C Y Gopinath: Sochi's 15 minutes of fame

Published: Aug 21, 2018, 06:06 IST | C Y Gopinath

A tale of two taxi drivers, one in Siem Reap and one in Mumbai

Illustration/Ravi Jadhav
Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

C Y GopinathHow many people do you know who have had 15 minutes of fame? That short, dazzling interval in which it feels like everyone in the world must know you, envy you, wish they could be you? Are you one? Sometimes it's not even fame, sometimes it's just standing next to someone famous. I was alone in a lift with George Harrison once; he even snarled at me. Another time, I met Sting right outside Cottage Industries near Regal, gave him a poster I'd made for him and got paid Rs 1,000.I've realised that no one wants to die unknown and meaningless. I think more than even riches, people want to be known and appreciated for something. Maybe admired. Arre, tera photo akhbar mean chhap gaya.

I have two stories, both about people who just happened to be taxi drivers, and how they came upon their few minutes in the bright lights. The first, Sochi, lives in Siem Reap, Cambodia, an hour away from Bangkok, where I am. I met the other one, Tarachand, in Kolkata first. But that's next week's story. Since I am allowed only 800 words, you will hear about Sochi today. Sochi was driving my son, daughter and me from the airport into Siem Reap town, not so far from Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat temple. Sochi was the name given to him by the love of his life because she found it difficult to pronounce his real name, Prum Sothearith. Sochi says he will always love her. "I will never love anyone else," he told me.

He calls her his Angie. But you might know her better as Angelina Jolie. The connection started in 2001, when she went there to star as Lara Croft in the cult film, Tomb Raider. A year later, her affair with Cambodia led to her adopting Rath Vibol, her first, and first Cambodian, from an orphanage in Battambang. She bought a house for the child, now renamed Maddox Chivan — a humble home set on a mere 39 hectares of land. Then, just for heck, she bought up the rest of Battambang, too — well, 60,000 hectares of national park anyway, and turned it into a wildlife preserve named the Maddox Jolie project. The King, grateful, gave Jolie honorary citizenship.

Sochi was speaking. "When she came to film her latest movie, First They Killed My Father, she hired me as her personal driver." There was a moment's silence in the car, and then I erupted in unfettered laughter. "Bullshit!" I said pleasantly. "A load of bullshit." Sochi sportingly joined me in the laughter, busted in his scam. It's a long drive to Siem Reap from the airport. After a few minutes, still looking straight ahead, he said, "Open the glove compartment. You'll find a certificate." It was a curled sheet in English and Khmer with signatures. My daughter read it out: "Certificate of Achievement. This document acknowledges the contribution in skill and expertise made by PRUM SOTHEARITH in the making of the motion picture First They Killed My Father, shot in the Kingdom of Cambodia from 19th November 2015 to 13th February 2016."

The leftmost signature was unmistakably Angeline Jolie Pitt. There was also a group photograph of Angie J with her deckhands. Sochi pointed himself out, in a corner in a T-shirt painfully pink. There was complete silence in the taxi now, two awed children and their gobsmacked father. "Please put everything back carefully," said Sochi, without taking his eyes off the road. Driving Miss Jolie around meant a morning pick-up to get her to the shoot. A fleet of look-alike decoy cars would take off together in different directions while Sochi took back alleys only he knew.

He'd wait till evening in his dark glasses, looking a little like Brad Pitt from certain angles. Angie liked her downtime so evenings were at the so-called Pub Street, famous for — you guessed it, Angelina Jolie. On our first evening at Pub Street, we were at the Red Piano, the favourite, legend has it, of Angelina Jolie herself. The rather nondescript cocktail she liked to have there — lime juice, Cointreau, tonic water, ice — is now promoted as the Tomb Raider cocktail. Every 10th one is free, and every 500th one sold entitles you to a T-shirt and $100 in cash. A siren goes off to alert everyone.

Sochi drove us around Siem Reap for three days. He said an interview was out of the question; he had promised Angie he would never make money or fame out of his relationship with her. More specifically, I suspect her Chief of Security may have taken him aside and reminded him about the non-disclosure agreement. However, no one told my daughter that she couldn't quietly take a picture of the certificate signed by Angelina Jolie.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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