Bollywood To Hollywood: Director Shekhar Kapur Embraces Chaos Shekhar Kapur started as an accountant in the U.K., then became an actor and director in India. He later took his work to Hollywood and directed the Oscar-winning 1998 film Elizabeth. Host Michel Martin talks with Kapur about his controversial films, where he finds inspiration, and whether film festivals are still necessary.
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Bollywood To Hollywood: Director Embraces Chaos

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Bollywood To Hollywood: Director Embraces Chaos

Bollywood To Hollywood: Director Embraces Chaos

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And now, we're joined by a visionary of contemporary film. Shekhar Kapur started as an actor in India. He went on to become a leading director in that nation's Bollywood movie industry with films like "Masoom" in 1983 and the critically acclaimed "Bandit Queen" in 1994.

But for many American film lovers, he's best known for directing 1998's Oscar-nominated movie, "Elizabeth" starring Kate Blanchett.


JOSEPH FIENNES: (as Sir Robert Dudley) For God's sake, you're still my Elizabeth.

CATE BLANCHETT: (as Elizabeth) I am not your Elizabeth. I am no man's Elizabeth. If you think to rule, you are mistaken. I will have one mistress here and no master.

MARTIN: Kapur went on to direct the film sequel, "Elizabeth, The Golden Age" and the 2002 drama, "The Four Feathers." We caught up with him at the 8th Annual South Asian International Film Festival in New York, where he was a featured speaker.

And Shekhar Kapur was kind enough to fit us into his busy schedule and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for visiting with us.

SHEKHAR KAPUR: A pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: I understand that you have family members who were involved in India's vast film industry, but when you decided that you wanted to go that route, I understand that your father actually discouraged you. Is that true?

KAPUR: I think both my mother and my father discouraged me. I started life as a chartered accountant in London and I was a business consultant and I suddenly at 24 - I told - well, that's not what I want to do with the rest of my life and, much to the horror of a middle-class Indian family, I turned up and they just said, what are you doing back here? And I said, ah, I'm here and I'm going to join the movies. And my father was shaving and I can still remember him cutting his cheek, with the blood dripping down, and saying, what? Movies? What are you talking about? That was the beginning.

MARTIN: Why was it such a horror to him?

KAPUR: It was expected of all good middle-class Indian people to build India and, as you know, Indians - when we say, build India, it was all about being an accountant, a lawyer, an engineer. So it was this idea that professionals would build the country.

MARTIN: What was the moment where you said, well, this is what I'm going to do. At least, I'm going to try.

KAPUR: I was in London and I was part of the late '60s, early '70s generation where music was taking over and everybody was reevaluating their life. People were full of courage and music and dance and sexuality, and it was the time of Woodstock. So it was a generation that suddenly said, there is a different life and I was part of that generation.

Part of being this huge generation gave me the courage to say, I'm not going to be an accountant. I'm going to try something completely different and I'm going to throw my life into absolute chaos and throw it into the unknown and look for the art. And that's what made me go in there.

MARTIN: I want to play a short clip from one of your films that really pushed the envelope at the time. This is "Bandit Queen," which based on the life of a woman we would call a Robin Hood.


MARTIN: I'll just play a short clip and then I'm going to ask you to tell me a little bit more about it. Here it is.


SEEMA BISWAS: (as Phoolan Devi) (Foreign Language Spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign Language Spoken).

BISWAS: (as Phoolan Devi) (Foreign Language Spoken).

MARTIN: Well, she's obviously jacking somebody else up here, so could you tell us what's going on in this scene?

KAPUR: Well, you know, she was married when she was 13 to a man who was about 30 at that time. In India, large parts of India at that time and still, a woman is always considered from the point of view of a man. So you're either a father's daughter or a brother's sister or a husband's wife. And if you do not belong to those three categories, you seem to belong to everybody else, especially if you have no par and the low caste women have very, very little par.

And Phoolan Devi, when she was about 13, who is this character that became a bandit - she became a very rebellious young child. So they just married her off to a 30-year-old man who turned out that he had married before a child and was a bit of a pedophile, and so he kind of raped her at that age. And when she left him and became a bandit, it's very well documented that she came back, found her husband and beat him up and in front of the whole village.

So what I tried to show and the actress tried to show was that you could be taking revenge, but effectively, you are revisiting that trauma and you will do it all your life and you have to find a different way of getting over it.

MARTIN: You know, your career, not just the making of the films itself, but the way you've chosen to live your life, it's just so modern. I mean, you started out in India, then you were in London and then you based - at one point, you were in the heart of the American film industry in Los Angeles, but then you moved back to India.


MARTIN: Why was that?

KAPUR: One, was a personal reason. I separated from my then wife and my child was only six, seven years old, a daughter, and she moved back and I kind of missed her so much that I couldn't handle it, so I went back. But there's another reason that I have to state, and it's a reason that, you know, when you live in a city like Mumbai or other places in India, you know, you can stand in one place and look to your right and you see a funeral, look to your left and you see - in front of you, you see little children that are born and are starving on the streets and look behind you and somebody's driving a Bentley.

You're suddenly faced with the contradictions of just living and you realize just how mortal you are and, in that mortality you're pushed into the idea that life is not under your control. It's completely chaotic and, unless you find a sense of harmony in that chaos, it's very difficult to actually live.

But say you come to the West, you come to Los Angeles. It's kind of clean. It's kind of - everybody lives and has a belief in their own sense of immortality. And then you go back and you're faced with a sense of huge mortality. And those questions are very creative. Those questions drive you.

Now, I'm not saying that they make you make a film all the time, but to keep you on edge and to keep you on edge makes you creatively more alive.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a conversation with the famed film director, Shekhar Kapur. Your career has taken place against this kind of transnational, transglobal movement of art. And, you know, in the wake of the success of "Slumdog Millionaire," for example, right?


MARTIN: I mean, here you are, a person of India, who was hugely successful in the United States. Of course, everybody knows that the Indian film industry is the largest in the world. Right?


MARTIN: The American film industry is quite large and also very influential. So here you are, an Indian film director and then you come to the United States and make a huge splash and then go back to India. And then you've got "Slumdog Millionaire," which was made by, you know, Western film directors in India. Made a huge splash internationally, but controversial because there are those who are saying, well, why are you appropriating the culture? You know, who are you to come here and make this film? You know, there was that piece.

So I am just interested in this question of, do you think there is a right to make certain films or other films? Do you subscribe to any of that?

KAPUR: The question is - did Richard Attenborough have a right to make "Gandhi?" And did Danny Boyle have a right to make "Slumdog Millionaire?" Quite honestly, if they didn't have the right to make these films, I had no right to make "Elizabeth." And I think that I altered history in "Elizabeth" and I interpreted history far more than Danny Boyle or Richard Attenborough did to "Slumdog Millionaire" or "Gandhi." They took Indian novels or Indian characters and very much stayed within the Indian diaspora.

I actually took what they called the virgin queen and showed her in bed with a man. And I quite enjoyed doing what I did, much to the initial regret of a lot of British historians who said she was a virgin. And I said, prove it.


KAPUR: How do you - you know, yeah, it was funny. There's a passage that all the historians agreed to that, when she was about 15 years old, she was living in her cousin's house and her cousin's husband was an admiral. It was written that he used to come and tickle her in her bed. Later on, he was hanged for being too forward with Elizabeth. But I wonder what tickling in the bed written in the pre-Victorian times actually meant. You know, history is an interpretation.

MARTIN: Tell me, though, about the South Asian International Film Festival, at which you are a featured speaker. It's in its eighth year. It's quite successful. It includes 19 premiers. You know, on the one hand, obviously, it's a showcase for work and people can showcase their work in whatever way they want. But then other people might say, well, wait a minute. In this global film industry, why do we need that?

KAPUR: You know, marketing now is such an invasive exercise, that people invade your senses and try and tell you that there is nothing else that you can do with your life except indulge in what the marketers are saying.

So film, we do that all the time and so, because these very small - much smaller, more significant to me - films have no marketing dollars or rupees. They got left out and what is fabulous and what this festival is doing is bringing these filmmakers over that have a completely different voice and a completely wonderful voice and they get noticed here in New York. Otherwise, nobody would know about them. They would just go unnoticed.

MARTIN: So finally, what are you working on now?

KAPUR: I'm working on a film called "Bonnie." Bonnie means water. It's in English, and it's dealing with a future world in a megacity - which is what the UN says we're going to be - but in this megacity, a city that runs out of water. And it divides itself between the upper city that has the power over the little water that's left, and the lower city that has no water. And the upper city's only about 15 percent of the people and these 15 percent of the people take all the water. And now, they use thirst as a weapon of political and social control.

It's a lot of human stories and the fight back from the lower city and it's a look at what might happen if you make water a commodity and how it will go into the hands of a water cartel and what the water cartel finally, in its responsibility to return to its shareholders and to all the conglomerates that hold it, it will start using thirst as a weapon of control of the people.

MARTIN: Where on earth did you get this idea?

KAPUR: Oh, you just have to travel in the world and you realize it's already happening. It's an important film and it's a difficult film to pull off, but - hey, why do it if it's not difficult?

MARTIN: So no stupid romantic comedies in your future, huh?

KAPUR: Well, listen, there's a love story in every film. It's not a romantic comedy, but you know, you have to follow certain rules of drama and the rules of drama say that nobody wants to see a film without a little bit of a love story. Yeah.

MARTIN: Shekhar Kapur is an award-winning film director. We caught up with him when he's attending the South Asian International Film Festival in New York. He's one of the featured speakers. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KAPUR: It's absolutely my pleasure. Thank you.


MARTIN: Coming up, as Jerry Sandusky claims his innocence on child sex abuse charges, reports suggest that more alleged victims are speaking to authorities. Our moms talk about how to teach a child to sound the alarm on abuse, especially when it comes to an adult they've learned to trust. And we also have with us a young woman who survived child sex abuse and is now teaching others to do the same. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


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