How Sri Lanka Became a Hollywood Filming Destination

When India says no or is too much of a hassle, the island nation has filled the void. But this trend has yet to lead to a boom in local film or film tourism.

Zinara Rathnayake

December 20, 2021

How Sri Lanka Became a Hollywood Filming Destination
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984)

When Steven Spielberg wanted to shoot his 1984 adventure-action film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, his first choice was India. The first thing Sri Lankan filmmaker Chandran Rutnam did when he heard the news was call Temple of Doom co-producer Frank Marshall. Rutnam was living in Los Angeles at the time and had worked at several departments at Warner Brothers. Would they consider shooting in Sri Lanka, Rutnam probed? Frank said that they were set on India. Three days later, Marshall’s agent called back. “‘Do you have a gorge in Sri Lanka?’ he asked me. He said, ‘we are not happy with the choices here and we need one shot of the gorge,’” Rutnam shared. “To be honest, I didn’t know what a gorge was at that point, but I said yes.”

While the crew was building sets in Jaipur, Spielberg flew to Sri Lanka with producer Robert Watts to meet Rutnam, got on a helicopter, and looked for a gorge. He found it beside the Victoria Dam, surrounded by the mountains in Kandy. The same night, Watts received a phone call from a crew member in India. “They said you can’t use the word ‘thuggee,’” shared Rutnam. Half an hour later, another phone call from India relayed that the Indian government objected to several other words in the script.

“I told them you can use all those words here. Any bloody word,” Rutnam said. Watts called his crew in India and told them to stop the construction. He said, ‘we are going to shoot the movie in Sri Lanka.’” 

Spielberg ended up shooting the entirety of the movie in Sri Lanka. But he wouldn’t be the only one. Since Temple of Doom, several foreign filmmakers have chosen Sri Lanka as their shooting location to film movies nominally set in India — Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005), Kolkata-based Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor (1997), and Anurag Kashyap's Bombay Velvet (2015). When India says no or is a hassle, Sri Lanka has filled the void. But having more foreign films shot in Sri Lanka hasn't led to a boom in local film or film tourism — partly due to the island nation's own government.