Film Scouts Interviews

Deepa Mehta Press Conference on "Water"
at the 2006 Taormina Film Fest

by Philipp Hoschka
At the Taormina Film Festival, Indian Director Deepa Mehta presented her latest film "Water", a movie that created significant religious controversy in India.

In a "cinema lesson" following the screening, Mehta talks about her movies, her career, Bollywood and filmmaking in general.

"All my films deals with the desire for an independent thinking"

A Greek philosopher that lived and worked in Sicily very close to Taormina thought a lot about fire, water, earth and air he was the first philosopher who said that that's what the world is made of. Why are you so interested in these elements?

Deepa Mehta: The reason that I chose those names for these films is because these are the elements that nurture us, but yet, they have a capacity to destroy us. All films in the trilogy deal with resurrection and death.

Violence is a recurring theme in your films.

Deepa Mehta: The theme of "Fire" is the clash between traditions, and the desire of an independent voice. In "Water", it's the clash between blind faith or religion, and our conscience. All my films deals with the desire for an independent thinking, and exploring the consequences of that.

What are your plans for the future? Will there be an "Air" movie?

Deepa Mehta: No there is something so stupid about a film called "Air".

In your movies there is always a strong relation between different generations of women.

Deepa Mehta: In India, we live in extended families, where there is a strong relationship between the young and the old.

Do you have personal memories about Ghandi?

Deepa Mehta: My mother was quite young when Ghandi came into power she was 17, and she remembers being extremely moved. The stories she told me as a young girl had a big impact on me. Ghandi was a man who was never hesitant to talk about his weaknesses, he was wholly human.

Regarding "Earth": Western film makers have not focused on the partition of India and Pakistan. Is there a feeling of guilt in the Western world, given that it was the British government that sponsored this partition?

Deepa Mehta: I didn't make this movie to make the West aware of this I'm a story teller. I did hope that once that "Earth" was made that people would become more aware of it, which is what they did. For me, all kinds of sectarian war is terrible. All wars are fought on women's bodies that's why I made "Earth".

When "Fire" was screened in India, it came out, and then was given again to the Indian censure board. It came back uncut, which seems a new hint that India is changing. All changes that we see here in the West are about technology in India. But there is more, such as Hindu traditionalism. Can you imagine doing a movie about the society changes in India caused by the technology boom?

Deepa Mehta: I think it is being done all the time Bollywood does it all the time. The hero is always an IT multinational, flying in private jets, living in big houses. I wouldn't mind doing it if a story comes along that is interesting that is about the growth of India economically. But I don't have a story yet. To be honest: I'm not very interested the very fact that India is a rising power economically in the world makes it all the more important that it looks at aspects of it that are not that good.

When a woman becomes a widow in Sicily, they call her "la captive" the prisoner. Isn't it interesting that cultures have very similar concepts about widows?

Deepa Mehta: Every culture has something like this. "Magdalene Sisters" talks about oppression of women in Ireland. In Australia, the way they treat Aborigines is exactly the same. In Canada, the way we treat our natives or our senior citizens in every country, you have this problem you marginalize people that are weaker, that is a human trait.

People ask me: is there anything we can do for widows in India? I say: people in India take care of that you take care of what is in your own backyard.

How is it possible that a little child is a widow?

Deepa Mehta: Child marriages are illegal in India these days. That's why film is set in 1938 there were child marriages prevalent then. Child marriages go back to 11 century, to Mongolian invasion they would not rape or pillage women or youngsters that were married. So parents got their young children married, and it became part of the culture.

Can you comment on how you portrait male characters in the trilogy? I felt quite moved, and really liked the movies. But I think the men don't come out very well in the three movies.

Deepa Mehta: I don't think so. In earth, Hassan is wonderful he's the guy that talks about peace. In water, the main character is Ghandi, and Narayan, he is willing to give everything away. In "Fire", they don't come off very well, that's true.

Yesterday, you described the problems you had with riots before doing the movie. Do you think some of the rioters will see the film?

Deepa Mehta: The movie will be released in India at the end of July, so I hope some of them will see the film, yes.

"What keeps me going is my curiosity"

How did you get into the movies?

Deepa Mehta: My father was a film distributor. I sometimes saw the same movie forty times. But when I grew up, I decided I wanted to do something else I did not want to depend on Friday night film releases and Monday box office results like my father. I wanted to become an academic, so did a thesis in Hindu philosophy.
Then I met someone who did documentaries, and I fell in love with film all over again that was two months before I finished my thesis.

We don't have that many female Directors. What does it mean to be female director? Why are there so few?

Deepa Mehta: There aren't as many women directors as there should be, you are right. Like many places, business or politics, the place of the women is generally at home, and the men to be outside. To get into the old boys network is very difficult, especially in film, which was always considered a male thing.

What influenced your work most? What filmmakers?

Deepa Mehta: Bergman is powerful. He has a deceptively simple way of telling a very powerful story.

Can you talk about your next film. Are you going to utilize big actors in that film?

Deepa Mehta: I've just finished writing a script for a film called "Exclusion". It is based on a historical event that happened in 1914 in Canada. It is about racism, and how the basis of racism is economics.
It's an independent film and again, for me, casting comes from the characters. In "Water", the actor who plays Narayan is a big Bollywood star. I haven't thought of any big Hollywood stars for my next movie, but if I think if one of them is right, I will be approach it would be crazy not to, that would be reverse discrimination.

Where do you live?

Deepa Mehta: Six months in Dehli and six months in Toronto. The reason I moved to Canada is that I met a Canadian and got married. We have a daughter, and have shared custody.

What do you think about Canada?

Deepa Mehta: I like Canada it is a very multicultural country. As opposed to the US, it doesn't believe in the "melting pot" I can be an Indian and a Canadian at the same time. Canada gives me the freedom to express my ideas.

What are your favorite actors today?

Deepa Mehta: I really love Tony Lung, a Hong Kong actor. I think Jonny Depp is amazing. Kate Blanchet. I like Clint Eastwood, too.

What drives you forward in your work and in your life? What inspires you?

Deepa Mehta: What keeps me going, and keeps me passionate, is my curiosity, my desire as a person to always know more, especially in the socio-political arena.

"Bollywood is about Utopia whatever you don't see is what India is all about"

You grew up with Bollywood movies, which now have become a huge success worldwide. What happened?

Deepa Mehta: Bollywood is a genre that I grew up with, so I'm very familiar with it. Right now, it has a lot to do with the political landscape of the world. We want something that is so easy, about song and dance it is pure entertainment. You go to a Bollywood film, and you don't have to think.

We have seen many Bollywood movies that are not from Bollywood for example Moulin Rouge do you agree?

Deepa Mehta: I don't think Moulin Rouge was Bollywood at all maybe a little in the sing and dance numbers, but it is completely Western otherwise. Baz Luhrmann has a very Australian sensitivity.

Your movies are more universal than films by other Indian Directors. Do you feel part of a movement? How do you position yourself with respect to Gurinder Chadha ("Bend it like Beckham") or Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding")?

Deepa Mehta: I don't see myself as part of a movement. All our films are very different. "Bend it like Beckham" is fun, but very different from "Monsoon Wedding", and both are very different from "Water". The one thing we have in common is that we are Indian, but there are one billion Indians.

Could Bollywood be detrimental for understanding Indian culture?

Deepa Mehta: You can always look at a glass half empty or half full. Bollywood in its own strange ways talks about Indian problems, because it completely ignores them. Bollywood is about Utopia whatever you don't see is what India is all about.

"It's all about little things becoming stories"

The definition of your movies sometimes reminds us of black and white movies. Your movies can be edited in books frame by frame.

Deepa Mehta: It all starts with the script. I wanted to make a film that was cinematic, film-oriented when doing "Water". That meant ruthlessly cutting down the dialogue of the script. So I had to replace words with images. In "Water", the dialogue was cut to a bare minimum. A look from an actor; Chuyia scratching herself that had to replace dialogue.

How do you handle scriptwriting?

Deepa Mehta: When I started to make "Fire", I knew what the story was it fit on two pages. But when it became time to write the screenplay, I never thought I would write it I had never written a screenplay. So I started looking for writers, but the ones that I wanted were too expensive. So I said: What the hell, this is not rocket science. So I decided to do it. My screen plays are very image oriented, I write like a director.

Music plays an important part in your movies. Where does this fascination with music come from? It seems something that you feel very strong about.

Deepa Mehta: My love for music has a lot to do with the fact that I come from the tradition of Indian cinema, where music plays a big role. Indian cinema has a long tradition. Since the first film with sound came out in India, it was with music. It has a lot to do with our great epics they are all with music. Music becomes an aspect, an expression of what is the interior landscape of the character. For me, it always comes from within the characters.

What was your first reaction when you did your first movie? Was this a lot of pressure?

Deepa Mehta: My daughter laughs about it the night before shooting, I always throw up. I'm very nervous.

How do you cast your movies?

Deepa Mehta: Casting comes from the characters, and from what the chemistry will be with the other actors.

How do you choose your stories?

Deepa Mehta: Stories come from reading a sentence in a book or reading the newspaper one day or hearing a conversation in a bus or a seeing a gesture. It's all about little things becoming stories.

Your stories are always very powerful they surprise the audience. I never thought that something like what you are showing in "Water" can still happen. What reaction are you looking for by an audience?

Deepa Mehta: What motivates my stories is curiosity for example, I never heard about the Ashram for widows until I was about twenty. The way widows live in India even today was very surprising to me. When I sit down and write, it is for myself. I don't sit down with a message, thinking "I want people to know about this". My audience is people who are intelligent and compassionate, who have no shame wanting to know more who go to the Internet and learn more about it.

What do you think about religion? What is happening in the world is sold to us a war of religion, although it might be a war about oil. We saw what happened with "Da Vinci Code" it found the church against it. That was a very good marketing move - it's the biggest box office hit in Italy after "Titanic". What do you think about religion in movie making?

Deepa Mehta: If I think the subject is important, I make the film. I don't think about taboos. It has to be a story that intrigues me as a film maker. I think we are living in a world filled with fear that has a lot to do with misinterpretation of religion for personal benefit.

What do you think of corporate Hollywood these days?

Deepa Mehta: Fox Searchlight picked up "Water" in the US that shows a different way of thinking. I feel there is hope. As a film maker, you make films for people not for DVD. You want to reach the largest possible audience.

What do you think of the tendency to use money earned with big movies to finance "smaller" movies?

Deepa Mehta: As a filmmaker, I think it's great that all these big studios have what they call "the classics". But Fox Searchlight picks up only fourteen films a year. So the competition is very tough.

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