x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Bold imagination

Interview As her latest movie screens at the DIFF, the director Deepa Mehta speaks about her controversial films, her motivation and her upcoming projects.

The film director Deepa Mehta screened her new film <i>Heaven On Earth</i> and participated in the Cultural Bridge discussion at the DIFF.
The film director Deepa Mehta screened her new film <i>Heaven On Earth</i> and participated in the Cultural Bridge discussion at the DIFF.

It's hard to picture Deepa Mehta as a serious troublemaker. The Indian-Canadian director, notorious for the violent reaction that her Elements trilogy sparked in India, has such an air of gentle mischief it's amazing that anyone could actually get cross with her.

"Sorry I'm late!" she trills, breezing out onto the terrace at the Al Qasr hotel. "I've been riding around on buggies all day." She laughs and starts rooting around for a cigarette lighter, instantly and battily engaging. It's her third film in the DIFF and her third time in Dubai - "My knowledge of it is limited to this movie set, as I call it" - and she looks to be having a whale of a time. The director is in town on a double errand. Her new film, Heaven on Earth, starring Preity Zinta, is part of the festival. It's a gritty tale of spousal abuse that spins off into fantasy, a typical Mehta provocation. In addition, the director took part in the DIFF's Cultural Bridge discussion, a regular event that aims to open dialogues between artists of varying backgrounds and nationalities. The calypso singer Harry Belafonte is on it, too, and the novelist Yasmina Khadra. Yet none of this is quite as exciting as the latest project to which Mehta has attached herself as director: Midnight's Children.

Aside from controversy, there are daunting factors associated with taking on Salman Rushdie's sprawling 1981 novel, a book which spins fables around the partition of India and attempts, with some success, to epitomise the entire confounding nation. Never mind the scale of the thing. It also has a critical and popular standing so elevated that it won the Booker three times: once on its release, and twice in best-of-the-Booker retrospectives. That must put the wind up her a bit. What if she gets it wrong?

"I don't even think about that," she says. "Because otherwise I would never do it. Never do anything that you're intimidated by. It's the first rule as a filmmaker, because you never ask the questions or go the distance, because you're apprehensive as to what people will say, or the lovers of the book will say." In terms of casting, a couple of names have been pencilled in, including the writer who will take a cameo role. Mehta's long-standing muse Seema Biswas is lined up to play Mary, the midwife who switches the novel's protagonist, Saleem Sinai, at birth. Shabana Azmi is to play Saleem's grandmother, and Nandita Das may portray Padma, Saleem's second wife and the person to whom the novel is narrated. As for the hero himself, "We're sort of homing in on a couple of actors who would be really good. But I know for sure that they have to be not from the diaspora. They have to be from India, and from Bombay. It's the body language, it's the way that they talk and Saleem talks. It has to be authentic."

Work is further advanced on the Mehta film which will precede Midnight's Children. Exclusion, an account of the Komagata Maru incident, is slated for a 2009 release and will feature the Indian action star Akshay Kumar. It's a grisly tale: in 1914 a boatload of Punjabi Indians were impounded at Toronto Harbour as they fled British persecution. They were left to rot on the ship while their immigration case was being overturned amid fears of a "brown invasion". When the court forced them back to India, the British shot them.

Several aspects of this saga have fired Mehta's imagination. "Imagine the garbage, the deterioration," she says fervently, "and also, more than anything else, what happens to the psyche of people who are actually confined, who come with hope." Yet ties of community solidarity mitigate the picture. "The lawyer who represented the passengers," Mehta explains, "was being paid by the Indians who were already in Canada. They were workers, basically, who worked on the lumber yards and would put, you know, two dollars, one dollar in." Then the First World War happened and the entire incident became a drop in the ocean. "It was one of the stories that was just shoved underneath the carpet," Mehta says.

The theme of the ill-fated journey to Canada is becoming a recurring one in Mehta's work. Along with Exclusion, it figures in Heaven On Earth, when Zinta's character finds herself in an arranged marriage with a violent Indo-Canadian man. Given that Mehta moved to Toronto herself when she was in her twenties, one has to ask: doesn't she like the place? "I love Canada!" she exclaims. "I'd gone there because I was a young kid who was in love (she had just married the Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman). And one thing leads to another, and we have a kid, and get divorced, and I could have come back but it was joint custody. It's all those personal things that keep you in a country, and before you know it you become a part of that."

Despite the awkward circumstances of her arrival, the place does seem to have won her over. "It actually is trying - and is doing not badly at all - at being an inclusive society," she says. "It isn't like the American version where it's a melting pot and everybody becomes an American. Canadians have had the foresight to realise that people don't give up where they've come from. Our reflection on that has been: keep your heritage, and that's what makes you Canadian."

This leads us smoothly onto the other of her duties at the DIFF: the Cultural Bridge discussion. Her animation redoubles. "That's the flagship of this festival," she says. "It's important in this very fragile world that we live in right now that there's as little room for misunderstanding as possible about how the other thinks, or what moves the other, and so forth. We all have humanity in common. We all want peace at some level. We all want to be happy, we all want the environment to be safe for our children."

I ask if this belief is what drives her to make the challenging, politically freighted films that she does. "No," she says. "I'm a storyteller, and what initiated the stories I want to tell is actually my curiosity about things that I don't know that much about. I was very intrigued by, for example, the situation of widows in India, so that was what started me to do the film Water, because I wanted to know more about it. I was very interested in sectarian violence, so that's what started me doing Earth. It's in the process of research that my films come out."

So her primary motivations are aesthetics and personal curiosity, I suggest, and the political content is just incidental. "I wouldn't call it 'just'", she says severely. "But I do think the way I think. I'm political by nature so they do get a political tinge, but I don't start out because I feel I have a message to impart." She sits back and adds, "Advocacy is very boring". And boring assuredly isn't Deepa Mehta's style.