Asif Kapadia: Amit Kumar pushed boundaries with The Last Hour
Filmmakers Asif Kapadia and Amit Kumar discuss their recently released Amazon Prime Video series, The Last Hour
Asif Kapadia and Amit Kumar make this interaction exude the vibe of friendly conversation, and it helps that their own association goes back a long way—specifically to when they first met in film school as “poor, young, skinny students,” like Asif puts it. Amit, whose directorial Monsoon Shootout premiered at the Cannes in 2013, is now back with a new web series, The Last Hour, with Asif, the director of Oscar-winning documentary, Amy, serving as an executive producer. In this conversation, the duo touch upon their long association and the challenges in financing independent cinema:
The Warrior, Asif’s first film, had the film’s protagonist setting out on a spiritual journey to the Himalayas. The Last Hour too is set in the Himalayan landscape, and with this, do you feel that both your lives have come a full circle?
Asif: Everything is connected. We started our filmmaking journey in ‘97 and it took us from the deserts of Rajasthan to the scenic valleys of the Himalayas. As someone who spent his entire life in London, my fascination with these humongous mountains is natural. Unfortunately, I visited the shooting spot only once due to travel complications, and even during my visit, I was only a distraction to all the hard work that was being put by the team. It was an amazing experience to return there.
Amit: I think that’s the beauty of life. We do arbitrary things over the course of our lives and then realise that such discrete events form a beautiful pattern without our cognisance. I find the mountains mysterious and supernatural. The scale of these million-year-old, gargantuan creations is beyond human comprehension, and taking pictures with drone cameras or watching them from an airplane barely does justice to their glory. The idea to shoot in the Himalayas was proposed by my co-creator and co-producer Anupama Minz, who is also my wife. Although the producer in me was concerned about the logistics, the location resonated with me.
Despite enjoying success with your documentaries, do you find working on fiction to be a more liberating experience as a storyteller?
Asif: When I make documentaries, like on Ayrton Senna (Senna) or Amy Winehouse (Amy) or Diego Maradona (2019), we try to encompass their life story in feature-length runtime. They have lived fascinating lives, bestowing us ample material to play with. It is the equivalent of adapting a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel into a 90-minute film. I enjoy sculpting a structure, setting a beginning and an end, using the high and lows of their life to build drama. The challenge with fiction is, where do you go with a blank piece of paper? I like the idea of working with restrictions and breaking rules. With Senna, I wanted to break the conventional pattern of sports documentaries. When we made The Warrior, there was a definite idea of what a British film or Indian film should be. I tried to bridge them and came up with my version. We are here to push boundaries, change what you think is normal, and exemplify that it’s possible to go beyond the widely accepted norms in storytelling. I think that’s what Amit has done with The Last Hour.
Amit, you attributed the origin of Monsoon Shootout to your confused headspace after you decided to quit your corporate job and take a plunge into cinema. Is there a similar inspiration for The Last Hour?
Amit: I wouldn’t ascribe it to a specific instance, but several building blocks from different phases of my life contributed to the idea, beginning from my childhood in Africa. Growing up, I wasn’t a healthy kid, and on the doctor’s advice to consume eggs, my father bred chickens. And chickens, naturally, don’t have a long life, and when they died in numbers, I wondered where their personalities would go. I have always been intrigued with the concept of death and strongly believed that there must be another layer to this world. That’s an element I have tried to explore in the show. The second layer is the dichotomy of beliefs. My father was practical while my mother is religious. This contrast also exists between my wife, who’s realistic, and I, who believes there’s something more to life and death. As she’s the co-writer of this show, this helped us delve deeper into polarising belief systems.
Talk to me about Asif coming on board for The Last Hour.
Asif: Well, it made me tons of money. (laughs)
Amit: Our mental connection is such that I feel comfortable sharing all my ideas with him. I know he won’t be stealing them. I pitch ideas mostly over a session of cooking in the kitchen; both The Bypass (2003) and Monsoon Shootout materialised only after passing ‘Asif’s kitchen test’. Likewise, The Last Hour has remained in my repository of ideas for over a decade, and I kept going back to it in every discussion. He has been involved in it from the earliest stages of development.
Asif: We have spent a lot of time together over the decades. From scouting for locations to casting, from writing scripts to editing films, I’ve always been associated with Amit and The Last Hour happened at the right time. I couldn’t spend as much as time I wanted to, but our creative middle-ground helps. Moreover, I believe that filmmaking has migrated to virtuality, especially in the last year. It is not just communication; even the coordination is done through Zoom calls and WhatsApp text messages now. For instance, I find myself coordinating over the phone with an editor in New York, Amit in India, sound designers in London...
Amit, you had mentioned in an interview that you are cynical about filmmaking. With the backing of a streaming giant like Amazon Prime Video and independent films now finding a new lease of life on OTT platforms, are you more optimistic now?
Amit: I’m a cynic. I’m cynical about life and films. When you are in film school, you believe that the toughest part of making a film is penning a great script. After finishing the script, fetching the funding for the project feels like a mammoth task. And finally, after completing the film, you realise that getting your film to the audience is the toughest of all the phases. In a certain way, the journey of a film, from conceptualization to releasing it, is all about finding like-minded people who are touched by your story. In that sense, Amazon Prime Video has been fantastic to work with throughout the process. They believed in our story and I’m thankful for that. My inherent cynicism, however, remains untouched.
Asif: It’s still challenging to fund and direct films; obligations like the attachment of a movie star, so you can reap financial benefits, continue to exist. However, there is a perpetual demand for content on streaming platforms. A series or film can be watched across the globe with a click. That’s special and new. I’m still learning about it. I hope it’s a positive time for filmmakers and filmmaking.