Interview with Deepa Mehta

©2005, Fox Searchlight
Deepa Mehta, director of Fox Searchlight Pictures’ “Water.”

Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, India, in 1950. She emigrated to Canada in 1973, where she continues to reside (in Toronto). In addition to “Water,” she has also directed “Fire” and “Earth,” which together form a trilogy of sociopolitical discourse examining the past and present of India and thus its future progress.


RS: How do you think this experience of living in two cultures has shaped how you interpret Indian culture and history?

DM: I spent my formative years in India. I went to school there… went to university there, worked there. I got married there. A large chunk of my adult life, formative years especially, I feel… are Indian. Anything as far as my work is concerned I think it’s influenced by the west, more stylistically. The west has made me feel less Indian. I spent six months in India [when] I got married. I feel that India is a part of me now. It isn’t a country that I feel distanced from… or look at it in any way that’s pejorative.

RS: You’ve done several films. Some, including “Water” have created a lot of discussion. How do you think the [two] cultures have reacted to you?

DM: You know, it isn’t how much is this mass culture reacting to me. There have been some people, Hindu extremists, who haven’t reacted well to me at all. Similarly there have been people who have been extremely supportive, and also happy, in a way, that I’ve done the films that I’ve done. You can’t just say, “How has India reacted to you?” That’s one billion people… It doesn’t work that way.

RS: With regard to … I’m going to jump around a bit…

DM: Don’t worry about that, Rubin!

RS: [Like Narayan’s parents,] my mother is more traditional and my father is more progressive. What’s interesting is the difference between what’s in your traditions versus what’s in your conscience. Between the Bhagavad-Gita and the Laws of Manu (the traditional basis for the practice of widows becoming Sanyasis), a thousand years have passed. It seems to me India’s philosophy and culture has always been changing. There are people who look back two thousand years ago, rather than seeing the whole of [Indian history].

DM: Hinduism didn’t start as a religion. It started as a philosophy. It’s a way of life. Whether you go from Shankara-chariya to Ramanuja… the charvaka school… the yoga school or any of the other Hindu schools of thought. You had the charvakas who were totally- who came out as a reaction to the Brahmanical [philosophy]. There has always been an antithesis or a questionmark, and Hindu philosophy has always been one that has questioned itself and realized that only by changing, by evolving, can a way of thinking, or a way of thought or a philosophy flourish. That’s the beauty of Hinduism.

RS: Right.

DM: But then you have extremists coming in and that changed the perception and people who live Hinduism, and the people who dont… from one of the most open-minded schools of thought or philosophy or religion, ever in the world, to be an extremist one. Suddenly you had the BJP on the right and the RSS. I think that when extremist forces come in, whether it’s in Hinduism, whether it’s in Islam, whether it’s in Christianity as it is right now… or even in Buddhism, what happens is first an interpretation of a thought or a religion becomes the law. It becomes exclusive, and that’s the danger.

RS: My father used to call it, “Putting your book above your god.”

DM: That’s right, absolutely. That’s the central theme of “Water”—the conflict between our conscience and our religion.

RS: I found it interesting that the name “Narayana”… Nara is connected with water. Is that right?

DM: I didn’t know that… Well, it’s nice to know if it is! [laughs]

RS: “Water,” “Fire” and “Earth,” what do they represent? What themes do they connect to in each of those films?

DM: “Fire” for me is about the politics of sexuality, “Earth” is about the politics of sectarian war and “Water” is about the politics of religion. That’s thematically, and the metaphor for the elements is that these are the elements that nurture us, without whom we cannot live and yet can destroy us at the same time.

RS: It seems to me that there is a relatively small group, yourself included, of women from India who are taking most of the chances in film making. Is my perception right, and if so, why do you think that is?

DM: I think that the perception’s a western one, because perhaps these are the few film makers that come outside. But within india, and the subcontinent there, there are really some incredibly courageous film makers who make fabulous films. The one who comes to mind is Aparna Dasgupta and she’s made a film called “Mr. and Mrs. Iver” which is about Muslims and Hindus during the height of the communal tension. She’s just done a film called “15 Park Avenue” which is about a schizophrenic young girl. Another woman… Shonali Bose who’s done another film called “Amu” which is about the Sikh riots. Mrs. Gandhi was… at the center of that. And there’s another wonderful film called “Khamosh Pani” (Silent Water) which is about Pakistan today. I know lots of film makers who I think are extremely courageous.

RS: Is there a disparity? Do women film makers tend to be willing to take more chances?

DM: No. I would say like in most other fields, especially in cinema… I know many film makers who are very courageous. There are larger numbers of them.

RS: So [my perception] is just largely a consequence of—

DM: Yes, it’s also what gets out there [internationally]. How many films from Kerala do we see here? I’m not talking about Bollywood. I’m talking about serious cinema. How many films from Assam? Gopalkrishna, Sutish Mishra… these are film makers of great passion and courage.

RS: Speaking of passion, Narayana quotes Kalidasa (“Meghdoot”). What poetry, art or other literature are you passionate about?

DM: Well, I’m such a fan of Kalidasa. I’ve never read the Sanskrit… just the Hindi translation. Tagore I’m very fond of. I just… There is this whole school—in the ’30s—of Hindi literature as personified by Premchand who I just think is brilliant. And there’s a whole school of Bengali literature that happened after Tagore and ’til about the 1950s which is really socially oriented and extremely socially relevant, and passionate. It just shows that you can be passionate and philosophical at the same time. You don’t have to be philosophical and dry at the same time. I’m very passionate about cooking. I really am!

RS: I think that runs in our blood… except mine.

DM: [laughs] You’re not a cook? Shame on you!

RS: But all the other men in my family do.

DM: They do?

RS: Yes.

DM: Does your dad cook?

RS: My dad, my brother…

DM: Does he cook Kashmiri khanna?

RS: Yeah, actually he does.

RS: The Greek composer Vangelis once stated, “I function as a channel through which music emerges from the chaos of noise.” In a likewise manner, Kael described herself as a filter. As a film maker, what is your role?

DM: I don’t know about as a film maker. But as a person, I’m naturally… very curious. If I feel I have a purpose it’s to force that curiosity.

RS: When we talk about conscience and traditions or conventions, there are a lot of conventional approaches to film making. When you are making a film, does your conscience ever conflict with your conventions?

DM: No. Never. Even though the question may arise… so far it’s never gotten to the point of a conflict. I’ve never had to make a compromise.

RS: You’ve been very fortunate…

DM: I’ve been very fortunate with my producers, with the financiers that let us do this. Fox saw “Water” and bought it… didn’t ask me to cut one thing. That’s rare.

RS: That’s extraordinary.

RS: How did the choice of casting Lisa [Ray] come about? Was there any type of conscious choice that you were looking for someone [other than Nandita Das]?

DM: Nandita was playing the original Kalyani when we first started shooting “Water” five years ago and then we were shut down. What happened was that there were many opportunities to resurrect “Water” in some form or another. I decided I wasn’t going to do that until I stopped being angry. I was really mad as hell. It seemed so grossly unfair. I didn’t want to carry that baggage of anger and force it on my script. I looked at the script for the first time after five years… four years, since we were shut down and I looked at the character of Kalyani and I felt that though the script hadn’t changed in four years, I had changed. The way I looked at Kalyani was different, or the way I wanted Kalyani to be portrayed was different. I think Nandita is a superb actress. I think, initially, what happened is I wanted Kalyani to be portrayed by a strong woman… and Nandita certainly is an actress who’s very strong. But when I looked at the script again, I thought that was a mistake — not a mistake. I wanted, this time, for Kalyani to be very vulnerable and very fragile which I thought Lisa could do justice to. So there’s no great esoteric reason in changing the actress.

RS: After the production was shut down, what did it take to get it going again? What kind of obstacles were you up against?

DM: Nothing. I mean, what had happened was so traumatic. The reverberations of that is what carried on. For six months I couldn’t walk around without my bodyguards. Even though they said in India, come and make it, you can’t risk that kind of stuff again… what we’ve been through. You’re talking about 125 people. You’re talking about actors who’ve had their heads shaved. You’re talking about effigies being burned. You’re talking about sets being thrown into the river, and the ones that aren’t being thrown into the river are set on fire. What you’re really dealing with is a mindless… mindless anger that is so destructive inj the name of religion which has nothing to do with Hinduism at all. These are so-called purveyors or protectors of Hinduism and this is certainly not the Hinduism that I know of. So it’s surrounding “Water,” stuff like this—which made it difficult to resurrect. It wasn’t anyone physically saying, “Don’t you dare make ‘Water’ again.” It was just a question of how do you come out of this experience cleansed so you can look at your script and look at your film and say “I am ready, and I’m done with carrying the baggage of what happened to me four years ago, and I’m going to look at it with clean, new eyes.” That’s what took time.

RS: Who is your favorite character?

DM: In the film? Shakuntala.

RS: Because—

DM: Because the film is about her, I think. It’s about the age old question of the conflict between our conflict and our religion.

RS: A lot of people see the political instability of India. I think those of us in the West, Indians who have grown up here, might not even think about the fact that India’s been independent for only sixty years. The U.S. has been independent for 230 years and there’s still things that we work on here, obviously. What do you think it’s going to require if india’s going to survive this adolescent period as an independent nation in a sustainable manner?

DM: The same thing it takes in the other countries in the world. I think it’s really important not to be so judgmental and not to be so fearful. I grew up with my parents saying to me, “Try to have confidence in yourself. Don’t depend so much on what others say about you or want you to be.” I mean, if we could just take it to a much broader plane. One of India’s real problems is, I think, it’s so scared of how it’s perceived. I find that absolutely ludicrous. If you’re fearful, what that breeds is insecurity. Anybody trying to understand something or explore aspects of a society… there’ll be aspects are not too pleasant. We get paranoid about this. I think that’s a lack of self-confidence. And, you know, yet we have sections of society which I don’t entirely agree with that talk about the pop, or nuclear proliferaion… or talk about the software revolution. There’s certainly more to life than that. If we could talk about who we are with an equal amount of confidence, and we have a lot to be confident about, and look at ourselves and say, “You know this part of me really needs to focus on me to improve,” I think then we have a hope in hell. If we want to be hypocrites about it and sweep it under the carpet, then it’s not going to take another hundred years. It’ll take another two hundred years because we’ll never deal with it.

  • sweta acharya

    nice….it encourages me more to meet with the director…