'I make my own rules!'

Writer/ Director ASIF KAPADIA, whose debut feature film The Warrior has won several accolades internationally, tells SHABANA ANSARI that the most important thing in life is to believe in yourself and set your own rules.

British Indian filmmaker Asif Kapadia is a happy man these days. His debut feature film The Warrior has not only won critical acclaim around the world but has also won many awards including the prestigious Sutherland Award at the London Film festival. He is currently on a visit to India for the Indian Diaspora Film Festival, where some of his short films will be shown. Between attending film screenings and giving talks at seminars, the young and enthusiastic director settles down for a discussion on his films.

From your graduation film The Sheep Thief to the internationally acclaimed The Warrior, what has the journey been like?
I knew The Thief Sheep would be the last short film I would make as a student at the Royal College of Art, London. I had studied filmmaking at different film schools for six years and I wished to graduate with something that made me stand out a little as a filmmaker. The idea came from a story told to me by a teacher when I was about seven. It was an old Bible story of a thief who becomes a saint. I didn't believe the concept would work if I set the story in Ireland or the Lake District. It had to take place in a timeless landscape. I had only previously been to India for a week or so. The idea was to shoot the movie here, on location, with non-professional actors, in Hindi with a minimal crew. I loved the story of The Warrior and was desperate to make it. There was never a doubt in my head that it would make a great film. Whenever I discussed it with other people, they seemed to love it too. I was also excited by the idea of shooting something on a bigger scale, with a bigger cast, horses and burning villages. The entire project was a huge leap into the unknown but the challenge was exciting.

In most of your films, there is great attention to physical detail, such as raindrops falling on sand and drops of sap running down a tree trunk. Are physical details central to storytelling?
The idea of physical details comes from my aim to try and tell the story visually as much as possible. Rather than a character saying something, my wish is to show and for the audience to register and feel the meaning. These details need to move the story forward, to have some emotional meaning and not just be pretty shots. The idea is to use objects as visual elements which carry the story forward. If used well they can really add to the story. However, focusing on an object too much can add meaning where it isn't needed or intended, so you have to be careful.

How is making a short film different from making a full-length feature film?
There is a big difference between writing and directing a short film and making a 90-page script into a movie. A lot of hard work goes into the planning and working of the story before you actually write the script. You can waste time trying to figure out the tale as you go along with the longer form. With a short film, a lot depends on the length of the film. There are certain types of story or narrative structures that work better than others. When dealing with a longer film, you really need to have a strong idea and rounded characters. These may sound like sweeping generalisations, but the length should be considered when coming up with the idea and writing the script. Certain ideas don't work when squeezed into 10 minutes. You simply need more time to do justice to the tale. In the same way, certain clever or funny ideas cannot be spread out over a longer length and work best when kept short and sweet. The main thing to bear in mind, whatever the length of the film, is that it should never be too long.

Don't you think meaningful and offbeat international films deserve far greater public exposure than what they are receiving currently?
As a filmmaker, I want more and more people to see my films. But the number of places where you can watch such films is very limited. At film festivals the people who go to screenings are the filmmakers themselves or their friends, and most people outside of this very specialised world never see the films on the big screen. But if their is a demand, I am sure distributors would be forced to cater to what the audience wants.

How do you select your cast members?
I spend time on location, looking for actors. I like to use local people, from the area where we will be shooting. Non-professional actors are natural and they get across so much without saying a word. 'The Sheep Thief' character was a real street kid, who had lived on a railway platform since the age of seven. Irfan Khan was magnificent as the 'warrior'. His eyes were what drew me to him and he had real presence. We never considered anyone else.

What are your next projects?
I'm working on a few screenplays; a ghost story set in Samurai Japan, a dark love story set in the UK and a siege movie I'd like to shoot in Mexico.

What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
The main thing is to enjoy yourself. To try and surround yourself with people who will be positive, who will push you to try things out. Believe in yourself. At the end of the day there is no set way -- no one knows anything. Make your own rules like I have done. You don't have to know anything at first. Learn from your own mistakes and from the mistakes made by the people around you.