I was very sad to hear of John le Carré’s death on Saturday. He was one of the creative people in the world I’ve most admired over the course of decades. The power and precision of his words, the empathy and commitment to authenticity, the absence of self-congratulation or need for ostentation put him, for me, in a rarified group with Hemingway, Graham Greene and Orwell.
When I was making my documentary film about the pharmaceutical industry, Fire in the Blood, I got it into my head that I desperately wanted him to see it and hear his thoughts. I knew that after writing The Constant Gardener he had become an outspoken and (of course) highly articulate critic of the “Barons of Basel” (as he referred to “big pharma”) and their deeply inhumane practices.
I asked around and got in contact with his agents in London and then his assistant, who told me that he was out of the country on the sets of the latest film adaptation of one of his novels (he always insisted on being present and available when a movie based on his work was being made, even at advanced age). I was asked to send the DVD of the rough cut of my film, which I did, and then more or less forgot about, not expecting much to come of it.
A few months later his assistant called me to say Le Carré had watched my film and written me a note, and he wanted to know where to send it. I gave him the address and he had it couriered over. The “note” was in fact a long handwritten letter, which I read with mouth agape.
Le Carré apologised in case I found his writing hard to read, but said he only ever wrote in longhand (it was dated a few days before his 81st birthday). I can honestly not recall receiving a more beautiful letter: humble, funny, penetratingly insightful, but also so beautifully constructed and composed, with no corrections or even the tell-tale signs of hesitation one sees when fountain pen strokes thicken at moments of pause.
The gesture of an iconic, world-renowned author taking the time to write me, a complete stranger and consummate nobody whom he had never met (and would never meet) such a letter honestly moved me beyond words. It was wonderful to know such people existed, and exist.
Beyond which, the force of conviction, resolute and unwavering sense of justice, compassion and humanity which rang through his words, the indignation and outrage he so obviously still felt when articulating his thoughts on the issues dealt with in the film were immensely inspirational for and profoundly meaningful to me.
I thank him for reminding me what character means, and I will remember him as a supremely talented, generous and empathetic human being who made the world a far better place than it would have been without him. My only regret is that we never got to meet.
Rest in power, John le Carré (as David Cornwell styled himself in his books).
Dylan Mohan Gray is a Mumbai-based filmmaker.