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Transcript: Talk Asia Live with Shekhar Kapur

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(CNN) -- Anjali Rao: Hello and welcome to a very special edition of Talk Asia filmed in front of a Live audience here in Mumbai, India. My guest today started out his professional life as an accountant, these days of course he's better known as India's most successful and internationally renowned director, Shekhar Kapur. This is Talk Asia.


The man and his passions: Shekhar Kapur opens up to Anjali Rao.

AR: Shekhar, you've achieved great success here in India and also all over the world. Let's first though talk about your most acclaimed work to date which is the first "Elizabeth" film. When you were asked to direct that you certainly didn't have any experience at a grand scale production yet this British production house decided that you were the man to lead it. How on earth does something like that come about?

Shekhar Kapur: After Bandit Queen, I was known as the new Peckinpah so everything that was coming my way was like an action film. And I thought maybe I'll do something different. And when they offered this film to me, I kind of instinctively said yes and then I panicked and so I called the producer and I said, "Listen, there's one genre that I absolutely hate and that's what they call the costume drama. The British period drama, I hate it."

So the producer said, "So do I." So that didn't work. So then I called the producer the next day and I said, "You know what, I've seen a lot of British films in the last ten years and I haven't really liked any film. Except "Trainspotting." And he said, bang on, love Trainspotting. So we called Elizabeth the Trainspotting version of British costume drama. And so that's how we attacked it.

AR: You bring a lot of Bollywood touches as well to your productions, of course dance sequences and lavish sets and amazing vibrant costumes. What's the appeal for you of injecting your own philosophies, your own beliefs and your own Asianess into such a quintessentially British film?

SK: Well, to me a film, any film, you see, because I'm Asian, it's not so much Bollywood, it's an Eastern concept of storytelling. We're a very mythic people. And the West calls us melodramatic. I don't call it melodramatic. It's our mythology. And so for me a film works on the psychological level, the plot level, the political level and the mythic level. And its really important because at one point, otherwise we make films about people that you think is only about people, but it's about people rolling towards their destiny. So fate and destiny are really important part of Eastern storytelling.

AR: "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," which was the follow up to Elizabeth, unfortunately that didn't do as well as the first film. It did get two Oscar nominations and won for Best Costume. Were you disappointed with the way it was received though?

SK: I think there was something I was trying to do in Elizabeth that the critics didn't quite get. And that was the mythic, the idea of the battle between mortality and immortality. And it all went back from the fact that when I really looked at the Armada, the Armada was only won by a freak storm. So then I started to weave's almost like a Shakespearean film in which the storm...god sent the storm down to separate the unjust from the just.

And I think that kind of escaped from people and they looked upon the film as hang on, where's Drake? Didn't Drake win the battle? Wasn't he balding when he was...where's that? Where's that? Where's that? Where in history? So one of the things that happened, that people went to look at history and they got mythology. That's slightly something that went wrong with the film.

AR: "Four Feathers" didn't do anywhere near as well. What went wrong do you think?

SK: Uhm, I think what went wrong were two things. I think the film was conceived before 9/11 and released, and made just after 9/11. And that seriously affected the politics of the film. So while Four Feathers was an incredibly pro-colonial book, one of the reasons I wanted to do the film was to take that and make an incredibly anti-colonial story. Before 9/11, everybody who saw the rush of the film said, "Why are you making Heath Ledger look like Jesus Christ?"

After 9/11, there was, I forget the name of this American person who was fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan {AR: John Walker Lindh} Yes, I was accused of deliberately making Heath look like that. There was a mistrust of foreigners. I watched the film in the US, when the battle started and the English were winning, the hall was cheering. And as the Arab start to win, they were booing.

There was some kind of dissonance... Now, given that, given that, I think that there was a scripting problem, I mean it wasn't a perfect film, there was a bit of a scripting problem. And there was kind of tension between me and the writer, all those kinds of politics of the film. But, I think it was Heath Ledger's best performance to date. So you know, it works on some levels it didn't. But I'm sad about that film, I'm sad because Heath Ledger is no more.

AR: Shekhar you were the last person to speak to him and there is still such an air of mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death. Can you tell us what was said in that conversation?

SK: Nothing. I was in New York. We were talking about another film, and I called him and I said let's meet tonight. I'd just arrived and he said "I can't meet tonight, let's meet tomorrow" and he said "call me really early" and I said, "No I won't call you early, just sleep it off and I'll meet you later".

I was like a brother to him I used to have that relationship and his last words for me were, "No call me, call me and wake me up, as early as you want." But I didn't. I just said you know he's jetlagged, let him sleep, he's a star, I don't know, you know. Like let him be Shekhar, you know, just let him be.

AR: Somebody who said that he was depressed around that time. Did you detect anything during that conversation as to the state of his mind?

SK: We used to talk often. I mean he was... he went through a separation with his, his [AR: Michelle]. With Michelle. He was very very concerned about his daughter Matilda and I had gone through a divorce recently and he would constantly come to me and say, "What's your experience?" We used to talk about it all the time.

But Heath was one of the most optimistic people I ever knew. He was always on to something, he was always looking forward to tomorrow. I just wish I had insisted on seeing him that evening. If I had said, "No, just come and see me," he would have. But that's destiny, it's fate.

AR: Shekhar, "Bandit Queen" was an extremely daring move on your part. You must have known of the censorship that you'd face here in India, and also the controversy, particularly the gang rape scene, would spark. Talk to us about your recollections of filming that movie that made the world sit up and take notice of you.

SK: Well, the best thing about that film was that I was under no commercial pressure. Channel 4 television gave me the money to make a documentary and I said, could I make a feature, and they said yeah, well if you could make it in the same budget. And they would recover it all in one showing. So there was no pressure in making that film, so it's probably my most instinctive film. It's my most real film in that sense.

The gang rape scene... you know "Bandit Queen" for me was an exploration of my own sense, false sense of masculinity. So a large part of the provocativeness of "Bandit Queen" was me offloading my own guilt onto the audiences. And I remember, when I was shooting that scene, my DP who stood by me, I would keep throwing up. I would keep throwing up and I would keep saying to my DP, I don't want to shoot it. Because it's all cut up in little bits, my whole crew was wondering what's going wrong? But I could see the whole scene of the gang rape and when put together...because you didn't see anything except door opening and closing and opening and closing [AR: exactly].

But because it was creating that imaginative sense in the audience's mind, it was... I know in people, people...audiences were throwing up, women were screaming in the theatre telling them to stop the movie. And I would come out of the theatre and people would grab me by the neck and say, "What happened to you? You used to make beautiful films like "Masoom," why are you doing this to us?" Men and women would come out fighting with each other. You know, it caused that kind of thing. For me if you ever ask me if there was one film that was closest to you where you explored yourself completely that was "Bandit Queen."

AR: How though do you go about drawing the line between painting a sympathetic portrayal of her and making sure you don't cross the line into glamorizing the fact that, you know, no matter how badly she was violated she was a mass murderer?

SK: Couple of things. No film is about the individual. Not for me. I've given up enough films because the films were about the individual. They're about the society that time. And one massive thing if you see "Bandit Queen" again is what keeps coming across is everybody in that film is a product of the system. It's a system that creates it. So the murder happened because of what happened to her. So it's not about glamorization of the individual. It's a condemnation of the system because at that time, and still are, millions of women, low caste women, are still being raped in India. And that system is getting better, but it hasn't gone away yet. So it's not about that at all, it's about the system.

AR: One of your early directorial forays was in the sci-fi film "Mr India." Let's just take a quick look at that.

SK: You see, people are still enjoying it. I'm just amazed. I'm amazed at what this film did. I just made it for a lark. It was just like a fun film to make. Somebody came to me and said this and I said, okay let's go and have some fun and let's see if the kids really enjoy it, and it's's become one of those seminal films that nobody seems to forget.

On my website, people talk about "Bandit Queen" and "Elizabeth," but all talk about "Mr. India," all talk about "Mr. India." And I go to the US, you know every hedge fund is led by an Indian, and say, "Oh you're the director of "Mr. India." We grew up on it." And I said, yeah, yeah sure. It is stunning to me how that film has survived, and I think it's part of the joy of making that film. We just had so much fun. It was mad!

AR: Your relatives wanted you to stay far away from show business so eventually you became a chartered accountant. But how do you go from being counting to this?

SK: Well how do you get from being a rebellious kid to accountancy in the first place? Well. Remember India now is the center of the world, almost. At that time, it was on the periphery of the farthest galaxy. We were not allowed to go out more than twice a year. If you wanted to go out more than once every two years, you had to take permission from the government. And the only amount of money you could take out was $20. So we felt in a way imprisoned in our own country.

So this, this desire to go and...the center of the universe was London. Right? So it was deal, my father said you could go to London if you become an accountant. Yeah of course. I mean, accountancy didn't even come to my mind. It was going to London. It's where all the music came from, it's where the Beatles came from. It's where the Rolling Stones were. So I went to London, you know. Free sex. Right?

AR: Shekhar, we just saw you in Dharavi, which is one of the biggest slums in the world, which is going to be the location for your next movie, "Paani." Why is this such an important story for you to tell? You've wanted to do it for such a long time.

SK: I mean water is the biggest issue internationally. Most of the wars in the world are now being fought over water. Water is gonna be the new oil. It's gonna be the new oil. It's happening everywhere. Cities are running out of water everywhere, and when a concentrated body of 20 million people run out of water, there's going to be an immediate war.

AR: You've compared this film to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in terms of how much money you expect it to take at the box office. "Crouching Tiger..." took US$128 million in the US alone. That's a pretty tall order for "Paani" don't you think?

SK: I've got to get the funding for that. No, but it is. You it's time that everybody... it's a musical, it's in English and Hindi and it's going to be...It's time the largest filmmaking country in the world made a film that the world over becomes a major international commercial success. And the only reason we've not been able to do it is because we've not come up with a story that everybody says, yeah that's a story we want to hear.

So in the context of an entertainer, in the context of a mythical film, in the context of a love story, in the context of a family story, is told a story that everybody in the world is talking about. About the making of a Megapolis a mega city and the running out of water and what's going to happen?

AR: So, acting, directing, modeling, movies, musicals, you've done all of that. Scuba diving. Accountancy. But now you've set up Gotham Studios with among others Deepak Chopra and Richard Branson. What's the allure of comics for you?

SK: I just was obsessed with comic books as a kid and I think part of that is now showing in my films. My films have a slight comic-book quality and that comic-book quality is the dependence on the image to tell the story, not the dialogue. In fact if you see the films that I personally like, if you see "Elizabeth" and "Masoom" which films are actually co-written by me, you'll find very little dialogue. It's just going with the image.

So I've always been a fan of comic books, and when we set this up, I went out to write the first comic books, I wrote Devi and it became a huge success. Then I wrote "Snakewoman," so the idea was to draw characters from Indian and Eastern mythology, internationalize them, tell international stories, and then we did, co-wrote with some writers, we created Ramayana in the future. It was such fun and they're suddenly succeeding. I was reading reviews that "Devi" is the next "Lord of the Rings." And I thought, YES! I don't actually have to spend three years writing a book.

AR: You've taken on this sort of a role for yourself as a bit of an Asian film "crusader". How well do you think that Asian pictures realistically can do elsewhere, especially given the diversity of cultures in all of the various markets that they'd be catering to?

SK: Well, in India we're so used to that. We make films for Bengalis, who have nothing to do with Punjabis, and for Tamilians whose language we can't speak or understand and never will. And for Telegus who we don't understand and for Assamese who think they're a different country anyway. And you know, so we make films that actually run everywhere. So one thing we're used to is to make films of diversity.

The other thing is the world is changing. We're into what I call the influence of economy soon. I bet you, I bet you, in a few years, we'll still make "Spiderman 6" or 7, right, it'll make a billion dollars in its first year, 700 million will come from Asia. And when Spiderman takes his mask off, he'll either be Chinese or Indian.


And that's happening not only because consumption is rising, remember the cultures of India and China, in countries like that... we're suddenly getting confident. And we're expressing ourselves, we're getting richer. And now India and China are creating their own brands. And these brands, because of the new media, when 90 percent of the new Facebooks will be people from Asia. 80 percent of everything that goes onto YouTube will be Asian. That'll change the world to what they make. And then you will be sitting here with an American director and say, how can you make American/Hollywood films international when Asian films are dominating the world? Right?

AR: Shekhar it's been a real joy to meet you today, thank you so much for spending time with us. And that concludes this special edition of Talk Asia in Mumbai. I'd like to thank also, particularly our studio audience today for joining me, Anjali Rao, and my guest the acclaimed film director Shekhar Kapur. To everybody watching around the world, I'll see you on the next Talk Asia. Bye bye. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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