Slumdog Millionaire shot Anil Kapoor onto a global stage. Now, he tells Mike Goodridge, he’s discovering what Indian film-makers can learn from Hollywood.
When I meet Anil Kapoor at a Beverly Hills hotel, he is discussing his training schedule for the afternoon with his assistant. He is not training for a role, they tell me, but he is learning to pitch a baseball as the following night he will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium on the other side of Los Angeles. “Baseball is a little like cricket,” Kapoor jokes, “just a different style of throwing the ball.”
“In all the villages and towns around India there are people growing up itching to make the next Slumdog”
It is unusual, to say the least, for an Indian actor to be invited to perform such a sanctified American tradition, but then Kapoor is no ordinary Bollywood star anymore. Since playing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? host Prem Kumar in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Kapoor has become one of the best-known Indian faces on the planet. Whereas the big Bollywood names such as Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan are gigantic in India and the diaspora, Anil Kapoor is now also a name in the rest of the world thanks to Slumdog, which has grossed nearly $350m worldwide.
From Slumdog to Hollywood
The 49-year-old actor has immediately capitalised on the success of the film, signing on for a 10-episode arc in the eighth season of 24 which will see him based in Los Angeles for at least the next six months.
But being at the heart of the Slumdog maelstrom has also given Kapoor some keen insights into the relationship between Indian and western film industries. In late April, he screened an English-language version of his 2007 production Gandhi, My Father as a world premiere at the Indian Film Festival Los Angeles (IFFLA).
The film was shot in both Hindi and English-language versions and released on the festival circuit in 2007 only in its Hindi version. While it was successful — it won a best actress prize at the Tokyo Film Festival and the Asia Pacific Award for best screenplay — Kapoor regrets not releasing the English version. But the success of Slumdog, an Indian story told largely in English, gave him new resolve.
“The advice we got from people at the time,” explains Kapoor, “was that Hindi would be more real and authentic and festivals would reject the film if they saw Hindi actors speaking English. So I kept the English version under wraps. But the fact is that I decided to produce the film only because it was in English. The script was written in English and my goal was for it to reach all over the world.”
Gandhi, My Father is indeed suited to a crossover audience. A perfect companion piece to Richard Attenborough’s 1982 classic Gandhi, it shows a darker side to the late spiritual leader. Directed by talented newcomer Feroz Abbas Khan, it charts the troubled relationship between Gandhi and his neglected eldest son Harilal, who died destitute five months after his father’s murder.
The film, which clocks in at just under 130 minutes, is a serious drama that feels like an international arthouse film rather than a product of Bollywood. Even shooting in both Hindi and English, the final budget was a modest $4m, but the production values are top-notch. “I showed Will Smith some of the film and asked him how much he thought the budget was,” smiles Kapoor. “He said $50m.”
The Iffla screening went well and Kapoor already says he has interested buyers. “Thanks to Slumdog Millionaire, everybody has woken up again,” says Kapoor, referring to the ambitions that many Indian film companies now have to crack a global market.
Kapoor’s short-term producing plans remain targeted at India and all the films on the development slate of Anil Kapoor Film Company (AKFC) are in Hindi, with their focus on fresh talent. AKFC has just completed Shortkut — The Con Is On, a mainstream comedy set for release in India through TV18 once the film producers’ strike ends. Kapoor also has No Problem to be directed by Anees Bazmee in development as well as two new films with Abbas Khan and Aisha, a project which will star and be co-produced by his daughter Sonam Kapoor.
“The Indian film industry is in limbo at the moment,” he explains. “It’s at a low point. The bubble of corporate overspending on films has burst and like the rest of the world, DVD and TV prices have come crashing down. But in a way I think that’s better because genuine independent film-makers will make better films.”
I ask if he thinks the Hollywood studios will be successful in India after the failure of first efforts such as Saawariya (Sony) and Chandni Chowk To China (Warner Bros) to crack the box office.
“I am looking at it very positively,” he says. “Everything has been disastrous so far but that has made the Hollywood studios more careful with budgets, who to deal with and who not to deal with. I have been interacting with all of them and I can see they are doing it in a systematic and sincere way. I think they will also help to corporatise the Indian industry and make it more disciplined and professional.”
Kapoor says that he is talking to both Sony and Disney about some of the projects on the AKFC slate.
Changing the face of the mainstream
How the success of Slumdog can lead to greater co-operation between Hollywood and Bollywood is anyone’s guess, but Kapoor believes it has broken down barriers and is inspiring studios to shoot there, not to mention proving that mainstream US audiences won’t balk at watching a film with brown faces. “I feel there should be more films out of Hollywood with Asian or brown faces — 42% of people under 20 in the world are now in Asia and they are the people who watch films, so if they see someone with a brown face in the films they will relate more to the characters.”
In 24, Kapoor is playing a Middle Eastern peacemaker, a role he says he would be unlikely to find in the Indian industry. “I would not get this kind of opportunity there to play characters which would go worldwide,” he says. “I am doing it as an educative thing. I want to understand the work culture here, the people, the industry.”
He also believes Indians are thinking more globally than before, pointing to Reliance’s aggressive push into Hollywood courtesy of DreamWorks and the attempts by many Indian film-makers and companies to make films that crossover, a la Slumdog.
“Everybody is planning something,” he says. “I know it. Who doesn’t want to have world exposure or world recognition? I personally think that Slumdog’s impact will be great. In all the small villages and towns around India, there are a lot of AR Rahmans and actors and Danny Boyles and writers like Vikas Swarup. They are growing up itching to make the next Slumdog and they must already have started working towards that.”
“It’s the way it happened in cricket,” he declares, as he prepares to change into his sporting gear and head out for pitching practice. “All these guys like Sachin Tendulkar became global phenomena and got that kind of exposure which inspired the young generation to think globally.”
Anil Kapoor actor and producer
Born 1959, son of film producer Surinder Kapoor.
l Makes Bollywood debut with a supporting role in 1979’s Hamare Tumhare; scores his first lead in 1983 in Woh 7Din. Remains in the top ranks of leading men, with featured highlights including Yash Chopra’s Mashaal (1984), Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India (1987), Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989) and 1942: A Love Story (1993), Priyadarshan’s Virasat (1997) and Anees Bazmee’s No Entry (2005).
l Starts producing films in 2002 with Badhaai Ho Badhaai, followed by My Wife’s Murder (2005) and Gandhi, MyFather (2007). His latest production Shortkut — The Con Is On is slated to open this year.
l Married to Sunita Bhambhani; three children. His eldest daughter Sonam Kapoor is an actress who starred in Saawariya.