Filmmaker Shekhar Kapur returns with his first rom-com, ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’

Forty years after he made his first film, Shekhar Kapur is back with the romantic comedy What’s Love Got to Do With It? and a film on colonialism

Forty years after he made his first film, Shekhar Kapur is back with the romantic comedy What’s Love Got to Do With It? and a film on colonialism

A rare Indian filmmaker with a genuinely global profile, Shekhar Kapur has eked out only seven narrative features in a career spanning 40 years. He has never, however, been off the radar. His debut film, Masoom (1982), lives on in the collective memory of Hindi movie fans. So does his enormously popular 1987 sophomore venture, Mr. India.

His latest, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, set for worldwide theatrical release on January 27 next, is his first fiction feature since 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age. “I did two big series in between,” the 76-year-old London-based director says during a television commercial shoot in Faridabad. “I worked on Damien [a follow-up to the classic 1970s horror film, The Omen] for Fox and on Will [a series on a young William Shakespeare] for TNT,” he says.

A still from What’s Love Got to Do With It?

A still from What’s Love Got to Do With It?
| Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky

Several false starts and creative fallouts followed his two early successes. Unfinished or unrealised projects accumulated. The string of aborted Mumbai movies prompted him to go global. The move paid off. “It might sound arrogant. I left the B-Team and went to compete for a place in the A-Team,” he says about his departure from Bollywood in the 1990s. “I wanted to test myself. I wanted to see if I was good enough to play in a higher league.” He was. He imparted to his fourth film, Elizabeth (1998), a UK-funded production with an Australian star playing a British monarch, a pronounced, effervescent Bollywood style. It fetched Kapur heady global dividends.

Working with digital

What’s Love Got to Do With It?, a romantic comedy written by Jemima Khan — which has already picked up the Best Comedy award at the recent Rome Film Festival — is produced by Working Title, the outfit that backed Elizabeth and its sequel. “The script came to me through the producers. We were going to make it earlier, but COVID came. So, we had to wait,” he says of his first-ever digitally shot feature film.  

Jemima Khan and Shekhar Kapur at the Rome Film Festival where What’s Love Got to Do With It? picked up the Best Comedy award

Jemima Khan and Shekhar Kapur at the Rome Film Festival where What’s Love Got to Do With It? picked up the Best Comedy award
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

The film unfolds between London and Lahore, where Kapur was born two years before India gained independence. Has the shift from film to digital impacted his aesthetic? “Digital has its advantages and disadvantages,” he replies. “You are not constrained by the cost of raw stock. Production is easier and cheaper.” But one of the challenges is achieving the ‘film look’. “Digital has such great depth of field that there is no out-focus,” he says, explaining how the ‘film look’ is an emotional way of telling a story. There are visual layers to it. “When we look at something, we constantly focus and re-focus. When we look at something, everything else is put out of focus. The film look is much more like how we look at the world.”

What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Kapur’s first rom-com, has been lit and shot by cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, who also lensed the two Elizabeth films. It features Shazad Latif, Lily James, Emma Thompson, Sajal Aly and Shabana Azmi (Kapur’s 1970s co-actor) in key roles.

Shabana Azmi and Emma Thompson on the set of What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Shabana Azmi and Emma Thompson on the set of What’s Love Got to Do With It?
| Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky

Inclusion and the filmmaker

Kapur’s acting career — he debuted in his maternal uncle Dev Anand’s Ishk Ishk Ishk (1974) after chucking a career as a chartered accountant in London — was rather uneventful in spite of the one film each that he did with Mani Kaul ( Nazar), Govind Nihalani ( Drishti) and Basu Chatterjee ( Jeena Yahan) and appearances in Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam 1 and 2. As an actor, he knew exactly what he needed from his director. “I was screaming for it, but did not get it,” he says. But his on-screen experience impacted how he was to direct his actors.

“My job as a director is to help actors find their selves in the characters. I have an idea how the camera should move, what the frame should be and how the actors should choreograph themselves, but I see what they do and let them go with it. That is what I’ve done in every film since Masoom,” he says.

Shazad Latif and Lily James in What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Shazad Latif and Lily James in What’s Love Got to Do With It?
| Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky

Addressing inclusion and diversity in cinema, two key issues today, Kapur says he believes that filmmakers are responsible people. “Nobody should need to tell them what to do,” he says. “Take the Mr. India song picturised on Sridevi in a blue chiffon sari. Even today I feel it was amazing. But if the film comes out now, people might say it is objectification of women. So, would I do it today? I am not sure.”

If somebody had suggested that a Black actor play Elizabeth, it would not have made sense, Kapur avers. “Cate Blanchett seemed perfect for the role, so I cast her. Queen Elizabeth had brown eyes. Cate has blue eyes. Would I have changed her hair colour, too? How far can one take these things?”

Bringing opium wars to the screen

An avoidance of repetition is the defining quality of his oeuvre. “I am wary of copying myself,” the veteran director says. “If I copy myself, I do not struggle. If you’ve climbed a mountain, you do not return to the same mountain. You find a new mountain to climb, a new path to tread.”

With Masoom and Mr. India, worlds apart in substance and spirit, Kapur extended the boundaries of Hindi commercial cinema at the peak of the angry young man era. He could have rested on his oars and continued down the same course. He did not. He made Bandit Queen (1994), instead. A raw, stark, unflinching look at an India far removed from the comic-book ‘invisible man’ adventure terrain of Mr. India, the film was a watershed not only for Kapur but also for Indian independent cinema.

Clockwise from left: Stills from Shekhar Kapur’s films Bandit Queen, Masoom, The Four Feathers, Mr. India, and Elizabeth.

Clockwise from left: Stills from Shekhar Kapur’s films Bandit Queen, Masoom, The Four Feathers, Mr. India, and Elizabeth.

“There was a showing recently of Bandit Queen. I hadn’t seen the film for 20 years. I had tears in my eyes. My assistants noticed and wondered if the film had moved me. I said no, it is because I don’t know if I’d ever be able to make a film like this ever again. Bandit Queen came from my heart.”

There were a lot of things that made the film possible,” he reminiscences. “I was doing it with a budget that didn’t kill anybody. It was under $1 million [₹2 crore]. Channel 4 told me all we need to do is recover the money. So, I did what I felt instinctually, without worrying about box office.”

A combination of anger and frustration fuelled the film based on the life of bandit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi. “I grew up a Punjabi boy with all the masculinity placed upon my shoulders,” he says. “I realised that the whole story happened 200 or so kilometres from Delhi. It was constantly in the papers. There was no way I couldn’t have been aware. In many ways, I was the villain of the film. I felt I was responsible. I knew about it but did nothing. The anger and frustration in me made the film.”

Another anger that Kapur built in himself was against colonisation. He gave vent to it in his 2002 war drama, The Four Feathers. “I had to delete scenes from the film because it was seen as anti-West,” he says, adding that The Four Feathers was kind of mis-released. “9/11 had happened. I felt that after the Vietnam War, everybody knew that colonialism was a terrible thing. But no, colonialism is back in a big way. That is why I am now making Opium,” he adds. The under-production drama series is adapted from Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies that looks at what colonisation did to China and India.

  Shekhar Kapur during the television commercial shoot in Faridabad

  Shekhar Kapur during the television commercial shoot in Faridabad
| Photo Credit: Samir Sarkar

Why South Indian films win

Kapur believes that the ascendency of South Indian cinemas isn’t a new phenomenon. “It’s been happening for a long time,” he says. “These films are rooted in their own cultures. Mumbai films aren’t. That is what is going wrong with Bollywood.” By way of contrast, he cites the examples of web shows made by those who have come to Mumbai from smaller towns. “Take Panchayat [the 2020 show on Amazon Prime Video] as a case in point: there is so much authenticity about it,” he says. That, he adds, is what Bollywood filmmakers must strive for.   

Time to court the West

Bandit Queen helped reduce western apathy towards subcontinental cinema. “When they saw the film, nobody in the West knew anything about Mumbai cinema,” he says. “They knew there was Bollywood, but they hadn’t seen anything. The OTT channels have since made western audiences familiar with non-English films with subtitles. In this regard, Korea has done the East a big favour with Paradise, The Squid Game and other shows and films.”

It is now easier for Indian filmmakers to branch out, he says, because the West is more aware and better budgets and technology are available. “I often wonder why more Indian filmmakers haven’t tried to go international,” he says, adding, “The size of the Indian domestic market and the diaspora are a strength and a drawback. You can use it to springboard yourself like the Chinese or Korean films do. We have to get out of the fear of failure. The world market is 10 times the size of the domestic market.”

The writer is a New Delhi-based film critic.

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