A Man’s Job: Asif Kapadia And Akram Khan On Creature

Asif Kapadia and Akram Khan address female abuse, post-colonial inheritance and the beauty and pain of male artistry in conversation with Soma Ghosh

Asif Kapadia, red-eyed and coiled with energy, is springing off to play five-a-side football. We meet in his office in Somerset House, that neoclassical white wedding cake on the Thames. Akram Khan, whose dance show Creature, Kapadia has adapted into a film, has the flu. He’s Zooming me from home in Wimbledon, minding his napping 11-month-old daughter. When she wakes, crying, he pads swiftly to her. Small, limber, slightly stocky, he deploys this still-boyish figure in dance works of thunderous visual poetry, portraying a vulnerable human in a hostile and wondrous world.

Both men are British Muslims who met 20 years ago. Belying Kapadia’s lauded biographical trilogy Senna, Maradona and the Oscar-winning Amy and Khan’s stature as a national treasure (a collaborator of Kylie Minogue and Anthony Gormley, a university Chancellorship, two portraits in the National Portrait Gallery) they are frank, and generous interlocutors. True, Khan the soft-voice maestro, issues pedagogic dictums, like dance phrases, in threes, fours and fives. But such philosophising, I know, is as endemic to Bengalis (his origins are Bangladeshi, mine Indian Bengali) as bards of dance.

It feels like an irony typical of our post-colonial inheritance, meeting Kapadia in this cloistered palace, now a diverse creative hub, rebuilt to its current splendour shortly after the British denied relief to 10 million Indians dying of famine under exorbitant taxes. But, as the filmmaker says, “It’s cheaper than Soho.”

An oppressive institution looms over Creature, Kapadia and Khan’s apocalyptic, silvery sci-fi gothic, set in an Arctic research station. Reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s shuddering thrill-ride Snowpiercer or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the strongest influence is Woyzeck, the 19th-century play about a drifting soldier who, exploited by his local Captain and experimented on by a doctor, kills his wife. Jeffrey Cirio plays Creature as an enthralling, feral innocent, pure-faced as the snow fox running across the single exterior shot of a frozen wasteland.

In a cyclical work blinking with PTSD and visual static, our story begins with an ending. Creature awakens, soil-smeared, in a military container, to find a woman in white, collapsed. Is she dead? Asleep? He anoints her with water and dances with her, like Frankenstein and his bride. A menacing army enters, a dancing machine. Creature remembers being tamed by the commandingly eloquent Ken Saruhashi, playing the priestlike Captain. He’s recruited by The Doctor, an antiseptically elegant Stina Quagebeur. She’s suffered the molestations of Fabian Reimair’s flashy Major, their leader, who turns his attentions to Marie, beloved of Creature and played by Erina Takahashi with vibrating, mute terror.

The craggy grandeur of the score, by Vincenzo Lamagna, baroque chords and hissing, looped beats, revolves with shrapnel of original text from Woyzeck, voiced by Andy Serkis. In their romantic pas de deux, Creature and Marie play like children, a ray of light falling across dark lives whose only purpose is to serve the system.

But alongside the beauty, I was curious about the women’s positions, to console, or be abused. Is this inevitable, in a Gothic depiction of patriarchy? Have we South Asians, particularly, not outgrown 19th-century attitudes to women? It made me wonder, all over again, about male artists’ role in telling the story of women’s abuse.

The Quietus: Asif, Creature is the story of a vulnerable outsider, exploited and semi-brainwashed, with devastating consequences. Would you say you’re drawn to stories about outsiders?

Asif Kapadia: You’re spot on. [My work] is about somebody taking on power. Not winning, but trying. I don’t make films about myself, but you have to put yourself in your work. I’ve always been interested in taking on corruption and at least trying to make it better.

I grew up in Hackney, in the 70s, very working class. My dad was a postman, my mum was a machinist. I went to a pretty tough school. Asian, Caribbean, German and French kids. It was only when I went into the film business that I became aware I was in a minority. That’s when I thought: Oh, I don’t come from private school, or that kind of money. I’m one of only five non-white people in a group that got smaller and smaller, the higher I went. I am absolutely an outsider to the people I’m dealing with, day to day.

Akram Khan: I’ve never felt part of a tribe. The Bangladeshi community in which I grew up, I’ve grown up to realise how wonderful they are – but I was very frustrated, angry. I had ADHD and was constantly reminded that I hadn’t got into private school. That’s part of the trauma of coming over here [in the wake of the Bangladesh War of Independence]. The parents think, we’re going to make our children survive and do well academically, that’s the way forward.

How would you say that your early Kathak training – and the way men move within Kathak, the skirts, the spins, the exquisite grace – has affected how you place men on stage?

Khan: In Indian classical dance, you play male, female, androgynous and Shikhandi [transgender] characters. Because of my training, gender is fluid, in that respect.

I was thinking of taking a female dancer for Creature, to play every other night of the show. But at the time, I could find nobody, not one female artist, of Jeffrey’s calibre. It would flip the coin, because then, who is the perpetrator? Who is the victim?

My mum played a huge part in how I see the world. She was a literary expert. Asian mythology, Hindu mythology, African mythology, Judaism, Christianity. She told me the story of Jesus from Mary Magdalene‘s perspective not Jesus’s. The story of Bhishma and Amba [a girl abducted in The Mahabharata] from Amba’s perspective, not Bhisma’s. She said this was because the stories from almost every religion were predominantly written by men.

Asif, when I first saw Creature at the London Film Festival, alongside MeToo films like She Said and Women Talking, I was struck how your camera moves from the high-precision, military choreography to slinking like a voyeur, witnessing the entrapment of Creature and Marie through wooden slats. Your gaze feels fully present at the point of sexual attack. Did it strike you that the women don’t have much voice?

Kapadia: It did, but I’m adapting, not rewriting. I did think, how do I do this without exploiting Marie? I think Erina [Takahashi] is brilliant and Marie is the most interesting character. I brought her up to the point where I thought, should it be about the two of them, and called Creature and Marie?

I’m one of those guys that says: I don’t make films where women get beaten up or killed. Amy was different. I wanted the audience to suffer. I wanted to say, “Fucking pay attention! Look what we’re doing to these young girls!”

My producer, Uzma, is a woman. My editor, Sylvie, is a woman. So we talked about how much do you show in a rape? It’s common on stage, opera and dance that women get killed. But I wanted to show that both Creature and Marie are two pawns in the machine.

I think Akram wanted to comment on power and abuse. I later realised that in the world of dance and ballet, there are recent stories of this happening.

And, by getting in close with the film, we could show the other woman, The Doctor… You can see that people know he’s doing it again. I wanted to bring out the subtleties of people who are trying to do their bit, but being powerless.

The doctor speaks to an experience, common to many women, of trying to succeed, being educated, but being a tool of the Major. Do you think men have the right to tell stories of women’s abuse?

Kapadia: I have to say, yes. My job is to tell stories, try to understand, have these conversations. The whole film is about people who are being taken advantage of, in different ways, men and women. Why wouldn’t I talk about things?

It’s an unhealthy place, if we’re saying that someone who hasn’t been abused cannot tell a story about abuse. You can still have empathy and try to tell stories about subject matter you can relate to, in your own way. You don’t have to tell everyone why it’s personal to you.

It’s interesting that Creature’s coming out now. Recently, boys and men have been walking out of exams in Afghanistan. Young men have joined female protestors in Iran over the police custody death of Mahsa Amini. Patriarchy affects everybody, all the genders. In the film, we hear the American president congratulating his astronauts on the moon landing. Do you feel that capitalist progress is destructive to what it can be to be a man?

Khan: It’s a set of values that the modern, global capitalist world comes with. We did research with Russian soldiers. They’ve been there, for years, in the Arctic, the final frontier, where the last resources are. So we put Creature in that place. Modern thinking is that we own the Earth. What happens to persons inheriting that belief system, its myths and traumas? Creature is the carrier of that. He’s not in control of his life. Nobody is. The victim and perpetrator, both are affected by a system. It doesn’t mean the perpetrator is right, or free. In war, everyone is affected, even if you haven’t seen someone die in front of you.

You’ve talked about inheriting family trauma. Did you feel the trauma of Partition, growing up?

Khan: I think subconsciously, our generation, [whose grandparents experienced Indian Independence and Partition and whose parents experienced the 1971 Bangladesh war of Independence], all did. My mother pushed me and my sister into songs, dance and stories, so that what they fought for wouldn’t disappear. Within those stories are traumas, for sure.

In my own household, it was an emasculation that expressed itself in violence and alcoholism. I feel I have a right to write about my father, because the story of Empire has been told so much from the male point of view. What do you see as the role of brown male artists in telling women’s stories? The way Creature plays, the role of women is to be consoling, or be abused.

Khan: I think we should ask questions when a brown man, or any man, is telling the story of women. To be honest with you, Marie is my mum. Everything I put on stage is about my family: Desh, Vertical Road, Creature. Giselle is my mother, in the teacher part of her life, where she inspired women to not be bogged down by husbands who say women should be stuck to the house.

We have this cultural thing, where we pretend life is perfect. My father was regarded highly in the community. Seeing that contradiction, my father’s emotional and psychological abuse – it’s another form of rape. As a child experiencing that, it was very disturbing. So, I said, “Fuck it! I’m going to put everything I am on the stage. That’s my truth.”

That was my intention: I’m not going to hide any more. Your judgments, your relationships, the way you behave with your child: everything has a consequence from your own childhood. So, I wanted to release and show this moment, which happened to my mother. I’m open to listening to other arguments, of course.

I think women have the right, as well, to talk about men. That gives perspective. That’s why I love Hindu mythology, the nuance. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong, entirely. The human condition is so complex.

And so, Marie’s powerlessness, was that just the situation that you found yourself in?

Khan: Yeah. The entitlement of these men, that generation. It was terrible.

There were so many layers to it though. My father would, secretly, take my brother to the Crystal Palace football games, but not me. He had to withstand racist abuse from fans so that was a man’s job. But he was not going to forego the game.

Khan: Context, yeah! It’s so important. We’re a generation that needs clarity, headlines. Context is difficult, like human relationships. That’s why we prefer to go: just give me a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Is she a good person, or a bad person?

Our experience of time is speeding up. We need fast answers. Headlines are everything, truthful or not. I realise I’m in a very precarious position, right now. Words have always been the last thing I trust. My dad was a talker, my mum never spoke about what she was going to do. Just did it.

Politics can be nuanced, if poetically spoken, but dance and music allows for you to reflect, in a more holistic way. I want to create a mirror for the audience, for them to go, “Shit, has this happened to me?” In order to do that, I have to move them, first. I wanna hit people in the gut. Unfortunately, that means testing thresholds. If I do something that is on the edge, it could move people. I think that creates change. And change is what I want. I want the audience to walk out changed.

Creature is in cinemas from 24 Feb (bfi.org.uk). The original stage production is at Sadler’s Wells from 23 March – 1 April (ballet.org.uk)

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