CANNES Q&A: 'Bollywood' Director Shekhar Kapur

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The filmmaker unfurls his "Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told" documentary Saturday.

As one of the rare Indian filmmakers to work in both Bollywood and Hollywood, Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur, 66, is probably the right person to present a documentary Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, unfurling Saturday in an Out of Competition red carpet screening. The project is backed by UTV Motion Pictures and co-directed by Bollywood filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and American documentary-maker Jeff Zimbalist (Favela Rising, The Two Escobars). Just before jetting off to the Croisette, Kapur spoke with THR’s Nyay Bhushan on the cohesiveness of Indian cinema.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did the idea for the “Bollywood” documentary come about?

Shekhar Kapur: I was on the Cannes jury last year and Thierry Fermaux started chatting about the fact that there are hardly any Indian films at Cannes. So he said to me, ‘Why don’t you do a film about the wonderful song and dance culture of Bollywood and after it is screened, can you have the audience actually dancing at the end.’ He saw me doing that with [2002’s West End musical] Bombay Dreams [co-produced by Kapur with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber featuring music by A R Rahman]. So I said I would love to do it. I also saw that as an opportunity to not just explain why music is such an important part of our films but also show the changing political and social environment of India over the decades. And I wanted to avoid the usual documentary style of interspersing one interview after another but instead focus on the songs. I want to see if the product can sell itself without any analysis because that stops you from falling in love. And that’s why we titled it Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told. The audience should see why over a billion people are having a love affair with this kind of cinema. Its been quite a delicate process to do this, including clips from almost a 100 films from black and white to today’s cinema.

THR: International observers are still intrigued about the potential for Indian cinema to appeal to a wider audience. How do you see this at a time when the corporate side of the Indian entertainment industry is going global (as seen with companies like Reliance or VFX player Prime Focus)?

Kapur: I think the corporate side of the business is taking advantage of whatever opportunities are coming along. I haven’t seen any corporations supporting a ground breaking Indian film with international appeal. The corporates are only giving more to what is already there. Historically, Indian cinema has been led by individuals who gamble everything to make a film such as past masters like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt. You still see this today with a top star like Shah Rukh Khan producing and starring in [upcoming big budget super hero caper] Ra.One. Passion for cinema cannot come from corporatisation, passion comes from individuals. So what is not happening is that corporates are not backing the individual’s passion. And the reason is that corporates are governed by existing market data.

THR: And you now also have Hollywood studios getting active in local production.

Kapur: Every film that I have seen produced by a foreign studio here, none of them has actually tried to break internationally or create greater or newer norms. And then on the other side you have an Indian production like [2010 hit release] super-hero caper Robot [starring South Indian superstar Rajnikant] which gets talked about for its visual effects in an international technology magazine like Wired. What the corporates really need to do is back that kind of passion by supporting it financially and with marketing. When you look at the Hollywood studios here, their focus is quite clear in catering to the domestic market where a really successful film can gross upwards of $50 million. They are looking to be a part of this pie, they are not here to be adventurous.

THR: Unlike most film cultures outside the mainstream, India is in a unique position to have a very strong domestic market for its films. Shouldn’t that also be a good reason for Indian filmmakers to have global aspirations?

Kapur: Well, the U.S. film industry spring-boarded globally from its strong domestic market. So today, American films earn more overseas — probably at 70 percent — compared to domestic collections. And their budgets also increased substantially prompting them to seek wider markets. Now this is starting to happen in India, too, where budgets have been increasing in recent years so they will have to increase market penetration. But I also believe that when budgets were lower, our films were much better.

THR: When the stakes are high with big budgets there’s always that age-old tussle between the suits and the stars. Do you see that happening in Indian cinema where perhaps even the songs are somehow being influenced to better market a film?

Kapur: I don’t think that the way songs are filmed in today’s cinema has anything to do with corporate influence. That is a natural process of our cinema, an expression of the need of the audience. If the style of songs is changing then that is a rebellion of today’s youth against the orthodoxy of the past. So what you will infer from this documentary is the demographics of India where 65 percent of the population is young with increasing spending power. They are rebelling — their sexual mores are changing. Twenty years ago you would never hear about girls saying they will explore their sexuality before marriage. So today’s films are expressing that. There was a time when you couldn’t make an Indian film with a hero without showing his mother! Where do you see that now in today’s cinema?

THR: This documentary is also interesting in its team where you had a leading Bollywood director (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra) working with an American documentary maker [Jeff Zimbalist].

Kapur: Yes, that was quite a mix because we had these two directors [with Kapur as co-producer]. On one side you have somebody like Mehra who has done some big mainstream Bollywood films and is steeped in the rich legacy of Indian cinema. And then you have an internationally celebrated documentary filmmaker like Jeff who had never seen an Indian film before he started work on this project. It was an interesting journey for both of them.

THR: Do you see Indian cinema sensibilities influencing international cinema thus creating a new genre of sorts, as seen, for example, with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge? Martial arts cinema influences have integrated quite well with Hollywood so can something like that happen for Bollywood?

Kapur: I believe somebody from India should do it [at a global scale]. Internationally, somebody like Baz has a natural tendency for that kind of cinema if you look at his earlier films. And if you ask me, Titanic was really a Bollywood film. Other than the technology, I mean, it was the kind of story you see in most Indian films — rich girl, poor boy romance against the odds. But taking a wider view, in my opinion, the problem right now with western cinema is that it doesn’t celebrate cinema. But I guess that this is also a cultural thing. I mean if you go to other cultures like in Africa, India or anywhere in Asia, we sing and dance at every occasion. Where do you find that in the U.S., except in New Orleans? So the culture is far more expressive in Asia. And in India, our traditional festive, celebratory culture has seeped into our cinema. In the West there is a clear definition for a film whether its a musical, a romcom, a comedy or whatever. In India it’s everything — one film can be a musical, a romcom, an actioner, a comedy and more. And all this comes from India’s “Nautanki” or folk theatre culture. The West doesn’t have it but can the West derive from it? Of course it can. I think they would do well to derive from it. Indian audiences don’t mind songs in a suspense thriller. We accept the cohesion of different aspects of life within one genre. And this contrasts with the western style where genres are isolated.

THR: Looking at your own upcoming project, Paani [Water], perhaps audiences will see this kind of cohesion in your film?

Kapur: Absolutely. I wrote Paani very instinctively without thinking of any genre. So I will instinctively use music to push emotions like anger or oppression or hope. I mean when some critics said Elizabeth was like a Bollywood movie, I took that as a compliment.

THR: So you are looking forward to the Cannes screening?

Kapur: It’s a great slot we got with a screening at the Lumiere. The only other red carpet they have that day is for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

THR: Well, if you ask me, Pirates is as good a Bollywood film as any.

Kapur: It sure is.

Shekar Kapur Vital Stats
Film in Cannes: Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told
Nationality: Indian
Date of Birth: Dec. 6, 1945
Selected Filmography: Masoom (1983); Mr. India (1987); Bandit Queen (1994); Elizabeth (1998), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Notable Awards: Golden Globes nomination for best director, Elizabeth (1999), National Board of Review, best director, Elizabeth (1998)