Aged twenty, Vikram Jayanti (Sc 68-72) watched a film that changed his life. A single image in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Vikram suddenly understood that film was his calling: “There was one shot in it very early on which made me think, if you can do something painterly like that but with motion, then that’s what I want to do.”
Vikram is best known for his high-profile feature documentary portraits of cultural icons: usually individuals of extraordinary accomplishment, such as Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali and Garry Kasparov – and sometimes characters of some notoriety, such as Phil Spector, Rolf Harris, and Uri Geller. His films have won two Academy Awards and two Royal Television Society awards for Best Arts Documentary at the RTS Awards.
His subjects are, in his own words, “larger than life characters, often geniuses, at a moment of tremendous stress in their lives” – an interest he believes stems from the extraordinary and often tumultuous life of his own father, Teja. “I wake up and I think, I’d like to make a film. And then half way through making it, I realise why I’m making it.” [He pauses] “They’re usually about my father.”
The film that typifies this for Vikram is his documentary, The Man Who Bought Mustique. Its subject, eccentric British aristocrat entrepreneur, Colin Tennant Lord Glenconnor bought the Caribbean island in the sixties and turned it into a jetsetter resort for rock stars and royalty in the 1960s. Tennant eventually lost ownership of the island due to poor financial handling.
“He ran out of money. And he was heir to the ICI fortune, so that’s a lot of money. He blew £150 million on his project… He was selling his 9 Lucian Freuds to keep going. He had to sell his ownership, bit by bit to these other guys like Mick [Jagger] and David [Bowie]. And the minute he had under 51%, they kicked him off the island!”
“They only let him own 5 acres of a swamp. The one swamp on Mustique. And so, aiming to use my film to get him his revenge, he throws an outdoor lunch with Princess Margaret in this giant open-air tent he builds there. And Princess Margaret turns up drunk. It’s a hilarious sequence.”
Like his father, Tennant too shares the characteristics of a Shakespearean tragic hero, with a flaw that will ultimately be their undoing. “Because of the way that [Tennant] destroyed all of the good things he had by being over-flamboyant, my family saw the film and said: “Wait. You’ve made a film about our father.”
“Well, he was a grand, larger than life character, who got in trouble. The things that got him in trouble were the same things that made him grand. And I think that at the end of this film with Colin Tennant, you actually think, boy, what a character. He made his own misfortune but the world is poorer for being without him.”
Vikram describes his father as a man of great enterprise and drive, whose exuberance and intellect secured him influence in the highest circles. “He was a particle physicist and an oligarch too, with his own shipping company, and I guess a poet. And he thought of himself as a politician. He had no lack of ambition,” he says. He was encouraged to learn about nuclear physics by none other than Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that the peaceful use of nuclear energy could be transformative for developing countries. But he also suggested Teja learn the fundamentals of capitalism: “The new India would need to know how it works.”
But Teja’s influence bred resentment. “He fell afoul of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi and had to become a fugitive, and so some of the countries we ended up in were as a result of him being on the run.”
Aged 12, Vikram left their US home for England, alone, whilst the rest of his family fled to Costa Rica, seeking political asylum in Costa Rica. “I wanted to go to England and get an education,” he says matter-of-factly. “So, I went to Foyles and bought a book on public schools. I went to about six or seven of them and interviewed the Headmasters in my little tie and suit.” And Tonbridge became his first choice.
“Oh, I loved it. I mean it was home. I think I got the best of a boarding school. I think that much of the eccentricity of 1960s vestigial Victorianism for me was anthropologically interesting. But it gave me a stable life. That’s specifically why I went.”
Despite the stability that Tonbridge offered, Vikram was never too far removed from his less than conventional family life.
“I spent a lot of time trying to be quite invisible. But during my first term there, the Indian Government having seized my father’s shipping company, and set fire to the fleet’s flagship oil tanker in the English Channel of the fleet. It was a fairly big ship in the English Channel. And I got called down to the Junior Common Room where we were allowed to watch television news, and there on screen was this oil tanker called the Vikram Jayanti, on fire, in the Channel, with Navy helicopters trying to put it out… And so, I sat there having suddenly become the most notorious person in the school… It made it hard to be anonymous for a while.”
Vikram’s Lower Sixth year at Tonbridge was spent fighting his father’s extradition to India, where he would eventually be incarcerated for six years. Upon release, Teja spent much of the rest of his life at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN).
It was with fellow OT John Stroud, that Vikram began his first foray into film. “We sent letters to everyone we knew asking for money, and raised enough to buy a camera and set up an editing room. And we made a film.”
“Half way through editing, I saw Scorsese’s first film, Mean Streets, and rushed back and re-cut ours completely. I was at a party with Scorsese years later, and I told him that. And he said – Oh, so I’m responsible for this s**t? And I thought, that’s great.”
“John took his copy to London Weekend Television and was accepted into the Directors Programme. He went on to make the Harry Enfield shows and Spitting Image and stuff like that. I took my copy to America. I didn’t want to be wet and cold anymore. So I moved to LA.”
He has since released more than 60 films, and in June 2013, was awarded membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – home of the Academy Award. And thirty years after their first collaboration, Vikram and John Stroud joined forces again, to create the hit television series The Hairy Bikers.
As a director, Vikram is perhaps best known for his film for BBC Arena: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, about the legendary record producer’s murder conviction. The documentary paints the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend as both a musical genius and troubled individual, soundtracking the murder trial with Spector’s own music, from Be My Baby to Let It Be. TIME Magazine described it as: “The rare psycho-profile you can dance to.”
It was no small feat for Vikram to have convinced Spector to film with him, whilst in the midst of a murder trial, and when already infamously media shy. Uri Geller, also a subject of one of Vikram’s films, described it as being his ‘charisma and charm’ that gets people on board, and I’m sure anyone that’s spent time with Vikram would agree.
“What I do with them is I speak to them emotionally, and as an equal. I talk about myself a lot, which is always embarrassing for my editor. She hears me rabbit on with variations of the same stories she’s always heard. But that makes them share stories. It’s a conversation, not an interview. And then once that happens, and so they get intellectually engaged, all the rest drops away. They stop being on guard. They stop trying to manipulate their image. They become who they really are.”
More cynically, he adds: “Usually the people who agree to do films for me are trying to sell something.”
“[Spector] genuinely believed that he would get acquitted if I made a film for the BBC about him. And at that point I had two films that had won Oscars. So he genuinely thought that the combination of me and the BBC which he, and many people, regard as the world’s ministry of culture, would make the world realise he must be acquitted. And in fact, I think that ultimately the film will help people think that, however much of a dingbat he is, he didn’t kill that woman.”
The honesty with which Vikram gets his subjects to speak can have negative consequences: “Occasionally they fixate on you afterwards and they won’t leave you alone for about 10 years.”
“I don’t think they think clearly about what it means to have a film made about them. And I’m very upfront. I’m very clear with them about what I do and I show them my other work and stuff. But everyone has a film in their own head about themselves. So they imagine if there’s a camera in the room, that it’s making that film. So you can’t tell them. You tell them, but they can’t hear you.”
As for Vikram’s current projects, he is currently working on a novel based on the life of his father.
“I think his life had a tremendous schism between the pure scientist and intellectual, his ascetic Gandhian ideology, and then the luxury of the West, which he conquered in his own way having become fantastically successful and wealthy there. They’re a completely different set of disciplines and I think they were at war with each other. And I don’t think he ever resolved it. I think that might be part of what the book’s about.”
He is also in pre-production on a film with ex-Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore film about climate change?” he asks. “I’ve never done a big political film. And I think inequality is as great a threat to the human experiment as climate change, so I got in touch with Gordon, and he thinks the same. So we thought we’d see if we can make a film. I want to make something epic.”