I’d just finished a 19-hour film shoot and was pretty exhausted by the time we wrapped. It was past 3am as we piled into the van that was taking us back to the agency — one of my writers, this client servicing bugger, and myself. It hadn’t been the most stressfree shoot, and tired as I was, my body was tense and I was turning over the next day’s takes in my head — takes that were scheduled to begin at 9am.
The van’s abrupt deceleration snapped me out of my thoughts, and I groaned inwardly as I saw the armed soldier waving us down. Army VCP. I was sitting by the rear door and slid it open before the van had stopped. A soldier peers into the dark interior of the vehicle.
“Any Tamils?” he asks in Sinhalese.
This is the first time I’ve heard this asked at a checkpoint, and the client servicing bugger — Tamil — hands over his ID. The troop looks it over, asks him where he’s from — Ratnapura — and hands the ID back. They’re more interested in my ID, which looks like it’s been through the digestive tract of an elephant thanks to my having gone swimming with it in my pocket, years ago. With a stern instruction to get a new ID, we’re waved off.
A couple of minutes later, the van slows down again — police VCP. Out we get again.
“Any Tamils here?” we’re asked again, in a much more nasty tone. Something tells me trouble’s on the way.
This time the cops ask the Tamil servicing guy for the police registration paper he’s supposed to carry, issued by the cop shed in the area he’s residing in — Wellawatte. He doesn’t have it, and explains it’s expired and he’s waiting for the new one.
The cops then say they’re gonna arrest him and the rest of us can leave. I explain to the cop that we’re all employeed by an ad agency, and I can vouch for the Tamil dude. No chance.
“How do we know he’s not a Tiger?” I’m asked.
Now this guy is in client servicing, and a proper written client brief is about the limits of their skills. Complicated things like explosives and suicide jackets are a bit beyond them. I explain all this, but the cop doesn’t believe me.
Meantime, he calls over his superior, a very nasty looking up-from-the-ranks SI who, in a good-cop-bad-cop way, says that he’s arresting our man now, and I can jolly well bugger off on my way. I try to sweet talk him, and convince them that we’re all just harmless ad types they don’t need to waste time on. People who know me well, will remember that I’ve got a lot of experience with cops, both civilian and military. At this point, good cop asks me if I can cast him in a TV commercial. Now this guy makes Pancho Villa look like Brad Pitt, but I say OK, sure. Things seem to be calming down.
At this point my writer — female, Sinhalese, pissed off — gets into the story and tells the cops that if the Tamil guy’s being taken in, we’ll have to come too, since we can’t just leave a colleague. Bad cop then gets really bad, and says, yeah, sure, we’ll take you all in. He then leans towards my writer and tells her that he’d make her cry tonight. He walks away and Brad fills in the silence by telling us stories of what a big bad bastard his bad cop boss is.
OK then, so I pitch back into Brad and turn on what’s left of the Blacker tact at 3:30am. After a few minutes of negotiations, Brad tells me that for, say, two-thousand rupees he can convince his boss to let us go. Done. Two-thou it is, and bad cop becomes not so bad anymore, and with a sharky grin tells the Tamil guy that it’s nothing personal and they’re just doing their job.
Now, I know that the suicide bomber who blew up the minister in Akuressa today didn’t go through that checkpoint, but I wonder if he or she went through one just like it, and I wonder how much the cops charged. Well, hey, Tigers, if you’re attacking Colombo, there’s a checkpoint I know you’ll find useful. It’ll only cost you two-thousand rupees.