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Reflective thinking

The director Shekar Kapur on his collaboration with Swarovski, his work on India's Got Talent and his philosophical take on filmmaking
The director Shekhar Kapur at the 66th Venice Film Festival this month, where his new short film, Passage, premiered.
The director Shekhar Kapur at the 66th Venice Film Festival this month, where his new short film, Passage, premiered.

All sorts of interesting objects, projects and beasts have lately come into the life of Shekhar Kapur, the director of Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. They include crystals, which were the inspiration for his short film Passage, which premiered during the Venice Film Festival; a script by the late British director Anthony Minghella, which became the basis of Kapur's segment in the upcoming omnibus film New York, I Love You; and bats, one of which flies around his living room while we speak.

"It isn't exactly small," he says of the creature. He remains unfazed as he explains his philosophy for life, which includes the idea that contradiction is an inherent part of existence, that nothing is absolute, and that existence is infinite but can only be explained in finite terms. Then he pauses for a moment and focuses on a more immediate question: "Do you think I'm going to shoot a bat?" For anyone who has visited Kapur's website, www.shekharkapur.com, and read his blog or, for that matter, seen some of his films, the fact that spirituality and philosophy play a big part in his life should be of no surprise. "Everyone is a spiritual person," he says. "When you say spirituality, it isn't really spirituality but the idea of coming to terms with things being infinite."

He adds: "The truth of the universe is in the contradictions in matter and antimatter. Does reality exist? Of course it exists; then on another level, it doesn't. The first thing to understand is getting comfortable with the contradiction. Little children don't get uncomfortable and don't distinguish between reality and fairy tale. In the old days, they asked you to stay with your myths. We now live in an age of logic."

Kapur was about to go on a six-month spiritual retreat when Minghella called him shortly before he passed away last March to say that he had a script for the New York, I Love You project, which will premiere next month in the US. "Anthony said that he wasn't very well," says Kapur. "He said he was going to hospital. He sent me the script. He said it should be about us all loving life a bit more. Of course, we all know what happened. He went into hospital and he never came out. I tried to go out and get his vision and when he died, all I saw was his spirit laughing at me. Him laughing at me, saying you work it out. Is it a dream, is it real? Who is this person? It is ultimately about regret. It is about a woman who knows at the end that life is worth living."

New York, I Love You led to Passage, which was commissioned by the entertainment division of Swarovski Crystal. It turned out be a positive experience. "I have often wondered how you can push film towards being more of an art form," he says, adding that this gave him an opportunity to explore that possibility. "When you hear a composition, you are moved. Music and the arts have a purer form than film. I saw this film as an art form. Swarovski makes a lot of art."

Kapur also had an opportunity to work on his first installation, a light installation to go with the film, which he created with the Indian architect David Adjaye. "I have wanted to collaborate with people from different disciplines for a while," he says. He is now talking to Swarovski about designing items for the company, which might include chandeliers. Swarovski first approached Kapur after seeing New York, I Love You. "They had an idea; not a script. We talked about it. I was very excited. Thankfully, it was not something that was a tight script. The idea was to do a story about three sisters."

The film is viewed as if through the prism of a crystal. And like many of Kapur's films, Passage leaves room for viewers to interpret what is real and what is not. "The film had to follow the idea of a crystal," he explains. "I started to think about people seeing the film as different reflections, then the film reflected from different points of view. What is reality. What is not?" Working with a short film allowed him to become free of the constraints of big-budget movies in other ways, too. "I have always wanted to do a short film because when you do features there is a lot more commercial interest riding on them. I got to experiment here. Cinema is stuck in the structure of three parts. The question was, can I drop three acts and create a form that the viewer interprets? It was successful. People feel emotional at the end and have their own interpretation of Passage."

For the film, he teamed up with the Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) for the first time since Elizabeth: The Golden Age. "I worked with an old friend of mine, AR Rahman," he says. "I asked him to do a western score. He had never done one before. We had an operatic score that was sung in India. Nobody could tell. Then he composed the words." Kapur is a big fan of collaborating with other talents. (Being free of the ego is a big part of his philosophy.) And he likes to compare directing to that popular philosopher's pastime, gardening. "When I say I am not the director but the gardener, I have to have the patience to watch a film grow and trust," he says about a posting on his site. "I am learning that a film is a collaborative exercise. You must allow films to grow. You have to trust in the moment, the karmic forces, the infinite to come, to make it organic and make it almost as chaotic as the universe. There are so many forces that come into the making of a film. You are not the controller."

Despite the fact that Elizabeth was nominated for seven Oscars, Kapur is not sure his process worked or that his ideas came across. "Cate Blanchett (who plays Elizabeth) got it," he says. "She understood what I was trying to do, but I'm not sure I was able to carry my team or my viewers with me." The film, like his other works, is full of ambiguities and poses many questions. As he explains: "In the last scene, Elizabeth comes in wearing a white mask. You could ask was it separation and the leaving behind of all human connections so that you can be a spiritual being, or was it loneliness? Was it abut the Protestant faith, or was she a hostile Catholic? How can you be spiritual and a person at the same time?"

In his films, Kapur, who started out as an accountant in London, has gone back and forth between India and the West on works such as Bandit Queen, Four Feathers and Mr India. He is comfortable working in both worlds and finds it enlightening. "You start to understand the difference between culture and roots," he says. "When I go abroad, I shoot for a western audience, but I am governed by my roots. This includes an eastern mythos of colour, drama and mythology. I am glad that I have not been able to run away from my roots. Even when I make films in India, I get stuff from deep inside me. The plots change, but once you say 'action', it is film. I am much the same person."

Kapur is working in India on his next feature, Water, which is set in a mega-city of the future. "I am very involved in environmental projects and water conservation. This is about a city that runs out of water," he says. "This is something that is already happening. There is no water in the film. It is a city that could be real." Kapur had another opportunity recently to reconnect to India by serving as the judge on the television show India's Got Talent. This was not the first time he worked in television. After ditching his accountancy career to follow his heart, he acted in films such as Jaan Hazir Hai in 1975 and in Hindi television series including Udaan.

"My acting career failed in cinema but took off hugely in television," he says. "For the longest time, I was one of the most popular romantic leads on television in India and I hosted a show on Channel 4 in the UK. I have lived so much of my life outside of India. Not since Bandit Queen have I gone deeply into India. I knew a lot of talent was coming from outside the cities and I hadn't been in touch with them for a long time. This was my chance to reconnect with India."

As in life, for India's Got Talent Kapur did it his way: "They asked me If I would be the Simon Cowell type," he says. "On the first programme, they brought on a group of handicapped, mentally challenged people, including a girl with no arms who was nine. She said all she ever wanted to do was dance. I broke down and cried, so there was no chance of me being Simon Cowell."

Updated: September 30, 2009 04:00 AM