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La Maison des Artes, Mount Lavinia

Photographs by James Fennell.

Tucked down a secluded side-street in the up-market Colombo suburb of Mount Lavinia, a faded turquoise wooden doorway opens the way into the charming home of the Belgian film director Samy Pavel and his Sri Lankan born wife Rishan. Built in the 1850s, the modest townhouse was in a state of considerable disrepair when the Pavels acquired the property in 2001 to operate as a second home.

Restoration commenced immediately. Twelve people worked day and night to strip away the partitions and plastic flooring and extend the property to its present proportions. The Pavels intended it for a simple yet inspiring retreat from the hurly burly of their other life in Los Angeles.

Born in French Belgium, Pavel first made his mark on the international film industry in 1974 when he convinced Ennio Morricone to compose the music for his debut feature, “Les Deux Saisons De La Vie”. Pavel, a former actor, has enjoyed a successful career ever since. His most recent movie, “The Music Garden”, follows the tale of a female Singhalese sitar player struggling to survive in the Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was, of the 1930s. The film won the Gold Award at the Houston Film Festival for Best Historic Piece. The screenplay, written by Pavel, was also singled out for Official Selection at the Cuban International Film Festival.

Combining the colour and flow of Morocco and India, the two-storey property follows an oblique U-shape, built around a small garden, sensually lit by night with Kandyan oil lamps. The house is open to the garden, views encompassing a flourishing bougainvillea and miscellaneous crotton, anthyrium and bamboo. Along a colonnaded walkway to the right, Pavel’s office is a cool secluded room filled with the director’s tools – computers, editing software, sound systems, screens, finders and such like. The office is positioned next to a ground floor bedroom known as the Indian Room. “We sometimes like to sleep here”, explains Pavel, looking bashfully around a flamboyant room bedecked in Indian drapes and murals. “Tres kitsch”, he adds.

The left side of the building consists of a living area and double dining room set on a polished terrazzo floor. The dining room table and chairs were designed by the Pavels and built by Lucina Talib, a friend from France who also lives in Mount Lavinia. Above the dining room doorway hangs one of two large murals acquired from an abandoned Buddhist temple and dating to the 16th century. Ornately draped in red silks, tablecloths, cushions and fabrics from North India and Thailand, the exotic Indian-Moroccan ambience is further enhanced by the presence of a screen from Indonesia and paintings from Madras. And yet the room also carries a Parisian boudoir flavour, encapsulated by French film posters advertising past works by Pate Baroni and Pavel himself. “I personally do not like to have [my] films displayed but in Sri Lanka they love to see awards”, says Pavel with a rueful shrug.

Pavel, a charming, bespectacled fellow, has had a passionate interest in Sri Lanka since he met Rishan in 1994. Although he concedes the pace of life in Sri Lanka’s cinematic world can be somewhat frustrating, his latest work is a controversial TV documentary charting the deeply complex machinations of the Sri Lankan peace process.

Interconnection with people from outside Sri Lanka is assisted by the arrival of guests who can stay in one of five bedrooms above their home. Rishan also operates a small restaurant specializing in Sri Lankan cuisine, and Pavel has lately started teaching one-off acting classes.