‘A filmmaker’s role is to probe reality not imitate it’
Any work of cinematic art is based on reality in some way or the other, more so if you choose to make a film on a real person – none other than the infamous serial killer Charles Sobhraj – it can prove to be exciting times and also dangerous times. What is the relationship of such a film to the real world, how does the film go beyond mere dramatizing facts and get elevated to delving on the human condition.
My company SBI Impresario Pvt. Ltd, which was incorporated by my dad, Sorab Irani in 1975 was probably the only Indian Company to buy the Option of the Film Rights from Charles Sobhraj of his memoirs ‘The Aftermath’ through his legal Literary Agents ‘Curtis Brown’ of London in 1998.
What is it about Charles Sobhraj’s life and crimes that is so fascinating to the public, filmmakers and writers in India and worldwide? What is it about evil, about serial killers, con men that catches our imagination as an audience? The answer probably lies in the conditioning of our minds today, our cynicisms, our uncanny willingness to readily believe more in the negative then the positive in people and stories and is it not true that a bite of the forbidden apple is infinitely more alluring and exciting compared to the experiences of our existentialistic mundane daily lives. We are bored, we wish to escape. So we fantasize, we want to flirt with danger, walk on the wild side, experience the adrenaline rush, secretly indulge ourselves, safe in the knowledge that it’s only fantasy. When this is collectively expressed in society it leads to our fascination of crime, murder and evil. We are crossing the line albeit in our imagination and however briefly we are identifying with evil. These were the thoughts that preoccupied my mind way back when I started working on our film project “Bottomline” and I feel are still relevant today.
Unlike other famous or rather infamous serial killers, Charles Shobhraj is alive in flesh and blood today, add to that his cunning and his ability to be one step ahead of the police of many countries, manipulate laws and people to achieving his own ends, with such ease and panache, all this put together paints a formidable portrait of a living criminal legend and a man who will remain an enigma. The making of a film is a great life enriching experience and the very process can become an integral part of the filmmaker’s life and live on with him or her even more then the effect the completed film may have on the audiences who have the prerogative to move on after viewing the film. As a filmmaker you journey into the world outside as well as your space within and each step takes you closer to the truth and these experiences linger on in life forever. This film took me to the doorsteps of Charles Sobhraj in the summer of 2002. What I intend to do here, is share my reflection of that journey as a filmmaker, as an artist, but above all as a human being.
We had signed up Jackie Shroff to play Charles Sobhraj for our film project “Bottomline”. Jackie was very excited and very keen to meet the man Charles in person. Reasonable request if he had to bring to life the persona of Charles Sobhraj on the silver screen. So we set out to London to meet the man – Dad, Jackie and myself. The meeting between Jackie and Charles was memorable. Charles was in awe of meeting a real Hindi Film Star who had come all the way to London just to meet him. Jackie was humbled and awestruck by the gentleness and unassuming nature of Charles, and needless to say it was a great picture opportunity.
The meeting was formal at first but later moved into other areas, but Jackie did not ask any telling questions. He later told us that he had so many questions in his mind but being in Charles’s presence, face to face, with the man himself, he said he just wanted to soak in the moment and leave the questions for later. I was also a like a silent witness observing. Dad was conducting the show making them both comfortable. Charles told us later he was happy with Jackie and that he would suit the role. Jackie like any other star for that matter was most excited and indeed grateful to Dad for the opportunity to essay the role of Charles and considered it a big break for him as an actor and a star.
Memories are never always in a chronological order, certain moments and incidents remain etched in your memory and others fade away. Maybe what remains and why is significant and itself tells a story. Besides the formal meeting another interesting experience of being with Charles was that of being driven by Charles in his car and circling the streets of London for a long time to find an address. Like everyone else in London who would refer to the great London ‘A to Z’ Charles would have nothing of it, he wanted us to believe he knew London as the back of his hand, while it was obvious that we were lost. It’s not the image I had of a serial killer. His misadventure was making us late for an appointment and after a point; he himself seemed to be a bit embarrassed. I was however sort of enjoying the ride and he several times, like we do in India, stopped to ask individuals on streets for directions to get back on track. I guess an Indian habit of sorts.
Strangely we were very confident that no harm would come to us in the company of Charles, we even asked him to make basic arrangements for our stay while we visited him in London, to then move on to Paris. But to our surprise we had no room booked in London to spend the night before we head for Paris by road. It was evening when we were told this but Charles was unruffled, he said no problems in his confident style, he said we could go to his Club and spend the few hours comfortably. We agreed. His Club turned out to be a big gambling Casino in London. He drove in with style and everyone seemed to know him as he seemed a regular customer and spent a lot of money in the Casino. We went in and by now his Chinese wife had joined us. The reason he dismissively gave us was that there were no room bookings available. Dad and Charles spent time at the various gambling tables of Blackjack, Roulette while his Chinese wife and I snoozed a bit, grabbed a bite had many cups of coffee and even went out in the cold for a stroll on the deserted streets around the Casino area to stretch our legs.
Around four am it was time to head to the White Cliffs of Dover from where we would take the ferry across the English Channel and land in France. It seems like just yesterday and I cannot forget the words that Charles spoke to me that night in the car and the impact that it had on me. Having not slept most of the night, dad and Charles’ Chinese wife were taking the opportunity to snooze and catch up on rest. At a particular point while driving the car, Charles looks at me from the rear mirror and announces. “Oorvazi, please don’t go to sleep on me, give me company to stay awake”. At that instant I felt obliged and conceded to his request like I would, to a long standing friend and kept awake keeping him company. It was not the fear that he would drive us to some weird place but actually the humanness of the request that struck me and on reflection my response to a serial killer was no different than that to a friend I would oblige. There was no great chatter that I can remember but a silent bonding that I had entered into with Charles and that was sufficient to keep us both awake and take us safely to Dover, not to forget the detours we had to take owing to Charles taking confident wrong turns and getting lost on the way which of course made the journey more tiring. Like a true Frenchman he would keep complaining about the British and all things English and said France was great- I guess the old historic rivalry between the two nations was somewhere still very much alive in Charles, the Frenchman. Thankfully with the breaking dawn we reached the ferry station in Dover in time for the first ferry out, had a wholesome breakfast of beans, eggs, and bacon while we waited for the ferry to depart and soon we were on French soil. To Charles’s credit, he did not get lost even once when in France and made the journey from the ferry terminal to Paris in excellent time. In Paris we did have a decent room booked for us, but there is a story to it, but that later.
We were shuttled to appointments set up by Charles in the up market real estate area in Paris to meet some French producers and his lawyers. Thanks to Charles the schedule was so hectic that I did not even get the chance to visit the Eiffel Tower (this was my first visit to Paris), but of course I was not there on vacation and that was least of my priorities. Charles was a good host to us and treated us well but I cannot forgive him for making me sick of Chinese food back then, as he repeatedly fed us lunch and dinner, day in and day out, only Chinese and no other cuisine, in the busy China Town area of Paris.
Now this is dramatic, one day in Paris we were almost arrested, no not for a crime of any great proportions but for speeding and not wearing seat belts. We were hauled up by the cops and asked to accompany them to the nearby police station. This was a tense moment as we were in the company of a killer and his criminal past could not be dismissed. And to add to the tension we have Charles’s Chinese wife showing open contempt of the French police in her tone and a loud voice, which made me panic a bit and I wanted to secure my safety from this rather trivial situation which seemed to me could go out of hand. However thankfully we were let off with a fine and a warning and allowed to go.
Charles is famously known for the charm and the power of his attraction that women feel towards him. So meeting his two competing wives vying for his time and attention was me being introduced to a very interesting and significant part of his life and his personality. They both probably played a very important role in keeping him afloat financially. His young vivacious Chinese wife was very street smart and very much her own person obviously as a result of her fight for survival as an immigrant in the hostile foreign environment of Paris. A very important part of her story was that she had borne Charles a lovely girl child which Charles seemed to be terribly fond of. But in Paris I was introduced to Chantal his older, senior wife, if I can refer to her as that. What struck me about Chantal was that she seemed so soft spoken and cultured, so warm and artistically bent that I was wondering what she was doing with a serial killer and had to remind myself about her involvement in his criminal past. Also what intrigued me even more was that after the release of Charles (a long 20 years or so, during which she had remarried and built a new life) she abandoned her current husband and daughter and returned back to Charles. What was it, true love? Can a man like Charles claim that level of affection; was it some unfathomable kind of one sided love, bordering on what is now termed as ‘Love Addiction’? Or just plain and simple sexual attraction? Next morning as if teasing and perplexing me further, I opened my eyes in our hotel room, in front of my bed stood Chantal and Charles just looking at each other like a young couple in love, no physicality just the silent language of the eyes. It just felt so beautiful. But was it a façade or real, the mystery lives on. I reminded myself to drop it -that he is a serial killer and I am in dangerous company. But for me the greatest charm of Charles was that he made me feel totally at ease, and I forgot the criminal in him, he felt like my neighbour next door.
Let me now tell you, I was sleeping with the killer. Now don’t jump to conclusions with your perverted mind (which I nudged you to explore) it was nothing like it sounds. There were three beds for each one of us, Dad, Charles and myself and no one got up till morning and all three of us had a sound sleep. But yes I did realize on after thought why we were booked in a room with three beds, so the reason given earlier by Charles was just a cover up, that only a three bed room was available, actually Charles wanted to be with us and it seems to avoid both his wives, it was all planned in advance so neatly – no one was the wiser. But all is well that ends well and I was safe and sound back in Mumbai working further on making the project a reality which for reasons which hold their own merit, the film is still under production and not yet made.
‘Fact is stranger than Fiction’ – real life is a rich goldmine for a filmmaker. A close observation of real life and people helps you probe reality and take your film to a deeper level. When you are dealing with real life characters what is necessary is to go beyond the façade of the public image of the person and see what clues real life have to offer, to go beyond the surface. The film “Bottomline” I was working on was never intended to glamorize a serial killer but instead explore the social phenomena of ‘Redemption’ the institutions of ‘Social & Legal Justice’ and ‘Society’s social & emotional response to crime & criminals’.
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