I had a few ginger ales with Shekhar Kapur, a well known Indian film director. We talked about the life, the universe and everything. We talked about what it takes to direct a good film and how Shekhar chose which films to direct.

He talked about being asked to direct "Long Walk to Freedom" about the life of Nelson Mandela. He said he turned it down. He understood about inequality and prejudice from his experiences in India and being Indian, but that he didn't think he would ever truly understand the extreme conditions of apartheid. He would never truly understand the rage of being treated as a completely different class of human being by the white man.

Later, in Hollywood, in the office of an important studio exec, Shekhar explained that he had turned down the offer to direct "Long Walk to Freedom". The exec told Shekhar that he thought that it was a good idea since people weren't interested in a story about the struggles of a black man.

Shekhar was infuriated by the comment, but contained it and kept a straight face. He excused himself and went to the rest room. From the rest room, he called his agent and told him to accept the deal. Shekhar was now able to feel the rage and his passion for the film had developed.

It is very difficult to get the cultural passions right in a movie. Usually the culture is the backdrop of a story or the story is about how American culture triumph over other cultures. Shekhar's insistence on understanding the cultural passion that would be core to a movie was impressive and something that more directors would strive for when making movies about other cultures.

22 Comments

I appreciate that he did what he did, as a black guy myself especially. But on the other hand, it struck me as a bit odd that he would say something like, "[I] would never truly understand the rage of being treated as a completely different class of human being by the white man." India was ruled by white Britain for a looong time. Does India consider their conquering a polite partnership? Denial perhaps? Also, regarding oppression, Kapur need only look to his own country and the plight of the Untouchables (India's "Dalits") to explore the nature of deep ingrained discrimination. More on India's Untouchables: http://www.hrw.org/about/hr-defenders/monindia.htm

RIO. I think he was talking about understanding in a first-hand emotional way. I think that the human rights abuse that he experienced in his lifetime as an Indian could not compare with the struggle that Nelson Mandela had to go through to free his people. He didn't deny the oppression of the Indian people.

Yes, I understood that, and like I said, I think what he did took guts and should be applauded.

BTW, here's another great link regarding the oppression of India by Britain...

"As India became poor and hungry, Britain became richer. Colossal fortunes were made. Robert Clive arrived in India penniless - activities of Company investigated by House of Commons. The Hindi word loot was introduced into English language because of the plunder of India."

"Systematic plunder led to a famine in which 10 million people perished. Bengal was left naked, stripped of its surplus wealth and grain. Famine struck in 1770 and took the lives of an estimated one third of Bengal's peasantry."

"Jawarharlal Nehru wrote that those parts of India which had been longest under British rule were the poorest:Bengal once so rich and flourishing after 187 years of British rule is a miserable mass of poverty-stricken, starving and dying people."

http://www.khyber.demon.co.uk/history/naval_crusades/india2.htm

I appreciate the awareness of perspective from Kapur and your awareness to write about it.

As an individual we may be part of a race or society that experienced great injustice but we may not have had personal exerience or we may be so insulated in our own indentity that we can not relate. But see how quickly an instance of human ignorance bridges that difference and awakens passion in someone with compassion. There are so many possibilities in this story for all of us.

Joi Ito: "It is very difficult to get the cultural passions right in a movie. Usually the culture is the backdrop of a story or the story is about how American culture triumph over other cultures." This seems like a good lead-in to a question that I've been wanting to ask you. Did you see "The Last Samurai"? If so, how did you feel about it?

I think Shekhar Kapur was right in being cautious before working on 'Long walk to Freedom'. He places a lot of importance on projecting the right kind of emotions thru his movies.

When he says that an Indian cannot truly understand the extreme conditions of apartheid, he means that what black people faced during those years cannot be equated to the freedom struggle that Indians went through.

Yes, it is true that under the rule of the British - India entered a dark phase in its history, but I think apartheid was a different kind of oppression.

I guess the world still has a lot of prejudice & hypocrisy to get rid off.. and thats exactly why Shekhar Kapur took on the movie after hearing the comments of the movie-exec.

Being an Indian myself, I know of the terrible crimes done by the British while they ruled us.. but I have only read of the terrible racial segregation known as apartheid. I think Shekhar Kapur just wanted the truth about such crimes to be filmed, and he just felt there might be a better person for the job.

In a way its a good thing he is directing the movie, looking at his repertoire I am sure this is going to be one among the stars.

"...he means that what black people faced during those years cannot be equated to the freedom struggle that Indians went through...

Yes, it is true that under the rule of the British - India entered a dark phase in its history, but I think apartheid was a different kind of oppression."

Why? How? I am black, and when a Jewish person compares the holocaust to the middle passage, I completely get it and we share our feelings on the matter. Why are you attempting to somehow distinguish India's oppression from this other instance? Did you read my links? It said "millions" of Indian's were slaughtered by the British, then systematically oppressed.

If there is some subtle difference that you are trying to express, I would argue that it is subtle enough to be insignficant in the face of the larger issue: systematic/cultural/racial opression.

Also, on the subject of oppression, and since you say you are Indian, how about spending a few sentences explaining your feelings about India's Untouchables who continue to be violently oppressed there. I find the subject fascinating, but rarely find an Indian person willing to discuss it.

having said aaaaall that, here's a cool twist... the gradual economic oppression (read: outsourcing) of the American middle class by India: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.02/india.html?tw=wn_tophead_3

"...he means that what black people faced during those years cannot be equated to the freedom struggle that Indians went through...

Yes, it is true that under the rule of the British - India entered a dark phase in its history, but I think apartheid was a different kind of oppression."

Why? How? I am black, and when a Jewish person compares the holocaust to the middle passage, I completely get it and we share our feelings on the matter. Why are you attempting to somehow distinguish India's oppression from this other instance? Did you read my links? It said "millions" of Indian's were slaughtered by the British, then systematically oppressed.

If there is some subtle difference that you are trying to express, I would argue that it is subtle enough to be insignficant in the face of the larger issue: systematic/cultural/racial opression.

Also, on the subject of oppression, and since you say you are Indian, how about spending a few sentences explaining your feelings about India's Untouchables who continue to be violently oppressed there. I find the subject fascinating, but rarely find an Indian person willing to discuss it.

having said aaaaall that, here's a cool twist... the gradual economic oppression (read: outsourcing) of the American middle class by India: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.02/india.html?tw=wn_tophead_3

i would think it risky to retell a story which you can't relate to directly. you might patronize. this reminds me of a Gandhi anecdote:

a mother comes to Gandhi, and asks him to tell her son to stop eating sugar for her. he says he will, but tells her to come back in two weeks.

two weeks later, they come back and Gandhi tells the young son to stop eating sugar. his mom then asks Gandhi why they had to come back after two weeks before he would say that to her son. Gandhi replies, "Because first I had to stop eating sugar".

"...Also, on the subject of oppression, and since you say you are Indian, how about spending a few sentences explaining your feelings about India's Untouchables who continue to be violently oppressed there. I find the subject fascinating, but rarely find an Indian person willing to discuss it...."

I'm glad you brought it up 'RIO'.. the practice of untouchables (also known as shudras) is an archaic superstitious tradition which originated thousands of years ago when the Hindu culture evolved. Unfortunately, it continues to be practiced (completely against the Indian Law).. in remote villages where the firm arm of the law cannot reach those who indulge in such heinous behaviour.

I firmly believe this practice is still a terrible flaw in the Indian system, and one of the major factors as to why India is still considered a Third World Nation. No country can progress if any section of its society is under oppression or segregation.

And.. finally when I said that India's freedom struggle is slightly different compared to apartheid, I did NOT wish to undermine the brutality faced but those who were oppressed due to apartheid. Yes.. indeed both forms of systematic /cultural /racial oppression, but if Shekhar Kapur had to make a movie on apartheid he could have faced flak from critics about his credibility to address such a sensitive issue.

My only stance on this topic is that I agree with Shekhar for 'looking before he leapt'. Peace.

'I agree with Shekhar for 'looking before he leapt'.

On that we have total agreement. A shame we all even have to still think about such things. Peace.

I find it hard to believe that a "an important studio exec" would say something so overtly racist. Hollywood is hyper sensative to racism (especially white/black). This kind of statement could end a career.

I also find it hard to believe that if there were such a racist studio executive, that they would say something overtly racist to someone of Indian decent.

I also find it hard to believe that a studio executive would think that people are not interested in the stuggles of a black men. Many Hollywood hits have been based on the oppression of black men.

To Kill a Mocking Bird 1962
In the Heat of the Night 1967
Native Son 1986
Cry Freedom 1987
Malcom X 1992

Just to name a few!

My cynic meter is off the charts.

guy: your cynic meter is broken. I've heard a wide range of racist comments from studio execs. I've heard racism against Japanese, even as a Japanese. Shekhar did tell me he was quite surprised by the comment since he was Indian and would not name the exec since it COULD end a career.

Anyway, that story didn't surprise me one bit. I've seen blatent racism in just about every possible situation.

As for whether a movie will sell or not... that's a matter of opinion and what studio execs make a living judging. Trends change and Malcom X from 1992 doesn't mean that "Long Walk to Freedom" in 2004 will sell. Having said that, I disagree with the exec and think that "Long Walk to Freedom" could be a great it.

"guy: your cynic meter is broken".
i couldn't agree more.

what a fantastic discussion!

Rio,

There's a difference between a country's experience of oppression that ended in 1949 and the personal experience affecting someone who grew up post-1949. Shekar did not grow experiencing racism first had as did Mandela or many non-whites in the USA, etc.

I like both Shekhar's initial reaction, and his reason for accepting the post. I agree with Jacob in that, as each form of oppression takes its own peculiar and perverted path, and each oppressed people has its own culture, each will develop its own unique way of reacting to the forces against it.

I would think that Shekhar's reluctance would be along the lines of I wouldn't know how an Apartheid mind would work and give vent to their ideology on the ground, and I don't know enough about the people to portray how they would respond, particularly in the smaller daily matters.

Of course, examples abound of directors and others successfully bridging this gap. AMANDLA, a powerful and brilliant feature length documentary on the role of protest music in the struggle against Apartheid (music in South Africa, rather than Hyde Park) was made by a white American who spent eight years in the country researching. (favourite scene "Dizzy Gillespie said, Man I want to join your revolution, you guys have the only revolution with four part harmony" - Hugh Masekela).

I have a bigger reservation in that the only Kapur films I know of are Elizabeth and Four Feathers, seemingly incongruous with his new subject matter.

I think it would have been nice if the producers had tried to find a South African director. We do have a few of those, you know....

SO what if the Hollywood exec said to Kapur no one would be interested in the life of a black man? Hollywood, like everyone else, has an agenda. And personally, I think that he was right (the executive). Mid stream America is not interested in teh life of a Black man (esp. a black racist)--as Mandela is--just read the text of some of his comments).

12 Feb 04: I want to star in a
movie with my 18y and 11y old
daughters. I can invest money
in expensive digital camera &
equipment but need script and
directors and other actors.
My 18y old attends USC at La,Calif. I am 56y from India;
my wife is chinese Taiwan.
Suitable persons kindly contact
me. My daughters play piano,
cello quite well.

12 Feb 04: I want to star in a
movie with my 18y and 11y old
daughters. I can invest money
in expensive digital camera &
equipment but need script and
directors and other actors.
My 18y old attends USC at La,Calif. I am 56y from India;
my wife is chinese Taiwan.
My daughters play piano,
cello quite well.
Suitable people kindly contact me

I have a story which i wanted u to read but i don't know how to send it to you. so kindly if u could i would really appreaciate it if u could read it.

charles: you must be fucking retarded, Mandela was the only South African president who _hasn't_ been racist

check your facts before talking trash

Have you checked the blog of Shekhar Kapur? Read his views at www.shekharkapur.com

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