No Boundaries, No Hierarchies –– what I learnt working with Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor

This appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine on Sunday, December 24, 2017 titled All In With Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor. Read it on The Hindu here.

Shashi & Jennifer Kapoor in Goa. Photo by Karan Kapoor

I got off the wrong station, arrived late to sign my first contract, for a film produced by Shashi Kapoor. His company Film-valas was in the airy open office –– Prithvi Jhopda, designed by the architect Ved Segan at Janki Kutir, Juhu.

I was introduced as a new assistant. He looked up and said, “Do all you arty filmmakers have to have a beard?” His humor intact amidst my tardiness.

Off went the beard.

On a humid Bombay day off my khaki pants he quipped, “now you’re Behramji Benegal”. The trousers stayed. It was too humid in Bombay for denim.

The humor was infectious. Along with it came an openness, like the architecture of the Jhopda.

There were no boundaries, no hierarchies.

Working on the film the family was all in. This was a traveling theatre troupe. Except we made films. Jennifer would send me off to Khilchi and Sons on Kemps Corner for samples for costumes and furnishing. On the sets I met Karan with his Nikon cameras, the ebullient Sanjna and later Kunal. At their home in Atlas Apartments, Kunal and I discovered our shared love for almost burnt toasts.

Their doors were always open.

Inclusion and equality was what set Shashi and Jennifer and Film-valas apart. Right down to the food –– everyone ate the same food, a practice I insist on my productions.

My passion for calligraphy came in handy. I was tasked with handwriting dialogs in Hindi and handing them to the actors. Shashi would take the hand written pages and put an enigmatic slash between some words. When he asked for the pages back he’d glance at those slashes. That was my first clue that in those spaces between the words was where his performance would lie.

In Kalyug, the film I was working on, a complex top angle shot was set up in a cramped room for an intense moment on screen. On a film set there is no sense of privacy. Just behind the wall, people are concerned about their chai and samosa, others impatient with the long wait quintessential to filmmaking. Amidst this an actor has to create an internal world. A bubble of privacy.

Shashi curled up – fetus like – for the moment when his character discovers who his mother is. After the shot was over he turned over to check if it was ok. We didn’t have monitors back then. I said it was brilliant and set the mood for that moment. He looked at me and smiled impishly. “You know what I was thinking about?” I stared blankly. “I hope my wife is not making baingan (aubergine) for dinner tonight. I hope there is something else to eat.” I smiled. Was this his charming way of getting back at the “method actors”?

Whatever it was, it worked.

For some reason Shashi took it upon himself to talk to me about filmmaking. More like asides, they were an insight of another way.

He disliked the lack of planning and the arbitrary way films were made. He had seen another world and was keen to share that. “In India films are not made, films happen”. “True creativity comes from planning. You need planning and organization if you want to make a good film.” My impressionable mind absorbed it all.

“Where’s the script?” I held up a brown file with a one page step outline. He shook his head, “you need a proper script. The one thing you must learn is to write a screenplay.”

And on one of the days when everything seemed to be collapsing he saw me and said, “well, the good thing is you are learning from the ground up so you know how this entire machine works”. “Whatever you do, you have to start at the bottom. You need to lug the lights, lift the weights to really understand the nuts and bolts of creative work. You cannot come to me one fine day and assume you can take over as director.”

I was going to the finest film school in the world, and I didn’t even know that.

Shashi asked me to come to London to work on the English language version of one of their films. It was a heady time –– working with the sound editor of Stanley Kubrick and David Lean –– and I immersed myself. Until one day he turned up and asked, “don’t you need money? Aren’t you going to ask me?” Kunal and I would grab a sandwich lunch, I had a subway card, what more would I want? He smiled, “collect a weekly stipend, it’s not much but it’s better than nothing.” It was the time of Jennifer’s illness. I did not see her then but a few days before I was leaving he asked if I could supervise the English subtitles for 36 Chowringhee Lane. I stayed on an extra month in London –– no questions asked.

With them you were all in.

Jennifer’s memorial was the hardest time to go back to Prithvi and see the family. In all this Sanjna still managed to smile.

Things were never the same after.

Later when I’d see Shashi at the Prithvi Cafe, he would continue his refrain –– “scriptwriting, that’s what we don’t have. Good scriptwriting.”

He knew that we had to look beyond the template driven style of screenwriting. That a movie lies in the white spaces between the words –– those enigmatic slashes between the words finally made sense to me as a director.

At a recent screening of Shakespearewala all I could focus on was the performance of Jennifer and Shashi. It was subtle, nuanced, playful and had all the depth without the accompanying weight.

When I stepped out onto the streets of New York, my new home, I realised that in my work, how I think, what I believe in and the work that I’m drawn to I was carrying a piece of Film-valas, of Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor.

I learnt from them –– I’m all in.