Profile: Deepa Mehta

(Click here to read it on THE WEEK’s website)

Monday. 2 p.m. In four hours, the film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children will have its gala Asian premiere at the International Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram. I am in a hotel room, furnished with small circular tables, watching journalists and cameramen set up their equipment. We are all waiting for the film’s director, the twice Academy Award-nominated, Deepa Mehta.
I am first in line to talk to her and am pretty nervous. Apart from the Oscar nominations for her films Fire and Water, this 62-year-old Indo-Canadian filmmaker has many other accolades under her belt. The latest of the lot is the Canadian Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.
Not just the director, Midnight’s Children, the film, is also a huge name by now. Adapted from Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning novel, it tells the story of two boys born at the stroke of midnight when India got its Independence. After the film’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and screenings at the Vancouver International Film Festival and the British Film Institute London Film Festival, it has been the talking point for the past few months. So many interviews, so many features… every little detail about the film is already out. I fumble with my notepad and pen wondering whether she will have anything new to tell me.
She enters the room sporting a smile as bright as the yellow salwar kameez she is wearing. The smile reflects in her eyes, which are dark from the kohl lining. Her hair, largely grey and really long, looks unkempt and unruly, despite her constant efforts to smoothen it out. The warmth she exudes is unbelievable, because in less than a minute we are comfortable in each other’s company.
Born in Amritsar, Punjab, Deepa claims that while other children grew up with books and sports, she grew up on a healthy diet of Hindi movies. “My father was a film distributor. So I literally grew up in movie halls,” she says. “When I got back from school, he would be in his office and we would watch, probably, the end or the beginning of a movie.”

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But she never aspired to become a filmmaker when she was young. “It wasn’t that I was born and I was like, ‘I want to be a filmmaker’. It came much later in life,” says Deepa, who completed her master’s in philosophy at Delhi University. “I wanted to become an academic and I was just deciding whether I should do a PhD,” she recalls. That was when a friend of hers, who was into documentary production, asked her to help out as the gofer was on leave. “I was really lousy at answering calls and couldn’t type to save my life, so they asked me to help with the sound for a film,” says Deepa. “I learnt how to do sound, camera work and editing, and I thought, ‘Man! This is amazing!’”
The eureka moment still hadn’t struck. It finally did when she was asked to do a minute-long film for the ministry of agriculture on wheat cultivation. “That was when I realised the importance of imagination in this medium. More than the technical aspect, I got fascinated with the art of storytelling,” she says.
Talking of stories, she had initially wanted to adapt the great storyteller Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown into a film. “I felt that it was Salman’s most accessible work. It has an Indian protagonist; it is political because it is about Kashmir, and it is also about our country’s relationship with the west.” So talks about collaborating were on, and one night over dinner, Rushdie, famously, sold the rights to his iconic ‘Booker of Bookers’ book, Midnight’s Children, to Deepa for a dollar.
“I don’t know to this day why I said Midnight’s Children when he asked which of his books I would like to adapt,” she says. Was it her favourite among Rushdie’s works, I ask. “No! Definitely not! I just love Haroun And The Sea Of Stories,” says Deepa, who is an avid reader. “But I think, as someone who was born in India and comes from the middle class, the idea of Saleem Sinai’s journey that mirrored India’s was very intriguing.”
The film revolves around the lives of Saleem, Shiva and a thousand other children who were born within an hour of midnight on August 15, 1947, because of which they possess supernatural powers. Some of them can fly, some can change their gender, some of them can do magic… and Saleem can bring them all together with just a sniff of his constantly dripping nose.

deepa salmanRushdie himself wrote the screenplay for the movie, because according to Deepa, only he had “a healthy and pragmatic disregard” for his work. He wouldn’t mind doing away with characters or incidents to simplify the story and make it filmable, she says. “After the screenplay was done, he had full faith in me and told me that I could do anything I wanted with the film because I was the director,” says Deepa.
He also made it a point to keep in touch with the huge cast who breathed life into his characters on-screen. “Salman has written to all of them [the cast] personally and given them autographed copies of the book,” says Deepa. “He just loves the film and was very touched by their performances, especially Rajat’s [Kapoor] and Rahul’s [Bose].” Rushdie has also done a voice-over to capture the older Saleem’s inner dialogue in the film, which, Deepa says, has helped retain the cadence and poetry of his language.
The film stars British-born actor Satya Bhabha in the lead, with Shriya Saran, Siddharth Narayan, Shabana Azmi, Shahana Goswami, Ronit Roy, Seema Biswas, Anita Majumdar and Darsheel Safary in supporting roles, and over 3,000 extras. It was shot in four months, mostly in Sri Lanka and in Mumbai, Delhi, Karachi and Agra.
Sri Lanka holds many memories for Deepa. It was here that she completed her film Water, after Hindu fundamentalists had stalled its making in India for over four years. It was here that she bonded with her daughter, Devyani, whose custody she had lost in a legal battle with her first husband, Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman. Devyani, who is an acclaimed author now, went on to write about her relationship with her mother in her book Shooting Water.
Most of Deepa’s films are known for their bold themes. Fire, which revolved around two ‘traditional’ Indian housewives, who find solace in each other, was branded a lesbian movie. Although, the Censor Board passed it uncut, Hindu fundamentalists burned posters of the film and stopped its screening, claiming it went against Indian culture. It was, however, rereleased in 1999. Earth, a love story set in the background of the Partition, faced trouble from Muslim fundamentalists while shooting in Lahore.

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So, like her creative collaborator  Rushdie, whose books have always raised a storm of protests, Deepa, too, has courted controversy. She cuts me off before I can complete my question on her views on the freedom of creative expression. “Sorry to interrupt you. But I do not agree with you,” she says. Her brows are a bit crinkled and she looks irked. “To say that we have courted controversy would mean that we went looking for it. Nobody in their right mind would do that,” she explains. Then she soon smiles, “Although it would make your copy juicier, I think it is boring to talk about controversy. It distracts one from their work.”
I change tracks to lighten the mood and ask her about her cinematic inspirations. She sits up excitedly to answer this one. “Oh! I have been inspired by a lot of people… Satyajit Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi… I love their classical way of filmmaking,” she says. “I also love the work of Dibakar Banerjee. I think he has an original imagination. So does Vikram Motwani, who made Udaan.”  She also recommends the films of 23-year-old Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan. Some other recent films that made her go wow were Nicolas Wingding Refn’s Drive and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.
Known to be a very patient person, Deepa believes that no good work can be done by throwing tantrums or being bossy. Agrees Rajat Kapoor, who plays Saleem’s grandfather, Adam Azeez, in the film: “Deepa was extremely calm on the sets. We shot for so long and there were at least 30 actors at any given point of time, but she held it all together perfectly. She was very supportive and kind to each and every member of the cast and crew.”
So what makes Deepa lose her calm? Pat comes the reply, “Disorderliness… clutter. I am a stickler for cleanliness. My daughter tells me I have obsessive compulsive disorder,” she laughs. “I think she is right. I love cleaning up.” Gardening is something she loves to indulge in while she is not working. “I also love watching movies, reading and listening to music,” she says.

The making of Midnight’s Children has had an impact on her at a personal level, too. She gave up an old habit of smoking and hit the gym. “I realised it was high time I took care of myself because this project was huge and demanding,” she says. “I go to the gym every day now and I am completely hooked to it. I also do yoga.”
Midnight’s Children was sold to over 55 distributors around the world before and during its making. PVR Pictures will be distributing the film in India, and it is slated for a late January or early February release.
There are a lot of expectations from the film because of the literary acclaim the book has received and its popularity among readers. “It would be dishonest to say that I am anything but nervous,” says Deepa, going on to narrate an anecdote. “My father used to tell me that you can never be sure of two things in life: when you will die and how a film will do.” She sighs and adds, “So, I have my fingers crossed and hope that people will accept my film.”

 

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