TEDIndia 2009

Shekhar Kapur: We are the stories we tell ourselves

Filmed:

Where does creative inspiration spring from? At TEDIndia, Hollywood/Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth," "Mr. India") pinpoints his source of creativity: sheer, utter panic. He shares a powerful way to unleash your inner storyteller.

- Director and writer
Shekhar Kapur is a visionary filmmaker and storyteller who works at the intersection of art, myth and activism. Full bio

So, I was just asked to go and shoot this film called "Elizabeth."
00:15
And we're all talking about this great English icon and saying,
00:18
"She's a fantastic woman, she does everything.
00:21
How are we going to introduce her?"
00:23
So we went around the table with the studio and the producers and the writer,
00:25
and they came to me and said, "Shekhar, what do you think?"
00:27
And I said, "I think she's dancing."
00:29
And I could see everybody looked at me,
00:32
somebody said, "Bollywood."
00:35
The other said, "How much did we hire him for?"
00:37
And the third said, "Let's find another director."
00:39
I thought I had better change.
00:42
So we had a lot of discussion on how to introduce Elizabeth,
00:44
and I said, "OK, maybe I am too Bollywood.
00:46
Maybe Elizabeth, this great icon, dancing?
00:49
What are you talking about?"
00:51
So I rethought the whole thing,
00:53
and then we all came to a consensus.
00:55
And here was the introduction of this
00:57
great British icon called "Elizabeth."
00:59
Leicester: May I join you, my lady?
01:06
Elizabeth: If it please you, sir.
01:18
(Music)
01:21
Shekhar Kapur: So she was dancing.
02:05
So how many people who saw the film did not get
02:07
that here was a woman in love,
02:10
that she was completely innocent
02:12
and saw great joy in her life, and she was youthful?
02:14
And how many of you did not get that?
02:17
That's the power of visual storytelling,
02:21
that's the power of dance, that's the power of music:
02:23
the power of not knowing.
02:26
When I go out to direct a film,
02:29
every day we prepare too much, we think too much.
02:31
Knowledge becomes a weight upon wisdom.
02:33
You know, simple words lost
02:36
in the quicksand of experience.
02:38
So I come up, and I say,
02:42
"What am I going to do today?" I'm not going to do what I planned to do,
02:44
and I put myself into absolute panic.
02:47
It's my one way of getting rid of my mind,
02:50
getting rid of this mind that says,
02:53
"Hey, you know what you're doing. You know exactly what you're doing.
02:55
You're a director, you've done it for years."
02:57
So I've got to get there
02:59
and be in complete panic.
03:01
It's a symbolic gesture. I tear up the script,
03:03
I go and I panic myself, I get scared.
03:05
I'm doing it right now; you can watch me. I'm getting nervous,
03:08
I don't know what to say, I don't know what I'm doing, I don't want to go there.
03:11
And as I go there, of course, my A.D. says,
03:14
"You know what you're going to do, sir." I say, "Of course I do."
03:16
And the studio executives, they would say,
03:20
"Hey, look at Shekhar. He's so prepared."
03:22
And inside I've just been listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
03:24
because he's chaotic.
03:26
I'm allowing myself to go into chaos
03:28
because out of chaos, I'm hoping some moments of truth will come.
03:31
All preparation is preparation.
03:35
I don't even know if it's honest.
03:37
I don't even know if it's truthful.
03:39
The truth of it all comes on the moment, organically,
03:41
and if you get five great moments
03:44
of great, organic stuff
03:46
in your storytelling, in your film,
03:48
your film, audiences will get it.
03:50
So I'm looking for those moments, and I'm standing there
03:52
and saying, "I don't know what to say."
03:54
So, ultimately, everybody's looking at you,
03:56
200 people at seven in the morning
03:58
who got there at quarter to seven, and you arrived at seven,
04:00
and everybody's saying,
04:02
"Hey. What's the first thing? What's going to happen?"
04:04
And you put yourself into a state of panic
04:06
where you don't know, and so you don't know.
04:08
And so, because you don't know,
04:11
you're praying to the universe because you're praying to the universe
04:13
that something -- I'm going to try and access the universe
04:16
the way Einstein -- say a prayer --
04:19
accessed his equations,
04:21
the same source. I'm looking for the same source
04:23
because creativity comes from absolutely the same source
04:26
that you meditate somewhere outside yourself,
04:28
outside the universe.
04:30
You're looking for something that comes and hits you.
04:32
Until that hits you, you're not going to do the first shot.
04:34
So what do you do?
04:36
So Cate says, "Shekhar, what do you want me to do?"
04:38
And I say, "Cate, what do you want to do?" (Laughter)
04:40
"You're a great actor, and I like to give to my actors --
04:43
why don't you show me what you want to do?"
04:46
(Laughter)
04:48
What am I doing? I'm trying to buy time.
04:50
I'm trying to buy time.
04:52
So the first thing about storytelling that I learned,
04:54
and I follow all the time is: Panic.
04:56
Panic is the great access of creativity
04:58
because that's the only way to get rid of your mind.
05:01
Get rid of your mind.
05:03
Get out of it, get it out.
05:05
And let's go to the universe because
05:07
there's something out there that is more
05:09
truthful than your mind,
05:11
that is more truthful than your universe.
05:13
[unclear], you said that yesterday. I'm just repeating it
05:15
because that's what I follow constantly
05:17
to find the shunyata somewhere, the emptiness.
05:19
Out of the emptiness comes a moment of creativity.
05:22
So that's what I do.
05:25
When I was a kid -- I was about eight years old.
05:27
You remember how India was. There was no pollution.
05:29
In Delhi, we used to live -- we used to call it a chhat or the khota.
05:32
Khota's now become a bad word. It means their terrace --
05:36
and we used to sleep out at night.
05:39
At school I was being just taught about physics,
05:41
and I was told that
05:43
if there is something that exists,
05:46
then it is measurable.
05:48
If it is not measurable,
05:51
it does not exist.
05:53
And at night I would lie out, looking at the unpolluted sky,
05:55
as Delhi used to be at that time when I was a kid,
05:58
and I used to stare at the universe and say,
06:01
"How far does this universe go?"
06:04
My father was a doctor.
06:06
And I would think, "Daddy, how far does the universe go?"
06:08
And he said, "Son, it goes on forever."
06:11
So I said, "Please measure forever
06:14
because in school they're teaching me
06:17
that if I cannot measure it, it does not exist.
06:19
It doesn't come into my frame of reference."
06:22
So, how far does eternity go?
06:25
What does forever mean?
06:27
And I would lie there crying at night
06:29
because my imagination could not touch creativity.
06:32
So what did I do?
06:35
At that time, at the tender age of seven,
06:37
I created a story.
06:39
What was my story?
06:41
And I don't know why, but I remember the story.
06:43
There was a woodcutter
06:46
who's about to take his ax and chop a piece of wood,
06:48
and the whole galaxy is one atom of that ax.
06:51
And when that ax hits that piece of wood,
06:56
that's when everything will destroy
06:59
and the Big Bang will happen again.
07:01
But all before that there was a woodcutter.
07:03
And then when I would run out of that story,
07:05
I would imagine that woodcutter's universe
07:07
is one atom in the ax of another woodcutter.
07:10
So every time, I could tell my story again and again
07:13
and get over this problem,
07:16
and so I got over the problem.
07:18
How did I do it? Tell a story.
07:21
So what is a story?
07:24
A story is our -- all of us --
07:26
we are the stories we tell ourselves.
07:29
In this universe, and this existence,
07:32
where we live with this duality
07:36
of whether we exist or not
07:38
and who are we,
07:40
the stories we tell ourselves are the stories
07:42
that define the potentialities
07:45
of our existence.
07:47
We are the stories we tell ourselves.
07:49
So that's as wide as we look at stories.
07:54
A story is the relationship
07:56
that you develop between who you are,
07:58
or who you potentially are,
08:02
and the infinite world, and that's our mythology.
08:04
We tell our stories,
08:07
and a person without a story does not exist.
08:10
So Einstein told a story
08:13
and followed his stories and came up with theories
08:16
and came up with theories and then came up with his equations.
08:19
Alexander had a story that his mother used to tell him,
08:22
and he went out to conquer the world.
08:25
We all, everybody, has a story that they follow.
08:27
We tell ourselves stories.
08:30
So, I will go further, and I say,
08:32
"I tell a story, and therefore I exist."
08:35
I exist because there are stories,
08:37
and if there are no stories, we don't exist.
08:39
We create stories to define our existence.
08:41
If we do not create the stories,
08:44
we probably go mad.
08:46
I don't know; I'm not sure, but that's what I've done all the time.
08:49
Now, a film.
08:52
A film tells a story.
08:56
I often wonder when I make a film -- I'm thinking of making a film of the Buddha --
08:58
and I often wonder: If Buddha had all the elements
09:01
that are given to a director --
09:05
if he had music, if he had visuals, if he had a video camera --
09:07
would we get Buddhism better?
09:10
But that puts some kind of burden on me.
09:12
I have to tell a story
09:14
in a much more elaborate way,
09:16
but I have the potential.
09:18
It's called subtext.
09:20
When I first went to Hollywood, they said --
09:22
I used to talk about subtext, and my agent came to me,
09:24
"Would you kindly not talk about subtext?"
09:26
And I said, "Why?" He said, "Because nobody is going to give you a film
09:29
if you talk about subtext.
09:31
Just talk about plot
09:34
and say how wonderful you'll shoot the film,
09:36
what the visuals will be."
09:38
So when I look at a film,
09:40
here's what we look for:
09:42
We look for a story on the plot level,
09:44
then we look for a story
09:47
on the psychological level,
09:49
then we look for a story on the political level,
09:51
then we look at a story
09:54
on a mythological level.
09:56
And I look for stories on each level.
09:58
Now, it is not necessary
10:00
that these stories agree with each other.
10:02
What is wonderful is,
10:05
at many times, the stories will contradict with each other.
10:07
So when I work with Rahman who's a great musician,
10:11
I often tell him, "Don't follow what the script already says.
10:13
Find that which is not.
10:17
Find the truth for yourself,
10:19
and when you find the truth for yourself,
10:21
there will be a truth in it, but it may contradict the plot,
10:23
but don't worry about it."
10:25
So, the sequel to "Elizabeth," "Golden Age."
10:29
When I made the sequel to "Elizabeth," here was a story that
10:32
the writer was telling:
10:34
A woman who was threatened
10:36
by Philip II
10:39
and was going to war,
10:41
and was going to war, fell in love with Walter Raleigh.
10:43
Because she fell in love with Walter Raleigh,
10:45
she was giving up the reasons she was a queen,
10:48
and then Walter Raleigh
10:50
fell in love with her lady in waiting,
10:52
and she had to decide whether she was a queen going to war
10:54
or she wanted...
10:56
Here's the story I was telling:
11:00
The gods up there,
11:03
there were two people.
11:05
There was Philip II, who was divine
11:07
because he was always praying,
11:10
and there was Elizabeth, who was divine,
11:13
but not quite divine because she thought she was divine,
11:15
but the blood of being mortal flowed in her.
11:17
But the divine one was unjust,
11:20
so the gods said,
11:23
"OK, what we need to do is
11:25
help the just one."
11:27
And so they helped the just one.
11:30
And what they did was, they sent Walter Raleigh down
11:32
to physically separate her mortal self
11:35
from her spirit self.
11:38
And the mortal self was the girl
11:40
that Walter Raleigh was sent,
11:42
and gradually he separated her
11:44
so she was free to be divine.
11:47
And the two divine people fought,
11:49
and the gods were on the side of divinity.
11:51
Of course, all the British press got really upset.
11:53
They said, "We won the Armada."
11:57
But I said, "But the storm won the Armada.
12:00
The gods sent the storm."
12:02
So what was I doing?
12:04
I was trying to find a mythic reason
12:06
to make the film.
12:08
Of course, when I asked Cate Blanchett, I said, "What's the film about?"
12:10
She said, "The film's about a woman
12:13
coming to terms with growing older."
12:15
Psychological.
12:18
The writer said "It's about history, plot."
12:20
I said "It's about mythology,
12:23
the gods."
12:25
So let me show you a film --
12:27
a piece from that film --
12:29
and how a camera also --
12:31
so this is a scene, where in my mind,
12:33
she was at the depths of mortality.
12:35
She was discovering what mortality actually means,
12:38
and if she is at the depths of mortality,
12:41
what really happens.
12:44
And she's recognizing the dangers of mortality
12:46
and why she should break away from mortality.
12:48
Remember, in the film, to me,
12:51
both her and her lady in waiting
12:53
were parts of the same body,
12:55
one the mortal self
12:57
and one the spirit self.
12:59
So can we have that second?
13:02
(Music)
13:04
Elizabeth: Bess?
13:06
Bess?
13:10
Bess Throckmorton?
13:13
Bess: Here, my lady.
13:20
Elizabeth: Tell me, is it true?
13:22
Are you with child?
13:24
Are you with child?
13:28
Bess: Yes, my lady.
13:30
Elizabeth: Traitorous.
13:32
You dare to keep secrets from me?
13:35
You ask my permission before you rut,
13:37
before you breed.
13:40
My bitches wear my collars.
13:42
Do you hear me? Do you hear me?
13:44
Walsingham: Majesty. Please, dignity. Mercy.
13:46
Elizabeth: This is no time for mercy, Walsingham.
13:49
You go to your traitor brother and leave me to my business.
13:52
Is it his?
13:55
Tell me. Say it. Is the child his? Is it his?
13:57
Bess: Yes.
14:00
My lady,
14:02
it is my husband's child.
14:04
Elizabeth: Bitch! (Cries)
14:09
Raleigh: Majesty.
14:12
This is not the queen I love and serve.
14:14
Elizabeth: This man has seduced a ward of the queen,
14:22
and she has married without royal consent.
14:25
These offenses are punishable by law. Arrest him.
14:29
Go.
14:33
You no longer have the queen's protection.
14:39
Bess: As you wish, Majesty.
14:43
Elizabeth: Get out! Get out! Get out!
14:46
Get out.
14:53
(Music)
14:55
Shekhar Kapur: So, what am I trying to do here?
15:16
Elizabeth has realized,
15:20
and she's coming face-to-face
15:22
with her own sense of jealousy,
15:24
her own sense of mortality.
15:26
What am I doing with the architecture?
15:28
The architecture is telling a story.
15:31
The architecture is telling a story
15:33
about how, even though she's the most powerful woman
15:35
in the world at that time,
15:37
there is the other, the architecture's bigger.
15:39
The stone is bigger than her because stone is an organic.
15:43
It'll survive her.
15:45
So it's telling you, to me, stone is part of her destiny.
15:47
Not only that, why is the camera looking down?
15:51
The camera's looking down at her because she's in the well.
15:54
She's in the absolute well
15:57
of her own sense of being mortal.
15:59
That's where she has to pull herself out
16:02
from the depths of mortality,
16:05
come in, release her spirit.
16:07
And that's the moment where, in my mind,
16:09
both Elizabeth and Bess are the same person.
16:11
But that's the moment
16:14
she's surgically removing herself from that.
16:16
So the film is operating on
16:19
many many levels in that scene.
16:21
And how we tell stories
16:23
visually, with music, with actors,
16:25
and at each level it's a different sense
16:28
and sometimes contradictory to each other.
16:30
So how do I start all this?
16:34
What's the process of telling a story?
16:39
About ten years ago,
16:42
I heard this little thing from a politician,
16:44
not a politician that was very well respected in India.
16:47
And he said that these people in the cities,
16:50
in one flush, expend as much water
16:53
as you people in the rural areas
16:57
don't get for your family for two days.
16:59
That struck a chord, and I said, "That's true."
17:02
I went to see a friend of mine,
17:05
and he made me wait
17:07
in his apartment in Malabar Hill
17:09
on the twentieth floor,
17:11
which is a really, really upmarket area in Mumbai.
17:13
And he was having a shower for 20 minutes.
17:15
I got bored and left, and as I drove out,
17:17
I drove past the slums of Bombay,
17:19
as you always do,
17:21
and I saw lines and lines in the hot midday sun
17:23
of women and children with buckets
17:25
waiting for a tanker
17:28
to come and give them water.
17:30
And an idea started to develop.
17:32
So how does that become a story?
17:34
I suddenly realized that we are heading towards disaster.
17:36
So my next film is called "Paani"
17:39
which means water.
17:41
And now, out of the mythology of that,
17:43
I'm starting to create a world.
17:45
What kind of world do I create,
17:47
and where does the idea, the design of that come?
17:49
So, in my mind, in the future,
17:52
they started to build flyovers.
17:54
You understand flyovers? Yeah?
17:57
They started to build flyovers
17:59
to get from A to B faster,
18:01
but they effectively went from one area of relative wealth
18:03
to another area of relative wealth.
18:06
And then what they did was
18:08
they created a city above the flyovers.
18:10
And the rich people moved to the upper city
18:12
and left the poorer people in the lower cities,
18:15
about 10 to 12 percent of the people
18:18
have moved to the upper city.
18:21
Now, where does this upper city and lower city come?
18:23
There's a mythology in India about --
18:25
where they say, and I'll say it in Hindi,
18:27
[Hindi]
18:30
Right. What does that mean?
18:34
It says that the rich are always sitting on the shoulders
18:36
and survive on the shoulders of the poor.
18:39
So, from that mythology, the upper city and lower city come.
18:41
So the design has a story.
18:43
And now, what happens is that the people of the upper city,
18:46
they suck up all the water.
18:49
Remember the word I said, suck up.
18:51
They suck up all the water, keep to themselves,
18:53
and they drip feed the lower city.
18:55
And if there's any revolution, they cut off the water.
18:57
And, because democracy still exists,
18:59
there's a democratic way in which you say
19:02
"Well, if you give us what [we want], we'll give you water."
19:05
So, okay my time is up.
19:08
But I can go on about telling you
19:10
how we evolve stories,
19:12
and how stories effectively are who we are
19:14
and how these get translated into the particular discipline
19:17
that I am in, which is film.
19:19
But ultimately, what is a story? It's a contradiction.
19:21
Everything's a contradiction.
19:24
The universe is a contradiction.
19:26
And all of us are constantly looking for harmony.
19:28
When you get up, the night and day is a contradiction.
19:30
But you get up at 4 a.m.
19:32
That first blush of blue is where the night and day
19:34
are trying to find harmony with each other.
19:36
Harmony is the notes that Mozart didn't give you,
19:39
but somehow the contradiction of his notes suggest that.
19:42
All contradictions of his notes suggest the harmony.
19:44
It's the effect of looking for harmony
19:48
in the contradiction that exists in a poet's mind,
19:50
a contradiction that exists in a storyteller's mind.
19:53
In a storyteller's mind, it's a contradiction of moralities.
19:56
In a poet's mind, it's a conflict of words,
19:59
in the universe's mind, between day and night.
20:01
In the mind of a man and a woman,
20:04
we're looking constantly at
20:06
the contradiction between male and female,
20:08
we're looking for harmony within each other.
20:10
The whole idea of contradiction,
20:12
but the acceptance of contradiction
20:15
is the telling of a story, not the resolution.
20:18
The problem with a lot of the storytelling in Hollywood
20:20
and many films, and as [unclear] was saying in his,
20:22
that we try to resolve the contradiction.
20:25
Harmony is not resolution.
20:28
Harmony is the suggestion of a thing
20:30
that is much larger than resolution.
20:32
Harmony is the suggestion of something
20:34
that is embracing and universal
20:36
and of eternity and of the moment.
20:39
Resolution is something that is far more limited.
20:41
It is finite; harmony is infinite.
20:45
So that storytelling, like all other contradictions in the universe,
20:48
is looking for harmony and infinity
20:51
in moral resolutions, resolving one, but letting another go,
20:54
letting another go and creating a question that is really important.
20:57
Thank you very much.
21:01
(Applause)
21:03

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About the Speaker:

Shekhar Kapur - Director and writer
Shekhar Kapur is a visionary filmmaker and storyteller who works at the intersection of art, myth and activism.

Why you should listen

Golden Globe-winning director Shekhar Kapur makes lush, international period films -- such as Elizabeth and The Four Feathers -- and Indian hits like Mr. India and Bandit Queen. Most recently, Kapur's short film "Passages"" is part of the October 2009 film anthology New York, I Love You. Also this October, he sat on the judging panel for 1 Minute to Save the World, a competition for short films about climate change. (And yes, last summer, he was a judge on India's Got Talent.)

His forthcoming film Paani – the hindi word for water – explores mumbai's shrinking supply of water and its distribution underworld. equally at home in hollywood and Bollywood, he's also a comics mogul; in 2006 he co-founded Virgin Comics as a venue for turning Indian and Hindu myths into pop-culture icons. For the company, now reorganized as Liquid Comics, he cocreated the series Ramayan 3392 A.D., based on the Ramayana. His newest Liquid series: Devi.

More profile about the speaker
Shekhar Kapur | Speaker | TED.com