Maradona is like a gangster film: Asif Kapadia on his biopic on the legend
The filmmaker talks about the art of telling real stories about famous people
British filmmaker Asif Kapadia is on an India trip to launch his film Diego Maradona. The legendary footballer’s story seems like an unlikely documentary subject – it’s part of sports history. And yet, Kapadia says, there’s much we don’t know.
“The main thing that came out of making the film is this contrast in the image of Maradona as this tough macho guy, the Latin footballer, drug addict; and the real person who is quite vulnerable, lost and lonely despite being among people,” Kapadia says.
Diego Maradona is Kapadia’s third film about child geniuses and the price of fame. Senna (2010) was based on Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna’s campaign for driver safety before he met with a fatal crash. Amy (2015) was about deceased singer Amy Winehouse’s drug and alcohol addiction and how it shaped her music. In both films, Kapadia set aside public perceptions to uncover the human side of people we like to think we know. Both have garnered critical appreciation and box-office success. Amy won an Academy award and a Grammy in 2016. Senna earned him a BAFTA award for best documentary and put him on the global filmmaking map.
In this film too Kapadia’s mastery with the real stories is on full display. Diego Maradona is a football fan’s delight. It has scene after scene of the genius on the field doing magic with the ball. Even for those who have no interest in the sport, the beautiful assemblage of footage gives the sport’s politics a true-crime feel. And each time the scenes cut to the field, it becomes clear why Maradona says, “Football is my salvation”.
The right thing
Kapadia says that it is his job to look deeper as storyteller. “I am interested in finding a way to feel for people and their circumstances,” he says. “The idea behind making these films is to explain the journey, what made them what they became, why they are interesting, how they create art like in case of Amy or express themselves like Maradona did playing football.”
He admits to being a football fan, and says he’d hoped to make a film about the sports hero ever since he’d read a book about him in 1996. But Kapadia says he relies on his gut feeling when choosing a subject. “The instinct is that there is an interesting character, conflict, drama, a journey that happens and you got to have a way to show it for it to feel like a movie,” he says. “There has to be enough of all these for it to sustain the duration of the film. Some people are not very interesting. They may be great achievers but they are boring.” He doesn’t say who those are.
Playing with genre
In the case of Senna, Amy and definitely Maradona, he says, the stories were anything but boring. They allowed him to play with the documentary genre in each film. “Senna is a spiritual action film, Amy is a musical where the songs take the story ahead and Maradona is like a gangster film, something like the early Martin Scorsese films,” he says.
Filming called for meeting Maradona too; five times and for a total of nine hours in Dubai where he now lives. For the first meeting, Maradona kept watching football as Kapadia spoke. “My aim was to wait long enough for him to open up,” Kapadia says. “Often when someone is making a film about Maradona, it becomes about them trying to get an interview with him and that becomes the focus. But my aim was to meet him long enough for him to start trusting me. Even if they do not want to talk, it is fine,” he says.
In the end, Maradona did open up. And Kapadia found in him a charming storyteller with an ability to play with language. In the film, this interaction only comes as Maradona’s voice and often becomes a narrative tool where the legend himself is telling his story in tune with the footage.
Kapadia’s debut feature film The Warrior (2001) was about a man’s struggle with peace and violence in ancient India. The Return (2006) was a horror thriller, and Far North (2007) was a love story of a nomad and a Soviet soldier. He also directed two episodes of the crime drama series, Mindhunter.
In this era of online videos and documentaries on subjects as varied as competitive chicken breeding and fraudulent godmen, Kapadia’s biographical documentaries somehow seem to draw more from reality. The Indian origin filmmaker, however, hasn’t done an Indian documentary. It’s not for want of asking – Kapadia says he’s asked that question a lot and does not really have an answer. “But if I came here I would like to shoot a fiction film and I would like to go shoot in the Himalayas,” he says.