In fearless pursuit...
In a span of 20 years he has directed only four films. But he is considered one of the world's best film-makers. Why? RATNA RAJAIAH discusses Shekhar Kapur's speciality.
"I think that's what it's like with all our dreams and nightmares. You've got to keep feeding them to keep them alive... " John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind".
IF STATISTICS were the only measure of the greatness of a man's work, then Shekhar Kapur should be nowhere in the reckoning in the world of cinema. The year 1974: "Ishq Ishq Ishq" produced and directed Dev Anand who was also the hero in the film, starring Zeenat Aman and Shabana Azmi one at the height of her long-limbed, luscious charm, the other peaking as an actress extraordinaire. It also had a clutch of hoping-to-be heroes and among them was a curly-haired, handsome young man who mostly spent the little footage given to him sulkily scowling at the camera. The young man's name was Shekhar Kapur.
It's not surprising that his debut was a dismal failure. After "Ishq Ishq Ishq," Shekhar acted in about six more films, all of which sank without a trace. So, at a time when Hindi cinema was exploding with superstars and multi-star casts (Rajesh Khanna was high up in the firmament and the sun of Amitabh Bachchan had just begun to rise), it would be cruel but fair to say that Shekhar Kapur was probably better known as Shabana Azmi's boy friend than as an actor in the making. Or then perhaps as Dev Anand's foolish nephew who chucked up a cushy, glamorous life as a chartered accountant and management consultant in London to come to Bombay to pursue what for so many begins as glittering, glorious dreams but almost invariably turns into a terrible mirage... Many would call them "Bombay dreams... " The great filmmakers of Bollywood have succeeded not because of any planned funding but because they dreamt big, they attempted big. It is their passion that translated into great movies.
Shekhar Kapur 1982. In an industry where even then, a week was a long time, eight years of virtual oblivion should have been long enough to finish a man's filmi aspirations. But not for Shekhar. He had just resurfaced as a film director. The film was "Masoom", an adaptation of Eric Segal's "A Man and a Woman." Like "Ishq Ishq Ishsq", this film too had the big names presumably needed to kick start it at the box office. Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Saeed Jaffery, Gulzar (screenplay, lyrics and dialogue) and R. D. Burman. But it also had, at the heart of its story, three little kids. To capture a child's spontaneous, unpredictable magic is hard enough for a seasoned director. (That too in an industry known for extracting syrupy, unnatural parodies of bad adult acting from its child artistes.) For a director making his debut, it was nothing but suicide. And everyone told Shekhar so. But he was never one to bother with safety nets, so why should he start now?
He plunged headlong into his suicidal venture and almost as if to make sure of its success, Shekhar cast three children who had never acted before. (Two of them were Urmila Matondkar and Jugal Hansraj.) The suicide attempt failed happily! "Masoom" was not just a commercial hit but also a hugely critically acclaimed film. R. D. Burman composed one of his sweetest, most enchanting scores for it, (Tujhse naaraz nahin zindagi hai ran hoon main, Do naina aur ek kahani, thoda sa baada, Lakadi ki kaathi, kaathi pe ghoda, Huzoor is qadar bhi na itara ke chaliye) winning him his second and last Filmfare award. (He won another for "1942 - A Love Story" but that was posthumously.)
Naseer's and Shabana's performances were among the finest in their career, getting both of them best actor and actress nominations and winning Naseer the award. (Shabana too won the Best Actress award she had to because she had four nominations but for her role in "Arth"!) In all, ``Masoom" got seven Filmfare nominations, including Best Film and Best Director and it won four of them. But most incredible of all and this is what made the film so utterly magical and unforgettable was that Shekhar managed to extract perhaps the most endearing and brilliant performances from the three children since Baby Naaz and Rattan Kumar in "Boot Polish". You might say that it wasn't a bad debut at all. And, in one swoop, Shekhar Kapur became Hindi cinema's hottest new property. You'd think that what followed would be the most prolific period of such budding brilliance. Think again. It was another five years before Shekhar drummed up his next film. "Mr. India". Released in 1987. And if anyone had thought that "Masoom" was a just flash in the pan from an anglicised director who made charming but small budget, bordering-on-art-film cinema, they were wrong.
With "Mr. India", Shekhar took the Hindi phillum formula, shook out every whiff of staleness and lovingly restored all its corny, cliché-ridden magic to present us with one of Hindi cinema's most thoroughly entertaining films. (And just for good measure, to show he could do it again perhaps, the film had not three but seven kids this time!)
"Mr. India" was what in the industry they call a blockbuster hit. Mogambo khush hua became almost as popular as Kitney aadmi they? And Sridevi's sinuously electrifying dance number, Kaatey nahin kaatey, Yeh din yeh raat (sung by Alisha Chinoy!) redefined on-screen oomph and almost dethroned Helen as India's reigning male fantasy.
Okay, you think, so now Shekhar would take off. But after "Mr. India", there was nothing. True, he remained visible with things like a wonderfully understated performance in Kavita Chaudhury's hugely successful television serial "Udaan", as host of a very well received talk show on Channel 4 called "On the Other hand" and as one of the founder members of the board of the TV channel launched by Business India. But it was not enough to stop the stardust of "Masoom" and "Mr. India" from fading away or to prevent the emerging of a disturbing new avatar of Shekhar Kapur. He began to be better known for the films he walked out of than the films he made. Still considered one of Hindi cinema's brightest directors, but for a producer, Shekhar was an unpredictable risk because he never knew when he'd walk out.
The most publicised exit was from "Joshilay", a film as high profile and star-studded as "Mr. India". And in 1993, he walked out of "Champion", the film that was to launch Dharmendra's incredibly good-looking younger son, Bobby Deol. The film industry was ready to forget Shekhar Kapur.
Then a funny whisper started. That Shekhar was working on some project for Channel 4, supposedly based on the life of Phoolan Devi. Koi phirangiyon keliye documentary hoga! was the cruel dismissal in many quarters. But slowly, as footage of the film started appearing in technicians' rooms, the whispers started to change to grudging admiration and amazement that perhaps Shekhar was going to do it again?
And a few months later, "Bandit Queen" exploded on the world. It was 1994, a full seven years after "Mr. India". It was a raw, visceral, shocking film that pounded itself into the limelight. For many reasons. Along with the gushing hurrahs of "Brilliant!" were an equal number of cries of scathing criticism accusing the film of, among other things, of lying and being just "a classy version of your run-of-the-mill, rape n' retribution theme that our film industry churns out every now and then" (Arundhati Roy - The Great Indian Rape Trick).
With an aplomb that perhaps only Shekhar can manage, he rode the controversies, navigating them mostly to the film's commercial favour. And as usual, his timing was impeccable. Phoolan Devi was released from jail just before "Bandit Queen" was due to go to the Cannes film festival. Not allowed to see the film, she added her bit to the controversy by filing a petition in the Delhi High Court preventing the film's release pleading that it falsely depicted her life and invaded her sexual privacy. The film skated on all this to become the toast of the Cannes film festival. And Shekhar Kapur became Western cinema's next most exciting import from India after Satyajit Ray...
Since "Bandit Queen", Shekhar has made only one film "Elizabeth." An audacious, fabulously mounted, gloriously lush interpretation of the life of Queen Elizabeth I with a star cast that had the who's who of international cinema - Kate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush and Sir Richard Attenborough.
Some, and Shekhar himself, would say that it was a Hindi film version of the flamboyant Queen's life. The film walked a path that had by now become trademark Shekhar Kapur. Acclaim and controversy.
Elizabeth got 11 Oscar nominations, some affronted reviews and when it was finally released in India, a much-publicised run in with the Indian Censor board.
Another Shekhar Kapur film had come home to roost... 2002. So, time to tot up the figures. In all, Shekhar has directed four films in his 20 years as a film director. But he has walked out of/dropped at least four films "Joshilay", ``Dushmani" "Champion" (finally released as "Barsaat") and "Mandela." And has another two films left unfinished "Time Machine" and "Ta-ra-rum-pum-pum". And is still considered one of not just India's but the world's most talented film directors. Why?
Perhaps the answer lies in these things. First that Shekhar is a great filmmaker. Secondly that he has never done anything that does not ring true to him or that he has passionately not believed in. Thirdly that every one of his four films reflects Shekhar's particular genius is, to be able to walk into a genre and without disturbing its recognisable skin, recast it to become his signature.
All this, coupled with commercial success and in the case of "Bandit Queen" and "Elizabeth", with enormous controversy and publicity has ensured that Shekhar has made every one of these four films count. As good cinema. And as cinema that you can quarrel with but never ignore or forget.
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