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Friday, Aug. 27, 1999

Indian director explores virgin territory

When Indian director Shekhar Kapur was in Japan for the 1994 Tokyo International Film Festival for the screening of his explosive film "Bandit Queen," media interest was surprisingly absent.

Well, now Kapur is back with "Elizabeth," which was nominated for a slew of Oscars (with Cate Blanchett also picking up Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Actress), and the media turnout for his press conference was substantial. So much so that the soft-spoken director was a bit taken aback.

"I'm very surprised by the number of people," said Kapur, as his eyes wandered around the room. "I'm glad the film is getting so much attention, but I'm feeling a little bit shy. I'm not used to it. Normally my actors sit here. They can talk, because it's their job. My job is to be behind where those gentlemen are" (pointing to the row of cameramen in the back).

But Kapur is being a bit disingenuous. While he's a world-class director now, his career began as an actor. After he quit a career in accounting in Britain in the '70s, he worked successfully as both a film actor and talk-show host, before returning to India as a rather well-known face in 1985.

But such reserve and self-deprecating humor seems par for the course for Kapur, who has certainly not let fame go to his head. When asked why he thought "Elizabeth" won so many awards, Kapur chuckled, "I don't know! When I started the film, I was just hoping people don't laugh at me."

Certainly nobody's laughing. They're so busy following his next move: Kapur mentioned that he's working on both a Nelson Mandela bio-pic, and a millennial science-fiction flick involving the Second Coming. But, as he was quick to add with a sly smile, "Every time after I make a film, I decide I'll never make one again. Especially if the film is successful. I think, 'I will live on this film for the rest of my life!' " (Laughs.)

On the Indian reaction to "Elizabeth":

"There was an upsurge in nationalism in India, that an Indian had gone and made a film on a British queen. Especially since an Englishman came and made 'Gandhi.' So people were all very proud."

On the English reaction:

"When it first came out, I had a huge battle with English historians over whether Elizabeth was a virgin or not. I did a lot of research, and people had so many theories, one of which was that she was actually a man! There's another theory that both she and her sister Mary suffered from congenital syphilis, that they got from their father, Henry VIII, who died of syphilis. So that's why neither she nor her sister could have children. But the period historians say that she was actually very pure.

So it's all interpretation. I asked a lot of historians in England, why is it important for them, now, that purity and virginity be the same thing?"

On the French reaction:

"I lost a lot of French friends. [Laughs.] The fact is at that time, it is historically true, that the French considered Elizabeth to be expendable. They never assumed that England could become a powerful nation in its own right. All they were interested in was killing her, overthrowing her or marrying her off so they could take over England.

But a lot of people have asked, why was he [the Duke of Anjou] a cross-dresser? Cross-dressing in Europe, especially in the French court at that time, was not considered strange. I've often had this argument with people, that as societies change, moralities and principles change too. So we must not judge what people do from our point of view, but from their times and their lives."

On historical accuracy:

"I think it's really important not to be totally inaccurate. But I think it is also very important to bring out, in only two hours, the spirit of those times . . . and the fact is that modern history is an interpretation anyway. I assure you that the historical textbooks I read in school about the British rule in India were very different from the English textbooks."

On directing Cate Blanchett:

"My advice to Cate constantly was not to over-burden herself with the book knowledge of Elizabeth. When you're dealing with a character like this, it's important not to have the arrogance of knowing. It's important to do all the research, to know everything about her, then drop it all, and say 'Now I don't know, now I have to do this film to discover who this person was.' "

On casting:

"I was sure in my mind that I didn't want a star [in the lead], because I wanted people to see her as 'Elizabeth.' So I didn't want say, Nicole Kidman. She's a good actress, but you would perceive her as Nicole Kidman. I saw a promotional video of Cate, it was just five shots, but everything I was looking for was in those five shots. So I fought for her, because she was totally unknown at that time and this was an expensive film.

"The reason I chose Joseph Fiennes was because I needed an actor who was very good-looking, who looked like he could handle life, but beyond that [showing] an innocence, that he could be easily misled. Also I needed an actor who was not afraid of being weak on screen. Most actors, most men, are very shy of being weak, and I could see that he was not.

"I was actually planning with this film to make a film about a woman who comes across every aspect of man, and then rises above all of them. So I needed a lover -- Joseph Fiennes; a father figure -- Richard Attenborough; the ego of man -- Christopher Eccleston; and I finally needed the teacher, the guru. When I met Geoffrey Rush, I saw he had that bearing, like a Zen master."

On an Indian director making a film on the British royals:

"Nobody finds it more strange and intriguing that an Indian should do this film than myself. I was shocked when I was offered it."

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