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Interview with Indo-Canadian Filmmaker Deepa Mehta

Aired February 22, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): Behind the scenes of one of her latest films, the Indo-Canadian director, Deepa Mehta, is doing something no filmmaker has tried before - bringing author, Salman Rushdie's award-winning novel, "Midnight's Children", to the silver screen.

And the result is this -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history. When [UNCLEAR] and then the soul of a nation -

RAJPAL (voiceover): A visual recreation of post-independence India, and one of her latest explorations of the social and cultural issues that have plagued the country of her birth.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Goodbye, Ashok, I'm leaving you for Sita. I love her, but not like a sister-in-law.

RAJPAL (voiceover): But it was her elemental trilogy of film, "Fire", "Earth", and "Water", that would earn her critical acclaim. Fictional tales of Indian woman battling the cultural taboo of homosexuality and the constraints of religion.

Her film, "Water", about an eight-year-old widow, earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film in 2007.

But it was not a film without controversy. It received a highly publicized backlash from Hindu fundamentalists.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I know I'm trying to hold it together.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've been shut down.

RAJPAL (voiceover): This week, Deepa Mehta joins us in Mumbai as she releases her latest film in India and gives us rare critique of her own work. Plus, a glimpse into the process of an award-winning filmmaker. Coming up, on "Talk Asia".


RAJPAL: Deepa Mehta, welcome to "Talk Asia". Thank you for your time.


RAJPAL: How does it feel to be in India?

MEHTA: I mean, I come here, what, like six times a year.


MEHTA: And my parents - my mother lives in Delhi and I have a home in Delhi. So what's interesting is coming here with a film. Because this is a totally different experience. Because the book was written - it's Salman's love-letter to India. And I hope the film is also my love-letter to India. To see it with the people who it's about in many ways, was very different. And a wonderful experience.

RAJPAL: Even though it's seen as a love-letter, the government didn't see it that way at the beginning. There were a lot of challenges filming this movie here. You weren't allowed to. What's that like for you?

MEHTA: I'm so glad I have an opportunity to explode that myth. We were never not allowed to. It was a decision that we made - my producer and myself made - not to film in India. The film is set in, you know, the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1970s of India.

And you go outside Delhi and it's a totally different Delhi. You know, the high-rises, the overpasses and there's the Metro, and every car has, you know, every car in the world is there on the roads. And it's impossible. That Delhi has disappeared to a large extent. So we decided to film in Sri Lanka.

RAJPAL: You had to cover Kashmir, Karachi, Old Delhi, Bombay from 1919 to 1974. Talk to us a little bit about that and how you were able to make that happen with the specific - everything specific when it comes to set design as well.

MEHTA: You know, when you're doing an epic, which is - "Midnight's Children" is one - it covers, like you said, 60 years of Indian history. Detail is very important and it's something that I'm a real stickler for. People say the pre-production is far tougher than the actual shooting, and it's absolutely true.

Because that is where you set up the film itself. It's not just about feeling like Delhi or feeling like Bombay or feeling like [UNCLEAR]. But it's the picture frame in the background, it's the carpets on the floor, it's the - and do these people live here? And that's why we spent a lot of time in pre-production. You know, you get the script as a director, and you recreate what's not written. That's what a director does.

RAJPAL: What was it about the book, the story, that you wanted to make into a film - that you thought was something that you could translate to a wider audience?

MEHTA: I read that book in 1983 and it had a huge, profound effect on me, as I'm sure it did on many people all over the world. And one of the things was the language. And also the reinterpretation of Post-Colonial India. But it's the essential story of "Midnight's Children" that moved me and continued to move me even until we made the film. Which is the story of an unlikely hero. The coming of age of a young man as well as the country at the same time.

And for a filmmaker, you know, to go to that scale where you have the canvas of not just history, but personally of a young man -- Saleem Sinai, in this case. That was like a gift. This is wonderful.

RAJPAL: Did you surprise yourself by thinking that you wanted to take this on?

MEHTA: Surprised myself is an understatement.


MEHTA: When I asked Salman, you know, we were talking about it for the longest time. So I just said, out of the blue, "Who owns the rights to "Midnight's Children"?". And Salman said, "I do". And I said, "How do you feel about me making it?" And he said, "Go ahead". And that was that. And then I said, "Oh, my God. Oh, what am I going to do with this?" Because it was totally instinctive. I hadn't thought about it.

And then when it hit me, you know, I made a conscious decision of putting fear in the back seat. Or any reservations, because you can't progress with fear. But you can progress with passion.

RAJPAL: What was your working relationship like with Mr. Rushdie? In that you're both very strong, intelligent - strong-willed people. How did you get along?

MEHTA: I just loved working with him. And, perhaps, because we both are very direct and there were - yes, there were, you know, disagreements - as there should be. But I think very few people know of what a generous person he is, and also how cinematic he is. So, you know, I felt that he was the only person to write the screenplay.

RAJPAL: And you said you had to twist his arm to do that.

MEHTA: He didn't want to do it. He really didn't want to do it. But I felt there was only one person in the world who could be ruthless with the book. And that was Salman himself. And I was right. I mean, when I said that to him, he got it. He said, "OK".


RAJPAL (voiceover): Coming up, we get an inside look into the making of "Midnight's Children".

MEHTA: You know, when you're making a film, everything's a challenge.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.


RAJPAL: We're going to start taking a look at some of the scenes that stand out for you.

Talk to us about what went into the filming of these scenes and what kind of challenges you came through.

MEHTA: You know, when you're making a film, everything's a challenge. Whether it's a big scene or a small scene. For me, you know, it's about performances and it's not about the logistics of having 1,500 extras or 3,000 extras. That is logical and it's technical. But, you know, to find the emotional center of a scene -



MEHTA: It is a challenge to find that scene, find the center of that scene. But that scene is, you know, we find on location. You cannot find it before that. You know, you think about, "OK, I'm going to do this, and the actors are going to do this". But you don't know where you're going to place the camera. The magic of filmmaking can only happen on-set.

RAJPAL: When did you first learn the love of this medium?

MEHTA: Oh, years ago. I mean, I think, perhaps, with my first documentary, which was called, "At 99" - a portrait of a 99-year-old woman in Toronto who had moved me hugely. And I just did it, and suddenly, there she was. And to be able to share her with the world - you know, this was before YouTube and all that stuff and being online and what you can get - was just wonderful.

RAJPAL: Let's talk a little bit about growing up. And so, you lived in India until you were 23?

MEHTA: Yes. Yes, 22 -

RAJPAL: And then you moved to Canada. Tell me, what kind of support did you receive from your family that, when you wanted to be a filmmaker - what did your parents say?

MEHTA: Nothing. I mean, they felt that I should do something that I feel so passionately about. You know, there was - I grew up with films. I mean, nobody said, "Oh my God, this is a terrible career". Well nothing - my parents were extremely supportive.

RAJPAL: Did I hear that your mom also helps you in casting?

MEHTA: Yes, she does. My mother watches Hollywood films and television serials, which are really sort of questionable.


MEHTA: Many times.


MEHTA: With such focus and enjoyment, it's really cute. So she told me about, in fact, the male lead in "Water" was great - an actor called John Abraham. And she said - she'd seen a film of his and she said, you know - when she knew I was looking around for Narayan. And she said, "You've got to check out this actor in a film called "Jism". Which literally means "The Body".


MEHTA: And I said, "I refuse to see a film called "Jism". And she says, "You must". So it was great. So I saw it and I thought, you know, "Mom, you're right".


MEHTA: And same thing with "Midnight's Children".

RAJPAL: How did your perspective and vision change when you moved to Canada?

MEHTA: It did change. I mean, you know, you are in the frame and then you're outside the frame. The thing was, although I had done very, very small documentary films while I was in India, I started doing, you know, the large format films when I came to Canada. And I've said this very often - that I'm grateful to India for the stories that it gives me that I can retell. I'm really grateful to Canada because it gives me the freedom to express those stories.

RAJPAL: How do you deal with nerves on set when you start a project?

MEHTA: You know, I think that there's a place for doubt and nerves before you start - before you get on set and we say, "Action". And then, after that, there's no room. There just isn't. I mean, that's the nature of cinema.

RAJPAL: What's the most fun part of your job?

MEHTA: What's the fun part of my job? It's what I was talking about earlier. It's like a scene coming alive. It's that perfect performance. I think a good performance has reduced me to tears or because it's so - Seema did that - Seema Biswas did this. And, in fact, Satya has done it.

All the actors have there been some moments of "Midnight's Children" where it's been so profoundly moving, not because it's a moving scene or it's a highly emotional scene, but because they have conveyed their character with such - without any dialogue - with such honesty and purity that I'm overwhelmed by their talent. So that's just amazing.

RAJPAL: What's this scene we're looking at, here?

MEHTA: This is a scene that's great fun. I mean, I had fun shooting it because it's about logistics. It's about having 3,000 extras. And elephants and armored cars and all the bells and whistles. It's Saleem recognizing poverty and it's the celebration of the birth of Bangladesh.

RAJPAL: Because you can actually see, you know, how much you love what you do and how each project is a labor of love for you.

MEHTA: Otherwise I wouldn't do it. Because it's so difficult making films, you know? It's four years or three years of your life.


MEHTA: You know, actors come, they do something for two months, and then they are on to the next project.


MEHTA: You know, as the director, I'm living with it until - you know, through the post-production, through the edit, through the sound, through the music and -

RAJPAL: Well, it's your child.

MEHTA: Right. And now I - you know, now I'm sitting here promoting it. And so - if I'm going to commit four years of my life to something, I'd better really love it. Otherwise, there's no point.


RAJPAL (voiceover): Coming up, Deepa Mehta opens up about the controversy that followed her films.

MEHTA: It took five years for me to stop being angry about what has happened in India.




NANDITA DAS, ACTOR: Radha, I'm glad he found us. What would you have said? "Goodbye Ashok, I'm leaving you for Sita? I love her, but not like a sister-in-law"? Now listen, Radha. There's no word in our language that can describe what we are. How we feel for each other.

SHABANA AZMI, ACTOR: Perhaps you're right.


RAJPAL: Talk about the "Elements Trilogy". What was - what did that trilogy represent for you in your life?

MEHTA: You know, I haven't visited those films for a long time because I don't generally tend to look at my films over and over again. I mean, it's done and gone and - I mean, let's talk about "Fire". I think that I was really moved because it was in the response - what it meant to the lesbians of India. That point was huge when the film was trashed by the Shiv Sanaiks, when it came out in India.

If a film, at that moment or any moment, can actually catapult some kind of revelation, it's really - it's great. But for me, I did it because I felt Radha and Sita and their story was about the idea of emotional nourishment that happens - where women stand.

RAJPAL: And the fact that India's still very much a patriarchal society, whichever way you look at it, especially with what's happening in the news. How does that affect you, as a storyteller? Do you look at them and say, "These are issues that need to be told"?

MEHTA: No. I mean, you know, then I should be doing documentaries.

RAJPAL: Even though there are about four films that you've made that have made it to the big screen that have actually very strong social issues underneath.

MEHTA: Yes, but they have a story as well. You know, so I think that if you have a story, then you can actually look at or explore certain things that might be upsetting to me, as a person. If it is about what happens in arranged marriages, "Fire" was, or loveless marriages. Can a woman make a choice that might be socially unacceptable? How would she be treated?


MEHTA: That is the basis of "Fire".



MEHTA: So, yes, it's the story, but it's also - am I also going to learn, telling that story. So it's the same way with "Earth".



MEHTA: Sectarian war is something that really is - really moves me. And I'm really - I want to see what happens when there is - what's the fallout of sectarian war? And "Water" was about religion, you know. What does religion do to women? Particularly to women?



RAJPAL: That saw a lot of emotional reaction from India. From Indians as well. You received death threats. You received a lot of negative reaction as a result of that film. Pretty much pushed out of the country when filming. Yet, it was also the film that you got so much international reaction. Even being nominated for an Academy Award. How did you deal with the very two different types of reaction?

MEHTA: You know, this is sort of what happens and the contradiction of India is that - you know, you can't make a film in India unless you give the script to the Minister of Information and Broadcasting. And then they look through it with a fine-toothed comb and decide that, if they will give you permission to actually film or not film. Based on, "Is there anything derogatory in your script about India?" So I had to give the script of "Water".

RAJPAL: Does that surprise you as a -

MEHTA: No, no.

RAJPAL: -- from a democratic - for a democratic country -

MEHTA: Come on.

RAJPAL: Well, sure. But it lies to see itself as the largest English-speaking, democratic country in the world.

MEHTA: And I think that there are double standards. I mean, everybody knows that. You know, either you accept it or you don't. And, if you want to make a film in India, you know that you have to give it to the Ministry. And if you don't want to, then don't do it. I'm not saying that it's a good thing, but that's the reality.

You know, so you give the script - and we did - to the ministry. And they said, "Yes, it's fine. It's lovely. We are terribly moved by it. I think it's a story that should be told". And so you go ahead and start shooting. And, before you know it, you know, everybody's saying that this is against India. I really did not want to make "Water" until I stopped being angry. Because I was so furious.

It took five years for me to stop being angry about what has happened in India. It wasn't about the film. It was about how hypocrisy and politics work hand-in-hand here. You know, and also the way we were treated was really awful. You know, like you said - sets being burned, effigies being burned. The death threats. And my daughter was just freaking out. She was on-set with us. And it was terrible. It was very difficult for my parents and it was tough for me.

RAJPAL: And then being feted by the likes of Hollywood and the A- Listers at the Academy Awards -

MEHTA: That's great. We loved that.

RAJPAL: So then, did you feel a sense of acceptance by India after that?

MEHTA: I didn't look - I think that's what it did to me is that, when "Water" happened and the way the reaction - it's not India. It was the BJP politicians. I mean, let's not confuse the two. People in India are - have an identity and a voice, which is their own. Yes, so five years later, it was a different film. I was in a different space in my life.

RAJPAL: How did you let all that anger go?

MEHTA: Time. Time. Five years. Five years.

RAJPAL: That's a long time.

MEHTA: I don't think of it as long.


MEHTA: I mean, it just, you know, it just - it dissipates as you grow and you see things in perspective. And you know it might happen again. It's also their expectations and not being so naive. I think that's what happened was I - you know, I stopped wearing my rose-colored glasses about Indian politicians.

RAJPAL: Who inspires you?

MEHTA: Who inspires me? My daughter and my mother, I think.


MEHTA: I mean, you know, for different reasons. My mother because she's an amazing woman, you know. And my daughter, because it's all about the future.

RAJPAL: What are you working on right now?

MEHTA: A couple of films. One is my gangster film, which is set in Western Canada in Vancouver. Based on Indian Sikh gangsters that are really prevalent there. And Salman is going to play a little role in that. So I'm really happy about that.

RAJPAL: Really?


RAJPAL: What kind of a role is he going to play in that?

MEHTA: He's going - sophisticated gangster.


MEHTA: He's a great actor.

RAJPAL: Really?

MEHTA: He's a fabulous actor. That's what he did in Cambridge. I mean, you know - there's another film which might actually go before anything else, which is totally different. It's on the life of Henri Matisse. It's set in the South of France. This is when he was about 80 - towards his last five years. And his muse was the 22-year-old nun. And, again, a film about unlikely relationship between an older man and a younger woman.

RAJPAL: What have you learned the most about yourself in your time as a filmmaker? In your career?

MEHTA: Why are you asking me the tough questions?


MEHTA: What have I learned about myself? I've learned I must be a sucker for punishment. I mean, really - no, I'm kidding. You know, you keep on learning. It doesn't stop. I mean, sometimes, you know, when I'm finished doing "Midnight's Children", I mean - you know, I feel there's so much more to learn. And when I finished "Water", that's what I felt. And I think the minute I stop feeling that I'm not going to, you know - and stop learning - I would stop being a filmmaker.

RAJPAL: Deepa Mehta, thank you so much.

MEHTA: Thank you. A pleasure.

RAJPAL: A pleasure to talk to you.

MEHTA: Lovely.