Ben Kingsley should not be acting in films like Taj Mahal. British movie director Mike Figgis, who is on the jury at the ongoing Marrakech International Film Festival here, is very clear about this. "If I would have been an Indian I would be pissed off", he told me yesterday during an exclusive interview.
Figgis was referring to Kingsley’s plan to essay Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in Taj Mahal with Aishwarya Rai as Mumtaz Mahal. "You have a lot of great Indian actors. You do not need someone not Indian to play that role. It is like me watching the history of Winston Churchill with an Indian actor. I will find it odd. Ben is a good actor, but as a cultural thing it must be strange for Indians. Native North Americans must feel the same way when they are mis-portrayed by Hollywood actors", Figgis is ruthlessly critical.
Figgis, who made his debut with his 1988 Stormy Monday and stormed into the front ranks in the 1990s with works such as Internal Affairs (a gritty thriller that helped Richard Gere get up and walk again) and Leaving Las Vegas (that made a star out of Nicholas Cage), hates overt technological impulses now sweeping the medium. “Too much of technology kills the story. The more gimmicks you do the less chance you have of telling the story. I do not want to wear glasses to see a movie. I am not excited by technically brilliant films. I get bored”.
Figgis obviously belongs to an interesting British tradition -- which is sadly disappearing -- of story being the supremely most important part of a movie. “Story is everything. That is the fascination”, Figgis is firm. Men like Ismail Merchant used to tell me that a film must, above all, narrate a good story. That is what people actually want. That is why they go to the cinemas. And good stories often come from great pieces of literature.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Figgis, whose most ambitious movie till date was the low-budget The Loss of Sexual Innocence, (loosely autobiographical) is back to reading literature. “I have really missed literature. A good book is better than a good film…“ We invented drama to collectively think about ourselves. About death, about fate. Literature does that well. Great cinema does that fantastically well”. The link between good cinema and good literature is clearly established, certainly in Figgis’ scheme of things.
We now understand why Leaving Las Vegas still plays on people’s memory. It had a great plot. Despite its tragic nature, it somehow ends on an uplifting note. You ask Figgis how he had managed to do that. “I have never been depressed by bad news," he said. "I've been moved by it. I have been depressed by bad news when it is fascism or something like that which is beyond solution”.
Figgis, who has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry like Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones, Andy Garcia, Albert Finney and Juliette Binoche, clinched four Oscar nods for “Leaving Las Vegas”, two being for Best Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay that he wrote.
And his secret for success is simple. Can you tell a story quickly? Can you make it cinematic and to the point without those long ponderous sessions where you feel you have to talk about the philosophy of life? If you can, you have the chance of making a great movie. And, yes, do not sell your soul to the pay cheque. “Then you would have to have a conversation with the Devil!”
I shoot a parting question. What is the state of British cinema? “The question really should be, what is the state of American cinema. Our mainstream is so locked into the American mainstream…” he quipped. A tad like Indian cinema that is imprisoned by Bollywood, I presume.
Gautaman Bhaskaran has been covering the Marrakech International Film Festival for several years.