Shekhar Kapur: The world's his oyster

As Shekhar Kapur walks into the coffee shoppe of the Holiday Inn, he's dressed so utterly casual that he's Kapur almost invisible in the Ferre and Versace atmosphere within the restaurant precincts. Mr. Kapur likes to play invisible it would seem -- at least ones in a while. Which is probably why he's shaved off his trademark beard as of late.

Like his character in Mr. India, Mr. Kapur's persona can seemingly appear and disappear at convenience but not before he lands a touch of magic to the occasion. In this case, it would seem it's been the magic of having directed the Oscar-winning Elizabeth.

The gateman fails to recognise him. So does the restaurant manager as do most of the patrons within the Sidewalk cafe. It's the beard without which he looks like a cockatoo minus it's plumes. There's some jowl showing through on his countenance and also a pallor one associates with someone who's been drinking and playing all night. But that, given the fact that we're on the weekend, can perhaps be forgiven. But the rolled up sleeves of the white shirt and the absurd sheen on the blue pants?

Perhaps Mr. Kapur derives a secret thrill out of appearing nondescript, one surmises. Perhaps it's plain rebelliousness. The kind that made him wander off on a mobike from St. Stephens college in Delhi and disappear for days. Or found him leading a hippie style existence on European beaches in the flower child mode. That made him throw away his degree as a CA and a flourishing career as a management consultant for showbiz. Or made him the bete noir of the Hindi film industry ("please don't call it Bollywood, for Christ's sake") even after such mega hits as Masoom and Mr. India.

Whatever it is, Kapur at the height of international success after Elizabeth, is looking about as washed out as a pair of faded blue jeans the day we meet. But then hey, is there a better way to maintain your privacy than amorphous anonymity or what? After the enormous success of Bandit Queen, when Hollywood beckoned, Mr. Kapur had scripts sent to him by the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Julia Roberts, Debra Winger, in the hope he would direct their work.

But nope. Kapur chose the road less travelled -- a British studio and a period film. "A difficult film on an impossible schedule," he says of Elizabeth, but fine for him because he was looking for something contradictory to what people expected from him. Which was exactly want Elizabeth was.

"There was some flak from the British press and historians while Elizabeth was under production when the buzz got out that my protagonist wasn't portrayed as a virgin," Mr. Kapur says of the Virgin Queen. "But when they actually saw the film, they realised that it was a valid interpretation of her. All history, after all, is interpretation anyway -- since it's really true that to the victor go the spoils of writing the history books."

The director spent eight months working on the film before he started shooting ("I knew practically nothing of English history before that") which included reading, personal research, and talking to academicians. There were 15 drafts written under his supervision. Also Mr. Kapur made sure that his contract had the clause stating that the titles would display the legend 'A film by Shakhar Kapur' a la his earlier Bandit Queen. There was to be no doubt about who was in control. Is he then a control freak? Yes, he admits. "I have an unbridled creative ego. Which is what got me into trouble with Bollywood producers and films (Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja, Barsaat, Prem, Time Machine -- all of which were never made). People found it difficult to handle that. I don't blame them."

Kapur "I am a perfectionist," he elaborates, "and I wanted to be surrounded by other perfectionists. I always assumed that there is nobody bigger than the director. I couldn't stand the fact that people in the Hindi film industry had ten other things to do when they came on my sets. It irritated me. Making films was the most imported thing in my life and I expected it to be the same with them. I was in conflict with the system." Has he come to terms with himself, now that he's found a spectacular international canvas? "The politics, whether in Mumbai or in London is the same," he ruminates. "Perhaps it's more savage out there because there's more money involved, more jobs are on the line. The fact is whether it's me or any other producer out there, we're negotiating all the time.

If the Titanic had flopped the studio would have gone down with it, so even James Cameron negotiated. He negotiated dropping his salary for instance. You've gotta negotiate with everyone all the time -- whether it's by being rude, snappy and throwing people off the set or by being charming and persuading them to you point of view." "Life," Mr. Kapur says, enjoying the analogy, "is one big negotiation. Kids negotiate all the time with their parents for favours or with other kids for dominance. Even when you're in love. You're negotiating positions most of the time. So I had to negotiate with my bosses for my terms on the film. The only difference was that, in London everyone is completely focussed on the film. There are no other distraction, they don't think about other things. Out there, unlike Bollywood, the director leads the team until the film is over. "Cate (Blanchett) for example was completely committed," he says. "She came into the film just three weeks before she was to shoot. There was nothing but Elizabeth in her life. Even a Hollywood star would be expected to give the same sort of commitment. If she didn't, I wouldn't work with her," he says with an air of finality.

What about some of the worse reviews of Elizabeth - including one eminent reviewer who said that Mr. Kapur's technique was pathetically Indian? Mr. Kapur dismisses that airily saying that he makes films the best way that he can. All art, he says, is an expression of the artist. "To come to a filmmaker and say this is not the right way isn't acceptable. Art is never a factual interpretation of reality, it's the artist's interpretation. The artist relies on his instincts because that's the only way for him to succeed. Later, you're asked to analyse the instinct. That's a lie. There's no logic -- only instinct. I can find the reasons later."

Absolute success, however, has had some logic in coming to him even if in a somewhat delayed manner. Does he regret the deferment?

"It's better it comes now than to have had it ten or 20 years ago and then lose it. Nobody's success lasts," Mr. Kapur says, crossing his legs a trifle aggressively. "It's fun to have it later. Imagine peaking at 30 and then having to go downhill after that. After 45, you're wiser and don't get carried away. You've had your ups and down and know how to handle it."

Is it true that he has spent nights walking the street of Mumbai talking to no one but absolute strangers? "Oh absolutely. Sometimes for one night, I won't come home at all. I spend time talking, listening to people living on the footpath. It puts everything in its correct perspective."

Kapur "Mumbai is a city of contradictions," he says. Great wealth exists alongside great poverty, birth next to death, people kill each other and love each other. Life is a huge cauldron here and it doesn't have the ability to sweep itself away from its contradictions. It can be traumatic living here -- I look at my well-to-do friend in the building opposite and I notice seven air conditioners in his house. But the building itself is crumbling and is surrounded by, slums -- it's a contradiction. The city makes you realise you're mortal." But that's not stopping him from wandering about all over the globe.

Next stop, South Africa, where he'll be filming the story of Nelson Mandela. It will be an epic film, budgeted at $ 50 million, called Amandela which in Swahili means freedom. Morgan Freeman (of Driving Miss Daisy fame) will be playing the older Mandela while the two younger Mandela's are still being finalised. "I'll probably make a film on the interim," Shekhar confesses, "because we're still working on the script for Amandela which will be ready within a year. Since Amandela will be on the scale of Gandhi or Lawrence of Arabia, I don't want to mess up any department and am going to take my time about it."

Kapur glances at his watch, which happens to be a Tag Heueur which "I bought in the duty-free in S. Africa," because he had some rand and didn't know what to do with it. It's of no special value to him and he might even give it away one day, he says. But the time for our interview, it is apparent, has come to its conclusion. As we walk out of the poolside, Mr. Kapur stops to gape at an Australian sun-worshipper bodily lift his hydrophobic son and fling him into the swimming pool. "You know it's interesting," he observes, "that we have a white-skin complex in our country. When West is interested in yoga, we're interested in it. When the whites are interested in Deepak Chopra or Satyajit Ray, then we're interested in them. It's a strange attitude, where we always imagine that they know better." Which attitude, considering he's hit the international film-making circuit, he'll be trying strenuously to disprove from now on. And taking into account his inherently rebellious nature, there's no knowing just what he'll come up with next. We'll just have to wait breathlessly as Mr. India himself does his appear-disappear trick in the starry skies across the continents. Even if there are days when he looks like something even the starving kids in his eponymous movie wouldn't bring.