On the Kohinoor's commute
A jewel that India and Pakistan have sparred over is inspiration for a hit Bollywood director-writer to pen his first novel mixing imagination with history and mythology
Back in 2016, when Indian Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar announced that India would not seek the return of the Kohinoor, the most prized jewel to have escaped our shores as a gift to the British royalty, filmmaker Rensil D'Silva was busy writing a story, which stemmed from a not-so-very-innocent premise: What if someone was to steal it?
The thought stayed with the director of Saif Ali Khan-starrer Kurbaan for years, spurred initially by a visit to the iconic Tower of London, a guarded fortress, where the Kohinoor was on display. "I started researching about the castle, its terrain and the security," he says. He discovered that it was the most guarded place in the world. He says the walls of the jewel room are made of a steel alloy and can resist a nuclear attack. And the elite British commandos are on 24/7 duty.
Instead of writing a piece of fiction around the impossible, D'Silva, who is best known for the screenplay for Aamir Khan-starrer Rang De Basanti, and Student of The Year, began writing a story for a film. It was about the covert mission of 1850, when Governor General Lord Dalhousie decided to gift Queen Victoria the legendary Kohinoor, to celebrate his victory in the Third Sikh War. As history documents, the diamond, a spoil of war, travelled from Punjab to Bombay, from where it was shipped to Britain. D'Silva's drama unfolds on the train in which his Kohinoor travels to the port city.
Rensil D'Silva. Pic/Ashish Raje
Planning to ambush this train are a bunch of Indian revolutionaries, who know something that Dalhousie doesn't—that the Kohinoor is the 5,000-year-old Syamantaka diamond. "When I read out the screenplay to Karan [Johar] after we did Kurbaan, he told me it had better potential as a book. He felt that a three hour-long film wouldn't do justice to a story of this scale. This was the time before web series became the rage," he remembers. The result is Kohinoor Express (Tranquebar, Westland), a historical novel that weaves in mythology, marking D'Silva's debut on the literary scene.
"I did not tamper with history while writing this book. Captain James Ramsay was indeed tasked with the responsibility of transporting the jewel safely to Britain. And the mission was a big secret," says D'Silva, who pored over every bit of research material available on the Kohinoor's epic journey. The archives at the Tower of London, he says, was a great resource.
The pacy narrative comes into play, when he brings in the revolutionaries to throw cold water on British plans. "Here, I have borrowed from mythology," he adds. Legend has it that the Kohinoor was actually the lost Syamantaka stone, a jewel that originally belonged to Surya, the Sun God, and in 3,200 BC, Lord Krishna got hold of it from Jambavan (half man-half bear) after combat. "The stone is said to have resurfaced in Baburnama [memoir of the founder of the Mughal empire, Babur].
But, as you dig deeper, you realise that the story of the jewel is far more complicated. It has a cursed history. Only women can wear it. All the men who have worn it, especially the Mughals, have died a terrible death, be it Babur, Humayun or Shah Jahan. There was also a cholera outbreak on the ship on which the Kohinoor travelled, and many people are said to have died [in it]," says D'Silva.
Before he earned a name for himself in Bollywood, he was a well-known ad man. Back in 1996, he had written a collection of 13 short stories. "But the publishers rejected them. They said, short stories don't sell," he recollects. Nearly 10 years later, he found his calling in the movies, and writing a book felt like a dream shelved. Until Johar suggested the idea of a novel. But, it wasn't a piece of cake, says D'Silva, who took over four years to complete it. "I couldn't have started writing it without collecting enough material. And, there were no assistants around to help me with it."
D'Silva would sit down to write at 11 pm after returning from the set. The novel, he says, taught him about focusing on the tiny details. "Your characters develop slowly, there is a lot of internal monologue and most importantly, the language requires thinking. Every sentence matters."
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