmological expression you fancy. There was gem-like brilliance to his oratory; his ability to have an entire audience hanging on his every word, absorbed in his telling of the country’s tradition, or exposition of his radical yet sensible social and cultural ideas. However, in a contrary sphere, business, such skills enabled him to kindle enthusiasm in those whose support he needed, but the way in which certain deals were concluded caused bitterness or worse.
Due to the constraints of space I have decided to limit my depiction of Manik from 1973 to the early 80s, the period we worked together in the film industry, here and abroad. So be warned: there is no reference to the Manik of the past quarter-century. Much of our work involved unsuccessful attempts at getting film projects like “Bloody Mary” off the ground (a characteristic of the industry) rather than making them. This dispiriting situation led me to quit the industry – no more labouring over synopses and scripts, no more pleading with financiers! As it happened Manik, too, became estranged from the industry at that time, and so our working relationship ended.
“Hi. You must be Richard Boyle. I’m Manik Sandrasagra.” It was January 1973, and I had just reached Katunayake after a flight from London. I scanned the sea of faces to identify the speaker, but couldn’t locate him until I shifted my gaze to a lower level. Smiling up at me with twinkling eyes (I soon realized this was a trait) was a short man in his late twenties with a noticeably protruding stomach. More Westernized and sophisticated than those who milled around, he was impeccably dressed in a sleeve-buttoned shirt and smart trousers with an outrageous 70s flare.
Manik fitted the description given to me in London by a married couple who were, as I was, working on The God King, directed by Lester James Pieris and produced by Manik. This couple also advised me: “He returned from America several years ago - he was Eartha Kitt’s manager”; “he’s directed a few films, one about union unrest on a tea plantation (Kalu Diya Dahara) another a comedy (Colomba Sanniya).” “He’s a real talker, in fact he’s got the gift of the gab”. They also cautioned me that he was related to Emile Savundra, insinuating that his integrity might therefore be in question.
Savundra’s name is remembered in Britain 40 years after he swindled 400,000 motorists with useless insurance policies because he received massive publicity, ending with a television interview with David Frost in which he described his clients as “peasants”. Frost lost his temper, causing those concerned with media ethics to warn of the inception of “trial by television”. Savundra was arrested soon afterwards and spent six years in prison.
Within a week or so of my arrival in Colombo, I had the great fortune, thanks to Manik, to meet most of the key cultural icons of the day – Chitrasena and Vajira, Somabandu Vidyapathi, Manjusri, George Keyt, and, of course, Lester James Pieris. Then there were the ‘imports’ Arthur C. Clarke and his alienated friend Mike Wilson just prior to the latter’s reincarnation as Swami Siva Kalki.
In addition, over the next ten months during the pre-production and production of the film, Manik introduced me to the wonders of Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee before they became tainted by conflict, as well as Sigiriya, Pidurangala, Ritigala and elsewhere besides. It was he who fuelled my abiding interest in Sri Lanka.
Manik told me the seeds of The God King project were sown when the niece of the then Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, visited Colombo. The remarkable German, 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, and the idea lodged in Manik’s head.
After he convinced an American financier to cover the international budget, Manik set up a Sri Lankan company, Global Films, to meet the local costs of production. “Manik’s ingenuity,” as Lester James Pieris commented, “was not in raising the money but setting up one of the most prestigious boards of company directors.” Manik used his persuasive techniques to convince leading but cautious entrepreneurs to invest in the film and the board read like a page from Ferguson’s Directory.
The making of The God King was a nightmare: dissension, mistrust and even racial tension welled up. My most vivid remembrance happened at Sigiriya, when Manik, the holder of the purse strings, realized how bad the situation had become, and that it would be sensible to let the film die an early death. He decided to leave for India, and before he jumped into the SLAF helicopter at our service - preparing to take-off in front of the rest-house - he came up to me and warned me the film was doomed. Thankfully it wasn’t: it just required some sackings (including “the couple”) and infusion of new blood.
Manik hadn’t the experience of running such a huge production, with a handful of often fussy foreigners to contend with, yet he performed magnificently, had total control, and acted with a maturity beyond his 28 years.
Post-production took place in London, and Manik, his first wife, the late Anne Loos (who, touchingly, always showed much concern for my welfare), Vijaya Kumaratunga, Ravindra Randeniya, and Joe Abeywickrema, flew over and stayed in a tiny flat. On several occasions they visited my home in Sussex. My parents were astounded to see Anne hand-feed Manik at Sunday lunch, and Vijaya got into trouble after smashing my mother’s car into a gate post.
In 1974, after the long haul of The God King, Manik was possessed with the idea of turning Maggi Lidchi’s novel Earthman (1967) into a film, largely because it featured his revered Swami Gauribala. Lidchi, of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, wrote this impressive novel - “reading it, I was jealous of the author” confessed Henry Miller - about an English spiritual seeker who experienced “mystical crises and revelations” during a gruelling sojourn at Swami Gauribala’s ashram in Jaffna.
Manik didn’t find it difficult to convince me to borrow £500 from my father so I could secure the option for the cinematic rights.
Manik then persuaded the recently deceased Tissa Abeysekera to write a script – and what a fine one - that doesn’t feature in discussions about Tissa’s film career. Hardly surprising, though, as I think I possess the only copy, the legacy of my father’s never repaid loan, for we were unable to raise production funds. My father, disgruntled with Manik, hoped I would abandon my attempts to be an independent producer.
However, imbued with Manik’s enthusiasm, I didn’t. Then Gamini Fonseka came into our orbit, full of better ideas. He suggested “Bloody Mary”, the remarkable true story of Mary Palliser. Shipped to Ceylon on the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, Australian-born Palliser was permitted to set up an R & R camp for allied service personnel near Pattipola that eclipsed official efforts at Bandarawela. Her camp had horses and hounds and much else besides. A feisty character, she fell foul of the government when the railway union threatened to strike after she continually intimidated the Pattipola stationmaster. She was deported to Australia, but not before she burnt her camp, shot her animals, and buried cyanide at the base of the trees on her government–owned land.
It seems extraordinary that we were unable to whip up interest with “Bloody Mary”. It would make a great film, logically an Australian production. Fortunately for us, another, more fruitful, project came along. In late 1976, Manik told me a story of an elephant seeking revenge. He once again persuaded some prominent but reluctant local businessmen to finance the project, and Gamini agreed to star in it. Now he needed me to write the script (many know the story so I’ll refrain from telling it) and be line producer.
Manik had the brilliant idea of reversing the format of the animal horror films of the late 70s (epitomized by Jaws) so that sympathy was with the animal rather than the humans.
This made Rampage unique and reflected Manik’s desire to see things differently. It was the first 100% locally financed movie in English produced primarily for an international market. It was a green film, ahead of its time, in that it addressed the issue of the increasing friction between elephants and humans. It was skilfully directed by Manik. But today there is not a copy left.
Our final project concerned another of Manik’s daring ideas that extended cinematic boundaries - a science fiction film with a predominantly spiritual setting. “The Criterion” concerned an intergalactic probe with artificial intelligence that picks up the transmissions of a Buddhist television station, Vision of Dharma (a radical concept in 1977). It orbits Earth and begins to have discussions with the station’s presenter, the Reverend Sumedha, on the Dharma, which has astounding results.
We asked Swami Siva Kalki to collaborate with us as we needed his knowledge of Buddhism and science fiction. We flew to London to meet potential producers and Swami and I retired to the Sussex countryside to write the script. It didn’t happen as I felt out of my depth. Later Manik and Swami completed the script, with the title changed to “The Point of No Return”. It intrigued producers and directors. I remember meeting John Boorman – he had directed an unusual sc-fi film, Zardoz - who, after reading the script, was very keen about the project. But once again we were unable to put a package together.
“The couple” no doubt nodded wisely when Manik was arrested in England in 1980. He was just about to drive away in a van containing a machine that had been imported to Sri Lanka by an Englishman who found no buyers and then succumbed to a suggestion by Manik to pack it with cannabis and send it to England. (This Englishman, who also went to jail, felt very embittered towards Manik. He protested when appreciations of Manik appeared on a blog site after his death.)
I think I was the only friend able to visit Manik in Norwich Prison. It was the day that Ian Botham scored a memorable test match century and I drove along listening to the radio coverage but desperately (and guiltily) wanting to watch the innings on television.
The person I found eagerly awaiting me in the visiting room was a shadow of his usual self - bereft of confidence, his extrovert character deflated. His emotion at being able to talk to a friend was moving. I’m glad I never saw him like that again.
In spite of everything, Manik kept his wits about him and escaped to Amsterdam, where an underground organization spirited him back to Sri Lanka. This extraordinary journey is worth a lengthy account – but alas only Manik could write it. He arrived off-shore in a fishing boat at a propitious location, and waded through the sea to the beach. A new chapter in his life began.
With thanks to Lucy, Koshika, Nimal, and Stephen.
Further reading: "The Making of The God King" (The Sunday Times, April 26, May 3, 10 & 17, 1998); "The Making of Rampage" (The Sunday Times, March 23 & 30, 1997)