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Shekhar Kapur on metaverse in cinema: It can take narratives to frontiers that we have never explored before

The 76-year-old filmmaker was in Bengaluru recently to share his views on what makes virtual reality tick as far as cinema is concerned and how it can help build compassion and relevance in societies around the globe.

Shekhar Kapur on metaverse in cinema: It can take narratives to frontiers that we have never explored before
Shekhar Kapur
  • Swaroop Kodur

Last Updated: 06.32 AM, Sep 27, 2022

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Filmmaker Shekhar Kapur is a recluse but not by his own admission. His almost-50-year-long career has seen him take on diverse roles in the medium of cinema and be associated with projects of great esteem but his ardent fans would urge him to be more prolific. But, unlike many of his contemporaries, Kapur seems in no hurry to expand his filmography and instead has chosen to employ his curiosities at leisure, living and learning the mysteries of life. He also carries the penchant for not being repetitive or aridly coherent just for the sake of it and has spent the vast majority of his life in quests for spiritual dialogues and human intimacy.

And yet, in the same vein, Shekhar Kapur’s fondness for technology and its overarching impact on cinema comes as a stark surprise to many. Known for his unsparing human dramas that envelope large social and philosophical contexts such as Masoom, Mr. India, Bandit Queen, and the two biographical dramas on Queen Elizabeth, Kapur now seems more interested in the workings of the virtual world and how it is gradually nudging cinematic storytelling into a vibrant direction. As metaverse, augmented reality, and other user-driven media seep into filmmaking, the conversations and the scepticism too take newer shapes but for Shekhar Kapur, this is only the beginning of a radical change.

The 76-year-old filmmaker was in Bengaluru recently to share his views on what makes virtual reality tick as far as cinema is concerned and how it can help build compassion and relevance in societies around the globe. OTTplay caught up with Shekhar Kapur for a freewheeling chat, here are the excerpts:

In one of your old interviews, you spoke about the making of your first film, Masoom, and the fact that you lacked any kind of credible experience to be a director. How much do you think you have grown over these years?

Do you grow and do you just go on experiencing? People say that Masoom is my best film and I often wonder what actually was going on with me at the time. I have come to the conclusion that naivety and creativity go together: now what does that mean? It means that too much knowledge or skill becomes a burden. During Masoom, I had to figure everything including the way a movie camera functioned and I had nothing to fall back on. So, when people ask me if I can a film like Masoom again, my response is 'will I ever become naive again?'. If only I can rediscover that innocence and try and make every film that act of innocence. And that's why, perhaps, none of my films belong to the same genre and I constantly shift genres otherwise I will become repetitive. It's not even a conscious choice but just that I don't get attracted to the idea of making a similar film again.

Do you think, back in 1983, you were already smitten by technology?

Not at all. It all happened later when I began to study and research technology while I was living abroad. And again, it's because I was naive enough to initially believe that technology could go anywhere and do everything but had I been a scientist, I would have never had a wild imagination. And that's the first step to any great achievement - the imagination. No one imagined Indians would adapt to the smartphone revolution and today we have close to 800 million smartphone users across the country. See, the people responsible for this must have imagined that it will radically change the way people communicate but the digital revolution also put Kodak out of business - the idea, perhaps, is to forge on and push the boundaries until the 'crazy ideas' become a reality.

A still from the iconic 'Hawa Hawai' song from Mr. India (1987)
A still from the iconic 'Hawa Hawai' song from Mr. India (1987)

But are you also wary of technology?

Of course, and we all are. We are all wary of the fact that technology is evolving at a rate much faster than our ability to physiologically or emotionally handle it. I see that my daughter and many friends around me are learning how to develop relationships through technology but I wonder if they know that people are meant to physiologically and psychologically connect in the real world. Because if you lose intimacy, you lose a lot and if technology is connecting us virtually but without any sense of intimacy, then there is no use for it. And are we losing wisdom in the quest for knowledge? If that's the case then one has to be certainly wary of technology.

Coming to virtual reality and metaverse in cinema, the core essence of this kind of technology is that it helps filmmakers break the fourth wall. And someone like Akira Kurosawa tried doing that more than 60 years ago in Rashomon – now, what difference does a virtual reality device make to this experience?

Whatever we normally refer to as subtext, technology now almost forces that into our heads. When you talk about filmmakers like Kurosawa, you know that your subconscious experience of his film is greater than the sum of its parts. And that's because he is a great filmmaker who knows how to put together two scenes but also cut in such a way that there was a gap between them, and you had to fill that gap. Even a film like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - every time I watch the film, I see something new because I would fill those gaps with newer experiences and I have to do that every single time I watch it. But technology is likely to fill the gaps for us because it promises us an 'experience' and more often than not, one's experience of watching a film is likely to be not different to the previous one.

But then, you can trust technology to understand that it has to go beyond this realm and reach frontiers that you could have never experienced before. It's like when they introduced dialogue into cinema during the silent-film era, everyone said that the 'experience' would be killed now. Same when the concept of background score was brought into the picture because critics felt that the music is nudging the viewer in a particular direction. But the truth is that the same background score took the viewer to even farther places and that's how we need to look at technology as well. If technology adds a new layer of experience, then it's worth it.

So, when do you think technology can become a gimmick or a manipulative device?

It always starts as one. There is always a thin line that we tread at the beginning of any technological revolution but the people using it themselves take it to a safer place. But that said, while technology can take us to far, far places, it cannot replace real-world intimacy.

Do you reckon Masoom could be a film in the metaverse?

The cast of 'Masoom' with Shekhar Kapur (R)
The cast of 'Masoom' with Shekhar Kapur (R)

Yes, definitely, but it depends on the perspective of the viewer and what they are going through at the time. See, the experience of a creative form like cinema will be a lot more fluidic in virtual reality because you are an avatar and so are the other characters. The characters will never be as disciplined as I, the filmmaker, would make them be.  The algorithm underneath is only deciding what the character would do but your avatar could change the course depending on where you are at that point in your life. It's quite exciting that the story, in itself, becomes so fluid that there are so many more possibilities. As a filmmaker, I could say that "wait, that's not what I wanted to do" but you have to get used to the fact that interactive technology impacts the story like never before. The intellectual and emotional capacities of a filmmaker too shall be challenged because he or she isn't the singular force of power anymore - in virtual reality, you are handing the control over to the viewer.

What about the community aspect of cinema? Don't you suppose that virtual reality will make that obsolete?

It will but that will need time. Because we are so used to holding hands and hearing others laugh or cry inside a cinema hall that the experience of cinema has taken a very defined shape. That said, you can trust the technology to evolve to that stage - the problem right now is that everyone has to get used to wearing the headset for VR and that seems like a burden. But the future would be different and the gear or devices will be ubiquitous and the same charm of community-watching could return in a different form. You never know.

But there is also an adverse effect. Japanese and other societies are currently experiencing social withdrawal. Young adults becoming recluses and refusing to participate in any social activity – don’t you think the metaverse will exacerbate that issue?

Didn't the concept of isolation always exist in that culture? The idea was that in order to be spiritually evolved, you had to become a monk or a nun. So, the idea in itself isn't new in that or any culture for that matter. But if you were to consider modern technology or virtual reality driving this phenomenon into dangerous territories - for sure. There are no two ways about it. But you have to adapt to technology as a large group and thwart the threats.

Let's say your film Elizabeth is turned into an interactive, metaverse exercise where you allow the viewer to make decisions for the protagonist. What impact could that have on real history?

You have more scope for alternate history because history is constantly redefined. And it is a better way to teach compassion and morality to newer generations where you question them constantly because, after all, it is the series of questions and answers that will ultimately lead to understanding who you are. The altered or the incorrect question, on the other hand, will be a futile effort because one gets nothing out of it. My film, Bandit Queen, was essentially about politics and rape and I wanted to prove that rape isn't a sexual act but one of power. Or even self-worth. With virtual reality, the immersive experience can hopefully bring an individual closer to reality and pose the inherent question like 'Why are you teasing the girl?' and 'Did you feel good about yourself?'. But that same immersive experience can make one grow fonder of the negative stuff too so you have to be careful about how you treat it. Society has to carry that responsibility.

Finally, how do you manage to include a philosophical rhetoric in your work which, in essence, is governed by practicality and rationality?

Well, that's why I take time between my projects and that allows me to ruminate, I suppose. My contemporaries have made lot more films and sometimes I do wish I could make as many but I like to walk the mountains, meet people or spiritual masses of various faiths and understand what they are trying to say. Also, I am not careered filmmaker, films are something I do often because of the passion. And while I am on a film set, a dual side of mine comes out where I am both the director and a viewer.

Shekhar Kapur's comeback film What's Love Got To Do With It? opened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2022 and will release theatrically in 2023. Written by Jemima Khan and starring Lily James, Shazad Latif, Emma Thompson, Shabana Azmi, and others, the film is a family drama centred on the role of technology in human relationships, particularly in the post-Covid era. "It's about the importance of human touch and hugging," says Shekhar Kapur in his quintessential manner before saying that the upcoming film is the closest he could get to the ethos of Masoom. Here's the trailer of What's Love Got To Do With It?:

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