Close Encounters with Charles Sobhraj: The Serial Killer, By Oorvazi Irani
Charles Sobhraj with Oorvazi Irani in London – 2002
‘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.
Farrukh Dhondy, Charles Sobhraj and Sorab Irani in London – 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.
Jackie Shroff as Charles Sobhraj – publicity still for the film “Bottomline” by Oorvazi Irani
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.
Sorab Irani, director & producer in talks with the star Jackie Shroff in Mumbai – 2002
Charles Sobhraj meets Jackie Shroff in London – 2002
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.
Charles Sobhraj with Sorab Irani displaying the film poster “Bottomline” in London – 2002
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.
Jackie Shroff as Charles Sobhraj – publicity still for the film Bottomline by Oorvazi Irani
‘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’.
© Copyright and all Rights reserved Oorvazi Irani
©All pictures in this article are copyright protected by SBI Impresario Pvt. Ltd. and any use without prior consent and permission will amount to copyright violation.
First published onthe wesbite http://www.madaboutmoviez.com
Piya Aiso Jiya Mein – A Tribute and Critique to Indian Cinema by Oorvazi Irani
May 23, 2013, 11:14 am
Filed under: SBI Impresario Films Online
| Tags: 100 years of Indian cinema
, feminism and films
, film appreciation
, film education
, film workshop
, guru dutt
, indian cinema critique
, indian cinema tribute
, meena kumari
, oorvazi irani
, Piya aiso jiya mein
Its a joy to share with you my latest short experimental one minute film, a humble tribute and critique to Indian cinema. Please read the interview conducted by MAM (madabout moviez.com) which helps share my thoughts about the idea behind the making of the film and helps put the film in context which might seem apparently simple on first viewing. The interview is right below this film window and please do read it.
MAM interviews Oorvazi Irani, the filmmaker and actress of “Piya Aiso Jiya Mein”
Q: This is an unusual yet original short film. What thoughts prompted this cinematic experiment?
O- A: Primarily there is so much hype around the 100 years of Indian Cinema, I thought how can I make a meaningful artistic comment in a concise manner which is both a tribute and a critique at the same time. Hence this idea was born.
Q: The film seems very simple at the surface and the viewer could easily miss the point, but the work has an interesting thought and is obviously complex with multiple layers unfolding, can you elaborate a bit about the thinking behind the film and the cinematic form you have used? And can we call it a musical?
O-A: Let me start by saying that any work of Art prompts and evokes the viewer to ‘see’, ‘look’ and ‘perceive’ the subject of the work in this case Indian Cinema in a fresh new light – Art takes you intuitively to the heart of the subject while experiencing beauty. More like a poem or a painting. Here for example there is the beauty of the music, the close up of the eternal human face, the eyes which express the inner mental state, the mirror motif etc.
Yes you are right by defining it as a musical as it is the song that drives the film which embodies the emotion and the progression of the film. ‘Song’ itself is a very unique and integral part of Indian cinema which is put into play in my experimental short film and is my chosen mould to explore as an artist.
The film is akin to a love poem with the theme being the ‘quest for the beloved’, however there is a character graph and the protagonist is transformed in the end.The song as you know is iconic from Guru Dutt’s film Sahib Biwi Aur Gulam and I have replaced the image of the legendary actress Meena Kumari and deliberately used my face which is then a universal representative of all females and have taken the avatar of the ‘Nayika’(heroine). I have kept the first lines of the song from the original which I have lip synced and the last section has my voice with the message. The line with the message is my original line camouflaged in the song lyrics. In the process the film begins with paying a tribute to the beauty and charm of Indian cinema and then ends on a note of expressing the desires for change – the liberation of the identity of women in Indian cinema.
Q: The film does not have elaborate sets, locations or characters but is focused on one individual and that too in close-up with just one prop. Were you apprehensive about its appeal?
O-A: No! As I believe an artist needs to set up certain creative limitations, these are the challenges that then help create a unique work. The choices that you make are then what make it special. We see so many films that have big sets and big budgets but maybe do not leave you with a stimulating thought to ponder. The choice of the close-up was because besides it being an important form of the original iconic song itself it helps the filmmaker to draw attention to the beauty and grace of the minute expressions of the face and the emotions are expressed through the language of the eyes which is rare in contemporary cinema.Today I feel more and more that the ‘female body’ has replaced the ‘face’ in songs in Indian cinema stressing the physicality ‘Love as sex’and with this is lost the depth of emotion. The personality of the heroine is more about her sexuality than her as a human being, commoditized. Liberating the role of women in cinema is not just about making her sexually active but instead more about treating her as an individual, giving her gender equality.The Indian women still remains caged in the patriarchal system of oppression –of individual self-worth, and their identity is limited and dependent to the male. This is a strong message that the film subtlety puts out.
Also the close-up was necessary and part of the exploration as the film is dealing with the ‘Shringar Rasa’ (one of the key Rasas in the ancient Indian treatise on Indian art – The Natya Shastra) of union and separation in Love and finally discovering that ‘Self’ and ‘Truth’ is truly finding the beloved. The film is to be understood in the context of the nuances of this rasa where Love is far beyond just physical eroticism but envelopes the beauty of the experience of Love and the movements of eyebrows, eyeballs, sweet glances and delicate smile, along with down cast glances and closing of eyes – is a vocabulary beyond words and the Natya Shastra is rich with minute descriptions of ‘glances’ as a whole exploration – some of the glances for transitory states are Lajjanvita(bashful), Lalita (amorous), Ardhamukula(joy or bliss)which are humbly touched upon in my small experiment besides other aspects.
The simple motif of the mirror in the film plays an integral role and is charged, in it lays the clue of the transformation and discovery of ‘Self’.
Finally an artist creates the work and thus created is an expression of a labour of love, the audience adds their own self to it and accepts and completes it or rejects the work and leaves it as an incomplete communication. I have no problem if the audience cannot identify with my work but I feel the audience needs to understand the context with which the film is to be viewed and then accept or reject it.
Q: And lastly, can you tell us why did you choose this particular Meena Kumari song ?
O- A: Meena Kumari fascinates me as a persona on screen and in real life. She has a very strong presence and her eyes are soulful. She is one of the few actresses who haunt you with her beauty and pathos. Meena Kumari has been an iconic actress during the golden era of Indian cinema. Her persona embodies the ’eternal yearning’ for the beloved both in real and reel life, and I wanted to pay her a tribute by completing her story and liberate her at least in the creative realm with this short experimental film.
First published on madaboutmoviez.com