Kapur has grown comfortable in the role of diplomat.
I seem to have become one of the pivotal people
helping the West to understand the East, and vice
versa, says the India-born director. But
since Ive always believed there would be less
conflict in the world if there was more understanding
between East and West, Im really enjoying my
One of the growing number of Eastern filmmakers finding
enormous acclaim in the West, the director saw his
first English-language film, 1998s Elizabeth,
rocket Cate Blanchett to stardom and garner seven
Academy Award nominations, including one for Best
Picture. Some might even be tempted to mislabel the
57-year-old Kapur an overnight success.
Trained as an accountant, he was quick to decide he
didnt particularly want to spend the rest of
his life hovering over balance ledgers. I was
23 when I said, No, this is not what I want
to do, he remembers. I wanted a
job where I could truly express myself. I was attracted
to the arts, so I went home and broke the news to
my parents that I was going into the film business.
They were horrified. To their generation making movies
was not a job, it was just silly. My father said to
me, How will you contribute to society if you
make movies? Ill never forget that question.
Kapur moved to London where he found work as an actor.
He later hosted his own talk show on Channel 4 called
On the Other Hand while hustling for his
first directing job. I had a script in one hand
and a budget in the other and any person who looked
anything like a producer would suddenly get accosted
by me, Kapur admits. I think somebody
gave up in the end and said, Oh shit, just give
him a job so hell quit telling us his stories.
So I directed my first film. I made it for $40,000.
That film was 1983s Masoom, a critical
and commercial hit about a family torn apart by a
husbands infidelity. More movies in Bollywood
(the nickname for Indias thriving film community)
followed, but it wasnt until the 1994 release
of Bandit Queen that Kapur really hit
Bandit Queen told the tale of Phoolan
Devi (1963-2001), a kind of real-life female Robin
Hood who became a legend in India. The film was a
smash at Cannes and Kapur was soon recruited to direct
Elizabeth. Hes been busy ever since,
developing projects that incorporate his unique blending
of eastern and western philosophies.
One such project he co-produced but did not direct
is The Guru, an upcoming Universal release
starring young Indian actor Sanjeev Bhaskar opposite
American stars like Heather Graham and Marisa Tomei.
Kapur also conceived and served as associate producer
on the theatrical musical Bombay Dreams,
currently playing on Londons West End.
Kapurs second English-language directorial effort,
Paramounts The Four Feathers, stars
Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate
Hudson, and hits U.S. screens Sept. 20. Based on A.E.W.
Masons 1903 novel, Kapurs version is the
sixth cinematic adaptation of the tome, set in 1898
England and the Sudan. The story focuses on a young
British officer, Harry Faversham (Ledger), who resigns
his post when he learns hell be sent to the
Sudan to fight native rebels. His fiancée and
three fellow officers give him four white feathers,
symbolizing what they see as his cowardice. After
those fellow officers are captured by the enemy, his
disgrace drives him to singlehandedly undertake a
grueling rescue effort.
Even Kapurs dad can no longer deny his sons
contributions to the greater good. Says the filmmaker,
My father came to me and said, Youve
done so much more than you would have ever done as
attracted you to The Four Feathers?
Part of it is destiny. I have a great belief that
we are destined to do what we do and this film found
me. Another reason I chose it was a very childlike
one. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to film a battle
sequence, but not a high-tech battle. Ive always
wondered what it would be like to be in the middle
of a charge, in the kind of battles they used to have,
and this film had that. Also, on a more serious level,
when I read the script I asked myself whether Harry
Faversham was indeed a coward or not. I decided he
wasnt because you have to have a lot of courage
to face your fears. Harry was actually the bravest
of them all because he faced his demons and examined
them. Ive always believed that if you have the
courage to do that you come out stronger. Its
easier to face bullets than to go into yourself and
find out who you are. If you can survive that, then
you have wisdom, which is ultimately strength. That
was what I was attracted to.
been quoted as saying that you find female characters
more interesting than male characters, and your two
most successful films to date, Bandit Queen
and Elizabeth, have strong female protagonists.
What is it about female characters that intrigues
you and how does Harry Faversham fit in?
The reason I find women more interesting as characters
is that in cinematic culture today when a man is confronted
with danger he fights his way out with just his muscles.
I dont find that interesting.
why Im attracted to female characters. In Elizabeth
the character succeeds because of the resilience and
strength of the human spirit. Thats also why
I was so attracted to Harry Faversham. I picked a
male character who fights back with the resilience
of the spirit, not the size of his biceps. He doesnt
say, Heres a problem and I can solve it
by beating the shit out of everybody. That has
nothing to do with the spirit. My films are about
people in situations where the spirit has to become
stronger than the body.
Ledger was a relative newcomer when you cast him as
Faversham. What convinced you that he could handle
I met Heath once, just after he made 10 Things
I Hate About You. We had breakfast and I thought,
My God, what an interesting person. So
I remembered him. When Four Feathers came
along I screen tested him and I was looking for one
thing. The film is about boys who grow into men, because
thats what war does. Sometimes they come back
damaged men; sometimes they come back wise men. It
was important for Harry Faversham to come back with
wisdom. I sat down and talked with Heath about this.
What does maturity and wisdom and love mean? It means
having the capacity to give. I wanted to test whether
this actor could be a boy, then have the strength
to give when I required it of him, and when I tested
him I was quite stunned. I made him do scenes in the
beginning and scenes at the end, and I found that
when I spoke to him he was all of 22 at that
time he understood when I said, Heath,
strength is about the capacity to give, its
not about the capacity to kill. Its about how
much strength and love you can give to other people.
Thats growing up. He totally got that.
I think hes an old soul, because if he was not
an old soul I dont think he could have given
the performance he gave in this film.
cast Kate Hudson as Ethne, Harrys love interest.
What led you to her?
I had a call from Tom Cruise. He heard I was casting
and said I should look at this girl in Almost
Famous, which was directed by his friend Cameron
Crowe. At the time I was struggling a lot with the
Four Feathers script because its
such a mans story and I was finding that the
girl was getting left behind. I was worried because
the female role is the vessel that contains the whole
film. I dont know if people will understand
this, but I believe there is a female aspect to spirituality.
If spirituality is what the soul is about then [for
this film] it had to be contained in a female who
could bring that to the screen, but the part wasnt
written that way. It was subsidiary to the male parts.
I saw Almost Famous and thought Kate was
absolutely brilliant, but the character she played
in that film was so different from the character she
needed to play in Four Feathers. But I
met her and as we talked I realized she could do it;
and I have to say, rarely have I worked with someone
who has gone so far beyond the written part. Much
of what she brought to the character was not on the
page. She pitched it so right.
you have a good eye for emerging talent. Cate Blanchett
wasnt a big star when you cast her in Elizabeth.
Do you like working with new talent?
I do. Ive done that throughout my career in
India. There are two reasons I like it. First, it
makes filmmaking easier for me. New talents dont
come with a lot of star baggage. They havent
become overly aware of their own personalities. Its
easier to break new talent down and make them malleable
so they can reconstruct themselves in the context
of the part. Established stars find it more difficult
to break themselves down because the memories of what
theyve done in the past, what has failed and
what has succeeded, are so strongly embedded in their
minds. They keep going back and responding to something
that happened a while ago, so sometimes its
harder to get them to respond to something organic
thats happening now.
novel and the previous film versions of Four
Feathers were all pro-colonial, but youve
stated that you wanted your version to be anti-colonial.
How did you accomplish this?
Well, first of all I come from a country that was
colonized, so I have a natural rebellion against anything
like that. I tried to give the film an anti-colonial
stance, but its done visually in order to preserve
what the film is actually about. The movie isnt
about colonization but about friendship and honor
and dignity and love, about betrayal in the context
of friendship. So the challenge was keeping the integrity
of these themes, yet trying to find a way of giving
it a subtext of anti-colonization. One way we did
this, we put people in red costumes in the desert
and visually what I was trying to say was, Look
how out of place they look, to question whether
it was right for them to be there. This raised the
question, was Harry Faversham right about not wanting
to go to war? He does ask this question, but he ends
up going because his friends are in danger.
shot the film in Morocco and had to make script changes
due to the harsh climate, correct?
Yes. Morocco had such a severe drought that we couldnt
get any water anywhere, so at the last minute we had
to change the script. The journey that happens in
the desert was originally supposed to take place on
the Nile. There were wonderful sequences 25
British gunboats traveling down the Nile with little
Egyptian fishermen going by wondering What the
hell is going on? The boats were supposed to
reach the rapids and in those days they would make
the laborers get out and drag these huge gunboats
across the rocks and whip them along. We couldnt
shoot those scenes because there was no water.
addition to drought you faced windstorms and sandstorms.
How did you handle these setbacks?
Im a bit mad. At one point we were hit by this
huge dust storm and I said Lets shoot.
Where else will we get a dust storm? There are
four or five shots in the film that are actual dust
storms. There was one shot in which [horses] come
galloping at us and we were there at the center of
the camera. In a dust storm the basic visibility is
down to about 10 or 15 feet, and a horse going at
full gallop at 15 feet cant really see where
hes going. Basically the horses would have galloped
over [the director of photography, the assistant director
and me] and wed have all been martyred to the
cause of epic filmmaking. [laughs] But I didnt
find this out until later. There is also a scene where
Harry is shot off his horse by his best friend in
the middle of a battle and he leaps onto the back
of another horse in the middle of fifty galloping
horses. Heath did that himself. Most stuntmen wouldnt
do it. We didnt tell the producers or the insurance
stuntmen wouldnt do it and Heath Ledger did?
The stuntmen said to just cut into that scene, but
I didnt want to. Heath was only supposed to
run with the horse. He and I talked about it and he
said, Shekhar, what if I jump on? I said,
Youll do it? And he said, Yeah.
I remember we heard a gasp from the whole crew when
he jumped on that horse. Of course we only got one
take. He wanted to do a second take. He said, I
can do that better. I said, Dont
push it, Heath. [laughs]
not only did Heath Ledger do his own stunts, but the
battle scenes were shot using extras as opposed to
Thats right. We can still do epic cinema without
having to go to the computer. People dont make
films on this epic scale anymore, and when they do
its all to do with post production. We just
went out and shot it. It just looks so much more real.
scenes in the Sudan are told primarily through visuals.
Theres very little dialogue.
Let me tell you a story. On the first movie I ever
made, Masoom, the writer on the project
just disappeared, so I was left to my own devices.
I wasnt a trained filmmaker at that time and
I wasnt comfortable writing lines, so out of
necessity I had to write the screenplay using very
little dialogue. I found I really enjoyed telling
stories through not the picture so much as
the way the camera moves, and the choreography between
the actor and the camera. When I was making films
in India I used to bring my friends in after Id
finished a movie and Id shut off all the sound
and show the movie and ask them to tell me what they
understood. Did they know what was going on? What
I was trying to say? What story did they get out of
the film? If I found I needed lines for them to understand
I felt I had failed. I believe that when people talk,
when they face each other, a lot of what they are
really saying is in the subtext, their body language,
more than in what they actually say.
was very visual as well. Was it overwhelming taking
on such a larger-than-life Western historical figure
for your first English-language film?
Not for me because I knew nothing about her. [laughs]
I just came in and said, Whats the story?
I called my crew together and said, This is
not a historical film, its science fiction.
And if you look at the production design of Elizabeth
it could have been science fiction. All history is
interpretation anyway. So I told the story in a very
Eastern way. I did it like I was doing a film in Bombay.
Eastern films tend to examine the edge of emotions,
the edge of life. To us life is melodramatic. Death
is melodramatic. Western philosophy is about man being
in control of his own destiny. They are very committed
to cause and effect whatever you achieve happens
because you have worked hard for it. In the East were
not so committed to cause and effect. We often say,
It was supposed to happen, therefore it did.
When I shot Elizabeth I saw the character
as a woman moving towards her destiny. For all her
power, I often shot her looking very small with a
lot of stone around her. Stone to me represented continuity.
She was organic and would die, but stone would continue.
you surprised when Elizabeth was nominated
for seven Oscars?
Yeah, I was really surprised, because when I make
a movie I dont see what Ive done, I only
see what I didnt do. And I didnt think
that with my first English-language film Id
be on the same red carpet with
when I arrived
[at the Oscars] there was Steven Spielberg in front
of me and Gwyneth Paltrow behind me. I thought, This
cannot just happen.
you upset that you didnt receive a Best Director
No, no, no. I was just so surprised that we were nominated
in seven categories. Other people were upset and I
kept asking them, Why are you so upset?
There is a point where greed sets in if you let it.
At the start of a film you say I hope I can
complete it. Later you say, I hope people
dont laugh me out. Then when they dont
laugh at you, you say, I hope it has reasonable
box office. Then if that happens you say, Its
time I got great reviews. Then you get great
reviews and you say, Well, how about a few nominations.
You get a few nominations then you want to
win. When you win you want people to say what?
That this was the greatest film ever made? It never
stops. There is no limit to greed. I was just happy
to have what I got.
does directing in Hollywood differ from directing
In the East were all guerilla filmmakers. If
the scenes not working you just rewrite it on
the set and shoot it. Its done in 10 minutes.
In studio filmmaking there are levels of decision,
so I cant be as decisive right there and then.
Of course I would never get $50 million to shoot a
film in India, so its the trade-off. Making
a film in the West is like going to a supermarket.
You pick things off the shelf, you mix and match,
and then you go to the counter. In India when you
make a film its like going to a thieves market.
You could come back with nothing or you could come
back with a bargain. Filmmaking in India is more adventurous,
while in the West its more organized. Somewhere
in between is where true creativity lies.
What kind of film would you
like to make next?
I want to make a musical. Ive made musicals
in India, but I want to do
like what I try
to do with historical figures, where the main characters
come out in contemporary ways and become totally accessible
to anybody who watches them, and emotionally connecting.
If I cant make a musical in the West Ill
go back and make one in the East.
were attached to the film version of the Broadway
musical Phantom of the Opera at one time.
Whats happening with that?
Im not so much involved with it right now. I
think Andrew Lloyd Webber is very convinced that he
wants to film the show as it is. Theres one
rule that Ive followed whenever Ive made
a musical that you cannot sing the plot. The
plot has to go forward traditionally with dialogue.
What the songs do is accentuate the emotions. I saw
Evita and, although I personally liked
the film, I didnt think I would be happy making
a film in which the characters are always singing.
[Lloyd Webber] will either have to agree with me or
find a director whos willing to do it, maybe
quite successfully, but Im a little insecure
about doing that.
were also involved with Steinbecks Point
I was, but we never came to a script all of us could
agree on so I backed out of that one. I did like it.
I like anything that has some spiritual content.
about Long Walk to Freedom, the film about
Nelson Mandela, is that still happening?
Yes, Im working on Mandela. Im also working
on Foundation for Fox, Foundation
being the Isaac Asimov science fiction series [of
novels]. Theyre probably the most widely read
science fiction books ever. And Im going back
to my Elizabeth producers to work on a
film called Hippy-Hippy-Shake, based in
the wild days of the 60s. The base theme is:
In the context of free love how do you find true love?
the publication India Times voted you one of the 100
Most Handsome Indian Men of the Century. How
did you feel about that honor?
[big laugh] I saw that, too. The truth is its
down to the 100 most well-known faces, but it got
girls looking at me, so I guess thats good.