Filmwallas are a common sight in the lobby of the JW Marriott in Juhu—an office for producers and actors by day; a haunt for TV and movie stars by night.
The afternoon I wait for director Shekhar Kapur to arrive for our second interview in two weeks, fashion photographer Atul Kasbekar’s camera is clicking furiously, trying to capture a young man’s best profile by the hotel’s pool (an aspiring star for sure; my Bollywood meter is usually bang on). Old, familiar faces from television serials talk shop with producers over endless cigarettes. Actor Kajol, accompanied by her daughter and with a sling bag full of swimming gear, walks straight into the private pool area.
After a half-hour delay (which the executive secretary warns me of well in advance), Kapur arrives. He is in a slightly faded, black cotton shirt with vegetable dye prints on it (Fabindia, he later confirms), cotton trousers, a black cotton jacket slung over his shoulders, and a pair of ageing floaters.
Sixty-two-year-old Kapur is an old resident of Juhu, and an old, celebrated member of the Mumbai film industry, so he isn’t an outsider at this quintessentially filmi hotel. But he isn’t at home either.
As he soon tells me, putting a spoonful of cappuccino froth in his mouth, Juhu isn’t the same anymore. The one he belonged to, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was different: “There was no filth, we could go into the beach. The industry was smaller, people hung out together in their beach bungalows, there was a sense of camaraderie.” About Juhu of the 1980s, Kapur writes in his blog: “…Of Kabir and Protima Bedi’s house. Little babies called Pooja and Siddharth. Running around in diapers. Mahesh Bhatt preaching Godhead and nirvana. Parvin Babi sitting in a corner smiling benignly, smoking whatever anyone smoked those days…And who else? Occasionally Smita Patil.”
As our conversation progresses—slowly at first, because his words are measured, to the point, spoken in a voice barely loud enough for my digital dictaphone to capture—nostalgia about Mumbai and Juhu, where his creative journey began, gives way to his hectic present. This is a slightly confusing stage of his life, often difficult for Hindi film insiders and journalists to understand.
For the past 10 years, Kapur has made London his home. In 1994, the director surprised everyone by making Bandit Queen, a film based on a book by Mala Sen on dacoit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi. It got him instant laurels. Hollywood beckoned, and he left.
I meet a man partly seasoned in the structured, disciplined ways of Hollywood, and looking beyond it.
Kapur is in India for the long haul, and has a lot on his mind. Until we met, Kapur was, for this writer (an indiscriminate film lover, capable of appreciating Sanjay Dutt, Kamal Haasan, Jack Black and Sean Penn with equal enthusiasm) India’s only truly crossover director—going by the most popular usage of the word ‘crossover’.
His career graph explains it: A disastrous attempt at stardom in forgettable romantic films under the banner of his maternal uncle, Dev Anand’s Navketan Films (among them was Ishq Ishq Ishq, 1974, arguably the worst film Anand produced); a foray into television, where he got to prove his acting talent with serials such as Udaan (1990) during Doordarshan’s heyday; a model for commercials (remember Digjam Suitings?); his famous debut as a director with Masoom (1983) and then Mr India (1987), a box office sensation; Bandit Queen (1994), which earned him recognition from the world; and then his last three feature films—Elizabeth (1998), Four Feathers (2002) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) with Talking Pictures, a London-based production house that makes Hollywood films.
It is a “crossover” story in every sense. Each of these phases are stories of new beginnings, new experiments.
But it is safe to say that for Kapur, film-making now is only a crucial, very special part of his creative universe. He is more a creative entrepreneur.
Kapur is in the process of roping in strategic investors for a $1 billion (about Rs4,300 crore) private fund for creative work in digital technology in South Asia. He says the Singapore government (for gaming and animation) and China’s Hina Group, an investment banking and private equity group, are already on board and he is in talks with some Indian companies as well. “This fund will not look at film-making, because I believe that the next big splurge is not in Bollywood or Hollywood; it’s in the world of the Web—to tell stories that are immediate, that can hook you in your cellphone. This fund will aggregate together content creators and technology from Asia. I want to be in creative control from the time content is made to the gatekeeping stage and then distribution. Professionals will only manage it.”
Kapur already has two characters in mind for a story that will unfold in your cellphone if the fund is successfully raised, and channelled: “an ordinary girl and her travails through life, and perhaps an animal.” After being the creative head of Virgin Comics, the company Kapur formed with Deepak Chopra, a close friend, this is the film-maker’s second big jab at mass media. Among other ideas (“I’m working on five more things that you have no clue about, and I can’t tell you”) that he is flirting with is a Twenty20 kabaddi tournament, only for Indian television. His reasons for thinking up the last are obvious, but the vision to execute it and, to an extent, generate the funds for it, is still fuzzy.
What gets someone who has followed Kapur’s journey since the early 1990s curious is: How does a gifted storyteller whose characters have stayed on in India’s collective memory manage to multitask, let his imagination run in five directions and yet focus on one thing—the second draft of the script for Paani, a feature film which Kapur conceived 15 years ago, and which, he says, is his “No. 1 priority right now”.
So, my next question to him is: What is the one sensibility or world view that defines Shekhar Kapur? “I have asked myself that question many times,” he says, then goes into a long pause (there were many in the two interviews). “This is a world that is increasingly exciting and increasingly allowing you opportunities and goading you to explore these opportunities. You can’t but be a multitasker. But ultimately, my core is that of an unquenchable, unstoppable storyteller. People are coming in to the fund because I’m telling them the story of the future, of Asia’s future creators, its technology and creativity. The story of reverse cultural colonization is my story, and it manifests itself in all my ideas.”
What he says takes me back to an interview that actor Cate Blanchett gave soon after Elizabeth: The Golden Age released. She had said: “This film is a bit of the colonies’ revenge, in that you’ve got an Indian director and two Australians portraying these incredibly iconic English figures. You can trample around in the concepts of what the monarchy is.” It doesn’t get more counter-colonial than that.
Sundown soothes the Marriott’s scorched pool area outside the café’s glass walls. The photography shoot with the aspiring star continues. The human chatter inside the café becomes more audible than in the afternoon, and as we order our second round of coffee, many drop by our table to say “hi” to Kapur—a fashion designer, actors, friends. The last one to come up is the brother of choreographer-turned-director Ahmed Khan, who directed Fool ‘n’ Final, a film starring Shahid Kapoor. Khan, Kapur later tells me, was one of the child actors in Mr India along with actor Aftab Shivdasani. “How is Ahmed?” the Mr India director asks the brother. “Ask him to drop by sometime.” The brother proudly informs Kapur that Khan is finishing his first feature for Yash Raj Films, enquires about Kapur’s last film (“What was it about?”; “We’re very proud of your Hollywood achievements”), and says bye.
This short encounter is a perfect transition to the world of his films—what made Kapur famous and what the world judges him by.
Kapur is known to be a finicky director who spends days rehearsing a scene and waiting for hours for the right frame and shot to materialize. Indian producers have often found that alarming, because, as Kapur himself says: “In India, labour and time is easily available and cheap, but film stock is very expensive. In the West, the material is cheap, but labour is respected and comes at a price. The manpower and talent get more respect.” His approach to directing, he says, is informed by his experiences as an actor: “Someone who knows exactly what he wants from a performance, but is compassionate and liberal enough to let actors develop their roles.”
Seema Biswas, a new recruit from Delhi’s National School of Drama when she was chosen to play Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen, recalls being sick for days because of what she had to project in front of the camera. But she says that although Kapur was just two films old, she could trust him completely. “His commitment was out in the open, you could not only see it in the way he was directing us, but you could sense the energy on the sets.”
The script of Paani, Kapur’s current preoccupation, has been developing slowly; he announced the film five years ago, before Elizabeth: The Golden Age released. The story is set in 2020, when Mumbai is divided into two cities, one above a mammoth flyover that sucks all the water that’s left in the city and away from the lower city, where labourers and immigrants live. It ends in a life-altering clash of these worlds.
“We all know that water is the next oil. In the characters of Paani, you’re likely to see yourself 10 years from now when water will be a commodity,” Kapur says. The fruition of a story that has been marinating for 15 years is a slow, painful process, but Kapur isn’t going back to the Hollywood studios soon. “I don’t know when I’ll go back there,” he says, without any hint of regret or remorse. This stint at home also involves holidays with his eight-year-old daughter Kaveri.
Kapur’s assistant, 23-year-old Aditya Shah, was recently sent out to shoot in parts of Mumbai where water is scarce. Kapur, a passionate blogger (www.shekharkapur.com/blog), has put up the video on his site. Shah says: “Shekhar would narrate a scene to me and ask me what problems might arise while it’s being shot. On another day, I would get a different question on the same scene.” As with most of his projects, Kapur hasn’t given himself a deadline for finishing this script.
Remi Adefarasin also talks about Kapur’s need to involve people in his creative process. The London-based director of photography, who lit up the Gothic sets and outlandish costumes of both Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age and made their frames look like giant frescos in motion, says: “During pre-production, he spoke to us a great deal. Not about hard facts, but about how to approach our work philosophically. It was truly inspirational and the most unique thing about working with Shekhar. He didn’t tell me what to do, but where we were going. He’s a master of getting people hooked on an idea.” Adefarasin has been director of photography for films such as About a Boy and Woody Allen’s last, Match Point.
Kapur’s last venture was a short film for a series of love stories set in New York, called New York, I Love You, produced by the late director Anthony Minghella and scheduled to release in 2009. Minghella was a close friend of Kapur’s and before he died, asked Kapur if he would direct the script that he had written for this film and was supposed to direct himself. The experience of filming it early this year, Kapur now says, gave him a sense of déjà vu. “It was worlds apart from the structured set-up of Hollywood studios. The New York independent film world is creatively alive. Everybody pushes the boundaries, there’s an interesting chaos which took me back to my days of making Bandit Queen .”
It’s also an experience that reiterated what he always knew, but had forgotten: “Bandit Queen is my best work. I didn’t work for anyone, there was no preconceived notion of what works and what doesn’t.” Kapur writes in his blog that for Paani he wishes to be the director he was when he made Bandit Queen.
Director Sudhir Mishra, a close friend, says: “It will be very interesting to see what Shekhar makes in India now. He has evolved in many ways, has developed a very unique point of view—one that is Indian in the spiritual sense, but international in sensibility and practice. But I always knew that a person like him wouldn’t do his best in a rigid, hierarchical system.” Both Mishra and Bobby Bedi of Kaleidoscope Films, which produced Bandit Queen, say rather fondly that the best, and sometimes the worst, thing about Kapur is that he is full of surprises.
In the late 1970s, 25-year-old Kapur, a chartered accountant based in London, arrived at his Delhi home one evening and told his two sisters and parents—a paediatrician father, journalist and stage actor mother—that “Dev uncle had a role” for him in his next film and he was going to be a movie star. “The entire family was shattered,” remembers Sohaila Kapur, his younger sister, based in New Delhi. “Showbiz was looked down upon in our family.”
As an adolescent and collegegoer, he happened to be the rebellious one in the family. He grew his hair long, fell in love very often (“for some reason, most of his girlfriends were either European or American,” says his sister), and was always at a party. “And then he surprised us by wanting to become a chartered accountant,” Kapur’s sister says. “Shekhar never got bogged down by choices, he always knew what he wanted to do, and was always happy about it. It’s only now, after his Hollywood success, that I see him anxious, reflective, often listless and also edgy. It may have something to do with the fact that he has had two divorces. Neither Medha, his first wife, or second wife Suchitra Krishnamurthy could cope with the fact that he would go anywhere that his work would take him. Films are his first love. But now I can sense that he is trying hard to make up to Kaveri for being away from her.”
Kapur tells me he’s not dating anyone, but that he can never be cynical about love and intimacy: “Love and sex, they’re the purest forms of religion.”
The listlessness is apparent to anyone who meets Kapur even for a couple of hours. He doesn’t want to analyse it. It could be the multitasking; or the pressure to surprise people with better things; or the search for complete creative control of his projects. He tells me how difficult it is to go back to the corporate studio environment—“at one level, it is very comfortable and at another, it’s like a laboratory.” Externally, at least, Kapur tackles questions about his work and life philosophically. His blog is full of abstractions about work, love, life and politics. I get some oneliners myself, which come across as guruspeak staples:
“An Oscar nomination is like a good hug. It feels good when you get it, and then it’s gone.”
“Fatherhood is the only thing in my life about which I can’t say that I’ve done well or haven’t done well at. Being a father is very confusing.”
“During the process of creation, one has to get rid of one’s individual ego and let the creative ego merge with the universal ego.”
Answering questions becomes an effort for Kapur by the end of our conversation. During that time, many more Marriott regulars stop by; they exchange animated greetings, and almost all part with the same question: “So what are you doing next?” A film called Paani, Kapur says to everyone.
For film lovers, even indiscriminate ones such as myself, that’s good to know. Every time I watch Masoom , I weep. My stomach gets twisted in knots when Phoolan Devi is raped, stripped naked and paraded in her village in Bandit Queen. That fuzzy old-Hindi-film comfort takes over every time Calendar, Mr India, a shrill Seema (Sridevi) and the kiddie gang start their antics in Mr India , perhaps the only Indian film made with a comic-book sensibility. The technical finesse of Elizabeth and its sequel makes me gasp. The story of the “real-life, ordinary girl” on my cellphone? She could do something, too. As everyone who knows him well says, a surprise from Shekhar Kapur is something.