‘As a filmmaker and an artist, you can’t live with inadequacy’: the Rajat Kapoor interview

In part one of an extensive conversation, the actor, writer and filmmaker reveals his influences, his love for theatre, and his initial years of struggle.

Writer, filmmaker, playwright, actor. Rajat Kapoor is a man who wears many hats. His last film Ankhon Dekhi (2014) garnered popular and critical acclaim. Kapoor, who is also a multiple-National Award winner, is an 1988 alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India. He was born in 1961 in Delhi, in a “lower middle class” background. His father ran a printing press, but was also instrumental in initiating Kapoor into the world of films. Kapoor spoke of his journey from Delhi to Bombay, his years at the FTII, his views on cinema and his continued struggle to make films even after Ankhon Dekhi.

At what precise moment in your life did you decide that you want to make films?

By the time I was 15 or 16. I didn’t know how will I make films or what should I do to make films, but I knew in my head, one day I am going to make films.

Was it the environment that you were in?

Maybe. I grew up watching regular Bollywood films. Dad was a big film buff. We used to go and watch all kinds of films with him.

My dad was a big Raj Kapoor fan. So very early on we saw Awaara [1951], the whole Raj Kapoor mythology was [ingrained in us]. Then Bobby and Deewaar happened in 1973 and 1975. They influenced me in a big way. Bobby, like a sexual fantasy. And Deewar, as this anti-hero character, completely took me over.

There used to be a National Award Film Festival. I remember in 1974, when I was 13 years old, watching Duvidha [1973] with my dad. Tell me which normal guy, who runs a printing press, would go and watch Duvidha and bring his kids along?

Taking us to watch Duvidha, and then talking about the film, saying that you know the ghost that she meets is not really a ghost, but another lover... Wow! This was when people like Manmohan Desai were saying that capital punishment should be to make someone watch Uski Roti [1969] over and over again. So I suppose my love for cinema came from him.

Was he the most decisive factor or the person who had the most impact initially?

Of course. Like all parents do. At the age of 16 when I joined college, I joined the film society called Celluloid. That’s when for the first time I saw [Jean-Luc] Godard, [Werner] Herzog and [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder. It just blew my mind. By this time I was certain that I wanted to be like my dad. I was also into film analysis by that time, with a deeper understanding of images.

Describe those five years between 1980 after your graduation and before you joined the FTII in 1985.

Rajat: I finished college. Dad said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to make films.” So dad said, “Okay fine, make films. How?” I said, “I have no idea.” “Toh ek kaam karo, jab tak film nahin banaa rahey ho, tab tak printing press mein aa jao. Kyunki business toh hai. Jab main mar jaaoonga kaun dekhega isko?” By this time, I was 19.

One day, I went to the Alliance Française where I had started learning French. They had a small theatre troupe. I had just seen one play in my life and that too because it was based on a Woody Allen script. I went and joined Theatre de Poche, which means pocket theatre. Then next year we broke away from Theatre de Poche in 1983 and started Chingari. Tughlaq was the first play that we did. I acted in it and did the production. When you are 20-21 and you do something on your own, you create a team of 25 people, you rehearse for four months, the energy of the whole thing and the high of theatre itself, I was just completely hooked for life.

What was it about theatre that struck you? Is it a more innocent medium?

It’s about amateur theatre. And I still do amateur theatre even though we now make money. The energy of an amateur company is fantastic because nobody is really doing it for money. All these guys [at Chingari], including me, had a job. Someone was working in a government office. There were a couple of guys who worked with the French embassy. Someone had a travel agency. So they had their jobs but they would finish at six, come for rehearsals at eight and we would be rehearsing from eight to twelve or one in the morning. Next morning they would go back to their jobs. And then come back. And of course, you are not doing it because of money. You are doing it because you like this group of people. You think you are creating something.

So how did FTII happen?

By that time I knew about FTII. The problem was that I thought I couldn’t leave home. I couldn’t leave my parents. In 1984, my brother went to Bombay to study mass communication at St Xavier’s College. After he went and I realised that my parents didn’t really “die”, they missed him for one month, and then they were okay. I realised it’s not the end of the world. Next year I applied for FTII and I got in.

You were already passionate about cinema by that time. What did FTII do for you?

I was maybe a little better prepared to receive the education at FTII than some others, who came completely blank immediately after college. I thought everybody over there is going to be as passionate about cinema as I was. But when I went there and I met my colleagues, I realised they didn’t really care. Most of them were quite raw in their love for cinema. Some of them developed it while they were there. A lot of them didn’t. I don’t know why a lot of them came over there.

But for me, it was a dream to be able to watch a film every evening. This was before DVDs. The only way you could watch a film was at the film festival or as part of a film society or at FTII. If you wanted to watch [Federico] Fellini, you would hope that they would show a Fellini retrospective.

And some of the teachers were very good. Suresh Chabria was our teacher for film appreciation and he was great. I’m very fond of him. Every time I make a film, he is one of the first people I want to show my film to. When we were in our second year and third year, Kumar Shahani came for some lectures and workshops. Mani [Kaul] came a couple of times. That was my first introduction to them.

There was also a lot of pressure in FTII from within. You got a feeling of inadequacy. When Kumar would come and speak, and you heard him, you said, “Fuck, he knows so much, how am I ever going to make films yaar? I don’t know anything.” He knows about Indian classical music. Then he talks about [Arthur] Schopenhauer. Then he talks about Marxism. My God! And you need to know so much to make a “film”, not just “films”.

Also, it was a very lonely place in a way. Because you had the same 80 people day in and day out. People were getting drunk. People were fighting. You got sick of each other. You also made great friends, but it was such an isolated thing. It was very good in a way that it gave you all the time to think cinema, to read cinema, to make short films, to make your own mistakes. But it also became overbearing. Three years went by like this, but each day didn’t finish.

Rafey Mahmood, who then became my cinematographer, was a batch junior to me.

So did you get over the inadequacy or was it a constant feeling?

No. It became stronger as the years passed. The funny thing about FTII is that when you reach there, within three months everybody becomes a star in their heads. People who don’t know anything about world cinema, suddenly start saying, “[Jean-Luc] Godard is a chutiya yaar. Yeh [Ingmar] Bergman kya bakwaas hai. Main bataata hoon yaar.” Then after six months you do your first exercise, a continuity film. You shoot it, you edit it and that’s a big slap. You realise, “Fuck, I don’t even know how to put two shots together.”

It’s hard unless you take on the garb of arrogance. “Rubbish! I’ll show them. When I pass out, I will change Indian cinema.”

So going to the FTII was a humbling experience?

It was a great learning experience. I wouldn’t say it was humbling. When I use the word inadequacy, it’s actually the correct word, because as a filmmaker, as an artist, you can’t live with that feeling, otherwise you will not be able to work. And that’s why I feel a lot of FTII people don’t work because you have to live with yourself, live with the persona that you pretended to be at FTII. You pretend to be the greatest filmmaker in the world, but deep inside, you know that you are a shit filmmaker. That’s why a lot of them don’t make their first films because they are so scared to be exposed.

So you graduated from FTII in 1988?

And I came to Bombay. Kumar was making Khayal Gatha [1989]. I joined him immediately. There was a role of a student of cinema [in Khayal Gatha]. So I also acted in it.

Tell me about the years before you made ‘Private Detective’ (1997)?

That whole decade, between 1988 and 1998, was the decade of extreme poverty. I was staying in a room with seven other people in Mahim, which was really like a slum. As an assistant to Kumar and Mani for three years, I was getting a monthly pay of about 1,200 to 1,500 rupees. Out of which 800 was your rent, so what you lived on was 400 rupees a month. Lunch you got at the office. You got a train pass. So one could get by. But when I stopped working with them after three years, even the lunch and dinner stopped. Even the 1,200 rupees stopped.

So I used to write film reviews. That would pay me 150 rupees for Mid-Day, 250 rupees for Sunday Mid-Day. I moved to Bandra as a paying guest. I was living with my girlfriend. She would make about 1,500 rupees a month.

One didn’t mind it because the urge was to make films. I continued doing theatre. In 1989, just as we finished Khayal Gatha, I went back to Delhi, spent two months there with Chingari and did Deathwatch and The Maids by Jean Genet. In 1990, I went back again and did another play, Jacques and His Master by Milan Kundera, with Chingari.

So theatre was sustaining me. And I started writing scripts. I didn’t know how to write scripts because in FTII they didn’t teach us the writing part well. But I kept writing. For the last 25 years I have been writing, almost a script a year.

Mani was loosely associated with Films Division. They had a list of films to be made on various subjects. Tarana was one of them. Now because I had worked with Kumar on Khayal Gatha, I thought I would make it. My fees were 15,000 rupees as a director. It took me a year to make that film.

But Films Division was a nightmare. Somehow, we shot it, Rafey and I. It’s a film that I am very proud of though it’s a complete copy of a wannabe Kumar Shahani film. We shot the film in 1993, edited it and showed it to the Films Division people. And they said, “What the fuck is this? We can’t approve it. You can’t finish the film.”

The next one year was probably the darkest one year of my life. I spent every day at the Films Division office. Have you seen Fatso! [2012]? That scene of heaven [where the Purab Kohli character goes after he dies] is from there, that kind of bureaucracy. I would go there everyday, meet this one, meet that one. “File is closed, file is open.” They didn’t pass Tarana for a year-and-a-half. The big boss at FD is the Chief Producer. Three of them came and went. By the time the file would reach them, the chief producer would be transferred. A new guy would come. The whole thing would start again.

What was ‘Tarana’ about?

Tarana is a part of khayal, which is normally at a fast pace and doesn’t use words. It uses syllables. You know how Films Division documentaries are: “Taraana started in the 13th century in North India.” But it wasn’t that kind of film. It just had music and images. One guy said, you should show it to a musician. How would a musician know what a film is? So this guy, who was also from FTII, but a complete bureaucrat, said, “Behnchodh main filmmaker hoon, mere samajh mein nahin aa rahi hai, musician ke bhi samajh mein nahin aayegi, toh kiskey samajh mein aayegi?” They showed it to a classical musician, whom I will not name. He said this is not a film about tarana at all. He wrote a fucking script. “It should have this, it should have this…” So again the file got stuck.

After two years some chief producer came and said, “We have to finish this and close the file.” So we finished the film in 1995. It got the National Award, the Golden Lotus, which is the highest award in that category [Best Non-Feature Film] and Best Cinematography. Rafey and I bought one kilo of laddoos, we went to Films Division and we said, “Khao, khao, khao.” That was our sweet revenge.

(Tomorrow: Rajat Kapoor on the difference between theatre and cinema, the state of Hindi films, and the ongoing struggle to raise production funds.)

‘Tarana’ by Rajat Kapoor.
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