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LIFF 2016: Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur ‘I was a big, macho Punjabi guy’

LIFF 2016: Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur ‘I was a big, macho Punjabi guy’

July 22 2016

  • Day of the blockbuster film is dead
  • Claimed responsibility for starting wet sari phenomena in Bollywood
  • Casting Cate Blanchett in ‘Elizabeth’ was instinctual and led to a battle
  • Made ‘Trainspotting version of Elizabeth’
  • Was inspired by former Indian PM Indira Gandhi when making Elizabeth
  • Confessed ‘Bandit Queen’ was purposefully violent
  • Still wants to make ‘Paani’, a fictional feature about global water shortages set in some mythic future
  • Receives Icon Outstanding contribution to world cinema award from London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) sponsor

IN A WIDE-RANGING, and at times tongue-firmly in cheek, talk iconic “Elizabeth” film director, Shekhar Kapur regaled an audience at the British Film Institute (BFI) Southbank in London, with amusing anecdotes and intelligent insights from his long career.

A veteran of filmmaking for some 30 years, he is one of the few directors to have travelled almost seamlessly from Bollywood to Hollywood and spoke about his work with actors such as Cate Blanchett and Sridevi.

In conversation with Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound magazine, Kapur pronounced the death of the blockbuster – prompting James to declare it was the first time he had heard a filmmaker of some stature state say what some have been thinking.

Cary Sawhney, director LIFF introduces Shekhar Kapur and Nick James

Kapur told the audience gathered at the London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) talk, ‘Shekhar Kapur: A Life with Elizabeth’: “More people watch ‘Game of Thrones’ in a week than watch ‘Star Wars‘.

“More people have downloaded ‘Pokémon Go’ than have watched ‘Star Wars’. It’s imploding.

“The blockbuster film is falling apart, if it wasn’t for the Chinese it would have imploded, Hollywood would have gone into a recession now.”

He argued that saturation marketing such as for “Star Wars” wasn’t really paying off (in the West) and that it was only because China had opened up and was still seduced by the blockbuster that the concept was still in existence.

“It’s new to them,” he said highlighting its appeal to the Chinese.

In what appeared to be a more general attack on the corporate and the hard focused business driven nature of the some of the industry, Kapur said filmmakers should stand their ground and know their art.

Shekhar Kapur receives Icon Award for outstanding contribution to world cinema from Harmeet 'Sunny' Ahuja and Reena Ranger of Sun Mark Ltd

“As corporate people come in to judge filmmaking, they don’t see a movie, they see a script,” he warned.

He said the best filmmakers worked in the gaps, where scripts were often not explicit and allowed for a huge degree of creative freedom.

“People want to see more and more in the script – that tells you everything and therefore films are becoming boring,” he lamented.

“I think ‘Elizabeth‘ is a better film than ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age‘ because ‘Elizabeth‘ was a sparse script.”

He explained that sparser the script was, the more he could inject and play with.

“Here’s what people don’t get,” he announced to the audience at the BFI last Saturday (July 16).

“It works in contradiction, like a poem, you imagine the world the poet has not put in there.

“It’s the spaces in between, and great films between the cuts, they have the spaces, say you watch ‘The Godfather’ and you see things you didn’t see.

“It’s the same movie but it’s about what is not said and the way it’s been put together and the way it’s cut like a poem.

“As you grow up, you find different ideas about yourself…so the film, or story, or a poem, it allows you to discover yourself in different ways each time you see that – a script won’t tell you (that)…”

In effect, he stated, saying too little was far better than saying too much; he recounted friend and famous Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah’s reaction to “Masoom” (1983).

“He’s a good friend of mine and he said: ‘There is nothing here, the number of actors who rejected ‘Masoom’ (1983), because of the script,” he said.

He revealed that “Mr India” (1987) did not even have a script and they wrote it as they went along – a not unfamiliar practice at that time in Bollywood, where often stars and concepts were matched and then a script formed as shooting began.

Earlier, Kapur revealed what had inspired him to film one of the most iconic and still revered scenes in Indian cinema.

It is where the heroine and screen siren Sridevi performs a dance on imaginary island set and it is raining and sings, “I Love You” to the character who is for the most part, invisible – from the film, “Mr India”, which starred a young Anil Kapoor (“Slumdog Millionaire”/”24“) and the late Amrish Puri, who as the villainous Mr Mogambo character stole hearts and minds.

Kapur revealed: “The producer had said ‘Sridevi is a big star and nobody can make her look sexier’.

“I said ok, she’s having relations with an invisible man in a song and looking very sexy and moving that way – I could make her look sexier.

“After that it just became a trend, to put rain in and saris got wet…so I am actually responsible for this whole series of weshkhar3t sari songs that took over Bollywood,” Kapur chuckled.

James asked him how he came to make “Bandit Queen” (1994), which is based on the true story of Phoolan Devi and was funded by UK’s Channel 4 TV.

The woman who became an Indian MP before being murdered was once an outlaw and a dacoit and turned to that life after being systematically raped and attacked by other gangs and high caste men, as well as those who treated her like chattels or a slave.

“It was only meant to be three on showings on TV and they said I had a budget of around $750,000 (about £500,000) and wanted me to make a docu-drama but I said I had never done a documentary.

“I decided to make it on gut instinct, I’d never done that before and have never done it since,” Kapur explained.

He revealed that his early research had made him ashamed and he realised that men like him were part of a deeper problem.

He said the film’s violence was raw and unflinching for a reason.

“Rape is voyeuristic in film, so I thought: How can I take the cinema out of rape – 99 per cent of the time it is about humiliation and people who lack self-worth do it all the time.”

Bandit Queen” premiered in Cannes in 1994 and made a star of Seema Biswas.

(She played Phoolan Devi. This year, Biswas returned to Cannes for a Singaporean production “A Yellow Bird” and spoke to us about her first time in Cannes – see the video link below.)

Kapur said he was offered “Elizabeth” at a time when he didn’t have a lot of options and was pretty reluctant to make it.

“Making what was called a frock movie bored me – I wanted to get fired.”

He told producer Tim Bevan he could only think of one decent British film at the time.shekharKapur2

“Are you going to let me make a ‘Trainspotting’ version of an English costume drama?”

It was a question and Bevan still wanted him to make “Elizabeth”.

Then came the fight to cast Cate Blanchett, an unknown at the time.

“I just happened to see her in a promo to a film,” recounted Kapur. “I suddenly realised here was a woman or a girl who was both of this moment and of the past.”

He insisted the producers take her – only for his agent to say casting an Australian unknown in one of the most coveted parts for a UK actress might lead him to get fired.

Kapur said he went to bed one night reflecting he might have to back down but then waking up in the morning, he decided to make a stand.

“I realised I was a big macho Punjabi guy – tell them to fire me (over the decision to cast Blanchett).”

The producers relented thinking wisely that Kapur saw something no one else did at the time.

“She did a screen test (like all the others) but I gave her the lines before I gave them to anyone else,” he confessed, inciting titters from the audience.

Kapur said that he saw lots of parallels between the late, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the real Elizabeth.shekhariconaward

“They were women who had to deny their sexuality to hold power,” Kapur reflected. He said that for Elizabeth the whole issue of her virginity took on a different dimension and helped to established her mythic and divine status.

James thought that his interest in Elizabeth had led him to “Will” which is a dramatic account of the early life of an ambitious playwright, called William Shakespeare, in Elizabethan London.

But Kapur said his general impressions of Shakespeare were not positive. He thought him to be an intellectual and his work generally high falutin and difficult to understand.

It was only when he began to look at the drama of the time, his opinion changed.

“He was a poet of the people by the people and for the people,” Kapur concluded.

He directed a feature-length pilot of “Will” which is a whole TV 10-part series scripted by longtime Baz Luhrmann collaborator Craig Pearce and currently in production for broadcaster TNT. With its contemporary music score, dashing newcomer Laurie Davidson as ‘Will’ and its punk overtones, the drama is likely to be one of the most eagerly anticipated TV series in the coming 12 months or so.

Taking questions, Kapur said he was still interested in making a film called ‘Paani’ (water).

Originally slated to be produced by Indian mega studio, Yash Raj Films, Kapur revealed that deal no longer existed and that he was still keen to make the film if he could find a backer.

In 2013, as a member of the Cannes jury, he explained the futuristic drama would be set in a world where water was a scarce resource and that people would fight to control it.

On something of a closing note, he said he was prone to melodrama – but didn’t it see it as such, because that essentially was what life is to him.

“Being born is melodramatic, falling in love is melodramatic, having a child is melodramatic. We are a melodramatic species and we lead melodramatic lives, I just refuse to be embarrassed about it.”

Before the talk began, Kapur was handed an ICON award for outstanding contribution to world cinema from LIFF sponsor Sun Mark Ltd and its CEO Harmeet ‘Sunny’ Ahuja and his wife, Reena Ranger.

See Seema Biswas in Cannes 2016 by clicking here

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Shekhar Kapur: A Life in Pictures…

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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