Colombo Stories: Bollywood's finest jet in to the capital of cool

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The Independent Online

Bollywood's hottest young director, Amit Saxena, is filming on location in Colombo, helping to confirm that Sri Lanka's seaside capital is now officially trendy. Since fighting stopped in the civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese, "Coolombo", as it's dubbed, has become the place to be seen.

Saxena owes his fame to his last movie, a ground-breaking, darkly erotic drama called, er, Jism, featuring screen siren Bipasha Basu. English-speakers can snigger all they like: in Hindi it simply means "body". Here they joke that his next effort should be called Schism, a reference to the power struggle between the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and her arch-rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which is overshadowing everything bar the England cricket tour.

"Schism? That would be too scary a movie," chuckled Vikram, a stockbroker sipping tea at the venerable Galle Face hotel. Along with the rest of the Sunday brunch crowd, he was trying to pretend not to be watching every move of the Indian movie stars as Saxena shot a scene beneath threatening monsoon clouds. The director had to keep things moving quickly, because Bollywood's special effects teams couldn't begin to duplicate the colossal booms, shafts of lightning and torrential nightly downpours that the locals call their own personal light show.

The movie is actually a comedy called Double Take, and makes full use of Colombo's vibrant cityscape. "This is a cosmopolitan place, and flourishing right now," Saxena enthused. Instead of the dowdy backwater some visitors expect, they find high-rise shopping malls and girls in low-rise jeans - even the dour-sounding Library TransAsia converts into a nightclub after dark.

Since the signing of a ceasefire with the Tamil Tiger guerrillas in February 2002, curfews have been lifted and roadblocks have all but disappeared. Sri Lankan exiles are returning home, bringing their money with them. Elaborate "welcome back" parties are staged at luxury hotels every weekend, the property market is booming and a cultural renaissance is in progress, as the arrival of Bollywood film-makers shows.

Not since Sri Lanka allowed casinos to open in the early 1990s - and competing establishments fought for custom with free drinks and floor shows - has there been so much excitement here. Colombo's nightlife is buzzing - except on full moon nights, when Buddhist custom bans alcoholic drinks.

Whether the arrival of England's Barmy Army can be seen as part of any cultural reawakening is another matter. But Deshan Tennekoon, one of the city's hippest social commentators, says Colombo is "greeting the invasion with capitalist glee". Draught beer has been laid on; one bar at a five-star hotel is advertising big-screen television and a catwalk show by European lingerie models flown in specially for the weekend. It sounds as if the Sri Lankans know their market.

There is no remedy for dengue fever, which is endemic in many tropical cities, but Sri Lanka's innovative health officials have devised a simple way to eliminate the mosquitoes that spread the disease. Introduce guppies into your water storage tank, says the latest health advice, and shut the lid. The hungry little fish will gobble up any larvae lurking inside, we are told, and the dread "breakbone fever" will be tamed.

We all know what happens when you don't keep a fish-tank clean, though, and fans looking for an excuse for one of England's worst ever one-day cricket performances might find one here. Is it possible that Michael Vaughan and his sorry crew are brushing their teeth in water laced with guppy droppings? If they lose as badly again today, this might merit serious investigation.