Monday, August 1, 2011

The Temple of Doom in Your Backyard (When I saw Harrison Ford)

Written by guest Johann Balasuriya

I remember Mom handing me a plastic bag with a bottle of water, 3 bottles of Soda water and a few plastic cups and Dad grabbing a bottle of whiskey, one day during first term holidays in Sri Lanka, 1983. ( In Sri Lanka the school year is divided in to 3 terms; Each term was 3 months long with a 1 month holiday between terms. First term holidays begin 1st week of April and end in the first week of May).

I cannot remember the exact date but I remember my Maternal grandfather had given me a copy of "The human Fly" # 1 the day before and I had just won a fight with my brother (we were fighting over Atari time) and it was about 9 am. When Dad comes into the living room and says " Hey! Johann we are going on a trip" I'm like, "To where?" "Never mind where! Just get ready". I remember Mom demanding to know details and having one of those hush hush discussions they used to have.

I get in the back seat of the car because the front seat is occupied by Uncle Benja (Benja is short for people named Benjamin, in Sri Lanka), sitting with a plastic cup filled with whiskey and maybe a little bit of Soda water in it. (Uncle Benja was also my dad's lawyer, who was well connected in Sri Lanka and had kept my dad out of jail on many occasion.) Benja had another large bottle of whiskey in the seat beside him. Dad drove none of us used seat belts back then (The seat belts were neatly tucked under the seats where they would not get in anyone's way). Both driver and passenger have an open container of Alcohol in hand, chain smoking.


After driving for about 10 minutes I realized that we were heading towards Kandy. I was quite excited because Kandy was a well developed town compared to Kurunegala. (Kandy was as developed as Rockmart Georgia or Shannon Georgia in 1983, which is to say a rural community with a few businesses). Kurunegala was considered to be a podunk town compared to Kandy. We reached Kandy at about 11 am. We dropped Benja of at a clients placel then I asked dad what we were going to do? "We are going to watch a Hollywood movie being filmed."

I was dumbfounded. I was stunned: a Hollywood movie in this Country! I was imagining all sorts of things and what the movie was, who was going to be there... I was imagining Roger Moore, Sophia Loren Farah Fawwcette, Erin Gray, Lee majors, Gil Gerrard, Conan......... ( technically some of the actors I was thinking about were TV stars but I could not tell the difference at that time. I also had not learned to pronounce Schwarzenegger yet so Arnold was Conan in my head). I was trying to figure who was going to be there or what movie it was going to be there. It never occurred to me to ask Dad till a few minutes later or to read the news paper where the cast and crew had taken a double page ad asking for our co-operation and thanking us for our support.

We drove for about another 40 minutes more. I could not help saying "Are we there yet?" a few times as we got closer. Finally I asked " where is there?" Dad said "I am not sure; it's either one of these tea estates or an open paddy field in the flat areas."
After driving a little while longer we notice a whole bunch of trucks (more than 50) littering the area and some of he trucks contained stuff that was not from Sri Lanka. There was a bit of a crowd in the area and the largest number of obviously foreign individuals I had seen in Sri lanka (outside of the 5 star hotels in Colombo).

It was in the midst of a tea estate and Dad said "follow my lead" and we parked the car a long distance away and started walking towards the hubbub. I was of course carrying his whiskey and Soda. And at this point I had sampled some of the whiskey.

The crowd consisted of a lot of Americans, A smaller group Caucasians speaking with a pommie (British) accent, a bunch of the local film crew, estate workers, kids and of course some vendors hawking local snacks and a few others trying to sell everything from post cards to genuine Sri Lankan snake oil (Genuine Sri Lankan Snake oil is products that you can buy at govt sponsored indigenous arts and crafts center for 99% percent less than what the street vendors would charge).

Then I heard the elephants snorting and I could not see. So I say to Dad loudly " Dad! I cant see shit!". The second I said "Shit!" all the foreigners that were there looked in our direction and smiled. And then I asked Dad "Anyway who are we here to see?" Dad said " Indiana Jones" I was speechless for a second and then dad took the bag with the Whiskey and soda from my hands and said "Here get on my shoulders" and lowered himself. I climbed on his shoulders and looked. And there I saw two people dressed up as Indiana Jones!

One Indiana Jones was sitting on top of a Tusker ( Tusker a male Indian Elephant with tusks) and the other guy was standing about 15 feet from the elephants (there were two other Elephants, a large female and a baby). The other two Elephants had a blonde lady and what looked like an adult midget. took me a while to figure it out. But it was Harrison Ford on top of the Tusker and the stunt doubles on the other Elephants. Even though I did not know who they were at the time I now realize that the bearded guy behind the camera wearing a red baseball cap was none other the Steve Spielberg and I am sure George was some where there.

I was on dad's shoulders for 2 hours or more watching the film being shot, about 70 feet from Spielberg and about 40 feet from Indiana Jones himself. I watched the mahouts (Elephant handlers) call orders to the Elephants. The local film crew relating orders from Spielberg to the local actors, and I overheard Harrison Ford saying " No! we are going to do this Now!" Ever so often during breaks in filming, Harrison Ford would look at the crowd and smile. The entire time I was there (a little longer than 2 hours) Harrison was sitting astride the Tusker. I can remember the midget stunt man and the skinny stunt guy exchanging places with the actors. They used an moving gantry with attached ladders to get on and off the Elephants.

Well, after a long while Dad said " We have to leave." He moved away from the crowd and told me to get off his shoulders.

I took one last look at Indiana Jones and got down and walked towards the car. And I could not wait for school to start so I could tell Marlon and Wyndham ( my best friends in school) that "I saw Indiana Jones".

Every time I watch the Elephant scene in The Temple of Doom I remember that day.

---Johann in Sri Lanka, 2011

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