In awe of a controversial Godwoman and a prophet of literature in equal measure, Shekhar Kapur discusses chasing infinity
SHEKHAR Kapur has been haunted by the question, what is infinity, since he was 12. He would lie on his back, on the terrace of his Nizamuddin home in Delhi, and ponder about the Milky Way with his mother, Sheela. "I’d ask her where the sky extended to. And she’d say, to forever. I’d go to physics class the next day, and they’d tell me anything that can’t be measured doesn’t exist,” he smiles over the memory of contradictions when we meet at a Juhu café.
Most recently, the question led him to religious and spiritual gurus. He says he befriended new-age speaker Deepak Chopra and yogi Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.
He also spent time with the Dalai Lama.
Amma and Shekhar Kapur in conversation. Pic/Getty Images
He came closer to the answer when working on an installation called Water that now sits at Mumbai’s T2 international airport terminal. It allows visitors to interact with musical notes by running their fingers through a water fountain. It’s while creating it that he met a scientist who had worked at a university run by the Amritanandamayi Trust which has at its centre, Amma, the 62-year-old hugging saint from Kerala who assuages people of their troubles with a squeeze. She spends more than 12 hours every day hugging thousands of followers, ridding them of woes when she presses their heads against her soft, rounded body always draped in white. Hospitals and educational institutions, spanning schools to engineering colleges, are run under the aegis of her trust. Like with all godmen and women, Amma too has been critiqued for amassing a fortune from misery.
A still from Will
It doesn’t vex Kapur.
Instead, he harks back to 2013 when he was invited to film Amma's 60th birthday celebrations in Kollam, Kerala.
"She hugs for 17 hours a day. She travels six months of the year doing just that. She runs a multitude of universities, ashrams and hospitals, where the greatest minds from all over the world work. If you go up to one of them and ask, ‘who planned this? Who commissioned this?’, all answers lead to Amma," he says. He remembers sitting behind her during a darshan when a staffer came and whispered something in her ear. She answered in Malayalam. "The guy told me, ‘We have a million dollars, and we needed to check with Amma what to do with it. She conveyed her decision. How does she do it? She is uneducated!” he says with wonderment about the woman born to a fisherman’s family in Parayakadavu, Kerala.
And so was born The Science of Compassion, a 49-minute documentary on Amma, which he premiered online last week.
Criticism targeted at her, he says he 'doesn’t care for'. One of Amma’s most prominent followers, Gail Tredwell, released Holy Hell in 2014, highlighting the embezzlement of funds and rampant physical and sexual abuse at Amma’s ashram.
"Even Buddha was accused of sexual abuse. People living in the ratinal world are always trying to bring down everything to the mundane. That’s the way we are," Kapur says.
He clarifies though that he isn’t a follower. But he has fallen victim to her charm. “She is fascinating. There is this story I heard and a picture I saw of her licking the sores of a man suffering from leprosy when she was told she couldn’t hug him. Who does that?”
We ask him about something less tricky — Shakespeare.
The director has been busy working on a 10-episode series for TNT titled Will. It’s based on the early years of William Shakespeare’s life. The trailer depicts a 16th-century London that could also be your modern-day, loud, obnoxious nightclub. Will is a poet who writes stories that excite the masses. An actor questions him in the trailer, “You can’t just make up words”, and Will says to that, "Someone has to!"
"I realised TV is big. I mean half the world watches Game of Thrones. Will was written by Craig Pearce, a collaborator of Baz Luhrmann. That made it more exciting.”
And the project taught him a thing or two. He admits he hates ‘intellectuals’. “I was always told that to read Shakespeare, you needed to be one. But when I began reading the script, I realised he was a poet of the masses. And English was the language that the man on the street spoke. The gentry conversed in French. It was only later that intellectuals staked claim to him."
Will, Kapur admits, proves that he takes Bollywood along wherever he goes. "I went to Dharavi and took pictures, and the art direction is inspired by that shoot,” he laughs. “It’s very, very Bollywood.”
He recalls a time after the release of the 1998 British biographical film, Elizabeth released. The New York Times called it an “MTV version” in its review. “For a long time, I thought it was a compliment,” he says. We crack up.
We decide to give him a real compliment — we still love Mr India; when can we hope for a sequel?
“Ask Anil and Boney Kapoor to hand me the rights and the freedom to make it my way. During that movie, we did what we wanted; we weren’t scared to take a risk. We were fearless It has to be made like that, if again. If that happens, I’ll do it in a heartbeat.”