'Senna' Races To India: Director Asif Kapadia (Q&A)

Asif Kapadia - India 2011 portrait
Nyay Bhushan

Director Asif Kapadia had a homecoming of sorts with a special screening of his acclaimed documentary "Senna" during India's first Formula One race.

British director of Indian origin Asif Kapadia, 39, had a homecoming of sorts with a special screening – sponsored by Tag Heuer - of his acclaimed documentary Senna (on the late Brazilian motorsports icon Ayrton Senna) which took place in New Delhi during India's first Formula One race last weekend. Kapadia spoke with THR India correspondent Nyay Bhushan on the global appeal of Formula One and Senna (who died at age 34 in a 1994 race accident).

The Hollywood Reporter (THR): After Senna (produced by the U.K.'s Working Title with Universal handling distribution) won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at Sundance, it seems the film gathered speed in reaching out to wider audiences (grossing almost $12 million to date following its selected worldwide and U.S. release). Did you expect that?

Asif Kapadia (Kapadia): We didn't expect it but we knew that there were obviously a lot of Senna fans and Formula One fans and we wanted the film to be accurate for them. So we realized early on that people who came to see the film ended up seeing it again and again. The challenge was to also get the non-fans into the cinema because once they saw it, they would like it. For instance, getting women interested in this film who don't like motorsport, but once they saw the film, they fell in love with the man, he is so charismatic. I mean even when people saw the rough cut of the film, they liked it and that started building a strong word of mouth, a good vibe from early on. The challenge was to get the word out and that's where online social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube worked. When the trailer went online, it got a million hits just in Brazil. And because social networking is instant and global, if you are a Senna fan anywhere in the world, even India, you got to know about this movie.
THR: With India successfuly hosting its first Formula One race (held near New Delhi), the timing for the film couldn't be more perfect.
Kapadia: We couldn't have planned it better. The film's writer and co-producer, (U.K.-based Manish Pandey who also came for the India screening), was born in India and the director is of Indian origin. When I was making the film, I realised Brazil has a lot in common with India, in terms of being a vast country, the culture and extreme contrasts in poverty and wealth. They love their sports and heroes, music, religion, family - and you see all this in Senna's life. So right at the beginning, I knew Indians are going to love this film. And now with Formula One coming to India, its like the sport is leaving the old countries in Europe and coming to new countries like India and Russia because there's money and opportunities here. Because Formula One is really about money and politics so we know why it's going to China and other countries. So it's great that it's all coming together.
THR: While the film doesn't have an India distributor yet, how did the promotional India screening (introduced by top Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton) come about?
Kapadia: Karun Chandhok (Indian Formula One racing driver) is one of the people who organized this screening because obviously he has been a huge Senna fan and he saw the film many times, in London and Monaco. He and Manish were in touch and worked out the event for India. Its also great that (British driver and 2008 Formula One World Champion) Lewis Hamilton has a huge fanbase in India so that's special. I am hoping that we can get Senna distributed here. It really is a film for everybody, that's what Senna's story is about. It's also very emotional as he takes on the system and the politicis and stands by what he believes in. Maybe you know everything or know nothing (about Formula One), his story stands out.

THR: You have said that you were a bit of an outsider for such a project so was that an impetus for you to take a different approach?

Kapadia: What I meant by that is that the people who are into Formula One are really really into it. They know every little logo on the car. I am more of a general sport fan and not an authority. Manish Pandey is the hardcore Senna fan. My job was almost to be part of the audience who don't know much about Formula One and to make the film relevant to them. If this is a film about a man who transcended his sport, well then we also wanted the film to transcend the sports documentary, we wanted it to stand up as a movie.
THR: What was the response from the Senna family?
Kapadia: I think it was always going to be very tough and very emotional for them. The truth is that we really did our homework, we got our facts right and we spoke to everybody. It took us four years to make and we cut 15,000 hours of footage to 90 minutes. And they respected that because there were things that were probably difficult for them to watch. And they understood that everything was there for a reason -- every shot, every cut, had a reason. It was done with an honesty. The response was great because they saw the work that went into it.
 THR: So do you have any Oscar hopes for Senna?
Kapadia: Well I am a bit superstitious about these things considering my last experience with The Warrior (Kapadia's acclaimed 2001 debut that was chosen as the U.K. Oscar entry but rejected by the Academy which did not consider the film British given its primary dialogue was in Hindi.) So honestly I am not thinking much about that. But I must say that in the U.S. we have a great distributor (Cinetic founder John Sloss' Producers Distribution Agency which last year distributed Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop).
THR: So what are you working on next?

Kapadia: Well the obvious thing I shouldn't be doing is another motorsports documentary but yes, I am definitely open to another documentary project. At the same time, I am also looking at a possible feature project but honestly, whether its a documentary or a feature, it all really depends on the nature of the story.