In the second and concluding part of an extensive interview, writer, actor, playwright and filmmaker Rajat Kapoor tells us about the difference between theatre and cinema, the problem with Bollywood, and the constant struggle to raise funds for new films. Kapoor’s most recent film was the critically loved Ankhon Dekhi, and his next acting appearance is in Shakun Batra’s March 18 release Kapoor & Sons.
At a recent screening of ‘Private Detective’ in Mumbai, you said you seem to have finally found your voice. How do you describe your filmmaking style now?
To find your own voice is any artist’s real struggle. The whole journey of an artist is in trying to find out who you are. And you can only find out who you are through your work. That is a long process because that process means shedding away influences, going deeper within and then finding an expression, which is uniquely yours.
In your films, nothing is at appears to be. The whole world is turned upside down.
In Raghu Romeo , this guy [Raghu, played by Vijay Raaz] thinks this image [Maria Goretti’s character] is the person. It was Rafey, who pointed out to me that, “Rajat sa’ab, you have made a trilogy.” He said I’ve made a trilogy of obsessed men. Raghu in Raghu Romeo is obsessive. Sunil [Ranvir Shorey] in Mixed Doubles  is obsessive. And VK [Ranvir Shorey] in Mithya  is obsessive. I didn’t realise it. And now, Bauji [Sanjay Mishra’s character] in Ankhon Dekhi is more obsessive than anybody else. So there is a theme about identity, about these obsessive men on the margins of society.
How different is theatre from films, beyond the obvious difference of resources and space?
They are entirely different mediums. There is nothing similar.
Is there any difficulty in transitioning from one medium to another?
No. This confusion is there because theatre and cinema are so close to each other in people’s minds – our films are so theatrical and our theatre is so realistic, which is a mistake to start with. Bollywood is a complete travesty of cinema because it is so dialogue-based. If you are theatrical, you are supposed to be a good film actor.
Are you absolutely contemptuous of the mainstream?
Contemptuous is the wrong word. I don’t think I’m contemptuous, but these films don’t excite me. I don’t watch them.
Is there any contemporary Indian filmmaker whose films you like?
In the mainstream, I like [Sanjay Leela] Bhansali a lot. I may not like his films. It’s not my vision, but I respect his vision.
Do you look to make a statement with the cinematography in your films?
As an artist, you work with instinct. That is not to say a lot of it is not playing subliminally inside you. So you instinctively make a choice, which somehow creates an image, which is relevant to your work or relevant to what you are doing. But if you were to do it consciously, you would end up making an ad film or a propaganda film. If an image can be reduced to one meaning, it’s a bad image.
Bhansali is probably one of the few filmmakers who is interested in shot-taking in the first place. Most of our contemporary filmmakers don’t give a crap. And this is there since the 1960s and 1970s. Even the much-celebrated middle-of-the-road cinema filmmakers of the 1970s made nice, heartwarming stories, but they were not film people. The image didn’t enter their heads. Whereas someone like Guru Dutt or Raj Kapoor or Vijay Anand, image was an important part of their story-telling.
Tell me about your association with Rafey Mahmood, the cinematographer for all your films.
Rafey was assisting Piyush Shah on Mani Kaul’s Nazar . I was assisting Mani and Rafey was the assistant cameraman. We decided at that time, that we would work together whenever it happens. Rafey forced me to think visually in Tarana, for example.
So when you write, do you incorporate the visual element at that stage?
Not at all. I write a script, as in the narrative. Once the script is ready, and we start shooting, then we get to work – Rafey, Meenal [Agarwal, his wife], who is the production designer and me and the assistants. Then we start asking, what is the emotional content of the scene and how do we get that?
Rafey and I made a pact that we will never do a shot breakdown, but we work very hard on how to get the emotional content out. “What are the textures we need? What are the colours we need? What are the objects we need?”
Can you give an example of this from ‘Ankhon Dekhi’?
In the written script, there was no change of seasons. But when we decided to shoot the film in February-March, I said, let’s do five days in January and let’s get some winter. Then Holi will be there and then summer. So let’s make a cycle of seasons and then everything became a part of that. We changed the house colour every season. It’s one colour to start with, then it becomes yellow and white. Then it becomes blue again. Meenal was quite scared, she thought people would ask, “How did it change?” I said nobody will notice it. If you think this adds something, then do it.
Watching a film is a sensual experience. It’s really about feeling. And very often you don’t know why you feel, what you feel. It’s same with spaces. You walk into a space and you feel “wow.” You have felt something intangible. The same thing is with images. You see an image and you react to it with your senses. Your senses take you to a feeling, to an emotion. It might trigger something in your head about spending a summer in Delhi and what does that summer bring back to you.
Did ‘Ankhon Dekhi’ come from your own background in Delhi?
Yes. My grandfather’s house was in Chandni Chowk and we were all a part of this big, joint family. Ankhon Dekhi in many ways was reliving my childhood.
Was Bauji’s character also based on someone known to you?
No. I just knew the milieu and the other characters very well. The boy who can’t stop talking, it actually happened to my cousin. Perhaps Ankhon Dekhi works so well, because I knew that more than anything else. And Fatso! worked the least because I knew it the least.
There was this suggestion that Bauji in ‘Ankhon Dekhi’ needed psychological help. Some people thought that he committed suicide at the end.
You can say the character of Hamlet is bi-polar. That doesn’t take away anything from Hamlet. You can clinically diagnose what was wrong with Bauji, but it doesn’t matter to me. And it was not a suicide in any way in the end. I wanted the film to end with a great sense of joy. Most people are like, “Why did you have to kill him?” But his dying is not the thing. His flying is the thing. When he is flying, there is a great sense of calm on his face, a great sense of joy and the music is beautiful and soaring.
Must you always write your own films?
Yes. It’s very important.
Are there any rules that you follow?
I have learnt on my own and I have run away from all rules in a way because I find it quite terrible when people tell you that the first act should end in 21 minutes or shit like that. That’s why most Hollywood films are so bad. They are so structurally bound that you can’t do anything. That’s why the Coen brothers are so refreshing because you don’t know what they are going to do.
Anybody other than the Coen brothers you admire?
[Martin] Scorsese. The real master at work. Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight was wow! Pedro Almodóvar ten years back, not anymore. Woody Allen. And [Federico] Fellini and [Charlie] Chaplin. Now European cinema has taken a dive. There is nothing there sadly.
Is there anything positive about the film industry since you joined it in 1989?
One positive thing that happened around 2000 was that the multiplexes came in. Had the multiplexes been there in 1997, perhaps Private Detective could have been released. Raghu Romeo could be released. I could make Mixed Doubles.
But are we making anything worthwhile? Unfortunately, no. Are we making anything, which is internationally in the same category as Iranian films, for example? No. We are making crap.
This is not a problem about films. This is a problem about our country. Because we are so very happy with our mediocrity. Everybody becomes a star very soon, very quickly. Look at our theatre. I can’t think of five theatre directors in this country. Ratan Thiyam in Manipur is one person who makes great theatre. Habib Tanvir sa’ab used to. He died. Maybe Veenapani Chawla. That’s it. In a country of one billion. What is this disease that this country has that we are not able to produce great work?
Is it because we have become too materialistic as a society?
Maybe. We are still good with the classical forms. We have great musicians within the classical space. Great dancers. But cinema, theatre, literature I don’t know much about. For me, Manohar Shyam Joshi was a great writer in Hindi. Uday Prakash now, maybe. Beyond that? Who are the great writers that we hear of? Salman Rushdie, who is of Indian origin, but lives somewhere else. Who else? In terms of art, there is great work happening. But not in cinema, not in theatre, not in literature.
Is it difficult to make an overtly political film in India today? Do you shy away from doing so yourself?
I don’t shy away from anything. I must make what is truly me. When I have a political film, I will make one.
But why were the films of the 1950s made by Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt or Bimal Roy, so much more overt about their politics than today’s filmmakers?
I don’t know if the politics were overt but they had an ideological stand. Part of the fact why those films work is because India was a new nation. There was a sense of incredible hope in those films. A song that moves me so much is “Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi.” Also, because something that was written in 1958 and 60 years hence, we realise we haven’t done a fuck for the people of this country. That we have really lost out on what we thought we would achieve.
The scale and canvas in your films are small. They lack spectacle. Is this a conscious decision?
I don’t want to make a historical film, for example. I don’t want to make a period film. It doesn’t excite me. I want to make films about things and people I know. The other part is that I also realise that I have to keep my films small for them to be somewhat profitable so that I can make my next film. It’s really the Woody Allen model.
I do want to make a gangster film. I’ve written a script which requires about six crores. I’m hoping I will get it. Six crores is not a big budget. But for me it looks like it is. Because again, it’s a star thing. If you have a Varun Dhawan in your film, you can get 20 crores. But if you want Vicky Kaushal, it is not possible. And I’d rather go with Vicky Kaushal than Varun Dhawan because Vicky is just perfect for this role.
So are you saying that even after ‘Ankhon Dekhi’, you haven’t found a producer?
Not at all. I’ve got three scripts ready for the last three years and I’ve met everybody in this industry. “Great script sir, but no.” And these three scripts need four to six crores. But I will shoot this year. I will write something else, which I can do in one-and-a-half, two crores.
For part one of the interview, see here.