Every time Rensil D’Silva visited London, he’d never fail to pay a visit to the Tower of London. But more than the structure itself, what acted as a magnet for the Bollywood filmmaker and author was a precious stone that lay deep in a vault in the Waterloo Block of the Jewel House that houses the British crown jewels – the Kohinoor diamond.
‘I remember reading about and hearing stories about the Kohinoor from the time I was a kid,’ says Rensil, the author of Kohinoor Express (Westland Publications 2019). The novel, part history, part fiction, is set in the mid-1800s and tells the story of the legendary diamond’s fantastic journey from Punjab to Bombay by train before it went on to London by sea to adorn the queen’s crown.
‘There are many tales about how the diamond passed through the hands of several kings and princes in India, before it was taken by the British,’ says Rensil. ‘I found those stories fascinating and every time I visited London, would go on a tour of the Jewel House to admire the stone.’
The director of Bollywood movies including Kurbaan and Ungli and the writer of acclaimed films such as Aks, Rang De Basanti, Student of the Year and most recently the Tamil film Thambi, Rensil admits to having always nursed a dream to tell the story of the 105-carat stone that glistens frequently in the narrative of India’s history.
‘I read up all I could find about the Kohinoor and together with my wife [Chandini] spent some nine years researching about it,’ he says. Apart from relying on online sources and libraries, he also spent hours speaking with the staff at the Tower of London ‘and anyone who had something to share about the Kohinoor’.
The author discovered that Governor General Lord Dalhousie had sent the diamond from Punjab to Bombay (now, Mumbai) via train, but there were few records chronicling the journey itself. ‘I was curious to know what exactly happened during the journey of the stone under the watchful eyes of a certain British Captain named Ramsay,’ says Rensil. The journey of the stone, which is mentioned in Baburnama, the memoirs of Babur – the founder of the Mughal empire – and in several tales related to Persian general Nadir Shah and Babur’s son Humayun, among others, became the starting point of the journey of the book.
When Rensil was satisfied he had enough historical details, he got down to writing. ‘Once I’d unearthed some fascinating secrets about the diamond, I decided to add a bit of fiction to the tale to make it more gripping for the reader,’ says the filmmaker.
Without giving away too much, Kohinoor Express, which is set in 1850, tells the story of the diamond that Lord Dalhousie hopes to gift Queen Victoria. But little known to him and the officers in charge of ferrying the jewel from Punjab to Bombay, Indian revolutionaries are planning to ambush the train and take possession of the famed diamond. A dreaded bandit Ajmera, who is in prison, is one of the few who can help prevent the stone from leaving India. Enter Tara, who has a score to settle with Ajmera, and the plot hots up.
‘The setting was epic, the characters were multi-layered and the scope was immense,’ says Rensil. ‘There were moments when I felt I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But I continued.’
Rensil, however, makes it clear that ‘60-65 per cent of the book is accurate history. I have not tampered with that’. Where he has taken creative liberties with the story is in including the two characters Ajmera and Tara. ‘Plus, the heist that I detail in the book,’ he says.
‘The timeline of my book is so interesting. The first trains were just chugging about in India; the Third Anglo-Sikh war was just over and India of the time was a very different one from what it is now. There were princely states, debauched royalty, mercenaries, the East India Company had moved in... there were truly colourful characters with amazing tales.’
Centuries later, why does he think the Kohinoor still manages to hold such sway over people’s minds?
‘The sheer allure, enigma and mystery, among other things, that the stone seems to possess,’ he says. ‘Among diamonds it’s called the flawless diamond because its pavilion is supposed to be the most flawless one ever seen.
‘Also, it is supposed to have a curse on it – only women can wear it. Apparently Queen Victoria wore it just once and was never allowed to use it again fearing something might happen to her.
‘Men who have dared to sport it have been maimed, tortured and even assassinated. Wars have been fought for it.’
Rensil then shares a conspiracy theory about the rock: ‘Do you know that there is a story that when the stone left India, it was actually 133 carats? But when it was presented to the queen in London, it was only 100-odd carats. So conspiracy theorists believe that the diamond might not even be the original Kohinoor!’
What was the one interesting fact you learnt while researching about the fabulous diamond, I ask.
‘Once, when I was in London, I asked a guard at the Tower of London whether there was even a remote chance of the jewel being stolen. He then gave me a rundown of just some of the security measures,’ says Rensil.
Apparently the glass enclosing the jewels is bomb-proof. And visitors are monitored by more than 100 hidden closed circuit cameras. ‘A troop of elite commandos with highly sophisticated weapons are housed in a bunker just underneath the jewel house. The guard told me “before you even get to six feet from the jewel room [after visiting hours], you will be shot dead”.’
Considered to be one of the most highly guarded places in the world, the doors of the jewel room, according to Rensil, are made of a special alloy that can withstand even a nuclear attack. ‘I found these facts awesome.’
Being a filmmaker first and then an author, did he conceive Kohinoor Express as a movie at the time of writing?
‘Yes, this was supposed to be my second movie after Kurbaan,’ he says. ‘I wrote this in the form of a screenplay and met [film producer and director] Karan Johar. Karan told me it was very large in scope and was better suited for a novel.’
Rather than let the screenplay gather dust in his drawer, Rensil got to work on it, transforming it into a novel.
‘At the time I wrote the screenplay, we did not have streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, but today I think this book will very easily make for a very good OTT platform (streaming media service),’ he says.
In fact Rensil plans to make Kohinoor Express into a mini series as soon as he completes Morya Re – The Ganapati Murders, a crime thriller with John Abraham in the lead that he is working on at the moment.
‘I need some time to get the casting right. Kohinoor Express is like my baby, which I carried for 14 years. I want to give it the biggest scale possible.’
Rensil is keen that his project ‘gets a mounting that is as big as Game of Thrones. People from around the world should take notice’.
Sure it would appeal to a vast audience, he adds: ‘It would also be a great opportunity to showcase Indian culture.’
Kohinoor Express is available on amazon.com.