Thursday, April 7, 2011

Shekhar Kapur

My colleague Meena and I managed to interview Shekhar Kapur the director who directed amazing films such as Elizabeth and The Bandit Queen when he was in town. The story has appeared in the sun today ( April 8, 2011) Here is the link :

Here is the full story

Headline : Shekhar Kapur: A rebel with a cause

THE renowned film director speaks to MEENA L. RAMADAS and BISSME S about his new film on Nelson Mandela, money politics in the Oscars, and more.


You were reported to be making a film on the life of Nelson Mandela. What is the latest happening with it?

That film is in a limbo because the producers and I can’t agree on the script. I want the script to be edgy. I didn’t want to make a biopic on his life. A film has to have a point of view. I felt that we shouldn’t make a film like Gandhi. There was no particular point of view in Gandhi.
Mandela’s life has to be able to be related to our lives. So what part of his life is related to ours? The King’s Speech is about a King who stammers and the stammer makes him human. So what makes Mandela human?
He was a reluctant god … he wanted to be a professional boxer … he was a terrorist before he went to prison. But he came out of prison as a man of peace and changed the world. So what happened?

What kind of script are you looking for?

The script was not angry enough. I kept saying let us have a script as if it was written by somebody who suffered an apartheid, then there would be anger in the script.

Do you think the studios want to portray Mandela just as a hero?

The politics of South Africa, at this moment, is probably not ready for this (an edgy script on Mandela). I don’t care about what the world wants.

Why not just agree to whatever the studio wants?

I do not know how to make films except from a certain point of view. Otherwise, they are just documentaries.


How do you handle criticism?

You have to stand by it. I got into a lot of serious trouble when I made The Four Feather (based loosely on 1902 novel by British writer A.E.W. Mason). It was a racist book. There were three racist films made about it. The Arabs were called fuzzy wuzies.
The book was about how brave the British soldiers were in Sudan. I made a film about how the British army was not supposed to be in Sudan. They (the British media) called me pro-Muslim because I turned a colonial book into an anti-colonialist story.
At that time 9/11 had not happened. So the Americans, who had experienced the Vietnam War, got it when I said the British should not be in a foreign war and they did not belong there. After 9/11, when you talk about jihad, it sounds different. It is an attack on the Western world. So I faced a big problem there, too. They thought ‘this Indian director is using our money to artistically talk against us’. That was a very strong point of view. But my view was the British should not have been there.
Same with Elizabeth. When Elizabeth came out, the whole press in Britain was in uproar and saying: ‘How can you show the virgin queen in bed with a man?’ But her virginity was a political statement and the statement at that time, is you cannot be feminine and powerful at the same time. A woman in power has to take on the garb of the virgin..

How do you reconcile that with the artistic liberties that you take in your films with historical accounts?

History has taken enough liberties by now. I had this big argument on Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Elizabeth gives a big speech at Tilburry to her troops, on a horse, near the seashore. So this question was asked: ‘This weren’t the words she said. Why did you change them?’ So I said, ‘Do me a favour, go to Tillbury, sit on a frisky horse when there is a big wind and try to talk to 2,000 people without a microphone and tell me how many people heard you’.
There is a famous saying all history is interpreted by the victor. If Germany had won the war, we would have had different history books.
Try and tell the Shiv Sena (a right wing political party in India) that Shivaji was not a great warrior but a guerilla fighter, they will kill you. But look at the history books. He was a guerilla fighter. He would come into the villages, raid, and run away. So, history is always an interpretation. So when you make a film you use some fundamental truths about a character.
Elizabeth was a powerful queen and that was a fundamental truth. So I can’t say she was not powerful. I can say she was perceived to be powerful but inside her and in her private life, she was completely depressive.

How did you come to that conclusion?

That is because of my perception of power. Power isolates you. Power causes schizophrenia and I would expect extreme power is pretty schizophrenic. In politics, you are surrounded by people who only tell you things you want to hear and you suspect that they are not telling you the truth. So you become lonely and afraid because you are removed from reality … you are no longer walking the ground … you are no longer in the street.

Do you think the critics were harsh with the film, because they already had an image of the queen and you did not deliver it?

Yeah. The New York Times said Elizabeth was the MTV genre of Elizabethan life. People said, ‘You didn’t talk about the wit of that time. They were very witty.’ But they had wooden teeth. Their mouths stank. You couldn’t stand next to them. They didn’t bathe for a year. They wore wigs with all kinds of perfumed leaves in them to stop the smell. Now tell me, how witty can you be if you are speaking with wooden teeth and you haven’t had a bath for a year.
In fact, in the coronation scene that I cut out (from the film) has them bringing their own piss pots. The courtly women used to get so drunk that the piss pots were put under the table and they used to lift their skirts and pee, right at the table, sitting there.The idea of the American critics is that they were beautiful women who used to get up and just dance. But they just peed over in their dress, man! That was the reality.
The food was cooked outside where the dogs were peeing. There were no bathrooms. They used to drink a lot and you know what happens when you drink a lot.The reality was that Elizabeth’s castles used to stink so much that every six months she had to move and somebody had to spring clean the whole thing.
So where was this wit and all these Elizabethan things that everybody talked about? In fact now at Cambridge, in the course on Elizabethan and Tudor history, guess which film they show? My film, made by an Indian.

How important is the film critics’ point of view when it comes to your films?

Well, if they like my films, they like it. If they do not like my films then they are wrong.

You seem nonchalant about being criticised. Has any criticism affected you?

If a critic is being honest and bright and makes a good argument, then I will take it seriously. It is not about me being affected, it is about how seriously I take it. When I made Bandit Queen, there was a whole movement against the film, provoked by Arundhati Roy (author of The God of Small Things).
Her argument was that I had taken Phoolan Devi and raped her again in the film. I had to take it seriously because it affected the very fundamentals of the film.
A large part of prevalence of rape in our society all around the world is because the victim is almost shown as the perpetrator of the crime. It is the only crime where one says ‘Oh it is because she was wearing short skirts’ or ‘It was the way she was walking around’. How often have you heard that about rape? It has been going on for centuries.
Here was a woman who actually said ‘No, I am not a victim. This is a crime perpetuated against me.’ Whatever her actions were, whether it was right that she killed 24 people, she refused to accept herself as a victim. Ultimately its analysis demeaned a woman; the very thing I was fighting against.


You did not get nominated for Best Director for Elizabeth while your film was nominated for Best Film. Were you disappointed?

No. I was so surprised getting all the other nominations (Elizabeth was nominated for seven Oscars in 1999). I wasn’t expecting anything. It was my first English language film.

Do you think politics are involved in Oscars?

Some spend a lot of time and money lobbying for their films but why wouldn’t they? It’s a great marketing strategy. You spend US$15-20 million on Oscar campaigns. But if you won an Oscar, you would get US$200 million back at the box office. It increases your commercial value and you make more money to direct more movies.

The year Elizabeth was nominated, the academy reassessed itself. We all received a little booklet saying that if you are spending a lot of money (on lobbying), we will not consider your film.

Do awards like the Oscars matter to you?

For two weeks, you get invited to all the big parties. But after a while, I was remembered more for the clothes I wore (at the Oscars). Oscars is a fashion statement. It’s the biggest fashion statement in the world. All the designers are there and everyone is wearing designer clothes.

Are you anti-Oscars?

No, I’m not. For every English language film made, there must be 10 non-English films made. And they all get dumped into one category, Best Foreign Language Film. I have seen some amazing films from Africa, China, Korea, Thailand and Japan which I doubt will ever come into the sights of the Oscars. Eighty-five per cent of the world’s cinema never comes into their consideration.
The only films that come to the Oscars are those that are promoted a lot or have an American distribution. Some of the most amazing films are not made in Hollywood right now. Some of the world’s best stories are not told in Hollywood right now. The most expensive films with the highest amount of technology are produced in Hollywood.


Are you difficult to work with?

Yeah. Rebellion is inherent in being an artist. It is a form of creativity. Rebellion is one of the greatest provokers of creativity. An artist is always the conscience of society.

Tell us more about your epic film Paani?

I am writing the fifth draft. I took 15 years to pen it. I am going through the throes of a traditional Hindu father in getting his daughter married. Each time she steps out of the house, I call her back and say, ‘A little bit more make up here, maybe a little bit more dressing here.’ Everybody at the studio is fed up with me.

What is Paani all about?

It happens in the not so distant future where groundwater has disappeared, rains are seasonal, global warming has taken place and water has been privatised. So when water becomes privatised, it does not go to where it is most needed, it goes to where it gets the best price. And the best price comes from urban areas and so everyone comes to urban areas, hoping to get some water. It is a call against water privatisation.

You started your career doing Bollywood films. What do you think about Bollywood cinema now?

It is becoming a bit of a parody of itself. It has decided what it is and makes itself like that, rather than breaking out of it and trying something new. Some films (the smaller ones) are trying something new but fundamentally most are becoming prisoners of their own image.
Bollywood used to be more popular around the world but Hollywood has taken over. Local product has taken over. Bollywood in some parts of the world is the oddity or remnants.
I think the younger generation is moving away from it because of globalisation and television shows. Here (in Malaysia) I am surprised to find out that the new generation is adapting to it and liking it.
I think the technology and technical aspects are getting better but they are running out of stories. In a cinema world where songs sell, what kind of stories can you have? The fundamentals of Bollywood rely more on style, fashion and songs, and less on a great story. When the last big Bollywood film came out, I asked the producer to tell me what the film was all about and he told me that there was a great song number.
So what can you say about it? It is about style and dance. In that way, it keeps attracting audiences. But will it ever become a competitor to Hollywood? Not in this form.

What is the misconception about Shekhar Kapur?

Misconception? No there is nothing. I think that is the wonderful thing about having a blog.


When you look back on your films, do you think you should have done it differently?

With every film I would say I should have done this differently and I should have done that differently because you are a different person now. Same thing with a script. Till the last minute I will be saying this is not right and that is not right. It all about being creative.

You made a short film, New York I Love You. How different is doing a short compared to a feature film?

You can break the rules of cinema. These are rules defined by custom and culture. The culture of cinema focuses on plot. I was talking to A.R. Rahman (Oscar winner) and sometimes I am jealous of him. When he composes something (music scores for films), he would ask what is the story, and not what is the plot.
It is an emotion when you create a story in your mind. It is so wide that you create your own imagination. It completely provokes your imagination in a much more freer way than the restrictions of a plot.

What was the emotion you tried to convey in that short film?

I am not sure. It was not written by me. It has a strange story behind it. Anthony Manghella (the Oscar-winning director) was going to do that short. He wrote it and fell ill. He asked me if I would direct it and I said OK but I do not quite get the story.
He said: 'I am going in for an operation and when I come out, I will explain it to you.’ But he did not come out – he died. I tried very hard to think about what was in his mind when he wrote it. The only thing he said was that we do not live enough and we have regret. So one of the fundamental emotions in that film was regret … People who regretted they did not do things they should have done.
So (in this short film) there was this woman who was about to commit suicide. But somebody came into her life and committed suicide in front of her. You are never quite sure whether it was a past memory or a past life but she did not commit suicide. It was a film about doing what you want to do, otherwise you will have regrets.

What do you think of New York I Love You compared to Paris, Je’Taime (Both movies had similar theme)?

I think it is a fabulous idea. But New York was not as successful as Paris because the producers tried to string it together. When they did Paris I Love You, they did not try to string it together. In this one, the producers tried to link it to a fundamental theme and I do not think they should have done that. They should let each director say what they wanted to say rather than link it. But we knew they were going to do it and we all agreed to do it.


You are strongly against the caste system and have even been called anti-Hindu. What are your thoughts on that?

Every faith gets usurped into rules. I think probably it (the caste system) is one of the biggest evils in Indian society. It is probably one of the most exploitative systems ever designed and it is used to exploit.
There are number of laws that are against the caste system but it so rooted in our (Indian) culture, especially in rural areas. Fortunately in the urban areas it gets lost, because the caste system needs physical space to separate people. When you have a slum and there is no space, people are put together and they adjust.

Did it disturb you that you were branded as anti-Hindu?

Thankfully, in India, Hinduism has not taken up such a large fundamental system, although there are a lot of fundamental Hindu organisations, which I find strange. I find the idea of being a fundamental Hindu strange because how do you define a Hindu? I can define who is not a Hindu.

Your father did not encourage you to be a film-maker? How do you feel about it?

In retrospect, if you asked me today if I could relive my life, I would wish I had gone to film school rather than be a chartered accountant. But I do not know what provoked me when I was an accountant to being where I am now. It is difficult to go back in hindsight because you are a balanced sheet of your life today.

Did that create a ruffle in your relationship with your father?

My relationship with my father was fine. Of course, he was disappointed. But he never imposed himself. He always supported what I wanted to do. My parents were products of Nehru’s generation (Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India).
The Nehru generation grew up with an immense amount of optimism following the new India. The new India that was going to be an India of enterprise … an India of professionals… so everybody wanted to be a professional … because he (Jawaharlal) talked about being doctors, lawyers because that was what India needed.They all came out saying everybody must contribute to the growth of this great dream that Nehru gave everybody.
My father’s brother was one of India’s biggest educationist and my father was a very well known paediatrician. So my father’s question was, as a filmmaker, what do I contribute to society? Because at that time, as Bollywood films were, it was very difficult to find out what they contributed to. So that was his problem.


You were one of the last people to talk to Heath Ledger before he died. Is that true?

Yeah, I think so. We were supposed to meet that night but he said ‘I’m going to sleep now, I am tired and jet lagged’… So he said ‘call me at 9.30 in the morning to wake me up.’ I was supposed to meet him the next morning.

Why were you meeting him?

It was for a film called the Nine O’Clock War. It is about media and war. It is about major media companies getting involved in a war in a third world country. It is about creating an existing war into a reality show. So the war gets turned into a reality show. This is one of the films I wanted him to do with me, he was going to play a young journalist. Heath and I were so close. I wanted to do lots of films with him and he wanted to do lots of films with me.


You have a daughter and seeing where this world is heading to, do you worry about her future?

There has never been a generation that did not worry about the next generation. I have concerns because I do not know what is happening to the Internet. When she was living in England, you had to make play dates. I noticed that she and her friends spent so much time on the Internet. The basis of their relationship is through a computer screen.
There is an inherent physiological need to be actively in physical social interaction. We need to look into each others’ eyes. It is not just an expression. It is a reality that is physiologically needed.
We could do this interview over Skype but physical eye to eye contact has a different connotation of the way people relate to each other. Animals physically fight each other when they play. Play is a process of growing up and understanding how to live in society.
Now if this play is consistently performed on Facebook, the Internet or through video games, are you becoming a society of young people that do not have the ability to form real relationships anymore? It is a concern.
Fortunately for her, she lives in India now so she has a lot of social interaction with friends. They are in and out of each others houses. It is not because India does not have technology but they play and they physically interact with each other all the time. In the West I notice they are not doing that. They are not doing that because the larger part of their interactive time is through the screen. How are you going to handle that when you grow up in terms of marriage? You have not gone through the play. You have not gone through the necessary sociological processes that are inherent in every species. It is the isolation of physical relationship in social media that I worry about.
I think social media is a terrific ... an incredible tool. But as a democratic tool, social media is a great tool (as you can see in what happened in Egypt). The fascinating thing about Egypt was that there was no leader of a revolution. When was the last time you had a revolution with no leader?


You seem to have a fascination for death. You have expressed that “death defines everything we do”. Can you explain more?

We do because we die. That is what drives us. Our ambition is defined because we want to do something in a short period of time. If we were immortal, we would be like plants. We would only move two inches. If I could live for a thousand years, I would not make five films in 20 years. I would not do it because I have all the time in the world.

Why do you say this? Is it because you had a near-death experience?

No. It comes from trying to understand yourself … analysing why you do things and acting and reacting in a certain way.