Shekhar Kapur – The Unsung Doyen

Shekhar Kapur, a doyen - not by age, but by his prolific contribution to Indian cinema, made history with 'Elizabeth', an historical drama about the British monarch that garnered seven Academy Award nominations.  

Kapur set the stage for this success back in 1994 with 'Bandit Queen', a film that bridged the gap between Indian and Western sensibilities, winning critical acclaim abroad, and wide popularity in India - once a government ban against the film was lifted. Shekhar made the film for an international audience, hoping to attract attention in the West. 

And the West was attentive. Soon, he was making 'Elizabeth'. There were doubts about whether Shekhar could handle the subject of English royalty, but he approached the film with confidence because he felt that physical, social and mental distance from the subject would allow for a fresh perspective on a tired genre. He was right.  

Although Shekhar failed to get a nomination for Best Director, 'Elizabeth' was nominated for Best Picture, and Best Actress (Cate Blanchett); also for Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Make-Up and Original Dramatic Score. The film won the award for Make-Up.  

A huge debate arose over why Shekhar had been denied a Best Director nomination. Naturally, Shekhar was disappointed, and even went to the extent of saying that had he not been an Indian, he would have received a nomination. Indian critics pointed out that had Shekhar got a nomination, he would surely have won the award, and to honor a fledgling Indian director might not have been a good idea for the Oscar Committee. The selections committee was accused of racism, unfairness, bias and hatred. But Shekhar has moved on since then, and is now concentrating on his next International project - a film about Nelson Mandela and the apartheid regime in South Africa. 

Shekhar takes pride in the fact  that even though he belongs to a family with strong filmmaking traditions; he worked his way up from scratch as an actor and then a director. His directorial debut, "Masoom" was a box office rage. Since then he has made many controversial films. His choice of subject is often offbeat, but his handling of any subject is sensitive and intuitive, and subtlety is the hallmark of his films.  

Shekhar feels that having been  trained in India, he has an edge over other directors attempting debuts in non-native cultures and languages. He feels that, while the Indian audience is sophisticated, Indians tend to suspend logic when watching a film. So Indian film operates totally in the realms of emotion and the senses. This prepared him to be hard and exacting on himself because he knew that the Western audience would demand realism. For him, even though his messages are rather subtle, filmmaking is not so much a question of subtleties; it's a question of catching the essence.  

Shekhar's filmmaking history has  been checkered. His talent is assumed, but recognition does not come easily. Controversies continue to dog his life and his films. But things have changed for this prolific and talented director. In India he was accused of never completing his films, of being a Spielberg wannabe, and a perfectionist seeking the elusive Ninth Gate. Shekhar hit back with Bandit Queen, Cannes toasted it, and India loved it. The Indian Censor Board did not. They demanded cuts, got some.  

'Dissolve to the next scene:  

International community hails Elizabeth. Shekhar sits in a corner watching an Oscar slip out of his hands. No problem. Indian Censor Board chooses Shekhar as their whipping boy. They demand a price for Elizabeth - three cuts. 

But this time Kapur will not give. 

...Fade to black. 


More by :  Deepika Singh

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