There’s No Greater Form Of Storytelling Than Poetry Or Music: Shekhar Kapur

Director Shekhar Kapur and composer AR Rahman describe their musical production ‘Why?’ as they embrace what Expo 2020 Dubai stands for
There’s No Greater Form Of Storytelling Than Poetry Or Music: Shekhar Kapur

Edited excerpts from an interview between Baradwaj Rangan, Shekhar Kapur and AR Rahman: 

Baradwaj Rangan (BR): You two have been trying to work together for the longest time. If memory serves me right, since Ta Ra Rum Pum? I think you even recorded some songs together. Is that right?

Shekhar Kapur: We've recorded many songs together, but you know what? It's not "we've been trying to work together for so long." We've been working together for so long. And now, finally, this has come out. 

AR Rahman: Everything, all the stuff you do evolve into something beautiful later. 

But this is the first time after all those years, that something has actually come out with the both of you as opposed to the other movies during which you knew each other. Even Dil Se.. was a co-production where you worked together. But this is the first time that something by Shekhar Kapur has been scored by A.R. Rahman, and has come to the public. Am I right?

Shekhar Kapur: I think that's the wrong word — "Something by Shekhar Kapur." Actually, if you ask me, where does the director end and the composer start? That's been our relationship. And I think that's why sometimes it's tough because it's always "he's composing the songs and he's directing." It should be "they're directing together and also composing together." When you develop a relationship, it is presented by A.R Rahman and Shekhar Kapur together. Somewhere the provocations and the thoughts and the ideas are the same. 

Let's talk about this musical that's being premiered at Dubai where you are right now. I'm just, firstly, intrigued by the title itself — Why? 

AR Rahman: We met in 2019. I was in Baku because I think my movie 99 Songs, its colour correction got delayed. So I said I'm not gonna wait for ten days. My friend Sami Yusuf was there so I said let's go meet Sami and I pulled my kids and went to Baku. And then suddenly Shekhar called and said "AR, can you come to Dubai?" So I went there. The dome was being built and then we went to the site. I looked at it and the enormity of that, and I said "oh my god." If we can do something on this, a musical, that'll be so cool. And by then, you know, the roof went up. We met in four other places — Boston, London, Chennai, Mumbai. I took a white board and all his ideas kept flowing. I said okay, let's pin it down, a b c d, you know, like a whole chart. 

And then, Artists in Motion, they came in. I think it's an interesting thing where we threw things at them. I got Sohaila Kapur, Shekhar's sister, who I've tried to work with for twenty years. She came up with a lot of ideas. I said we're gonna do the first song, give me one word for curiosity. And she said "why." I said great, this is the title of the thing. Strangely, this is the first song, 'Why Why Why'. Then Dana Dajani came in and another writer from Jordan-Palestine. 

So I was very fascinated by a completely different group of people and doing something which I've never done before. When you go work on musicals abroad they tell you what to do and how it is and there are so many parameters. Here, we just embraced what Dubai is— support, taking humanity to the future, aspiring, sustainability and art. Aspiring to a greater future for the whole human race. Then 'Why?' came. The song started falling in place and then he developed a new character. Apart from wisdom and curiosity, he came up with this brilliant idea. Now we are in the final rehearsals.

Shekhar Kapur: There's nothing that the human imagination ends without. Ending with one word — Why? We could go to the ends of the universe and probably have the question, well, why? Not why did you go there but what lies ahead. Because while we are addicted to ends, you know, we know inside us that nothing ends — nothing began, nothing ended. 

So there's always a question — Why? So you become a child or ask a child, everything is "Why?" And actually, as you become older, you ask an adult, you push him and say "But why?" Why encompasses the whole of imagination. All of our imagination can be encompassed in one word —And therefore you start discovering. You go to art, you go to science, you go to all kinds of things only because you want to know why.

BR: Rahman, what you just said, it was not like somebody commissioned you when you guys took a look at the venue. Something about it just said, let's create something appropriate for it, is that how it happened? 

AR Rahman: I think, usually, everything's given on a brief. Here I think he's throwing ideas at me and I said how about this and how about that. That's it, I think by then we have nine tracks. We thought we'd have five tracks and it's gone to nine. Suddenly he came in and said we were planning on the opening to be very orchestral, listen to it, there's a temp music which the company put in. I said I don't like this, I wanna rap. Everyone went like "What?" 

Immediately, the next day, I gave the story of the world in a rap format. And then it doesn't follow that pattern, it breaks, goes to musical theatre, then it goes to world music. On the whole I think it embraces what the expo actually stands for — culmination of so many things, taking ideas forward.

Shekhar Kapur: I think we commissioned ourselves. That's what we did. It's been a strange experience because we were trusted. And nobody's asked us at the expo. They just said, yeah, you want to do that, do it. Nobody asked us what the story was. Nobody asked us what the format is. We just promised them that they will be proud of this and they will know it for many years to come that we encompass, as Rahman says, the very ideas of how humanity moves forward with the question "Why?" It's very simple, actually. Rahman has always said to me that the only way you and I will work together is when a producer comes after us with a dunda (stick). We had no producer, we did it because it just emerged. We found that absolute trust actually is the biggest dunda because now you take responsibility. 

AR Rahman: And there's no limitation to that, that we have to stop here. It goes on and on and on. That was empowering. And I think that at this stage of my life it's a whole new experience. Especially after all the Covid lockdowns coming here. Whatever you want, you get. Orchestra and chorus and this and that.

BR: So when you say it's a musical, is it a wall-to-wall musical or is it music and dialogues?

AR Rahman: It's music and dialogues, all those things. See, there are many things which are so unique in the Middle East or India or the East which get stereotyped in the West. This is an opportunity for us to bring in those and put it, in a way, on a world stage and say this is also part of culture. That's very important. That's the biggest thing, I felt like for the first time you can put something which is very eastern, spiritual.

So nobody's gonna say I don't like that, what is that, my western ears are aching. We need a multicultural kind of a song and it has to be there. That's how it is, that's how we envision the whole thing. And it took time, even for some of our friends in the show, to get used to things. And then they said oh, this is the best song. That's it, it evolved. Sometimes they were shocked by our ideas and then they'd say this is the best idea. They'll own it. 

Shekhar Kapur: It's a story. And the music provokes the story. There's no greater form of storytelling than poetry or music.

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