Shekhar Kapur – The Accidental Storyteller

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Shekhar KapurIf there’s an underlying motif to Shekhar Kapur’s life, it’s irony.

He studied chartered accountancy at the behest of his parents, who didn’t want him to go into show business – his mother was a stage actress and he is nephew to Dev Anand – but was constantly offered modelling jobs rather than accounting ones.

When he did finally decide to face the camera, he wasn’t particularly successful – until he went behind it instead.

His first directorial venture, Masoom, remains to many his finest – an exquisite negotiation of marriage, fidelity and grief that created new paradigms in Indian cinema. But what came next, though radically different only cemented his reputation as a storyteller of extraordinary skill: the fantastical sci-fi film Mr India that built Anil Kapoor’s career – and unrealistic expectations from the sci-fi genre for an entire generation of filmmakers who have since been sorely disappointed.

It was, however, Bandit Queen – his dramatised biopic on the life of Phoolan Devi – that brought him international attention when it was invited to film festivals the world over, including Cannes, and established Kapur as a director with a unique gift for creating unforgettable characters.

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the film that turned him into a global name was also personality-based rather than plot-based: Elizabeth, his fictional retelling of the life of the British queen was nominated for seven Oscar awards and was a runaway success worldwide – apart from turning Cate Blanchett into one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actresses. He followed it up with Elizabeth: The Golden Age, that received another two Oscar nominations and entrenched him in the world’s imagination as a director with the ability to combine the lush exaggeration of Hindi films with the nuanced detailing of Hollywood.

And yet Shekhar – who has made other films like The Four Feathers and contributed a short story, Passages, to the anthology New York, I Love You – has gone on to demonstrate that he has a passion for filmmaking in its truest artistic form; he doesn’t make films for commercial considerations but emotional ones, and nowhere is this more evident than in his commitment to Paani, the film he announced at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, where he was also a jury member – but which he has put on hold repeatedly till circumstances are just right for its making.

The story – a futuristic drama centered on the battle for water in Mumbai, and based on Shekhar’s firm conviction that the world is on the brink of water wars – is a vehicle not just for cinematic exploration but a sign of his commitment to a cause he has been involved with for many years now, as a member of the Global Water Challenge worldwide. “I grew up in a water-stressed area, and for 10 years I have been banging on to those people to say that this problem is coming,’ he argued passionately in an interview when he announced the film. “And it is not something in the future; we are in an explosive situation right now. There are people dying in India because there is no water; there are people in Africa killing each other for water.”

His career graph demonstrates better than words that Shekhar goes where art calls: he’s followed his heart into a host of creative ventures, some – like Bombay Dreams, which he executive produced for the West End – wildly successful; others, like his launch of Virgin Comics, as a vehicle for turning Indian myths into pop-culture icons, still building a niche for itself. He’s also lent his voice to an audio retelling of Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth and currently hosts a politics-based reality TV series, Pradhanmantri on ABP News.

But then the medium has always meant very little to Shekhar Kapur: if there’s a story to tell it, he’ll tell it any which way he can. Audiences around the world, it seems, aren’t complaining.

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