What really stumps Kapur is the giant water pipe on which he's balancing. The duct cuts through the maze of rubbish-strewn roofs and filthy alleys to carry water to the seafront Art Deco apartments of Colaba, the flashiest neighborhood in India's most swanky town. But here in Dharavi, a lost city under the overpasses linking the airport with the steel-and-glass blocks downtown, the only running water is what seeps out of cracks in the pipe. Which brings Kapur to other difficult digits. Like 150, the number of working toilets in Dharavi. Or 20, the number of years Kapur gives Bombay before it divides forever into rich and poor, high-rise city and low-rise slum, where 25 floors up there's water for Jacuzzis but down below there's barely enough for life.
The calculation leads Kapur to two conclusions. One: "Water will soon be the world's most valuable commodity, and places like Dharavi will have none." Two: he's going to make a film about it. This project, Water (Paani in Hindi), has become such an obsession that despite commitments to direct Morgan Freeman in a film about Nelson Mandela and Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush in a sequel to Elizabeth, as well as co-writing a biopic on the life of Buddha, Kapur recently left the West after 10 years in London and Los Angeles and moved back to Bombay. "This," he says grandly, "is my set."
Great directors are typically typecast as impractical, creative visionaries. They aren't supposed to care about numbers. But before he became a director in the early 1980s (after some limited success as a Bollywood actor and director of TV ads), Kapur worked for Burmah Oil in London."There aren't too many feature-film directors who began life as accountants," observes Blanchett. Today, Kapur is as comfortable at a business conference or giving a speech about fossil fuels as he is attending a film festival. "Actually, I believe that all creative people are schizophrenic," he says. Kapur's interest in the business of show biz runs to helping set up the Indian Film Festival and speaking for the Confederation of Indian Industry, for which he champions Asia as the promised land of cinema. "With the rise of Asian consumerism, in a decade 70% of all movie revenues will come from Asia," Kapur declares. "Asian culture will become the international norm. It's reverse cultural colonization. Hollywood will still be making Spider-Man movies, but when Spider-Man takes off his mask, he'll be Chinese."
This is no idle theory for Kapur. He's backing it with money, having persuaded New Age guru Deepak Chopra to help him set up Gotham Studios Asia, a business that will bring comic-book heroes such as Spider-Man and Batman to India, with new story lines in which brown-skinned superheroes battle figures from Indian myths in places like Calcutta. Kapur says he sold Chopra on the idea by telling him "that in five years we will notice a cultural change in the world, where Western pop culture will start to stagnate and a hybrid form of culture that is more Eastern in nature will begin to take center stage."
Ten years ago, when Kapur left Bollywood for Hollywood, America still struck him as the center of the creative universe. With a virtual monopoly on budgets and technical skill, L.A. was clearly the place to be for a foreign director with a single art-house hit, Bandit Queen. He was an immediate success. In 1998, Kapur directed Blanchett in Elizabeth, about the life of England's 16th century monarch. The movie was nominated for seven Oscars, winning one. Its magic, says Blanchett, lay in Kapur's slightly demented reinvention of period drama. "Elizabeth could have been incredibly musty," she says, "but Shekhar brought this East-West sensibility to it. The dancing. The way he moved from point to point in the plot, with no logic. His willingness to make big, sudden changes. He was completely and utterly unusual, and deeply unafraid." Critics wondered at the ahistorical sumptuousness of the movie and whether the director had gotten a little carried away with his new studio money. Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote that Kapur and his screenwriter had made "spectacle their priority" and that the film was "historical drama for anyone whose idea of history is back issues of Vogue." Nevertheless, there was no denying the latent talent of star and director, and all expected Elizabeth's success to launch both onto the international A-list.
Blanchett did indeed become a star, in movies like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Lord of the Rings. But Kapur's progress was less stellar. He made money, sure. On the Asian Rich List of the London Sunday Times, his wealth is estimated at $7 million. But his output was limited and oddly conventional. He directed the disappointing historical epic The Four Feathers (2002) and helped produce Andrew Lloyd Webber's striking but lowbrow Bombay Dreams (2004). Naseeruddin Shah, star of Monsoon Wedding and Kapur's 1983 debut Masoom (The Innocent), acknowledges Kapur's gift, calling him "the only Indian filmmaker of international standard." But he prefers his earlier works, like Bandit Queen, about Indian outlaw Phoolan Devi, and wonders whether the riches that dazzled the accountant have also blinded the director. "He jumped from small budget to these monstrous commercial movies," says Shah, "and it bothered me that he began talking only money and not heart. I always felt heart was his strength."
Kapur insists that accusations of selling out are wide of the mark. Just because he understands how money works, he says, doesn't mean his concern is merely making a pile of it for himself. In fact, he adds, in the past few years his problem was too much cash: "With the amount we had on The Four Feathers, it's very difficult to retain creative control. There were meetings, meetings, meetings, when what I needed was to pay more attention to the script." It's not a mistake Kapur intends to repeat: his Mandela movie is already on its third writer and seventh rewrite. Perhaps more significantly, after the grandeur of Elizabeth and the scale of The Four Feathers, Water is budgeted at a slim $20 milliondespite an all-star team that includes writer Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show), designer John Myhre (Chicago) and, for the score, Bollywood maestro A.R. Rahman and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. "The same film in Hollywood would cost $100 million," says Kapur. "But here it isn't corporate. Here I can keep control."
After a journey of 30 years that has taken him twice to the West and twice back to Bombay, from accountancy to commercials, Hollywood comedies to Broadway musicals, Kapur thinks he's finally ready for "the film I've wanted to make all my life." At 59, he adds, "I've come to the conclusion that I'm unable to live anywhere but India. I need the chaos, to see that people can live in abject poverty with more dignity than even the richest in Bel Air. I need to draw strength and creativity from the courage of a people that can somehow survive everything." He feels both excited and scared at the prospect: "You know what gets me out of bed in the morning? Fear of failure. Every day I start the day thinking, 'Jesus Christ! I'm going to fail.'"
With Water, Kapur may be taking the greatest risk of his career, transforming himself from a director famed for opulent spectacle into a low-bud-get crusader for the oppressed. But as he tours the movie's setting in Dharavi, he revels in the prospect of making a film that combines Indian melodrama with economics. "It's 20 years from now," says Kapur, explaining the plot. "There's an upper city like Vegas and a lower city like this. And all the water is sucked up by the upper city." He points at a group of skinny girls slapping foamy saris in a puddle. "Those are my 'water rats,' my heroes. They live in dry pipes and crawl to the upper city and steal water." He darts into a narrow alley of corrugated iron shacks. "Here in the lower city is where they make everything for the upper city. No laws, no health and safety, no restrictions on pollution. Total free enterprise." Spying a clutch of new apartment blocks on the horizon, Kapur says the only time the two cities meet in his vision is when upper-city revelers venture into the lower city's "paradise clubs," where anything goes.
Kapur intends the audience to draw global parallels. The "water rats" can be street kids from Bombay, Rio, even London. Paradise-club patrons are sex tourists. The upper-lower divide is the chasm between First and Third Worlds. Kapur the director is making a film written by Kapur the economist. "Bombay puts it all together, the contrast, the contradictions, in a way that you never have to think about in London or New York," he says. "And that's what the film will do, too."
In the movie, the divide leads to revolution. In real life, Kapur says, Dharavi will somehow adapt to its unpromising future. In reality, he adds, Bombay's rich are not nasty, but they have too little contact with the poor to understand their plight. "Over there," he says, indicating the high-rises, "they believe toilet paper is soft and beautiful. Here, they know it's to wipe yourself." Money can blind as well as dazzle, he's saying. Sometimes it just gets in the way. And he would know.