From the elements trilogy — Fire (1996), Earth (1998), Water (2005) — to Heaven on Earth (2008), to recently released Midnight’s Children — Deepa Mehta’s genre of films has always kept her on a pedestal higher than the others.
With her child-like smile, kohl-lined eyes and salt-&-pepper charm, you can sense the aura of confidence that embodies the room. The rendezvous begins with her saying, “Please introduce yourself. I would like to attach some names to these faces…” And thus begins the shootout of questions:
Q. You often come to Chandigarh but rarely interact with the media. Media shy?
A. My very dear friend, Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, stays here. We sit and chat, go to eat chaat or bhelpuri and really like to be with each other. Not that I’m media shy.
Q. What does the word ‘cinema’ mean to you?
A. For me, cinema without a viewer or an audience is incomplete. I don’t make movies to watch on my cellphone or in the living room later. The real experience of cinema is when the lights go down in a hall and something is projected to you. That’s why it’s called ‘viewing’ cinema. It doesn’t exist in isolation.
Q. Being born and brought up in India and spending most of your adult life in Canada, do you encounter personal or professional clashes?
A. Well, I’ve never had an identity crisis. I have said it in my previous interviews that when I land in Delhi, I feel Indian and when I land in Toronto, I feel Canadian. I’m not an Indian or a Canadian; I’m happy being both. If India gives me the passion for stories then Canada gives me the freedom to express. It’s a balance of both.
Q. How have you evolved as a filmmaker?
A. ‘Evolved’ is not the right word. I might have changed as a person, but that might not be solely because of my work; it is also because of growing old — my experience and exposure to the world. You can’t tear away the filmmaker from the person. I am the kind of filmmaker I am because I am the kind of person I am. It reinforces the subjects that I was first attracted to. So, now, I don’t make compromises.
Q. Being known as ‘controversy’s child’, how do you handle them, the controversies?
A. First, you get agitated, as you look for honesty. Not even honesty, you want accuracy. Ab toh fayda hi nahi hai. It’s not harming anyone, toh theek hai na! Now I find controversies very boring.
Q. Tell us about Midnight’s Children...
A. I have grown up with Midnight’s Children. I read it first when it came out, when I was in Delhi, during the first year of university. For our generation, it was a path-breaking novel. Actually, I was about to do another film, but, suddenly out of nowhere, I asked Salman [Rushdie] about who held the rights to Midnight’s Children. He said he did. So, I asked him how the idea of me directing the film appealed to him. He immediately said, ‘Go ahead’. As simple as that. It isn’t that I had to read the book for 10 years; I had known the book for 10 years.
Q. Were you and Salman on the same pace?
A. No two people are on the same pace. We had the good fortune of being friends before that for seven years. The danger was of losing that friendship, as we didn’t know how things would turn out. You either get along or you don’t. I was very sure right from the start that he should write the screenplay, but he wasn’t willing to. He wanted me to write it. Instead, I thought if someone else is writing it, it would be very difficult to call Salman and say ‘I don’t want to use these characters’. But, Salman has great objectivity.
Q. But, the film opened to a mixed response…
A. Listen, you are talking to an artist. You know when something like that happens you have to live with it. Everything is not always perfect. It happens five years later when they realize ki haan, landmark film thi.
My films have always got mixed responses. People hated Fire. Now, they say
it’s a cult classic.
Q. What if Fire was to be made now, given the recent changes Indian cinema has undergone?
A. I don’t believe in ‘ifs’ and ‘whats’. Reality is reality. I made it when I did. And I’m happy that I made it when I felt like it.
Q. What do you think of Indian cinema today? Is it on the right track?
A. Yes, it has changed and I have seen a few good films. But, how do I know if it’s on the right track or not. I have been exposed to some filmmakers who are just fantastic. Now, what a fantastic imagination this young filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee has! Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! had a charming sense of humour; the energy was fantabulous! I also find Vikram Aditya Motwani very poetic. His films are not all dishum dishum, but really lovely.
Q. Has the Indian society become more tolerant?
A. Your censor board certainly has.
Q. What are you currently working on?
A. Exclusion, based on the book Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, which is about adoption, mothers and daughters, and unfolds in India and San Francisco. Also, another film, Komagata Maru, the dialogues for which are to be written by Surjit Singh Paatar, is on hold. I want everything to be perfect, the logistics and I don’t want to shoot in a studio.
Q. With every film going to Cannes, is this a game changer?
A. Lunchbox is such a lovely film and I’m glad that it went to festivals before its release. But, the credit can’t be given to festivals. Credit should be given to the film. At the time of Fire, we went to various film festivals, which was a good way of garnering exposure for the film, so the film could be sold to distributors later. Festivals are very good for young filmmakers.
Q. What about the never-ending Oscar debate? Are the Oscars everything?
A. See, it gets the most press. It’s a high profile event. A lot of people watch it on television. Also, they award some very good films.