May 13, 2010

Liz on wall, Shekhar focuses on Paani - Bollywood the biggest, says maker of Bandit Queen, but not ‘necessarily the best’

Cannes, May 13: Shekhar Kapur is sleeping with an outsize picture of a young Elizabeth Taylor above his bed.

“I have stayed in this hotel before,” he reveals.

That was in 1994 when he came as director of the Channel 4-funded Bandit Queen, still one of the most powerful films ever to come out of India. It led to Shekhar being recruited as director of Elizabeth in 1998 when he cast a then largely unknown Cate Blanchett in the title role as England’s “Virgin Queen” — Shekhar’s contribution to English history was to depict her as definitely not a virgin.

He then went to direct Blanchett again in 2007 in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. In between he gave a break to the late Heath Ledger in The Four Feathers in 2002, as he had done to Blanchett previously.

That was then. This is now — 16 years later. In his hotel room, Shekhar looks quizzically at Le Monde magazine which has Blanchett on the cover in recognition of her status as one of the most sought-after Hollywood megastars in the world.

Blanchett has been in Cannes as a cast member of Robin Hood in which she plays (the also not virginal) Maid Marion.

Shekhar is on the main jury in Cannes this year but fortunately he does not have to judge Blanchett, his find, because Robin Hood has been shown “out of competition”.

Sharp at 6.30pm, Shekhar’s female escort calls with his official Renault limousine at the Palais Stephanie, the hotel on the Croisette which back in 1994 used to be called the Noga Hilton.

“(This is) the first meeting of the jury,” says Shekhar, who is looking forward to being on a panel presided over by the American Tim Burton whom he almost hero-worships.

After watching 20-odd movies, the best from around the world, according to the French selection team, some new ideas will no doubt occur to Shekhar.

Before he leaves for the jury briefing, The Telegraph sits in while he gives an interview to a young woman journalist who has called from a Cannes online film magazine.

To her, Shekhar represents the wisdom of 5,000 years of Indian culture. She also wants to talk about Bollywood.

“It is the biggest film industry in the world,” agrees Shekhar but adds the corrective that “biggest does not necessarily mean it’s the best”.

He explains that the Indian film industry with a huge domestic market does not have to bother with the outside world. On top of that, there is the Indian diaspora, which Shekhar estimates at much more than than 25-30 million, the official figure.

“I believe it is 40 to 50 million,” he says. The upshot is that without competition, Bollywood has less incentive to want to improve.

Shekhar wants to focus on water, the subject of his next film, Paani.

He does not want to make a documentary since, one, he is not good at making documentaries and, two, documentaries, however well done, make little impact. He wants to “individualise” a story so that viewers can be affected by the emotions involved with ordinary people coping in a world short of water.

“I am seen as the water person in India,” he tells the journalist.

He rails against the injustice of some Americans showering for two hours. “In one minute, an American can use up more water than an Indian family of five uses in a day,” he alleges.

He is also unhappy that “India is a net water exporter”. This is because behind a pair of jeans lies usage of “5,000 litres of water”.

The woman wants to know what Shekhar made of Slumdog Millionaire.

“Great movie,” he responds without qualification. “People should be upset when there are things to be upset about.”

He is asked for his recollections of directing Blanchett. “We made a journey together,” he says.

He was looking forward to being in Cannes and considered it a great honour to be on the jury. In the evenings, he knew he would be required to go to parties. “But the one thing I don’t like doing is dressing up,” he admits.

He has had a smart hair cut, is wearing a crisp shirt and looks relaxed.

“This is the best you will see me,” he remarks. “But I don’t want to attract attention by making it a point that I am not dressing up.”