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“I wanted to find that I still had the ability to laugh”

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January 2003
“I wanted to find that I still had the ability to laugh”

By ASEEM CHHABRA

Deepa Mehta's dreams of making a trilogy, based on the three elements ? Fire, Earth and Water never materialized. When the right wing Hindutava groups shut down the shoot of Water, Mehta gained support of the progressive and left forces in India. But soon after Bengali author Sunil Gangopadhaya accused Mehta of plagiarism, stating that portions of Water bore strong similarities to his novel Those Days.

Gangopadhaya's charges stunned some of the strong supporters of Mehta and so two years ago the dejected and depressed filmmaker returned back to her home in Toronto.

?I had tried everything, but then I felt that I was trying to prove something out of stubbornness,? Mehta says about her efforts to float the Water project, long after the shoot had been shut down in Varanasi. 'It took me four or five months to recover from the fall out. It was a personal film. I had written the script and put in a lot of my energy and resources into the project. It was a very emotional time period.'

?So what I really wanted to do was to find that I still had the ability to laugh,? she adds. And that became the seed for her new movie -- Bollywood/Hollywood, a light hearted comic take on the Indian-Canadian community in Toronto and its one solid connection with the motherland ? the Hindi movies churned out by the Bollywood film industry

Mehta?s previous films ? Fire and Earth ? both had humorous moments. ?But it was dark humor,? she says. ?Exploration of comedy and humor has always intrigued me. So I wanted to see if there was more of where this came from.?

Bollywood films have always been a passion for the 52 year old Amritsar-born filmmaker, who grew up surrounded by the Indian popular cinema. Her father was a film exhibitor. ?I love Bollywood films. I find them so entertaining. They are so unabashedly what they are. They are my staple diet here in Canada. Some of them I do not have the patience for, but mostly I find them great fun.?

She loved Lagaan (?it?s an amazing film?), Dil Chahta Hai (?it was so intelligent) and Devdas (?I loved the heightened drama and the spectacle).. Over the years in Canada, Mehta has heard people comment that Bollywood films are often remakes of Hollywood blockbusters.

?I find that so charming,' she says. ?But I thought maybe we should do it the other way round. Take something from Hollywood ? a Cinderella story or say Pretty Woman and impose on it Bollywood conventions ? the melodrama, the music and crying mothers and see if a hybrid is possible.?

She emphasizes that Bollywood/Hollywood is not a Bollywood film. It is Canadian film inspired and infused with Bollywood and Hollywood traditions, she says.

Bollywood/Hollywood stars Rahul Khanna, Lisa Ray, Moushumi Chatterjee and the late Dina Pathak. In the film, Khanna stars as Rahul Seth, a dot-com entrepreneur and a scion of an Indian-Canadian family. Given his family?s concerns about his marriage, Seth makes a deal with an attractive Spanish woman he meets at a bar ? Sue (Ray). He will pay her a large sum of money if she pretends to be his fianc�. Two hours later, with a masala of Bollywood inspired songs, hilarious melodramatic moments, ghosts, talking portraits and even an Indian drag queen, Seth realizes that Sue is actually of Indian origin and as would be expected he is in love with her.

Mehta says she is hugely fond of Khanna. Mehta gave the actor his first break in the movies in Earth. And she adds that she had Khanna in her mind when she created the Rahul Seth character. She says the same about Moushumi Chatterjee, who was originally scheduled to play a role in Water. For the role of Seth?s Shakespeare quoting grandmother, Mehta thought about Pathak. ?I had to find someone who had the grasp of English language, so that the quotations would sound right.?

Mehta?s biggest challenge was finding a young Indian actress to play the role of Sue. Although there are several Bollywood actresses who dress in western clothing, Mehta was searching for someone with ?a lot of west in her; someone whose body language is western;? an actress ?who could straddle both the worlds, who would know how to cross her legs in a bar.?

Mehta finally settled for the Indian model Ray, who has acted in one film ? Kasoor. As a coincidence, Ray grew up in Canada until the age of 16. Her father is Indian and her mother Polish.

Twenty-four years ago Mehta moved to Toronto as the bride of a Canadian filmmaker ? Paul Saltzman. The marriage ended in a divorce and that became the inspiration for her film Fire. But Mehta continued to stay on Canada with her daughter Devyani who is 22. In Toronto, Mehta describes herself as living a ?hybrid life? ? someone who is connected to the Indian-Canadian community and yet has the ability to distance herself and be objective.

?Everything in the film (Bollywood/Hollywood) is rooted in reality,? she says. ?There is no question about the big homes. That people wake up on weekends to watch Indian cable programs. I know of homes where they have televisions in each room constantly playing Bollywood films. At weddings and parties people dance to films songs which they play on their television screens.?

?Every culture wants to identify with the motherland,? Mehta says, trying to examine this phenomenon. ?Bollywood is our most obvious and accessible way to identify with India. It is immediate and you can touch it. Three years ago with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so many Taiwanese and Chinese in the Diaspora were suddenly being catapulted into Hong Kong films. Now Bollywood has become fashionable in the west.?

?We have always loved Bollywood, but until recently it wasn?t politically correct to say so,? she adds, ?But now there is no shame in admitting it.?

In the US Bollywood/Hollywood has so far played in Indian theaters. But in Canada the film has done over a $1 million business in the mainstream theaters. Some of the Canadian critics were not too kind to the film, but that does not bother Mehta. ?Either the critics aren?t too kind to you or the box office. It is very rare when both the things happen.?

Mehta?s next project -- Republic of Love (she describes it as her ?white film?) stars Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood and Amelia Fox ? an English actress who will soon be seen in Roman Polanski?s much anticipated The Pianist. She describes it as a romantic film based on a novel by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Carol Shields.

She says she feels good to be busy. ?Especially if you enjoy what you are doing. I was just telling a friend that I had such a great experience making Bollywood/Hollywood that I don?t even remember when I started that film.?

And what about Water? ?I still hope I can make it,? she says, sounding hopeful. ?I haven?t given up on it yet. But I want to make in the right climate. Maybe even under the same political party. But they will have to change their mind.?

But first there is a little bit of business that needs to be resolved. When Gangopadhaya leveled the plagiarism charges, Mehta?s lawyers filed a law suit against the writer. The matter is still in the courts.

?I think Sunil got a little carried away,? she says. ?People who read the book and my script they can tell that there is nothing in common. His book deals partly with widows. My script is all about widows.?

She would like to resolve the issue and make peace with Gangopadhaya. ?I find it so tragic in a way. But it is not in my control.?

?At least I should be allowed to make the film and then they can say the film is plagiarism,? she adds. ?I haven?t even made the film. They based the allegations on the script. How may people know how to read script??


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