Rajat Kapoor — An exclusive interview

Rajat Kapoor. A legend all by himself, by definition. As I walk into his apartment, I realize that there’s absolutely no way for me to not feel Bheja Fry vibes. Remember that iconic moment when Vinay Pathak’s character walks in and meets Rajat in the movie? I’m reliving that scene over and over in my head as I extend my hand, thanking the dear lord that I don’t carry quite as much of a chip on my shoulder. I mean, this guy — he writes, directs and acts in movies, plays — basically any form of intelligent entertainment that you and I can imagine. And it’s very hard to not cower in the presence of such overpowering intellect.

I’d like to believe that I tried my best, though. Here goes!

In conversation with Rajat Kapoor

AlphaDigest: What inspired you to adapt Shakespeare’s plays into the ‘Clown’ series? If our memory serves us right, your first attempt to dramatize and repurpose Shakespeare, was ‘Hamlet- The Clown Prince’ back in 2008.

Rajat Kapoor: My very first play with clowns happened way back in 1999. This was called ‘C for Clown’- the idea was to do a play with clowns, we had nothing more when we started- and we kept improvising and developing the script as we went along.

Then I thought, let’s try and do Hamlet with clowns. I always wanted to do Hamlet- and I was excited to mix it up with clowns, and we made ‘Hamlet- the clown prince in 2008. But it was supposed to be a one-off thing. I had no plans to do other Shakespeare plays.

After a few years, I decided to take a look at King Lear. I wanted to do it again with clowns- but we also wanted it to look very very different from Hamlet- so we decided to do it with just one actor. That became ‘Nothing Like Lear’ (2012).

This year we opened two new plays- ‘What is done is done’ (which is our adaptation of Macbeth) and ‘I Don’t Like It. As You Like It’. So yes, now we have 4 Shakespeare plays- all done by clowns and all four plays are running together. In July we did a marathon run of all four together over a weekend in Bangalore, which was a huge success.

AlphaDigest: How do you cast people for your plays? Their performances have been exhilarating, to say the least!

Rajat Kapoor: Well, I just tell all my friends that we are starting rehearsals. And the word gets around- and soon we have 20–25 people who start showing up for rehearsals. Of course, clowning is a very difficult skill. So it becomes apparent to some that this is not part of their skill set, and they leave amicable.

The remaining gladiators fight it out. It’s more about making sense of perfect chaos. I watch, suggest things- throw the ball at them- and then they throw it back at me. For about a month everyone plays everything. Only half way through, we decide who is going to play what. It is pretty fluid…

AlphaDigest: So, that’s exactly like the plays where actors duel it out to play their favorite characters -right?

Rajat Kapoor: Yes, I guess you can say that. So that happens, excluding the duels of course, and the process gets incorporated in the plays as well.

AlphaDigest: How long do they rehearse for?

Rajat Kapoor: It takes about three to four months, and we put in an average of four to five hours every day.

AlphaDigest: How many shows have you done for the ‘Clown’ series?

Rajat Kapoor: ‘Hamlet: The Clown Prince’ has completed over 180 shows, and ‘Nothing Like Lear’ has done 102. The other two are relatively new- they opened this year- they have done 15–20 shows each.

AlphaDigest: Pardon our curiosity, but why do these clowns speak gibberish? It’s a mix of different languages but manages to drive a point.

Rajat Kapoor: Gibberish is something we discovered when we were doing ‘c for clown’. The question then, was how would clowns speak? They would not speak like you or me. So, that is when we discovered gibberish which is very expressive as a language, and evocative. It conveys everything- through sounds with a rare word thrown in.

And when we were doing Shakespeare with clowns, I thought it would be interesting to go from gibberish to Shakespearian language.

AlphaDigest: The ‘Clown’ series boasts of awesome production design and costumes. The changing tones of every act blend in effortlessly. Is this a DIY thing, or have you hired a production designer to assist you?

Rajat Kapoor: I’ve gotten costumes and sets designed for all the plays. My wife Meenal Agrawal is the production designer of ‘I Don’t Like It. As You Like It- as you like it’. I like to be involved with each and every aspect of what I direct, be it plays or movies. It’s very important that everything auxiliary in the setup compliments the general tone of the story and boosts it up. In ‘I Don’t Like It. As You Like It’ the transformation from Rosalind to Orlando required pitch-perfect costumes that would help compliment the story where a woman dresses up as a man and vice-versa. Hence, costumes were extremely crucial. Also, the movement from the castle to the forest is conveyed through a change of colors and textures.

AlphaDigest:When can we expect another clown drama?

Rajat Kapoor: Not for the next two to three years at least. Our hands are full.

AlphaDigest: You are known to only direct movies that you’ve written yourself. Why is it so important for you to write and direct at the same time?

Rajat Kapoor: Let me explain this with an example. As a hypothetical painter, the entire canvas would be mine. If I were a novelist, I would retain control over my characters, plot, logline — pretty much all of it. So, I think even if you are a theater director or a filmmaker, it has to be your own, comprehensive vision. Even though film and theatre are collaborative art forms — you work with cameramen, actors, production designers, recording artists, assistant directors and they all bring their own skills and experience into the play. But everyone in that mix is working towards the same vision. The vision is the director’s- and everyone together, is trying to accomplish that. Otherwise it would be just chaos.

If it has to be a work of art, it must retain the integrity of that vision. There’s no better way to achieve this, other than writing and directing at the same time.

AlphaDigest: Is it safe to assume that you will always write and direct your own movies and plays?

Rajat Kapoor: Yes, I think so! As you can see, (pointing at a pile of scripts lying on a rack) I read a lot of scripts and I’ve never come across anything that makes me feel ‘Wow, I want to direct this’. They don’t excite me. I keep getting a ton of offers where people say they have written scripts and want me to direct, but the thrill equation doesn’t add up.

So yes, I will continue to write and direct on my own. It is not to say nobody else writes as well as I do. Not at all.

It’s just that I have to find a hook strong enough in the material- and that hook can only come from the tale that I want to tell.

AlphaDigest: You work a lot like Woody Allen. Although his genre of cinema is somewhat different, you like to be meticulous just like him, and you’re perpetually involved with every aspect of the film, even when you’re directing. Do you draw parallels?

Rajat Kapoor: In the interest of absolute disclosure, Woody Allen inspires me- and yes, he does work like that. So do the Coen brothers, and I really like that approach because it has a visibly positive impact on the outcome.

Except that Woody saheb manages to make a film every year- I barely manage one in 3 or 4 years. So, I am way behind.

AlphaDigest: Your last movie ‘AnkhonDekhi’ was released in 2014, amidst a lot of popular cheer and critical acclaim. Any thoughts about the project and how things played out?

Rajat Kapoor: It’s been a beautiful journey with ‘Ankhon Dekhi’. Principal photography was as fun as it could get at the time! It is a very special film for all of us- everyone who worked on it. And I must tell you, the kind of love I have received on account of Ankhon Dekhi, I have never received so much in my life. People come to me and tell me how much they loved it- at the airports, in the malls, at a traffic junction. Even during my plays, be it in Mumbai or Bangalore, they come to me and tell me how much they loved the film. And it feels great to be appreciated that way, you know? It tells you that people genuinely adore the film you made, and that it will outlive you. Even after I am dead, people will still watch that film, and that is a very gratifying feeling to live with.

AlphaDigest: Here it goes, the big one! When are you directing your next film?

Rajat Kapoor:I have three scripts ready with me, and I’m actively trying to raise money for any one of them. I hope I can start something by the end of 2016.

AlphaDigest: Have you ever worked in any foreign-language film, as your appearances position you well for an international character? We’re sure you get that a lot — the whole international looks routine.

Rajat Kapoor: (Laughs) Yes, people keep telling me that I look ‘international’. But I haven’t worked in any foreign language films, as nothing has clicked so far. But I wouldn’t be averse to doing it, if I got a suitable offer. I am still waiting to be discovered.

Watch the trailer for Hamlet — The Clown Prince