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Deepa Mehta on why she’s doing what she’s doing

Last Thursday, Deepa Mehta was in town to talk about her new film Videsh, releasing on Friday. But when t2 caught up with her, she talked about a whole lot more...

After Water’s phenomenal success at the festivals and the Oscar nomination, were you spoilt for choice about your next film?

It was a very interesting time and the time had a lot to do with what happened to Water. Whenever we make a film we hope that it will do well but you can never say for sure what’s going to happen. The fact that Water went to the Oscars was something that completely surprised me and I was happy about it. One thing that happened because of the Oscar nomination was that Hollywood “came calling”. And when it comes calling, it comes calling in a huge way.

The six months that followed I was inundated with scripts with huge Hollywood stars and huge budgets. I used to be flown by these private jets to Los Angeles and back. I did that for a month and I found it really cool but then I realised it was terribly boring. Because everything comes for a price. And the price you pay for doing a film with a big studio with big stars is that you have no creative control. All the decisions are made by a committee. And I thought to myself it was too great a sacrifice to make.

Actors make four-five films a year but a director gives at least a year and a half to a project. From writing the script to distribution and doing promotion, it is a huge phase of life. Was I willing to give two years of my life to something which I cannot call my own? The money was huge, the exposure internationally was huge but I realised it just wasn’t for me.

You made a lot of announcements before actually making Videsh — Heaven on Earth…

Yes, there were lots of projects that were discussed but I decided the film I really wanted to make was Videsh. It is a story about immigration. There is the issue of domestic abuse but I cannot label the film a domestic abuse film. It is about the isolation of an immigrant. It’s about the girls who leave their homeland, leave everything that is familiar to them and go to a completely foreign place. They don’t know anybody there and they don’t even know the language to communicate or call the police if necessary. It’s a picture of complete isolation, which is a very common thing for girls today. Being an immigrant myself, that was something which always disturbed me. So I thought I was the right person to make a film on this.

So how much have you drawn from your immigrant life for Chand, played by Preity Zinta?

See, the story of the film is an amalgamation of many things. It’s based on the lives of four women I met in Canada. One of them is now a policewoman and one runs the largest centre helping abused Indian women in that country. Then it also draws from a lot of books I read on domestic abuse. And a large part of the film is based on Girish Karnad’s play Naga Mandala, which in turn was based on a folk tale. If you ask me what is common to Chand’s character and me, well, just the fact that we both are immigrants.

I think there’s a bit of me in every film I have made. There’s a bit of me in Fire, there’s a bit of me in Water, there’s a bit of me in Earth, there’s a bit of me in Heaven on Earth. But I am not a lesbian. I am not a widow. I was not born during the Partition. And I haven’t been abused. So it doesn’t have to be the exact person… it is about the emotional desert that women find themselves in and it’s my endeavour to find the path through that desert.

People often ask me why I make the films I make, why choose the stories I choose. And my answer has always been that those are the subjects I don’t know much about. So whatever I am very curious about I make films on those themes. In Videsh, I knew about the domestic abuse but I did not know about it in its entirety. Also I wanted to work with magic realism, something I have never done before. And I was curious about it because my next project is Midnight’s Children, which is a lot about magic realism.

What did your research on domestic abuse tell you?

I did an intensive amount of research on the subject and I found out that 78% immigrants from India are abused. Whether you are in Canada or the UK or the US or eastern Europe, you are abused. Domestic abuse is beyond national boundaries and colours. The minute we ignore this, we are demeaning every woman who has gone through abuse or going through it. Our responsibility is to admit that domestic abuse does happen. Why does it happen? Well, apart from the first generation immigrants, where it’s a lot about the economics, it’s usually about the man-and-woman power play. It’s very complex thematically. When you call Videsh a film on domestic abuse you are doing disservice to the film.

Your films have always met with very diverse reactions in India and abroad. Any such fears with Videsh because it deals with a woman in love with a snake and can be labelled regressive?

I would hardly call Girish Karnad a regressive writer. It’s definitely not regressive. The way I look at it is that it’s a lot to do with duality, whether it’s psychological or not. A husband can be very abusive one moment and the next moment can be very romantic and very wonderful. That’s something Girish Karnad handles so brilliantly in the play. The snake here is a magical element. And I have seen many Indians believe in that concept. It’s how you treat it. And the foreigners look at it from a completely psychological point of view. And that’s how it should be. A film should not be looked at from only one point of view. Our cultural divide will lead to these different points of view. Look at the reaction to Slumdog Millionaire. And that has a very straightforward plot.

Why have you gone in for a largely unknown cast apart from Preity?

It’s not about known and unknown. I had finished writing Videsh and I was looking for an actress who could play Chand. I didn’t have anybody in mind. And I met Preity at a social occasion and we ended up talking for two or three hours. She is a woman with incredible social conscience, she is strong and she is vulnerable. Videsh is not a story about a victim who learns to put on her boxing gloves like Jennifer Lopez did in a film or another recent film which everyone is comparing Videsh with (Jagmohan Mundhra’s Provoked). The fact that Preity had done criminal psychology helped and I truly feel she has done a marvellous job in the film. As for Vansh (Bharadwaj), he suited the role. I saw him in Naga Mandala and I thought he was superb. It’s a craft. I didn’t think whether he was a newcomer or not. Lots of films would not be made if films are made without newcomers.

What is your take on Slumdog Millionaire?

It’s a nice film. It’s not an Indian film. It’s a very Western film, written by a Westerner, directed by a Westerner. Ok... I think it’s ok.

What happened to your other ambitious project Komagatu Maru?

I am working with Akshay (Kumar) in Komagatu Maru. That will happen alongside Midnight’s Children. As a film-maker it’s always great to have two projects on the burner simmering at the same time. That way you get the option of making your film.

Which is your favourite Deepa Mehta film? Tell

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