'Elizabeth' Director Brings Indian Sensibility to Work Shekhar Kapur, director of the movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age, has made two films about Queen Elizabeth I starring Cate Blanchett. He also has a significant production company based in London that focuses on products for the Asian market.
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'Elizabeth' Director Brings Indian Sensibility to Work

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'Elizabeth' Director Brings Indian Sensibility to Work

'Elizabeth' Director Brings Indian Sensibility to Work

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The film "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" opens this weekend. It's a sequel to 1998's Oscar-winning film "Elizabeth." And once again, Cate Blanchett plays the title role. Both movies are filled with pageantry and elaborate period costumes, and both movies are the vision of Shekhar Kapur.

NPR's Laura Sydell profiles this director from a former British colony who puts his special spin on a great British monarch.

LAURA SYDELL: "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" begins with rumors that Philip II of Spain is plotting to take over England and put a Catholic on the throne. In one of the opening scenes, Elizabeth confronts the Spanish ambassador.

(Soundbite of "Elizabeth: The Golden Age")

Ms. CATE BLANCHETT (Actress): (As Queen Elizabeth II) Tell Philip, I fear neither him nor his priests, nor his armies. Tell him if he want to shake his little fists at us, we're ready to give him such a bite, he'll wish he'd kept his hands in his pockets.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Spanish Ambassador) You see a leaf fall, and you think you know which way the wind blows. Beware(ph), there is a wind coming, madam, that will sweep away your pride.

SYDELL: The great British monarch was not the first powerful woman who has fascinated Kapur.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bandit Queen")

Ms. SEEMA BISWAS (Actress): (As Phoolan Devi) (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Character) (Foreign language spoken)

SYDELL: Phoolan Devi was a folk hero to India's lower caste. She rose up among thieves to become a sort of Robinhood, stealing from the rich and give them to the poor.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bandit Queen")

Ms. BISWAS: (As Phoolan Devi) (Foreign language spoken)

SYDELL: Kapur had a long and successful career in India making Hindu language films before coming to Hollywood. He says he's been drawn to heroic female figures because they enable him to break out of the mold of male action figures.

Mr. SHEKHAR KAPUR (Director, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"): The genre of filmmaking doesn't expect the woman to go beat everybody up and lead conquest, but they expect it to be a battle between, you know, the spirit and rise of the spirit above normal, possible outcomes. So that was what "Bandit Queen" was about. That was what "Elizabeth" was about.

SYDELL: While Kapur can talk easily about action heroes and popular Western culture, it is the stories of his own culture that infused his filmmaking. His take on "Elizabeth" fits into a female archetype in India mythology, says Priya Jaikumar of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.

Dr. PRIYA JAIKUMAR (Associate Professor; Director of Graduate Studies, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California): There are as quite a few stories where a woman who has saved a lot of ills in society can have had this moment of extreme anger and a personal transformation where if she turns around, she transforms herself into something kind of superhuman, you know, above all of humanity looking down upon them.

SYDELL: While Kapur is in Los Angeles for the "Elizabeth" premiere, he's taking time for a business lunch to talk about one of his Indian business ventures.

Mr. KAPUR: (Unintelligible) here about the script. That's the script on "Virulents."

SYDELL: On this balmy afternoon, Gotham Chopra drinks an Arnold Palmer, while Kapur takes gelated bites of salmon in an outdoor restaurant. Chopra is editor in chief of Virgin Comics. They are talking about a deal with Fox to make a movie from one of Virgin Comics called "Virulents."

Mr. GOTHAM CHOPRA (Editor In Chief, Virgin Comics): It's actually based on an Indian myth of the demon called Raktaveej, which is like this ancient demon. But what they've done is they've contemporized it, and it's really a story about, you know, entering these wars that you're not fully prepared for it.

SYDELL: The idea of Virgin Comics is to cultivate Indian artists in India, and let them draw in their own culture for stories.

Kapur founded the company along with Deepak Chopra and Sir Richard Branson.

Here's Gotham Chopra.

Mr. CHOPRA: India's "Lord of the Rings" is probably not going to come out of him. It's going to come out of some kid who came and worked with us because he was a part of this company.

SYDELL: As Kapur sees it the West is in need of new stories. He thinks the East is finally throwing off the yoke of colonialism and is ready to offer its narratives.

Mr. KAPUR: Whereas the Eastern cultures are dying to express themselves. They're getting richer and they're adapting to new technologies. My guess is that the Eastern cultures are going to make a huge difference.

SYDELL: Kapur believes the West (unintelligible) in Asia is simply as a place for outsourcing and selling goods.

Mr. KAPUR: If they merely look at the Asian consumer as a consumer and not a culture and the Asian workforce as an offshoring source, they're going to fail because they'll be wiped out by local media companies as the new entrepreneurs.

SYDELL: Kapur wants to be one of those new successful Asian entrepreneurs. He has started a half-a-billion-dollar venture fund in Singapore. It invests in start-up media, technology and entertainment companies all throughout Asia. Kapur believes that soon as much as 80 percent of the money spent on entertainment will come from the East.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: You can see Shekhar Kapur's jaundiced view of the West even in his Hollywood movies. Priya Jaikumar of USC.

Dr. JAIKUMAR: Mary Queen of Scots and her dwarven attendant. And everyone is kind of lurking in dark corners and a little grotesque.

(Soundbite of movie, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Character) The queen has been attacked. The assassin, seized. The queen, unharmed.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As Character) Unharmed?

Unidentified Man: (As Character) And you, madam, are to be tried for treason.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: The corrupt and decadent aristocracy in Shekhar Kapur's movies is a stand-in for the tradition-bound and stagnant West. So far, reviewers have not been kind to "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." They've called it melodramatic and overblown.

Kapur thinks Western critics might not understand that he is not trying to make a biopic. He sees Elizabeth as a historical figure and a mythic one.

Mr. KAPUR: What the West calls melodrama, we call mythic because it becomes the same thing. We, in Asia, look upon alliance as mythic. To us, a birth is mythic, a death is mythic, falling in love is mythic, being betrayed is mythic. So we see our lives consistently as mythic events one after the other.

SYDELL: To Kapur, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" is about the transformation of an ordinary person into a divine one.

But the movie is also business. On the way to the premiere, Kapur chats on his cell phone to a friend.

Mr. KAPUR: Hi, Ceninna(ph). How are you?

SYDELL: He's aware that the critics may not love it.

Mr. KAPUR: The party will be really intimate if they don't like the film.

SYDELL: Kapur has many other projects going. He's doing a series of short animated movies. He's got Virgin and his Asia fund. He's tentatively planning a film on the life of the Buddha with Deepak Chopra. But he's busy creating his own myth as he joins in the ultimate Hollywood ritual.

(Soundbite of crowd)

SYDELL: Dressed in an Indian-style suit, he steps from the car and is greeted by a phalanx of paparazzi. Kapur smiles and poses for the cameras.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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