The director of Elizabeth was a failure as an actor in his first years in Bollywood. Amit Khanna, a friend for 30 years looks at the career of a film maker who promises to make more news this year.
Indian films and filmmakers are the flavour of the next century, or so the pundits say. While India has been the world’s leading film producer for many years, until recently its films were dismissed as melodramatic song-and-dance routines. Except for the films of Satyajit Ray and an occasional film by Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalkrishnan and other avant garde film makers, Indian films hardly ever made waves overseas. Even at home the glitterati were dismissive of popular cinema. But things have changed dramatically over the last few years. Not only are the ‘parellel cinema’ pioneers embracing the grammar of Bollywood’s popular films with a vengeance (Govind Nihalani, Prakash Jha and Ketan Mehta to name a few), but the likes of Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Amitabh Bachchan, Yash Chopra and Mani Ratnam are at last being honoured by retrospectives at international film festivals. Sociologists and film scholars are discovering new meaning in Mumbai pot boilers.
But some Indian film makers are already the toast of Hollywood. Ismail Merchant. Manoj ‘Night’ Shyamalan. And Shekhar Kapoor.
It was a late October evening in 1997 when I landed in Newcastle, Scotland. I had missed an earlier connecting flight from Brussels and was not sure whether my message had reached Shekhar. Coming out of the terminal building I was relieved to find someone holding a placard with my name. I quickly went up to him and he introduced himself as Shekhar’s driver. As he lugged my bags to the waiting car, he informed me that Shekhar had sent word that I had two options, either to go and rest at the hotel where he would meet me for dinner at 11, or to come and join him at 9 to see his dailies. Obviously, I opted for the second.
The driver, a Ghanian, was quite voluble and friendly. He suggested that I had time to check in and have a quick shower after which he would take me to the local racecourse, where an improvised projection theatre had been set up to watch dailies. En route I asked him how Shekhar was and how the film was shaping up. “Oh, he is very hard working and very talented.” I felt happy to hear this about an old friend. I had come all the way to see him shoot his first international feature. Somehow at that moment my instinct told me that Elizabeth was going to catapult Shekhar Kapoor into the big league.
Shekhar knew that if he wanted to make it in the West, he would have to market himself well. He did precisely that. He got himself an agent in Hollywood. He met the right people, talked the right language and basically hung out there.
As I awaited Shekhar’s arrival at the Newcastle racecourse, my mind went back a quarter of a century. I was working with Dev Anand and had met his young nephew, a chartered accountant from London, a couple of times. As we were casting for Ishk, Ishk, Ishk, Dev Saab returned from a short vacation in London and one fine day, informed me that his nephew Shekhar was keen to come back to India and try his luck in acting. There was a small but important role in the script, and Dev Saab was quick to suggest that perhaps Shekhar could be launched with that role. No one in the unit, including me, had any objection to this and soon Shekhar was in Bombay all charged up to embark on a new career. His parents were initially a bit upset, because he had a well paid job in the UK where he was working with Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Dennis. However, Shekhar seemed hell-bent on acting.
Ishk, Ishk, Ishk was a big film with several newcomers and many established stars including Zeenat Aman, Premnath, Kabir Bedi, Zarina Wahab and Shabana Azmi, and was shot extensively in Nepal. Since I was also involved in the release of Navketan’s other film, Heera Panna, I kept going up and down between Nepal and Bombay. I did not get much of a chance to talk to Shekhar during those days, but I found out that he was quite a hit with all the girls (and there were over two dozen in the unit), and he had become especially friendly with Shabana Azmi. The film was released with great hype but it disappeared without a trace.
Shekhar was despondent, but soon his other uncle, Vijay Anand, with whom he was staying, decided to launch a small film, Jaan Haazir Hai, with Shekhar and Prem Kishen (Premnath’s son). Shekhar now became a regular visitor to the Navketan office and we would often chat. Both of us were from Delhi, from the same college, St. Stephen’s, and we were both ambitious, so we had a lot to talk about. Shekhar’s acting career was hardly taking off with a few films like Basu Chaterji’s Jeena Yahan and B.R. Ishara’s Pal Do Pal Ka Saath, but he continued chasing film makers for that proverbial break.
Finally he convinced an old friend, Prem Sawhney, to launch a film with him and Shabana in the leads. Toote Khilone, directed by Shekhar’s cousin Ketan Anand, had some great music by Bappi Lahiri, but was a damp squib at the box-office. Shekhar was written off as a flop actor by the film industry, and he was increasingly being featured in gossip columns as Shabana Azmi’s boyfriend.
I recall one particular conversation with him during those days. We were walking around Napean Sea Road one night and Shekhar mentioned that he was planning to direct a film and was looking for a script and a producer. In spite of all his failures he was still hopeful and determined to grab his share of the limelight. We spent many hours talking about cinema and our futures and were convinced that it was just a matter of time before the world woke up to our talent. I had just had one round of applause for my lyrics in Chalte Chalte.
A few months later Shekhar came up to me excitedly, saying that he had found both the script and producer for his directorial debut. Guru Dutt’s youngest brother, Devi Dutt, who had been producing ad films, had agreed to produce Masoom, which was to star Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah. Aware of his inexperience and lack of professional training, Shekhar opted for a very talented crew. He roped in Gulzar to do the screenplay and lyrics, Praveen Bhatt to photograph and Aruna-Vikas to edit the film. The film was shot on location in Delhi. I remember going to Aruna Raje’s editing room one afternoon with Shekhar to watch his rushes. What I saw looked good and above all felt warm. Unlike many others, I was not surprised by the response which the film got, both at the box-office and from the critics. Shekhar was a natural as a film maker, as was to be revealed later.
The next phase in his life saw his relationship with Shabana alter dramatically. She was by then besotted by Javed Akhtar. This however was a blessing in disguise as Javed too saw a spark in Shekhar and backed him to the hilt. Joshilay, starring Sunny Deol and Jackie Shroff and scripted by Salim-Javed, was Shekhar’s first mega film. But inspite of his best intentions, Shekhar got embroiled in some controversy and opted out of the film. Meanwhile he got Boney Kapoor’s Mr India. This was to be Shekhar’s passport to success in Bollywood. While the film went on to become a smash hit, it also earned Shekhar a reputation as an expensive film maker, who took ages to complete a film. The next few years saw many aborted projects like Dushmani and Time Machine as well as a failed marriage. He came back to act in a couple of films, like Govind Nihalani’s Drishti and television serials like Udaan, and was surprisingly good in his second innings as an actor. He also branched out as a successful ad film maker.
We would meet occasionally and talk about our international prospects. I had started Plus Channel by then, and was contemplating a major foray into ‘organized film production.’ This was the time when Shekhar was offered Bandit Queen by Faroukh Dhondhy (of Channel 4) and producer Bobby Bedi. How Shekhar convinced those two is something I have never figured out. He had never done any film in this genre, and was tainted with the reputation of being a procrastinator. Yet the film was completed in a record four months, and many in Bollywood were surprised. Shekhar called me one evening to one of the first screenings of the film. I had already heard good things about it from my friend and colleague Renu Saluja, who had edited the film.
That night at Dimple Preview theatre I was stunned by the film. I recall coming out of the theatre and exchanging a few words with Pritish Nandy, who also had been overwhelmed by the screening. Both of us agreed that Shekhar was going to make it big internationally. Well, amidst all the hype and controversy, Bandit Queen did manage to get a lot of attention, beginning with the Cannes Film Festival. It was the break Shekhar was waiting for.
Unlike many successful directors including his uncle Vijay Anand, Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy, Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt and Govind Nihalani, Shekhar knew that if he wanted to make it in the West he would have to market himself well. He did precisely that. He got himself an agent in Hollywood. He met the right people, talked the right language and basically hung out there. Perhaps his background as a chartered accountant helped him in this. There have been others, including Waris Hussain, Mira Nair, Jagmohan Mundhra and Deepa Mehta, who have managed to get some acceptance in the West, but have remained on the fringes. Some leading film makers like the great master Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalkrishnan, Ketan Mehta and Shahji Karun were able to do a few co-productions. But the only other Indian who has made it big is Ismail Merchant.
He wants to keep discovering himself with each new film. He may not have the technical wizardry of a Scorcese or Spielberg, but like Bergman or even Frank Capra or our very own Guru Dutt, his films have a humane quality about them.
Occasionally when we met in Bombay post-Bandit Queen, I could discern a certain nervousness which would surface behind all the enthusiasm. It is lonely when you stalk fame, more so when you are an alien. But Shekhar kept at it, getting married again in the meantime to the much younger actress-singer, Suchitra Krishnamurthy. Even as he developed various scripts he zeroed in on Elizabeth, a film being planned by the Polygram-backed London based producer Tim Bevan (Working Title Films) who had films like Dead Man Walking and Four Weddings And A Funeral to his credit. The project promised an interesting combination of talent; an actress from Australia, a director from India, a production designer from the US, all ready to make a film on one of England’s best loved historical heroines.
“Hi Amit! Kaisa hai tu…” my flashback was interrupted by Shekhar’s excited shout. We hugged each other and Shekhar introduced me to his team including the cinematographer and the producer. Soon we were watching the rushes of Elizabeth. I remember one of the sequences was the beautifully choreographed dance between Elizabeth and her lover. The crew just loved it and broke into spontaneous applause. Shekhar told me in Hindi, “In logon ne Hindi filmen nahin dekhi is liye uchal rahe hain.”
It was past eleven when we left the screening room and headed for the hotel. On the way Shekhar picked up some sambar and rice and we had a quick dinner. The next day I was to accompany Shekhar to his location. The call sheet was for 7 am and we had to leave the Hotel at 5 am. Shekhar told me he had maintained this gruelling schedule for the past six weeks.
When I arrived at the location I was truly impressed. There were about 20 caravans, a dozen generators and a crew of 200 lined up—a virtual army waiting for its general to lead it into battle. I felt proud to see an Indian and a friend getting the kind of respect that only genuine talent can from those hardened professionals. As I watched Shekhar work late into the evening I knew that he was going places no Indian film maker had reached—the very cortex of mainstream Hollywood.
Today’s star film makers truly straddle the globe. Shekhar has set up homes in London and Los Angeles besides the one in Mumbai’s Juhu. At the moment he is toying with several films, the first of which is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s screen adaptation of the hit musical Phantom Of The Opera. He has also been working on a film based on the life of Nelson Mandela. There is talk of his signing a deal with Warner and even with Dreamworks.
It is almost certain that Shekhar Kapoor will, in the course of the next few years, emerge as a mainstream Hollywood director. Meanwhile Manoj ‘Night’ Shyamalan, the 29-year-old Indian-born director whose second film Sixth Sense has been a resounding success grossing over US$300 million, is currently the hottest kid on the Hollywood block. With film makers like Shekhar and ‘Night’ around, Indians are, I feel, about to do in Hollywood what they have done in Silicon Valley.
Shekhar says that he wants to keep discovering himself with each new film. He may not have the technical wizardry of a Scorcese or Spielberg, but quite like Bergman or even Frank Capra or our very own Guru Dutt, his films have a uniquely humane quality about them. While there have certainly been better Indian filmmakers than Shekhar, it is to his credit that he has managed his career better than most of them. He has also opened doors for others to follow. From Mani Ratnam to Nagesh Kukunoor, from Vidhu Vinod Chopra to Kaizad Gustad, from Subhash Ghai to Dev Benegal, a number of Indian film makers are now looking at Hollywood.
And Shekhar Kapoor has ensured that Hollywood looks at them.
This story was first published in February 2000
Image courtesy: Meenal Agarwal