Film: A self-made man with no sleeping partners

A former furniture salesman is doing the rounds at Cannes - only these days he's selling the stuff dreams are made of, not the beds they're dreamt on.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sartaj Khan is a very modern kind of a movie mogul. ln his LA office, he has a waterbed instead of a casting couch. When he makes a new film, he generally writes it himself, finances it, produces it, directs it, stars in it and then sells it. As often as not, he'll rent a cinema so he can show it too. His first big title was All's Fair In Love And War. Then he made Love And War II. There are posters of the movies in various strategic nooks all over Cannes. Each shows him preening himself for the cameras, looking like a cross between Al Capone and James Bond. He is shown holding a gun. Various bikini-clad beauties hover in the background. "My style is commercial films with an art feel," he explains. "Love and war stories are brash, they're sytlish, they're romantic. That's exactly what the franchise is about."

Khan apologises if he looks a little tired this morning. Last night, he and his girlfriend (who is also the designer on his films) were playing the tables at Monte Carlo and they didn't get much sleep. Tanned, with the handsome but slightly artificial good looks you expect in an afternoon soap opera star, Khan is every bit as flamboyant a figure as any of the characters in his films. Don't ask him about his age, though. "Not even my girlfriend knows that," he frowns.

Although he looks and sounds as if he has lived in Hollywood all his life, Khan arrived in Los Angeles as recently as 1990. His parents emigrated from Nepal to Australia, and before entering the movie business, he worked as a furniture salesman in Melbourne. He ran his own company, called Nightlife Bedding and Forniture. He came up with the name himself, he explains with evident pride. Selling duvets and bedspreads was, he says, a useful grounding for selling movies: during his Nightlife days, he learned the marketing secrets which underpin his current success.

Khan, it seems, was always destined to become a film tycoon. At boarding school in Melbourne, he used to organise illicit trips to the cinema for his schoolmates. He'd take the risks - but they'd have to pay for his ticket. Once they'd seen the films, they'd recreate the most exciting battle scenes in the playground. Khan, of course, was the one calling the shots.

Hawking bedspreads was profitable but not fulfilling. Khan saved up as much money as he could, sold the company and came to Hollywood to make movies. He didn't know anybody in Los Angeles, but forced his way into the film union, took all sorts of jobs, worked night and day and learned the business from the ground upward. In relatively little time, he managed to set up his own company, Star Land Entertainment.

How close is the character he plays in the Love And War films to his own personality? Khan ponders the question for what seems an inordinately long time. "He's a mob guy, ambitious. He's not real a good guy, but he's not a plain bad guy either," Khan says of the character. "He's a combination of good and bad - kind of an interesting character because he has a heart but he doesn't go by the book. "He's a womaniser, he does a lot of things that are immoral." Khan pauses, looking in the direction of his girlfriend who is standing at the far end of the room as if he is addressing his answer to her. "But he's faithful to the people who are loyal to him."

Alls' Fair in Love And War may have been shot on a relatively moderate budget ("under $2 million" is as precise as Khan will get) but it still sounds an ambitious endeavour. There were 103 actors involved, many of them his friends. Shooting took place in 59 locations and there were 535 people working on the film in total. As he reels off the statistics, he sounds more and more like an accountant. The film was a success, enabling him to make a sequel, but he'd killed off so many of the original characters that casting Love And War II was a nightmare. Half way through shooting, Khan was injured in a car crash, but although he was in bandages and could scarcely hold a gun, let alone fire it, he insisted on going ahead. Audiences don't appear to have noticed the difference.

It is easy enough to mock Khan as a latterday Ed Wood. His movies aren't exactly going to win critical plaudits. Given that he always casts himself as the debonair, gun-toting mobster hero, he seems somewhat vain. His claims that he doesn't give himself an undue number of close-ups ring a little hollow. Still, the Brits could learn from him. By doing everything himself, he ensures that any profits made go into his own pocket.

Cannes, Khan proclaims, is the one market on the festival calendar where it is possible to combine business with pleasure. He's an unashamedly commercial filmmaker who gets as big a kick from selling his movies as he does from making them. "You've created something from nothing ... and then you find buyers wanting to pay you a whole lot of money to show it in their country." As he holds court in his suite in the Hilton Hotel in Cannes, you realise that Khan is living out a wish-fulfillment fantasy. There aren't many other Melbourne furniture salesmen who've managed to cut the mustard in Hollywood.