Bombay Showcase

All about Asif

I bump into Asif Kapadia rather unexpectedly a few minutes before the scheduled time of his masterclass at the FICCI Frames, 2016, on April 1. “I’m on a holiday. Not really in the mood for an interview. Also, I have already spoken so much in the international media,” he says, before leaving me at the exit of the hotel ballroom with a sliver of hope: “Okay, see me after the session. Let’s see if we can talk.”

Until then, I was contemplating how to approach the British filmmaker, fresh after his first Oscar win, for an exclusive interview since there were no prior commitments made by the organisers.

Not a familiar face with most Indian moviegoers, Kapadia is 44, with a functional pair of specs, and casually worn shirt and trousers, could pass off as a scholar. With a constant flow of nervous energy, he seems to be eternally pressed for time. The session starts an hour late.

And as if that wasn’t enough to make the possibility of the interview seem increasingly difficult, even his farewell from the stage is extended, thanks to the enthusiasm of half the auditorium who wanted to have their moment with him. Not surprising in an event that is practically the trade fair of the Mumbai film industry, where most industry folks converge to exchange business cards.

But Kapadia’s seemingly impatient look, as it turns out, is deceptive. In his brief visit to the land of his ancestors, he obliges everyone: be it posing for selfies with fans, or interacting with organisers or taking special time out for one of the Indian filmmakers at Sundance Film Festival, who he was a mentor to.

When we finally settle down for a short interview in the hotel coffee shop, we begin our conversation with a theme that marks the end of two of his documentaries, Amy (2015) and Senna (2010). The films were made after the untimely death of the British musician Amy Winehouse (27) and Brazilian F1 Race legend Ayrton Senna (34) respectively. “I would change the question a bit. It is not about the fact that they died, it’s about how they lived. It’s like everyone knows the ending, but they don’t know the journey,” he says.

Kapadia’s biggest successes arguably are these two documentaries. Senna won major awards including BAFTA and Sundance and was the highest-grossing documentary in UK until Amy broke that record. Going against the convention, Kapadia made these documentaries well after he had established himself as a feature filmmaker. It’s all about telling a story and trusting one’s guts, according to him. “Making a documentary doesn’t mean you are taking a backward step in your career,” he says. Both films tell their story through archival footage, an aspect of Kapadia’s cinema that has influenced documentary filmmaking in the recent past.

Texture of real footage

“The world,” he says, “may get obsessed over technologically perfect images but it can’t make you feel or cry. The texture of the real footage, its imperfections is something I find very convincing and believable. The worse the quality of footage gets, the more emotional the audience is. That’s why I love film too, with its grains and scratches.” He also provides us with a backstory that explains his abhorrence for talking heads, the most traditional of documentary devices. “Before making films, I was making crap TV and good money too. But I was bored because all we used were talking heads, talking heads and talking heads. It struck me that if I keep doing this, I will have to find myself something else to do very soon.”

Strangely enough, Kapadia’s lesson from trite pre-millennial TV and its impact on documentary filmmaking are juxtaposed in his views about the new era of cutting edge television. While he says that Breaking Bad made him realise “that TV is the future”, he is currently obsessed with the 10-episode documentary Making a Murderer that employs archival footage shot over 18 years.

He may be upbeat about the advent of new forms of entertainment, but as a filmmaker Kapadia is an old-school romantic who can’t bear the idea that the first viewing of his films could be on a smaller screen. “Even if I am watching a great TV show on my iPad, I can’t concentrate because an email may pop up. As a filmmaker, it’s my job to make people forget everything and watch the film.” Kapadia’s movie-watching OCD could spill over to theatres as well. “I don’t even like people eating in the cinemas. In India, it’s more difficult. Here people keep talking on their phones inside the theatres, which is something that is not allowed in most of the theatres in US and UK.”

On making The Warrior

Talking about India, we get back to where he began his filmmaking career. His graduation short film from the Royal School of Art, Sheep Thief (1997), was made on a shoestring budget with a bunch of non-actors and the assistance of a few students from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). And, of course, there was his critically acclaimed first feature film, The Warrior (2001), that was set in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.

“It’s important that every filmmaker asks himself these questions: what do you hope to achieve in the future? What kind of films do you want to make? Are you doing it to get rich and famous in America or to be a star in India? I was born in London, my parents are from Gujarat. When I started making films, I realised I wanted to be different from everyone else in the UK and the US at the time. I wanted to make foreign films, I love world cinema: that’s how I ended up making The Warrior in India, partly as an outsider.”

Not only did The Warrior , one of the first Hindi language foreign films that won two BAFTA awards, introduce Kapadia to the world, it also marked the international debut of a certain Irrfan. “Tishu (filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia) who was also casting director on Monsoon Wedding referred me to him. First, what got me were his eyes and his presence. And secondly, it was his interest in world cinema and his keenness to be a part of it. Most of the actors, including some stars I met in Mumbai, had no interest in foreign films. India is such a big country and a big market that people tend to think it’s all about here. If you are not interested in what is going outside your country, why would they be interested in you? It’s a two-way thing. Irrfan was unique from everyone I met here because he was interested in travelling and experimenting.”

Working on Maradona

It has barely been a month since Amy won the Academy award for the Best Documentary and Kapadia’s latest film, Ali and Nino, has already opened in the US (to mixed reviews). The feature film is based on Kurban Said’s novel of the same name. After his holiday is over, however, the sports buff will be off to meet Diego Maradona to begin work on his next documentary on the Argentine legend. “I’m a big fan. There is a lot of drama in his story. And he is an anti-hero who I find more interesting than a straight-up hero. He’s a flawed genius and the big twist here is that he’s still around.”

For the director, who views filmmaking as “a step into the unknown”, the way to go about it is making as many films as he can. “I would like to keep making movies until I’m 60, 70, like Alfred Hitchcock whose greatest work Psycho , Vertigo and The Birds came in the last leg of his career.”

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