Shekhar Kapur: On love and intimacy

A chat with film director Shekhar Kapur, on the eve of the release of his new romcom What’s Love got to do with it?

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As he walked into Sydney’s Langham Hotel on a sunny Monday morning, Shekhar Kapur looked as crisp as the shining sun. A 20-hour flight from London the night before didn’t hold him back from taking in the sights around magnificent Sydney Harbour.

The internationally acclaimed filmmaker is in town for the Australian premiere of his film What’s Love Got to Do with It?, written by Jemima Khan and starring Lily James and Shazad Latif.

Shekhar Kapur’s wandering and curious spirit makes him one of the finest filmmakers of Indian cinema on a global stage. At 77, he is still making films that are relevant and strike a chord with the audience. This time though, he explores a genre he has never touched before – the questionable subject of love.

Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Neeru Saluja: You have made your directorial comeback after 15 years. What element of the script of your film What’s Love Got to do With it attracted you to make your comeback with a genre you have never explored before?

Shekhar Kapur: Well, I have been directing, just not features. I’ve done a few big American TV series and lots of stage musicals in Vienna and Korea. The reason why I chose this film was not because it was a romcom, but because I’m very interested in the idea of intimacy. With Tinder, today’s generation is hoping to form relationships out of constant and casual sex. This is what I wondered for the lead character Zoe. Does she really form relationships (this way)? What is she looking for? And when she starts to examine arranged marriages, she wonders, how do you know a relationship will work if you haven’t had sex?

When I returned to India after qualifying as a chartered accountant, I was told I should be ready to get married. The first question I would have when I met a girl is, will the sex work or not. If it doesn’t work, would it mark the beginning of a ruined life? And that’s what made me interested in intimacy as a fundamental emotion. Every young person I meet today has this anxiety of how will they find a relationship. In this film, I wanted to show different aspects of how to find intimacy and love.

Shekhar Kapur
Shekhar Kapur, Source: Supplied

The film is based on the universal language of love. In today’s fast paced world, how would you define love?

Well, that’s the big issue, isn’t it? That’s where everybody gets into trouble, because everybody’s trying to define love. You can’t. Life’s a mystery and so is love. Love is a process that keeps evolving: you wake up every morning and ask yourself what is it that you don’t know about your partner. But also remember that being in love means that the one you love is a mirror to yourself. So it’s like saying, how do I define myself? Are you the same person who wakes up every morning? Then when you look at your partner, how do you define your partner? And why do you want to define your partner? And why do you want to define love? Because definition is the killer of anything. So love is a constant yearning, a constant idea of how to be, how to live. Don’t try and define it. That’s why we have the tagline ‘What’s Love got to do with it’. It’s got everything provided you don’t try defining. The film has every reason to have a question mark at the end. Yes, love is a question mark, and thank God for that.

You were born in Lahore, grew up in India and were educated in London. You have experienced first-hand all these cultures depicted in your film. How did you bring your personal perspective to this film?

Well, art is a personal perspective, right? That’s what an artist does, whether a filmmaker or painter. You look at life, take it in and then throw it back out from your own personal perspective. And then your perspective keeps changing. I was barely one when I left Lahore due to the partition, but I went back to Lahore to do music for Bandit Queen with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and then I really looked at it again. But every day you change, so you bring a personal perspective every time. Otherwise, why do you do anything? Because every day you look at something anew. If I made What’s Love Got to do With it? next year, it will be a different film. So yes, we do bring our personal perspective to everything we do. But in a different way, we are all the same too. And one of the reasons I wanted to do this film was to say we’re all the same. After an early screening, a young man came up to me and said, ‘Oh, my God, my grandma’s just like Nani jaan, how did you know?’ In My Big Fat Greek Wedding too, the grandmother was a saint. So culturally, we’re all the same parents, partners, siblings, we all have fundamentally the same need to love.

But love causes issues also – because love is also a desire. We think love is ownership; it’s not. You’ll get a feel of this aspect at the end of the film – love cannot be ownership. It can only be a process.

READ ALSO: Love, London and Lahore: Shazad Latif on Shekhar Kapur’s What’s Love Got to Do with It?

You master in directing strong, flawed, emotionally complex female characters. While the characters in this film are searching for love, how did you bring out the best in them?

I do a lot of rehearsals for my actors to understand their own character. For instance I’ll help the character who plays Zoe to find Zoe within her. We’ll rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, so that we all come to an understanding of what the character is within the act. So that we all come to an understanding of what the character is within the act. Then it’s up to the actors to put in their own perspective, and their own personality and heart. There is no right or wrong in creativity. It’s either honest or not honest. And if an actor is giving you a certain amount of honesty, it’s enough. Good performances are good interpretations of the character. We only write characters, the actors make them alive.

Shazad Latif and Lily James in What’s Love got to do with it? Source: Supplied

You have reunited with Shabana Azmi after many years. Is she like good wine that gets better with age?

Of course she is. I would say the same for Emma Thompson and Cate Blanchett. At a certain point, you don’t have to tell your actor to act this way or that, you talk about specific moments, and can you be 10% more emotional or 10% less aggressive; they pick it up and then deliver. You don’t have to say very much to get them to where you want, you just know if they’re right or wrong. Experience and understanding of life is also really important.

Your movies have always been ahead of your times. How do you manage to showcase stories that always strike a chord?

Because I’m searching for the same things that the audience is, really that’s all. I hope I always stay connected. I will always walk the streets wherever I go, I won’t go to the expensive (restaurants or) parties, those I leave to the people who get successful. I remember after the Oscars for Elizabeth, I walked all night through the slums of Bombay, just to give myself perspective. I’m an Oscar-nominated director but I’m still the guy on the streets. And as long as you can live on the streets, listen and see, you can understand the pulse. Constantly observing is the prime need of an artist.

Your three favourite romcoms in the history of cinema?

I’ll stick with one – Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The west has started to take a deeper look at our films with RRR being a winner at the Golden Globes. What are your thoughts?

My thoughts are that the west has lost the plot. There is a different narrative coming from the east.  We need new conflicting ideas, otherwise art will die. And the west is going to make the same stories again and again. It’s time for the east to come in and shake it all up.

WATCH: Neeru Saluja in conversation with Shekhar Kapur

Neeru Saluja
Neeru Saluja
Neeru Saluja is a freelance films and arts writer with 20 years of experience. Specialising in Bollywood celebrity interviews, she has also covered music concerts, comedy shows, plays and interviewed artists for the Sydney Film festival, the Indian Film festival in Melbourne, WOMADelaide, AACTA and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

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