Deepa Mehta discusses migration, isolation and domestic abuse that form the core of her film Heaven on Earth (Videsh).. Roshmila Bhattacharya listens on.
What made you cast a spunky, urban girl like Preity Zinta in the role of a subjugated housewife in Heaven on Earth (Videsh)?
Preity is absolutely fearless and has a social conscience. For Chand, I needed not just a good actress but also a strong person.
Abuse can be damaging.. and devastating. Even when you are just playing a battered woman, you can get caught up in the moment and start to feel insecure. But I knew Preity would retain her objectivity, that there would be no transference of guilt and vulnerability.
Yeah, she admitted that when her co-star, Vansh Bharadwaj, hit her accidentally, her first reaction was to slap him back.
Poor Vansh, it was an accident.. and Preity restrained herself. In real life, she would never be a victim. But it’s heart wrenching how many women there are out there who are.
Abuse knows no class, colour or country. In Canada, they are showing the film to cops and attorneys so they’d understand how to deal with victims of different cultures.
An Indian woman will react very differently from a white woman. For one, she’ll never call the cops herself, it will always be a friend or a neighbour who will. And when they show up at her doorstep, she could be bruised and bleeding, but she’ll still insist, “Sab theek hai,” because she’s been conditioned never to let her husband and family down.
What was the trigger for a film like this?
Just as I didn’t have to be a lesbian or a widow to do Fire or Water, I didn’t have to be an abused woman to make Heaven on Earth.
Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, was the trigger. It made me realise that there were women all over the world who are suffering. If I can help even one of them, I will be happy.
It’s the closest I’ve come to taking up a contemporary social issue. It’s not just a kitchen sink drama about domestic violence, it’s also about immigration and isolation.
There are people from Punjab, Bihar and Tamil Nadu who migrate to the U S, U K and Canada in search of a better life. But there’s no dignity for the working class there.
The jobs are demeaning, the cold is numbing and the living conditions are abysmal. Women are even more vulnerable. Yet, they struggle on, sometimes sacrificing themselves for the next generation. My advise to them is to stay back home, the doors of opportunity can open here too.
You’re saying India is still shining?
Thirty per cent of it is. What we see in Slumdog Millionaire wasn’t a set. We have made progress but 70 per cent of India still doesn’t have clean drinking water, education and equal opportunities for women. What happened in Mangalore was for real. Still, I repeat, it’s better to be in swadesh than videsh.
The cobra in your film is supposed to be a fascinating character.
(Smiles) The idea for it came from Girish Karnad’s play, Naag Mandala. Our culture is so rich in mythology.
And it reminded me of a folk story my mother had told me as a kid.. which Chand’s mother tells her just before she leaves for Canada. It was about a sadhu and a snake.
A saint on a pilgrimage comes across a village where people are terrified to step out because of a huge cobra which lives under a peepal tree. The sadhu gives the snake a lesson in good karma and moves on.
A year later, he returns to find the villagers a happy bunch. But is shocked to see that the snake is dying. It tells him that it hasn’t eaten in days, it’s afraid to come out of its bill for fear of being beaten up.
The sadhu sighed, “I told you not to bite anyone, I didn’t tell you to stop hissing.” Don’t hurt people but at the same time don’t allow
yourself to get hurt. Do what you have to, to protect yourself.
Wasn’t Priety frightened of the snake?
Not Preity, her dad had taught her how to hold a snake as a child. I was the one who was terrified. She spent five days bonding with the snake.
On the day of shoot she told the handlers that she could manage the cobra on her own since now they were friends. (Laughs) And they told her they would still have to be around because a snake has no memory.
Priety says she’s fantastic in the film.
I tell her to be more modest but she’s right, she’s fantastic!
Will she be part of your Midnight’s Children too?
I don’t know, I still have to finalise the cast. So far I’ve zeroed in on Nandita (Das) to play Padma, Shabana (Azmi) for the grandmother and Seema (Biswas) as Mary.
How do you plan to turn Salman Rushdie’s complex epic into a two-hour film?
Salman and I will be writing the screenplay together. It’s a challenging book but I’m very clear about what I want to say. For me,
Midnight’s Children charts the birth of a nation through the eyes of a child, Salim.
I’m hooked on to Salim, there’s so much growth there. I love the soothsayer who tells his mother his destiny.. and the grandmother.. in fact, every character in the story.
Were you surprised Water didn’t fare better in India?
It came to India a year-and-a-half after the DVDs released and by then everyone had already seen it. It’s the same with Slumdog Millionare. But the film did very well overseas, it even got an Oscar nomination.
John Abraham is eager to get started on Komgate Maru (Exclusion).
I’m eager to work with John again, what a great Narayan (in Water) he made. He’s a director’s actor.. hardworking, professional, a great guy! The film should start next year.
Apparently, the Canadian government which is co-financing Komgate Maru, wants Canadian citizens for the lead roles. That’s how Akshay Kumar, who has a permanent resident status in Canada, has replaced Amitabh Bachchan as the protagonist, Gurdit Singh.
Akshay and I go back a long way.
He was to play Narayan in Water initially. Mr Bachchan and I will do another film together.
Meanwhile, you’ve been co-directing What’s Cooking, Stella? with your brother Dilip Mehta?
I was supposed to but I’ve eventually just produced and co-written the film. Dilip has directed it. It’s hilarious! Shriya (Saran) is lovely!.
What’s the best compliment you’ve got for Heaven on Earth?
I’ve just one child and I’m glad it’s a daughter. I have a wonderful relationship with my mom and my daughter, Devyani, is my life.
I was shocked when she asked me to dedicate this film to her. She’s seen other films of mine but never made that request. But Heaven on Earth, she says, showed her just how important a mother is to her daughter.
E-mail author: firstname.lastname@example.org