Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, attended college in Delhi, but her life and work has been defined by the years she has spent in Canada since 1973.
Her first feature Sam & Me, at the centre of which was an unlikely friendship between a Jewish man and a Muslim boy, won a special mention in the Camera d’Or category at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991. Her 1994 film Camilla, turned out to be the late Jessica Tandy’s last project.
Following that, Mehta embarked on a challenging project — Fire (1996) Earth (1998) and Water (2005), an Elements Trilogy, reflecting India of today and the past. The first two were shot in India, but Water was filmed in Sri Lanka, where Mehta created a setup that resembled Varanasi.
The films were critical successes around the world, but Fire and Water ran into political trouble with Hindu right wing groups in India. She has directed a total of nine films, but her reputation in India has been impacted with the brouhaha around those two films.
Next month, Mehta will unveil her most ambitious film yet at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) — the film version of Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning novel Midnight’s Children.
Excerpts from an email interview:
► When was the first time you read Midnight’s Children and how long did you hold the desire to make it into a film before you approached Salman? I read somewhere that you were earlier considering filming Shalimar The Clown.
I read Midnight’s Children in the winter of 1982, in Delhi. I remember distinctly talking about the wonder of it all with a friend while we walked around Lodhi Gardens; specifically about the cinematic nature of the writing.
|Stills from Midnight’s Children (R) and top
The thought of filming it never crossed my mind. I think I was too much in awe of the novel to even think about it as an adaptation. Years later, I read Salman’s short story, The Courtier and thought it would make a superb film.
Those were the fatwa years and I never heard back from his agent. Not surprising. Four years ago we were talking about Shalimar The Clown as a possible film, when I asked him who owned the rights to Midnight’s Children.
Salman said he did. I asked him if I could have them, and he said, “Done.” It was as simple as that. To this date, I don’t know what prompted me to ask about Midnight’s Children. But I did. And here we are.
► Thematically, what attracted you to the story?
The scope of the novel. Its post-colonial nature. Its essential humanity and its political bite. And I absolutely love the character of Saleem Sinai — the unlikely hero.
► It is such a well-known book with loyal fans. What were the challenges of adapting this celebrated and complex book into film?
Salman did the screenplay. The tone, the dialogues in the film are his. The film, in essence, is very true to the book, I think.
► What was it like to collaborate with Salman — logistically and creatively?
We worked well together. Before starting the writing process, I suggested that we each write down, separately, the narrative graph of the film in point form, and then come together and exchange our pieces of paper. We did this a week later and found that they were virtually identical. Salman would write a draft and email it to me. I would jot my comments and revert. We spoke over the phone often, met often, but mostly used email to communicate.
► I would imagine this has to be the biggest project you have undertaken. As a director, how different was it making this one compared to say, Earth or Fire?
Yes, it’s the biggest project I have undertaken. Logistically and in scope, it has been the most challenging. Also, the number of characters is huge! Fire was essentially a four-person drama, and Earth, as the late Jhamu Sughand described succinctly, was a “love triangle with a war background!”
► You have a fascinating cast. What was the casting process like? Was there anyone you were determined to work with?
The casting was time-consuming. Though there were some characters that I knew right at the time of scripting, would be played well by certain actors, other characters needed no baggage of association. I knew I wanted a relatively unknown Saleem, for instance. Saleem Sinai is the son of an Englishman and an Indian woman. Authenticity, though not essential, helped in the case of casting Satya Bhabha. Other actors are from stage and television. For some, it’s their first film, while others are well established actors from Indian cinema.
► I know you shot in Sri Lanka because you wanted to avoid the backlash you faced when you tried to shoot Water in India. How similar is the country and its people to India? How did you transform the setting?
The reason why we shot in Sri Lanka is a purely practical. It was essentially about locations. Sri Lanka, because of the unfortunate civil war it was reeling in, was virtually untouched by new development. The lack of skyscrapers, the abundance of colonial bungalows and unlined streets suited our budget.
Delhi and Bombay have changed so radically that to do a period film there would have meant extensive builds and studio work. Something we could not afford, nor desired. We didn’t even apply for permission to shoot in India. Having said that, there is no guarantee we would have been granted permission anyway.
► You have family in India, but what relationship do you share with the country (the audience, critics, film industry, politicians), especially after Fire and Water?
India continues to be home. That’s the great thing about being Canadian. One doesn’t have to give up one’s identity and culture in order to become Canadian. Though I don’t have an active relationship with Indian critics, audiences, I don’t have one with Canadian audiences, critics, politicians either. But that is not synonymous with being unaware of what’s going on in India. Social media is a great bridge.
► Has Midnight’s Children been sold in India? How do you think the film will be received in India given that it has your and Salman’s name?
Though the film has been sold and will be distributed in more than 45 countries, including the US, Canada, UK, Australia, France etc., India is the last bastion. We are currently in dialogue with a couple of distributors. Water was distributed in India, as was Earth and Heaven on Earth. Do you really think our names can motivate politicians to prevent its distribution? If so, it’s a pity. The book was Salman’s love letter to India, and the film reflects that love.
► Congratulations on the TIFF premiere. I know that Canada is proud to consider you as Canadian. But how Canadian are you? You said you enjoy eating pakoras during the monsoon in Delhi. Creatively speaking are you happier being a Canadian Indian filmmaker, as opposed to an Indian filmmaker in India?
Being Canadian means I can be as Indian as I choose to be! I am a Canadian Indian filmmaker. And luckily, enjoying pakoras does not mean I have to choose between either country.
Salman did the screenplay. The tone, the dialogues in the film are his. It is very true to the book, I think