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Now on an academic mission

His oeuvre of films is impressive, so are the awards. Yet he left it all to promote education. He was in India recently in this regard. Sir David Puttnam in conversation with SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY.

Pic. by Rajeev Bhatt

REFLECTING ANOTHER FACET: Sir David Puttnam, film producer turned Chancellor of UK's University of Sunderland.

LORD DAVID Puttnam is an old knight now. And he has gladly left behind his shining armour, the impressive oeuvre of Hollywood movies that showered on him no less than 26 Academy Award nominations and 10 awards, 10 Golden Globes, Palm d'Or at Cannes, two David Donetellos, 68 BAFTA nominations and 25 awards.

Now at age 64, Sir David is on an altogether different flow. Education. Far away from the stream of filmmaking. In the capacity of the Chancellor of UK's University of Sunderland, he is these days promoting among other things academic, distance learning in regions as far as Africa and India.

``Before touching Mumbai recently, we were in Kenya for the graduation ceremony of our University. It is so encouraging to see students in these countries already realising that education is the key to a better world for them,'' says Sir David, one of Europe's famed school drop-out.

``Yes, for me, school was never a pleasant experience. As my father was fighting the Second World War, I was the only male member of the family. So, I had many things to take care of than attending classes. And when he returned, I was busy playing the role of a peace-maker in a house which had a man who had seen too much of horror in the war,'' he relates. And yes, the day he left school, his teacher announced, ``This boy had smiled through his days here.''

Changing tack

``I hate having a boss. I hate fear for anything,'' he pads up his argument for changing the course of his life from the obvious routine of school and college. And true to his words, this Londoner always believed in constant change of tack. So, shifting from filmmaking to education is not something uncharacteristic for him.

Way back in 1968 when he got into moviemaking, he left the world of advertising that he played with for a decade.

Soon after making the Oscar-winning "The Mission" in 1986, he left active filmmaking to take over as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Columbia Pictures, the only non-American ever to run a Hollywood studio.

And when he left the post after a tumultuous two years, Sir David returned to his roots — London. On another mission. To ``give a structure'' to the British film industry, joining hands with fellow stalwarts like Richard Attenborough.

``In hindsight, I think we really did well in trying to give a structure to the British film industry. It has a film council now; it has an official budget, we have facilities to train actors. The government is directly responsible for the running of the film council,'' as he counts the points on his frail fingers, the pride of this `responsible renegade' brims over.

Taking a shot at days gone by, Sir David, with that gentle grin as a shield, the long, curvy tresses adding an allure to it, replies to the obvious question, `Why does the maker of great films like "The Chariots of Fire," "The Killing Fields," "Midnight Express," "Local hero," "Memphis Belle," "The Mission" and "Bugsy Malone" is no more doing what he did best?

``In today's condition when Hollywood is suffering from a lack of ambition (to rise above the ordinary ) I don't think I will be able to do what I want to do. So, I said quits. I don't want to be pointed out in a crowd and said, look at him, he is struggling now but once he made some good films,'' declares the aging Knight.

Not a votary of making ``films that are not commercial enough,'' he talks of ``a stink'' that Hollywood smells of now by ``ringing stories around a star than doing the opposite.''

``The failure rate of films across the world has always been high. Only a few films in a year do well. Creativity and close to reality films hardly go unnoticed,'' he comments. Though, he thinks 2004 was a good year for cinema. ``I loved many a films this year including the Best film, `Million Dollar Baby.' This convinces me even more that commercial ventures can be good cinema too,'' says Sir David. His "The Chariots of Fire" was judged the Best Film in 1981.

``A good film has to take (the) audience by surprise. One should feel intrigued by what's on the screen. I feel `The Chariots of Fire' worked because it could surprise the audience,'' says the Chevalier.

Even while making "Bugsy Malone," "The Mission" and "The Killing Fields" with ace director Allan Parker, he says, ``We had the option of doing a bad version of it and yet we did not go ahead with it.'' And probably because of it, he had made the controversial comments as the CEO of Columbia Pictures that he did not want to make films like "Rambo" despite its commercial success.

Gut feeling

``Also, as a filmmaker, you should always trust your gut feeling. You should be honest with your medium. I always had a hunch that all these films I made would work. In 1977, when we were making `Agatha,' we suddenly felt that it was going nowhere and we packed up,'' says the man, whose first film as an independent filmmaker, "Melody," failed to attract the audience.

Among all his movies, on looking back, he thinks making "The Killing Fields" was a hard task. ``That was my most difficult film. The subject was tricky. However, we completed it in just two weeks.''

Rambling more on the life lived, Sir David changes course, now to talk about his research on Thomas Alva Edison for a book that he wrote on the contribution of electricity to filmmaking. ``And I grew to dislike this man,'' he gives yet another example of his ``gut feeling.'' Although you might not always agree with him, the ease of expression laced with a smile will make it difficult for you to disagree.

You might not like this handsome old man sitting in front of you, yet you have to find reasons to hate him.

You might not want to live the life that he has, on the terms that he has set for himself, but you just can't help admiring him for doing so.

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