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Bollywood To Hollywood: Director Embraces Chaos

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Famed director Shekhar Kapur remembers making his father bleed. It happened when he announced that he wanted to make movies as a career.

"My father was shaving, and I can still remember him cutting his cheek with little blood dripping down, saying, 'What? Movies? What are you talking about?' " Kapur says in an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin.

He explains that at the time, many people in India expected that country's future to be built by its accountants, engineers, lawyers and other professionals.

"I started life as a childhood accountant in London, and I was a business consultant. And suddenly at 24, I told, 'Well, that's not what I want to do for the rest of my life,' " Kapur says.

He adds that the Woodstock movement of the late 1960s in London helped him reach that decision. "Many people were re-evaluating their lives. They were full of courage, music, dance and sexuality. Part of being in this huge generation gave me the courage to say, 'I'm not going to be an accountant. I'm going to try something completely different, and I'm going to throw my life into absolute chaos, and throw it into the unknown, and look for the art.'"

Kapur began as an actor in India. He then became a leading director in that nation's Bollywood industry, with films such as Masoom (1983) and Bandit Queen (1994). He later directed the Oscar-winning Elizabeth (1998), starring Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush, and the drama The Four Feathers (2002), starring Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson.

Thriving In Chaos

Kapur's career has taken him from India to London to Hollywood, then back to India. He says India offers the kind of environment that keeps him on edge and more creatively alive.

"You can stand in one place and look to your right, and you see a funeral. Look to your left, and you see a marriage. Look in front of you, and you see little children that are born and are starving in the streets. And look behind you, and somebody's driving a Bentley," he says. "You're suddenly faced with the contradictions of just living, and you realize just how mortal you are. And in that mortality, you're pushed into the idea that life is not under your control — it's completely chaotic. And unless you find a sense of harmony in that chaos, it's very difficult to actually live."

Pushing The Envelope

Kapur's Bandit Queen is set against the backdrop of an Indian society that sees a woman only through her relationships with men — as a father's daughter, a brother's sister or a husband's wife. If she does not belong to one of those three categories, she seems to belong to everybody else, especially if she's lower-caste and has no power, says Kapur.

Bandit Queen is based on the life of Phoolan Devi — a low-caste outlaw who is similar to Robin Hood.

"She became a very rebellious young child, so they just married her off to a 30-year-old man, who turned out that he had married before a child, and was a bit of a pedophile. So he kind of raped her at that age. And when she left and became a bandit, it's very well documented that she came back, found her husband and beat him up — and in front of the whole village," says the director.

Kapur says he tried to show that seeking vengeance means revisiting and often reliving trauma, and that individuals must find a different way of getting over pain and abuse in their lives.

Filmmaking Rights, Elizabeth

For Americans, Kapur's best-known directorial effort is probably Elizabeth. His experience with that film informs the way he views critics who accuse white filmmakers of unfairly appropriating stories from India.

"The question is, 'Did Richard Attenborough have a right to make Gandhi and did Danny Boyle have a right to make Slumdog Millionaire?' Quite honestly, if they didn't have the right to make these films, I have no right to make Elizabeth," says Kapur.

He says he altered and interpreted history in Elizabeth far more than Attenborough or Boyle did in those movies.

"I actually took what they called 'The Virgin Queen' and showed her in bed with a man," he says. "I quite enjoyed doing what I did, much to the initial regret of a lot of British historians, who said she was a virgin. And I said, 'Prove it.' "

Next Film: Paani

Kapur is now working on Paani (meaning "water"), which focuses on a fictional mega city that is losing its water supply.

"It divides itself between the upper city that has the power over the little water that's left, and the lower city that has no water. And the upper city is only about 15 percent of the people ... and now, they use thirst as a weapon of political and social control. ... It's a look at what might happen if you make water a commodity and how it will go into the hands of a water cartel."

The Importance Of Film Festivals

Kapur says this age of big marketing invades people's senses, and consumers are told that there's nothing worthwhile beyond the films that the marketers are promoting. Smaller films with no marketing dollars are thus left out of the competition.

He says that, through the South Asian International Film Festival, a New York-based event where he spoke this weekend, filmmakers with completely different voices get opportunities to be noticed in the U.S.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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