April 21, 2010

Yes, He's thristy again - Shekhar Kapur

Shekhar Kapur on being a member of the Cannes jury alongside Tim Burton, his long-in-waiting film Paani and blogging as an exploration of self

Assuming the Icelandic volcano relents sufficiently for European skies to open up again, Shekhar Kapur is very much looking forward to being in Cannes for its 63rd film festival from May 12-23. As per custom and practice, there will be two limousines waiting at Nice airport for the director — one for him, the other for his luggage. The French are nothing if not stylish.

These things don’t impress our Shekhar, though.

“I have been in Cannes before,” he points out wearily.

Indeed, he has. A few years ago, he put up a poster in the Indian pavilion of Paani which hasn’t been made yet though he promises it soon will be.

“We have done with the funding now and done with the script,” he insists. “The casting is always the last thing that gets done.”

Of course, Cannes is different for him this year because he is on the jury.

“It is a great honour and a great way to see films,” he enthuses.

He describes Tim Burton, the jury president — the American filmmaker’s credits include Batman, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — as “the Salvador Dali of films”.

There is almost a touching element of hero worship in Shekhar’s desire to be on the same jury as Burton: “Who wouldn’t want to meet Tim Burton?”

Some would say: “Who wouldn’t want to meet Shekhar Kapur?”

Indeed, Freida Pinto, before she hit big time, came up to him at the wrap party for Slumdog Millionaire and told him of her dreams and desires.

The man who made Masoom (1983) and Mr India (1987) is preceded by his own formidable reputation as the director of Bandit Queen (1994), Elizabeth (1998) — he was nominated for an Oscar but missed out — The Four Feathers (2002) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).

He has not been a bad spotter of talent, either. Along the way, he was the one either to discover or offer a break to Cate Blanchett, Abbie Cornish and the late Heath Ledger.

Many of Shekhar’s friends are getting a trifle impatient with him, though. They want him to get a move on and make his next movie.

Since he was in London not so long ago, he took the chance to open up and explain why, after years in London, he has re-based in Bombay (few in the business refer to the artificial construct of “Mumbai”), why he has left Hollywood behind, why a biopic on Mandela could not be made (he was never happy with the script) and why he has taken up blogging.

With Shekhar is his bright and bubbly little daughter, Kaveri, who understandably likes to have all her daddy’s attention. He loves travelling with her, making breakfast — Shekhar is a dab hand with fried eggs — and balancing his film career with parental duties.

On the Cannes jury, he will see movies from all over the world by directors acclaimed as the best in their business. So what kind of movies does Shekhar like? If he were marooned on a desert island, what are the five he would take for repeated viewing?

“I would take The Godfather, certainly the first two parts,” he reveals. “I would take 2001: A Space Odyssey; Apur Sansar; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; a collection of (Akira) Kurosawa, Ran and Rashomon. Every time I see them I find something new.”

He does not have too much time for reading, except scripts, especially his own, but he says he loves music. “I would take Mozart’s Requiem; I would take Maria Callas singing Ave Maria; the Bombay theme from A.R. Rahman; and I would take a whole album by (the rock band) Deep Purple.”

Perhaps we are getting to a deep purple patch in Shekhar’s life and career in the nicest possible sense. Hollywood was not for him and, ultimately, neither was London.

Like many in the film industry, he has taken up blogging partly because he now has a following and partly because “it’s like having a friend to talk to, an exploration of my own self”.

That might sound a trifle self-indulgent but he goes on: “Going back to India, uprooting myself, pulling myself out of a Hollywood career, was part of me going back to basics. It forces you to ask some basic questions.”

Shekhar is insightful on the Indians he has met all over the world and the differences he has detected between Indians in England, Indians in America and Indians in India.

He came to England in the 1960s to do accountancy. Now, he finds the status of Indians to be very different. “They are much more confident now than when I first came. We have changed from being the guys who sweep the airports to the guys who run the biggest businesses.”

In America, Indians have progressed from being seen as doctors to high-tech entrepreneurs.

“In every science fiction film, if there is a computer nerd, it’s an Indian,” he laughs.

He goes on: “Now let’s come to the Indians in India — they are the ones who are left behind now.”

Despite obvious progress in urban parts, a large swathe of rural India is being cut out by a combination of “very feudal attitudes, class attitudes, caste attitudes”.

If ever he got round to making a movie about India’s “red corridor”, it would not necessarily be embraced by the political establishment.

Before he gets on to Paani, the film he has been wanting to make for years, he sets out his philosophy and, in particular, why he thinks movies hardly ever present what might be called “the other point of view”.

Though the Vietnam War ended 35 years ago, “there has never been a real movie made about the point of view of the Vietcong. Is that because their lives are not important? That is something we need to think about,” he asserts.

This isn’t just Presidency College or JNU Left-wing politics.

“Do we equate sorrow equally?” he wonders. “I will never forget sitting in a Bentley, driving with a (English) producer friend of mine in the rolling hills of Surrey. ‘Gosh Shekhar, can you imagine what the world will be like when every Chinaman has a car?’ It was a horrendous idea to him. Are we consistently looking at the world from the point of view of the elite five per cent? The fact we don’t consider ourselves the same is reflected in all our films, all our documentaries.”

Just may be Paani, which will be shot in Bombay but will not be about Bombay, will redress the balance.

“It is not just about water,” says Shekhar. “Paani deals with a city that divides itself into the upper and lower city. In the upper city there is a globalised economy; the lower city is for those left behind. Water is the metaphor for the state of the world now as condensed in one city and told in one great mythic story.”

If Shekhar is to be believed — and maybe he will be motivated by serving on the Cannes jury — the time for Paani is now. “I have waited a long time for it to happen.”

Read more here.