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Deepa Mehta talks with Khabar

April 2006
Deepa Mehta talks with Khabar

Now that your trilogy is done, everybody who sees it will probably have a favorite amongst them. Does one of the three mean more to you than the others?

Well, it's like asking which of my three children I like better. It's difficult?I mean I like different ones for different reasons. But the one I think that touches me the most is Water.

Is it because of what happened in 2000?

It has nothing to do with what happened, because what happened has no reflection on the film that you've seen. We should separate that and look at the reality that's the film. If people are reacting so positively to the film, it's not because of what happened.

I understand that both Bapsi Sidhwa and your daughter Devyani are coming out with books that dwell on the problems you experienced with Water in India.

They are different books. Bapsi's book is based on a novelization of the screenplay? I loved Bapsi's novel (Cracking India, which Mehta adapted for Earth). Can you imagine what an honor this is for me, because it was her book that actually changed my life? My daughter Devyani's book is about the journey of a mother and daughter, and about the making of the film from the time it was shut down [in India] to the point when it was actually made in Sri Lanka. It talks about the problem for 5 pages, but the book has 250 pages.

The realism of many scenes, especially in the ashram, is quite striking. Did you conduct extensive research?

Yes, we did. And the production designers spent a lot of time in different ashrams, both in Vrindavan and Varanasi, getting the detail right. And it's not just painting an ashram – it's how you wear it down, how you write ‘Hari Om', what the doors are like, and all the little things. It's intensive research. We had a mixture of professional and non-professional cast. Only one was an actual widow.

As you noted, because of people who still practice ancient traditions, there continue to be millions of Hindu widows. But do you also think there has been a lot of positive social change in recent times?

Definitely. There has been a lot of change, especially in the last 10 years. I can think of people like Mohini Giri and Uma Devi. A lot of work has been done at the grass-roots level. A lot of people have been written about and a lot has been done to create awareness. And trying to make widows economically independent has been the actual thrust of all the work that's been done. It's amazing.

What sort of expectations do you have for your movie in India? Has there been any indication that it will be shown there?

It was [screened at] the opening night at the Kerala Film Festival. More than 5000 people saw it and the reaction has been amazing. There have been many private screenings in Delhi. The Prime Minister's wife and the Chief Minister of Delhi came to see it, and they both loved it. We're talking to distributors right now and we're hoping the film will be released in May. There's been a change in government for one thing, so it isn't easy for the protestors.

Lisa Ray and John Abraham – with their glamorous looks and show biz background – may seem to some like the odd couple when you consider the rest of the cast. Given the general tenor of the movie, did you see this as a credibility issue?

I've heard this only from a few Indians. Nobody else. I think there are some preconceptions you come with. And the preconceptions are that realistic films shouldn't have any good-looking people somehow. When Satyajit Ray had people like Soumitra Chatterjee, Aparna Sen and Sharmila Tagore, he got the same flak. Oh, come on. Are you saying that when you have people who are poor or in deprived situations, or if you're doing a period piece, you can't have people who are easy on the eyes? Isn't it amazing that John, who was on motorcycles in the Jeans commercials and in some other films, can speak Sanskrit so beautifully? Look at him wearing a dhoti. I think Lisa is like the lotus. We Indians like to be negative before we like to be positive.

I do agree that both John and Lisa have done a commendable job. My point, though, has more to do with the style of filmmaking. Bollywood is not Satyajit Ray. Some actors can make the transition, of course, but others cannot because the style is so different.

Certainly, there are actors in Bollywood who maybe cannot make the transition to serious cinema. But some can. It's the same thing in Hollywood. You have some actors who can do really big Hollywood movies. Look at George Clooney. He can make Good Night, and Good Luck and yet make a Hollywood blockbuster.

You've mentioned that Ray's Apu trilogy has been an inspiration. I'm wondering if Renoir's The River, which was shot in India around the same time, also made an impression on you, especially since the ‘water' metaphor dominates that film?

Not at all. In fact I like Renoir and find him an inspirational filmmaker. [Though] The River, for me, is one of his most uninteresting films. Ray, on the other hand, is just like vintage wine. He keeps on getting better. For me, The River doesn't have the same quality.

Given that your films have large Western audiences, do you sometimes feel that they may miss certain culture-specific references, particularly in a film like Water?

I don't sit down and say that my films are for an Indian audience or a Western audience or a Chinese audience. I mean I make them for an audience that is intelligent and compassionate and curious. That may seem general and colorless – you may think that way. I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to explain [the regional nuances in the film]?' Then I said, ‘No, I'm not going to?why should I?' If somebody is interested, they can look it up on the Internet or read books.

You've said that you don't make crossover films. What do you think of this current explosion of films about the Indian diaspora by younger people – films such as American Desi, ABCD, and American Chai? Do they have the potential of reaching a wider audience?

Well, I see myself as an Indo-Canadian filmmaker. But, sorry, I haven't heard of these films. Have they been distributed?

Yes, some have been shown in the U.S. and are available here. And again, they are not that widely known. How about younger Indo-Canadian filmmakers?

Yes, we have them and it's only now that they are coming into prominence. The one that I know is a young man named Rishi Mehta, who did a film in India. But, you know, he doesn't do films about identity and the difficulties of being an American and a desi or whatever. So that's what I mean by crossover – dealing with the dilemma of ‘who you are'. In Canada it's different. We are a truly multicultural country. It encourages people to actually nurture [their culture] and be proud of where they have come from and their heritage. So I feel that whenever I say I'm an Indian, it never precludes the fact that I'm a Canadian.

I've heard that it is more of a mosaic than a melting pot.

It is definitely that. That kind of tension about identity crises and who you are do not happen there in large. It happens more in the States, because you are supposed to be a part of the melting pot and you don't know who you are there.

You also make films that have nothing to do with Indian characters or India – films such as Camilla and The Republic of Love. Do you plan to make more of those movies?

It depends?it depends on the script and whether I feel like doing it. Otherwise I will do my own work.

You seem to be drawn to stories that have strong female characters. Is it fair to say that your films have a feminist point of view?

They have a female point of view. I'm a woman, so how can it not be that? But I do not think of myself as a feminist. I like to think of myself as a humanitarian.

Could you name any other filmmakers that you admire?

Oh, yes, I definitely could. Out of the Indian ones, the ones I really admire are Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy. Dutt made Pyaasa and Kagaz ke Phool, which is a stunning film. Another one is called Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam. It was Bimal Roy who made wonderful films like Bandini and Sujata. An amazing film director. I've been really influenced by earlier Japanese filmmakers like Ozu and Mizoguchi.

Are you working on anything right now?

Yes, I'm working on a film called Exclusion, which is based on a historical incident that took place between India and Canada in 1914 (involves a Japanese ship named Komagata Maru, which was carrying 376 would-be migrants from India to Canada).

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