Recently, Shekhar Kapur rewatched Bandit Queen (1994) and it reduced him to tears. “I don't know when I'll be able to make a film like this again,” he said while recounting the moment during an interview with Film Companion. While it is admittedly hard to imagine a film like Bandit Queen, which is based on the life of dacoit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi, making it to cinemas today, it is also true that Kapur is not a director known for retreading the same path. So arguably — if his filmography so far is any indication — he’s never going to make a film like the one he’s already made.
Before becoming a feature film director, Kapur had been a chartered accountant, made an acting debut in his uncle actor-director Dev Anand’s Ishk Ishk Ishk (1974), dabbled in modelling and directed advertising films. His first film was Masoom (1983), starring Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Jugal Hansraj, which was frequently mistaken for a children’s film because it put the chubby-cheeked Hansraj front and centre in the poster and the soundtrack (composed by R.D. Burman) had the playful “Lakdi ki Kaathi”. Actually, Masoom is a complex and poignant story about loss, infidelity and love that continues to feel relevant 40 years after its release.
Kapur’s next was the legendary Mr. India (1987), arguably India’s first superhero film, which gave us not only a delightful hero, but also the unforgettable Mogambo (Amrish Puri), the lovable Calendar (Satish Kaushik) and song sequences made iconic by Sridevi. Kapur took a sharp turn away from the gloss and masala of commercial cinema to make the controversial Bandit Queen, which Devi claimed was inaccurate and the film’s depictions of violence and rape led to it being banned briefly. From here, Kapur catapulted himself into the global scene by making Elizabeth (1998), which became Cate Blanchett’s breakout role. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards. The sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), won the Oscar for Best Costume Design.
What’s Love Got To Do With It? (2022) sees Kapur return as a director with a film that seems almost modest compared to his previous work. Written by Jemima Goldsmith, the film is about a London-based filmmaker (Lily James) who decides to make a documentary about her neighbour and friend (Shazad Latif) when he opts for an “assisted marriage” to a woman in Pakistan. The film also stars Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi, and afforded Kapur a chance to shoot in Lahore, the city of his birth.
After doing a round of international film festivals, What’s Love Got To Do With It? releases in India this week. Kapur spoke to us about his films over Zoom. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What have you been up to in the past decade?
Living, loving, breathing. But in the last decade, I've done two stage musicals. For Fox in the US, I did a series called Damien. Then I did a pretty big series for TNT based on the young life of William Shakespeare. It's called Will. But I spent a lot of time in India wanting to make Paani, but that never happened so I came back to the US and started doing all these things.
What's Love Got to Do with It? is your first directorial feature since Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). What about its story appealed to you?
The fact that it was funny and it was about love. It was about family. It was the right thing to do during the COVID times because we had forgotten to hug each other. So it's about family, it's about forgiveness, it's about compassion. It's about understanding that every culture is very similar. For me, the fact that there were people of Pakistani origin settled in London didn't matter. It could be Indian, they could be Chinese, they could be Jewish in New York, …everybody that I know has the same issues. Finding love is a global thing. Everybody is looking for love. What I love about the film is, in the end, it still says, love is a constant state of discovery, of longing, a constant state of yearning. All of that appealed to me.
What was it like working with Shabana Azmi now compared to Masoom?
It's like we never stopped. This is the first time I worked with her after Masoom. Over time, we've been through life experiences, so we understand life a little bit more. I think between Shabana and me, I didn't have to do much. I didn't have to say a lot to her till she completely understood. But a lot of time I spent with my actors talking about the part, rehearsing the part. … If you ask me about any one character in the film, I can tell you a huge backstory, and their relationships. They are not in the film at all. In order to define someone, look at the other life that is not in the film, what's this other life like? Because that's how you find who you are on screen.
How was it to work with the rest of the cast?
The first reading we ever had, I kept looking at Emma Thompson: “How is she responding to me?” Because she is a director also, an Oscar-winning actor and admired all over the world. She kept nodding at everything I said. I said, “Look Emma, I have to tell you, if you keep nodding, it's making me nervous.” … I would always ask her, “'Emma, how would you do that?” She always had an idea. She understood the part perfectly. She designed her own clothes to go with the part. “Shekhar, I'm gonna suggest this is this way” and I would quickly say, “Yup, that's exactly what I was thinking.” She's so professional that – this is the best thing I can say – (she) was always better than how I thought she should do it. She was amazing.
Lily James and I started a WhatsApp relationship because during COVID lockdown, I was up in the mountains and she was in London. For months, we would WhatsApp each other about the nature of love, and what we’re looking for. She said, “Shekhar, I'm going to ask you for one thing. Tell me when I'm bad. Don't worry. I know everybody has said things about me, that I throw tantrums. I promise you I won't do it. Just tell me the truth.” It became a very honest and truthful relationship. Lily has given what I think is her most revealing performance. She has gone out of the way to reveal herself. No actor does that in what they call a ‘rom-com’. …
There's Shazad (Latif) … his first scene with Shabana – they play mother and son – and I said, “Cut.” Shabana walked away and Shazad kept sitting there. I said, “Shaz, what happened?” He was totally still and said, “This has never happened to me before. Shabana has mesmerized me in this short scene, completely mesmerized me.” His performance from that one day, when he worked with Shabana, to the rest of the film was completely different.
Would you say the film tries to defy the stereotypes attached to a conventional romcom?
I broke out of it by making sure that the characters are real, making sure that wherever you come from the world, you'll recognise your family, you'll recognise yourself in the film. That happens because the actors are real. So that's where this film is different. The actors are not playing up to a comedy. They're being real and in that reality exists the comedy.
How does the film portray desire and intimacy?
The wonderful thing about this film is that it's not teaching you anything, it's not imposing anything on you. … We call it arranged marriages as a term in South Asia. But they are arranged everywhere. You think Jewish mothers don't arrange marriages for their sons or do you think Chinese moms are not constantly looking to create arranged marriages? That's what attracted me because love is a mystery and if you ask me, love will always be a perpetual mystery. The day it stops being a mystery, stops being a longing, a yearning, love's gone. If you are in a relationship with somebody, long term, the other person is a reflection of you. … Can you give yourself a defined identity? So if you can't give yourself a defined identity, how come you can give your partner a defined identity? The existence of love always has to be a mystery. That's what I'm trying to say, that don't look for an ending. There are no rom-coms. You don't live happily ever after. That moment is the beginning. It's not the end and that's what I loved about this (story).
Since the time you made Masoom and Mr India as opposed to the present, has your perception of love evolved?
Of course. I don't think I'm sceptical. When you are much younger, you're restless. That's a good thing. Restlessness creates adventures, it creates creativity but you make too many quick decisions. “Oh I'm in love, this is going to be for the rest of my life,” how often do young people do that? They commit themselves for the rest of their lives and say, “Oh shit. What did I do?” You didn't wake up the same person that you were yesterday. There is a Hindi word that I've never found in English — sthirta. As you grow old, you realise true love that is born out of a sense of sthirta. You're still restless but you are not in the hurricane. You (are) in the eye of the hurricane, where there is true stillness. The hurricane is still going on, and there is still chaos, you put your hand out and it's going around you. But you know how to get into the eye of the hurricane. Over time that's what you learn to do. The ability to be still in chaos. You've to become part of the chaos.
I used to do my own version of surfing at Juhu beach when I was a kid. And in monsoons, everybody said, “Don't go swimming, you'll get swept away, you'll drown.” But I would go out in the monsoons because I love the big waves. Why did I like them? I used to give into the waves and then I would tumble in the wave. Basically what you are doing is you're becoming one with the wave. That's what you learn. That's where stillness is. You're no longer fighting the chaos, you become the chaos. And there's stillness, understanding and wisdom in that moment. I've not made a spiritual film but you've asked me this question, so I answered you.
How was your experience collaborating with writer Jemima Goldsmith? Do you think this story comes from a personal place?
She was married to Imran Khan and it resulted in a divorce. She still has two sons from him whom she looks after, and Imran and her talk a lot but yes, she got married in Pakistan. It does come from there. Working with Jemima…I kept telling her, “If two people agree about everything, two highly creative people and passionate people completely agree on everything, one of them is lying.” I constantly said, “This is your first film, there will be conflict. Conflict is how creativity is born. I don't worry about it, as long as you don't worry about it, we can scream at each other, that's fine, I'm okay with it.”
How did you resolve conflicts?
On the set, I'm boss!
Let’s dive into the past. How did the Elizabeth films impact your career?
Nobody knew me in the West till I made Elizabeth. It was nominated for Best Film, Best Actress (at the Academy Awards). That catapulted me into the kind of stratosphere as one of the best five directors in the world. It's quite a bit of the stratosphere. It affected my career because I got many more opportunities to look at what I really wanted to do. Now, you have to be careful at that time because you could fall flat after that. It just gives you more opportunities to tell different kinds of stories. And that's what Elizabeth did for me. If you look at my filmography, even if it's feature (films), if you add theatre to it and if you add OTT to it, nothing's ever the same, not one thing is similar to the other. In films, Masoom to Mr India to Bandit Queen to Elizabeth, they're all different. That was the greatest thing, the opportunity to write different kinds of films.
Why did you choose to make a film based on Phoolan Devi’s life?
I was first offered that film to be a producer. I said, “I don't know how to produce.” Then they said, “Okay, would you like to direct the film?” It was first going to be a documentary or docu-drama and I said, “I don't know how to do that, I know how to do features.” I read the story and said, “In the same budget that you have for a short, small documentary, I'll do a feature.” I lived in Delhi when the whole saga of Phoolan Devi was happening. It was only 120 km from where I lived. How come I didn't notice? That's why I decided to do it. I wanted to understand at that time what rape really means. I went in and I realised, in every film that I do I become one of the characters or all characters. In Bandit Queen, as a man, I was the rapist. I realised every man is guilty. Every one of us is guilty. Something is so endemic in our society, we are all guilty. If you watch Bandit Queen today people say, “How come you created such anger in the film?” I said, “The anger was at myself. I was responsible. I was responsible (for) ignoring it like every other man.” I just found that during that film, I let it go. It was a revelation for me. A lot of Bandit Queen is anger. Anger directed at me, myself.
What did you think of Phoolan Devi’s reaction to it?
She had various reactions. While I was making the film, they would not allow me to go see her. But our writer went because they didn't know who she was. She went and that's how she wrote the book, Phoolan Devi’s story. Her (Phoolan Devi’s) first reaction was…she came out and said, “Aapki Mr India badhi acchi lagi. Gaane-waane hai na isme? (I really liked your film, Mr India. There are songs in this film as well, right?)” Maine kaha (I said), “Nahi, aisi film nahi hai (No, this is not that kind of film).” Then she saw the film, her response was, “Sach hai lekin bahut aur kuch hai jo maine kiya tha jo film mein nahi hai (All of this is true but there’s a lot more I’ve done in life that the film doesn’t cover).” That was her first response. And of course, politics took over. A lot of people get involved when you do something like that. I remember though, I was sitting in a flight from New York to London and somebody who was a Member of Parliament (MP) told me, “Why are you fighting to get this film released? What do you want? Phoolan Devi in parliament?” She got into parliament twice. A film then takes on its own life.
Recently I saw the film again because I was asked by the US distributor, “Do you want to do another director's commentary after all this time?” When I saw the film, I started to cry and my assistant said, “Sir, you're still so moved by the film now?” I said, “I'm crying because I don't know when I'll be able to make a film like this again.” How do you make a film that rips your own soul apart? It's not easy to do because you've got to find your soul before you rip it apart, right?
In What's Love Got to Do with It?, Lily James’ character uses filmmaking to understand a concept that is alien to her. In that sense, has filmmaking ever been a learning tool for you?
Of course. Masoom was exploring myself. The whole relationship between Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) and the boy was me wondering, “Should I have a kid?” Bandit Queen, I've just told you. The context behind Elizabeth was, I could never understand why men need to be more masculine to be powerful, women need to deny their feminism to be more powerful. I saw that in the clothes of Indira Gandhi and then I saw it when I was doing Elizabeth. Elizabeth ultimately said, “Men worship the Virgin Mary. Why don't I become a virgin? I'll portray myself as a virgin.” Indira Gandhi, to be strong, she had to be her son's mother. Everything is (in) relationship to your husband, (and) father. “She was her father's daughter,” they kept saying. She could never be as strong as herself, she had to be as strong as her father.
As a man, how do you navigate writing a story about a woman?
I would rather do a story about women because my films are a lot about the human spirit and love and conflict. When men are faced with huge problems, they fight it out. They use guns. They use violence. Women have to find a much deeper strength in them, in their spirit and that's why their stories are far more interesting. There is a feminine-masculine in all of us. I have always believed that the feminine in me or you is the nurturing. The masculine in me or the masculine in you is the ego. All of us are both masculine and feminine but the feminine is far more complex. It's much more difficult to nurture than to go out and kill. I just find it more interesting to explore the feminine psyche, I wouldn't say women (but) the feminine psyche.
You've directed children in Mr India and Masoom. How do you direct them and get them to see your vision?
I don't. If you look at Masoom, I can tell you a number of scenes where I just let them loose. I let them loose because children love playing. They don't carry the weight of “Arey mujhe accha kaam karna hai, mujhe accha perform karna hai (I have to do good work, I have to perform well).” You let them play and as you’re watching them play, you start adapting. So a lot of Masoom was me adapting. Yes, of course, it's part of the script. But I would watch them and I would watch how they would relate to each other and then I would shoot them, as they were comfortable, not (if) I was comfortable. Mr India, the same thing. All those kids are doing their own thing. I was just filming them.
Was it tough to get them to coordinate?
To coordinate is my job. To be coordinated as a filmmaker. To be able to get all that and to create a story around it that feels like a coordinated story, that's my job. That's not their job.
What's a film that you are eager to make?
Always has been ‘Paani’. That (film) I'm desperate to make. I'm about to make a film also with my lovely daughter who I've been trying to convince to do a film with me for years and she said, “Nah, you are not a good enough director dad. I can't work with you.” She's an amazing singer-songwriter, just coming up with an album, which is great, in English. I finally convinced her to do something. So I'm going to do a film with her. Father-daughter. That's going to be conflict. I promise you that we will fight all the time. Resolving issues between father and daughter, what can be more beautiful than to make a film about all that?
Do we know what it's about?
Yeah, but hang on. Wait a minute, give it time. Every story has to nurture itself. Not just me. I don't have to nurture it, the story needs to nurture. What's that thing we say in Hindi, ‘Pagdandi ghiss ghiss ke banti pair jahan pe padte hain’, it means that the footpath that goes into the mountains is formed because people keep walking it, keep walking it. Then the path finds its own path because people walk over it and it keeps changing.
What do you think of genres in Hindi films?
Every Indian film's first half used to be a rom-com. But no, I think my answer to that is, for me, a genre is too confining. And that's the amazing thing about Hindi films. Each film is every genre. It's also action, it's also drama, it's also romance, it's also comedy and that comes from a fundamental idea that our films came out from nautankis. These theatre groups that went from village to village. Nautanki is a huge folk art. That's why we are so strong. Our genre developed from that.
Apart from Bandit Queen, which film are you most attached to?
I'm attached to Mr India because it was a universe of characters. People say, “Mr India succeeded because it was a superhero film.” No, it succeeded because… look at the number of characters people remember. We've lost Satish (Kaushik) two days ago, but there is a restaurant in Bengaluru called ‘Calender Khana Do’. Of course, there was Mogambo, Ms Hawa-Hawai, Teja, Dr Fu Manchu, there was the editor. I can think of 10 characters that people remember from the film. So it's not a superhero film. It's a universe that we created, together, the writer and myself. We created a universe of characters. So whenever people say, “Chalo ek aur Mr India, superhero film banate hai (Let's make another film like Mr India),” maine kaha (I said), “Take a look at it again. Can you make every character distinctive?” There was this whole universe of characters, each one with an identity. I'm very attached to that idea that…how did we do that? How the hell did we do that?