'I would never want to be in a desert with Shekhar'
Shekhar Kapur unveils his new film
Arthur J Pais
"Don't ask me their names," Shekhar Kapur says almost in a whisper. "There were two Bollywood actors who had approached me, independent of each other, several years ago to discuss the possibility of remaking The Four Feathers in Hindi."
There were many reasons Kapur was drawn to the $80 million project in English that was eventually made by Paramount and Miramax, he says, even though he was aware there were five other films versions of the early 20th century novel.
"If the movie was good enough to be remade in Hindi," Kapur, his eyes sparkling with mischief, said at Toronto. "I thought it is good enough for the entire world."
The Bollywood actors were presumably drawn by the heroism in A E W Mason's book that told the story of a young British solider, Harry Feversham, who was denounced as a coward by his closest friends and fiancé because he refused to go to Sudan to fight for his country. They certainly did not understand the self-doubt that consumed him. A few months later, the young man who shunned fighting the war that is going badly for the British risks his life by going to Sudan almost alone to save his friends.
The book and previous movie versions tempted him to make a subversive film, he says.
"This is not a remake," he asserts, correcting a journalist who had asked him what he found wrong with the previous versions that he sought to remake the movie. "This is my version which turns the original story around a lot to reflect on the thought that the root cause of terrorism we face today lies in the colonial past."
He says he is not tired of answering questions about why a story set in Britain and Sudan in the late 19th century needs to be retold.
"I want people to discuss this film before they see it and after they have watched it," he says. "I find it a very contemporary film for a number of reasons. For it is also a story about an inner journey, about the nature of loyalty, about refusing to fight for a cause that makes no sense to oneself, and about fighting one's inner demons. And those issues are as contemporary as they were in the past century."
In the story of a young man who is not afraid of wanting to know more about himself, Kapur says he saw something that is terribly important today. "This is all about an internal journey, going from naiveté to wisdom," he says. "All of us are afraid of something or the other. But how many of us try to find out more about our fears, and about facing our doubts?"
"This is a film more about personal transformation than politics," he says. "It was so in Elizabeth (his previous film that was nominated for 8 Oscars and grossed about $100 million worldwide)."
Don't ask him if he made The Four Feathers after 9/11.
"It was completed several months before September 11," he says patiently, though he has made the point in practically each of the over hundred interviews he has given to promote the film.
Kapur was in Toronto with his leading actors -- Heath Ledger who plays the enigmatic and idealistic British solider and Kate Hudson who plays his fiancé -- for the gala premiere of the film September 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Kapur, who was not nominated in the best director category for the Oscars for Elizabeth, hopes the Toronto launch will change that. The festival, which draws some of the biggest names in Hollywood, has launched many key films on their way to Oscar nominations. These include in recent years, Sam Mendes' American Beauty and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (both winners) and Todd Field's In the Bedroom (nominee).
Having watched previous versions of The Four Feathers including a 1977 television film Kapur says he was "horrified but not surprised at the celebration of British colonization."
"I cannot understand how it was not questioned, at least in the last version," he says.
Kapur insisted on the revisionist version even before he began casting.
"The script --- by Michael Schiffer, an American and Hossein Amini, of Iranian descent --- was ready when I joined the project about two-and-a-half years ago," he says. "I strongly wanted to reinterpret the story."
When one of the producers Stanley Jaffe, a veteran of many years, resisted Kapur's interpretation, Paramount Pictures and Miramax let Jaffe go.
Kapur, who has a reputation for getting great work from his artists -- Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah in Masoom, Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth, for instance -- says he was lucky to have a strong roster of "wonderful artists" in his latest film.
Heath Ledger was not even 21 when Kapur signed him to play Harry Feversham.
"I gave him a screen test with about 10 pages of dialogue," Kapur recalls. "It was a love scene and we had a young woman for the scene. He did an excellent job. I then told him, 'Now I want to do the same scene with wisdom.' "
Ledger, who would later act as the suicidal son of a racist police officer in Monster's Ball, vividly remembers the test: "I asked him what he meant by asking me to do it all over again with wisdom."
Kapur explained to Ledger that in the previous version, he was "taking love."
Now, he would be giving love --- and that called for wisdom.
"I saw Heath's face change profoundly the minutes he began reworking the scenes," Kapur says. "I also saw tears in the girl's eyes. This was magical."
Kapur says he could not believe such a young actor could emote so well.
"'Are you the reincarnation of somebody terribly wise?' I asked him," Kapur says. "Where did so much of wisdom come from?"
Members of the cast readily acknowledge it was Kapur's accumulated wisdom that challenged him.
"I would never want to be in a desert with Shekhar," Djimon Hounsou, who plays the mysterious guardian angel who protects the young British soldier, says with a hearty chuckle. "He makes you think very deeply about what you are doing in the film. And you have these long discussions."
"I call it nurturing," says Ledger. "He nurtures our performances, he nurtures the film, and we are all better because of it."
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