Rajat Kapoor Is The Only True Indie Film-maker India Has
I am meeting Rajat Kapoor on a bad day. “Out of 365 days in a year, 330 of them are pretty great. The remaining 30 are terrible. Today is one of those 30.” Kapoor was supposed to start shooting his next film soon, but the producer decided to back out at the last moment. Kapoor grinds his teeth and spouts some expletives before controlling himself. I have never seen this side of the gentlemanly, composed, uber-cool Kapoor.
He is always soft-spoken, aristocratic and has an air of sophistication about him that is difficult to penetrate. His handsome smile wrinkles his eyes, and even though he has an academic salt-and-pepper beard now, he looks young — but his eyes are tired. Under a very chilled out exterior, I can see the man simmering, trying to figure out what his next plan of action should be.
While his last acting stints were quite forgettable (Drishyam, and the disastrous X), Aankhon Dekhi, one of 2014’s standout films, written and directed by Kapoor, enjoyed critical and commercial acclaim. Kapoor was lauded for the fresh narrative and a surreal whimsicality that Bollywood is unaware of. He is ready with four scripts presently, he says, and is looking forward to finding a producer who might be interested in any or all of them. In the meantime, after the wonderful clown versions of Hamlet and King Lear, Kapoor has taken on Macbeth, starring Ranvir Shorey, Kalki Koechlin and Vinay Pathak, among others.
But why exactly is Rajat Kapoor important for the Indian film industry? Even if we set aside the fact that he has a truly refreshing urban outlook, selecting snippets of society that are generally ignored and not considered interesting or commercially-viable, Kapoor remains India’s only true independent film-maker. And unfortunately, he is still struggling to make independent cinema happen. The Anurag Kashyaps and Dibakar Banerjees of the world are honchos of enterprising production houses today.
While they might have spearheaded a new crop of indie cinema in the country, they are very much a part of the mainstream industry. Their protégés have not been able to shake off their shadows yet, either. Is India really going through a new wave of independent cinema or is that all a farce?
It is my personal opinion that you are the only independent film-maker this country has.
And I am not happy about it, man. It has not become easier. In spite of Aankhon Dekhi being liked so much, it is still not easy to get money. On some whim, people still back out. I am always looking for another way of making my films happen. That is why I write 3-4 scripts. If you don’t like this, take a look at the other one. But I want to make all of these films. See, I wrote Mithya in 1998 and it finally got made in 2007.
But if Mithya had released in ‘98-‘99, would it have received the kind of acclaim it did in 2007?
Exactly. It wouldn’t have. And that is why I believe that every film has its own time and destiny. But having said that, maybe about 10,000 people watch films like this. I have people walking up to me and asking if Aankhon Dekhi has released yet. It’s sad. But I am still fortunate that I get to make films because 20 years ago, I didn’t even think I’d make four films in a lifetime. I’ve made six to date, so not bad.
And what triggered obsession with Shakespearean tragedies and clowning?
There was no plan. I don’t even know Shakespeare. This is my way of knowing him. I find it very difficult to read his plays, or any play for that matter. And I read almost two scripts a week, you know. I read novels too. But I have no idea why I cannot read plays. That is why I have started devising plays more than just staging them straight up. Because if the play or script is not mine, the concerns are not mine. I do not find any connect with the text.
In 1999, we did our first clown play, called C for Clown. I had no idea what I was doing. It was just a simple play with clowns. I had no script or story or characters. We would improvise every day and come up with new ideas. Then, I took up Hamlet because I always wanted to do it. Again, we had no idea how to go about it. This is how I work and this is the only way I know how to work. It is a truly organic process of exploring something new every day, and what you find is of true value.
Then when we took up King Lear — I wanted it to be very different from Hamlet and so we decided to do it with one actor and see how that fared. It was scary, because everyone thought that it would become boring. We also had to live up to the chaos of Hamlet. For King Lear, we discussed the themes in the play that we could connect with as a team on a personal level, and we started working with our inputs too.
And tell me about your clown version of Macbeth. In Macbeth, we are playing with slightly scarier clowns.
It is about power… I think it has turned out to be a political play even though there was no intention to start with. In the process, things happen. Also, the idea of fate playing such a powerful role is exciting. What if Macbeth did not meet the witches? Generally, I never have a script but, in this case, there was a text and we read portions and improvised accordingly. We discussed ideas that the play deals with, like, say, masculinity. What is it like to be a man? Then, with these inputs you try the scene out again. It is always a work in progress.
And what is your take on the film industry today?
Some kind of Indian cinema is happening, but that’s nothing new. It existed in the ‘70s in a much bigger way. Nothing has changed, basically. People keep talking about “new age cinema” and all that. Rubbish. People just get caught up in these labels. Ek Queen aur Piku banaya toh people start talking about the resurgence of women’s cinema and patting each other’s backs. The same shit that used to work earlier still gets made now. Maybe production design has become better.
Which are the last Indian films you loved and hated?
I loved Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. It was a fantastic film and I am really looking forward to his career. I don’t watch the films I know I will hate because I don’t watch films which don’t match my sensibility. So, even if I might not be crazy about a Masaan or a Titli, I don’t hate the films.
And of the actors, who are your favourites?
There are hundreds of good actors. From Deepika Padukone to Ranbir Kapoor to Nawaz, of course. When I was casting for Aankhon Dekhi I came across so many talented actors. There’s Rajkummar Rao…Vicky Kaushal. I am very impressed with Vicky. He is someone I will put my money on. He has a presence, there is something special about him.
So, the industry just needs better film-makers?
No, it needs people who treat cinema as art. What do you want as an industry? Most film-makers are not bothered about making a film — they want to make money. Iran makes 18 films a year and 9 out of them are fucking masterpieces. We make 1500 films a year and not even two are memorable enough.