Shekhar Kapur

Interview with Shekhar Kapur. This first appeared in the Sunday Independent in October 2007.

He once produced a movie called The Guru and I had suspected that Shekhar Kapur might fancy himself as something of a philosophical sage. The homepage of his website has the heading ‘I Exist Because You Imagine I Do’ along with a picture of himself in discussion with himself or some unseen interlocutor. Another section is entitled ‘Zen Thoughts’. He’s friends with Deepak Chopra.

In person however the acclaimed director could not be more down to earth. Dressed simply, all in black and sitting on a windowsill overlooking the Liffey he exudes a gentle, grandfatherly air. ‘Oh yes the quote’ he murmurs, almost sheepishly, when I mention it. ‘Well it just means that we can’t exist without context. I can say I’m a father, I’m a director, I’m a son but those are all observations that I or someone else could make. Is there any existence without observation? It’s like in physics when you look at a particle, which has no value in space and time until you observe it and give it an artificial reality. Then it exists.’

For some reason coming from a wise-eyed 61 year Indian all this seems infinitely more fascinating in person. But I shouldn’t be too surprised at Kapur confounding expectation. His films have generally turned their subjects on their heads, exploring myth and reality. With the Bandit Queen, a film about India’s violent caste wars, he surprised a world, which had equated all of Indian cinema with the art-trash melodrama of Bollywood. The film caused uproar in his home country but the controversy it provoked seems to have inoculated him against stressing out about more muted Western criticism. He couldn’t care less for example about those who question the historical accuracy of his latest (brilliant) epic, Elizabeth, the Golden Age, in which he questions whether the Virgin Queen was really a virgin. ‘This film is about a mythology,’ he muses. ‘But people are strangely protective of that.’

If he seems refreshingly blithe about it all it all it might be because he was a latecomer to the film business. Born into an upper-middle class Indian family, he was pushed into accountancy by his parents – a path he grudgingly accepted – but drew the line at an arranged marriage (‘although my mother tried very hard, I was considered a catch then’) and went to London instead. ‘It was the swinging 60s, a wild time. There were flower parties. I was at the Stone first concert when they sang Satisfaction. It was also a time of rebellion. We were challenging everything, every bit of morality. I can remember sitting around with my friends then and we were talking about what we wanted to be. I said I wanted to be an actor, someone else said they wanted to be a singer and one guy said ‘I want to make money’ we all looked at him like he was mad. That wouldn’t happen today. Youth has been made corporate. They’re all talking about making a billion dollars.’

Eventually he decided to become an actor – against his parent’s wishes – and found the profession helpful in warding off the spectre of arranged marriage. ‘I’d meet these beautiful girls with my parents and at the end of the dinner I’d turn to her parents and say ‘how would you like your daughter to be married to an actor?’ That was usually the end of that.’

Acting wouldn’t remain a dead loss in that sense though as later through his Bollywood connections he would meet and marry the actress Suchitra Krishnamoorthi with whom he has a child. The marriage ended in February this year – reportedly somewhat acrimoniously – and he tells me it has been a ‘tough few years.’ His father also passed away recently after a battle with Alzheimer’s. ‘I admired and respected and feared him,’ he tells me. ‘It was four years of watching him disintegrate and I couldn’t always be there because I’d had my first child and I was preoccupied with that. And I had a bad marriage too and was getting a divorce and supposed to be making a move, Four Feathers, so that didn’t help.’

He seems at peace now though and I even when he’s describing the dark times in his life he sounds somehow serene. There’s no hectic dash between interviews or a weary recycling of quotes. He’s looking to enjoy the conversation and the view of the slate grey river. As if to underline this the last question is not mine, but his. ‘Turn off the tape recorder for a moment. I want you to tell me about yourself. What do you want to be? Where do you want to go?’ He nods and listens and murmurs soothingly. And suddenly I want Shekhar Kapur to be my Guru.


~ by Donal Lynch on February 29, 2008.

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