Tuesday, March 21, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—The Evening Class Interview With Deepa Mehta

Deepa Mehta's Water was screened as 2006 SFIAAFF's centerpiece presentation at the Castro Theater. Having first seen the film at the Kabuki press screenings, I felt blessed to have a second chance to see it projected on the Castro's large screen, which it rightfully deserves. Once again, I was enraptured by the film's compassionate treatment of the plight of widows in India. Introducing the film, Mehta expressed her hope that Water would engender compassion. It certainly does that. Not only for the women in Mehta's film but for Mehta herself who has undergone tremendous pressure from Hindu fundamentalist groups throughout the making of the film. Through the kind administrations of Shelley Spicer of Terry Hines and Associates, I was offered the welcome opportunity to interview Deepa Mehta the following afternoon. I wish to extend my sincere thanks to Shelley! This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

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EC: Last night I attended the Castro screening, which was my second time to see Water—it's a beautiful film, I'm sure you're going to hear this over and over—you talked about the decade it took you to film your elemental trilogy and how glad you were that it was finally over. You even joked that you were glad there wasn't going to be a movie called Wind.

DM: Yes.

EC: My question is: why wasn't air an element you thought of filming?

DM: Air is not cinematic when you think of the contribution.

EC: You explained that the common thread through the three movies is the feminine sensibility in each and you mentioned that Fire concerned the politics of sexuality, Earth the politics of war, and Water the politics of religion; could you talk a little more about what you were doing there?

DM: When I decided to make all three films, I wanted to explore women in contemporary India and the consequences of the choices they have to make; that internal kernel, that tug of war, between faith and conscience. Earth became about fallout, about war being fought on the bodies of women. Water became very important because the words that were written in [ancient religious texts] are embedded in my brain. Shakuntula [Seema Biswas] was the cause of . . . and became—not the cause—she was used besides and became the victim, became the conflict between her conscience and her faith.

EC: Seema Biswas won best actress—did she not?—in recent Indian award ceremonies….

DM: Yes, she did. She's an amazing actor.

EC: Her enactment of Shakuntula's crisis of faith was palpable. You seem to me to definitely be within the school of filmmaking that believes that women are the future of mankind, which is something I believe in. Your films have spoken to me in that respect. When I was younger one of my teachers was the mythologist Joseph Campbell and very early on he taught me not to take religions literally. One of the main examples he used was the sati ritual [where widows were burned alive with their dead husbands] and how horrific and unfair that was. You contemporized this in Water….

DM: The way that women are treated by religion has nothing to do with religion. It's an offshoot of a misinterpretation that has been used very conveniently in a patriarchal society.

EC: At last night's screening, I heard a gasp when the character Nayaran [John Abraham] admitted the only reason the widow Shakuntula was being treated so poorly was….

DM: Is because of economics. It's true.

EC: There's a movie that has come out recently—I don't know if you've seen it—called Don't Tell by Christina Comencini wherein she creates a story about childhood abuse of a young girl and likens it to the abuse of young women who are erotically fetishized and the role of men in all of that, and I was feeling something of that in Fire with how young the child brides are. You're saying that this is still going on?

DM: No, no, not at all. Child brides are now illegal in India.

EC: Last night you talked about all that you went through to get this movie made and as I've been reading, it's been horrifying, downright horrifying, and yet I can't help thinking that the Hindu fundamentalism that you were faced with sounds so much like Christian fundamentalism….

DM: They're all the same.

EC: They're all the same!

DM: That's why it's so important to talk about it.

EC: You mentioned last night that it took you four years before you could get over your anger over the fundamentalist protests that shut down the filming of Water in Varanasi; four years before you could work on the project from the heart that you originally started with. What did you do to get over the anger?

DM: I made other films. I made two comedies. And I reflected. I tried to understand where fundamentalism came from.

EC: I'm glad you persevered in that and made the film; it's so amazing!

DM: Thank you.

EC: I'm not very versed in Hindu mythology or Hindu iconography and I was curious about a decorative detail of the widows' ashram. On the doorways there were these—for the lack of a more appropriate term—painted swastikas, or swastika-like symbols with dots. Could you explain what those are?

DM: That's the Hindu symbol for purity, which the Nazis took because of their thinking that they're also the Aryan race.

EC: When it's placed on doorways like that?

DM: It means welcome. And a sign of purity.

EC: The other character I was interested in was Gulabi, the transgendered character; I'm assuming he was transgendered?

DM: A eunuch, yes.

EC: He was presented in a somewhat negative light. Can you speak about that eunuch tradition in India or why you elected to have that character?

DM: The eunuchs are also marginalized by Indian society the way that widows are. So that when two set groups or two representatives are marginalized by society, it seems clear they would become friends.

EC: I felt Gulabi's portrayal was fraught with caution, that these are individuals who have been marginalized and who have confined themselves through the definitions that have been placed on them. At a time now when transgendered individuals are trying to find a new voice and a new place in our society, I was wondering what they would think about Gulabi, about his—well, it wasn't really a negative portrayal—

DM: No, not negative. I thought he was very funny. She was. They were.

EC: And he did have a conscience! He ran away guiltily when Shakuntula came searching for Chuyia [Sarala].

DM: But it isn't that easy. The point to get is what do you do? And how much do you compromise of your own integrity? That's what he's about; that's what Gulabi is.

EC: So you're saying that the laws now are such that youth are not property. I liked what you said earlier about wars being fought on the bodies of women. The feeling I'm getting from all three films is this mistaken assumption that women are property and that this misunderstanding has been codified and turned into tradition and that it's only now that women are being able to express a different sensibility. In some of the interviews that I have read about you, you came to a realization of the impact of film by the way that the fundamentalists were reacting to it. Can you speak about the role of film in combating fundamentalism?

DM: I don't know if it's combating it but film is definitely a very powerful instrument. For me, in retrospect, the reason that we were attacked was because we were very visible. I'm not saying that books have not been attacked because they also have been attacked in different ways. But film is highly visible and I think I was a soft target. Because no one had read the script! I mean, can you imagine mobs reading a script?

EC: It sounded to me that you had been purposely manipulated by the Indian government.

DM: I think that definitely I was.

EC: That you had been given the go-ahead and then had these staged gestures of civic arrest be the reason the film was shut down.

DM: Yes. Because certainly I felt that—well, I didn't feel it in the beginning but when the protests started and I went back to the government centers in New Dehli and I was given repermission—I definitely felt I was being set up for another fall.

EC: Your daughter is about to come out with a book around the distribution date of the film [April 28, 2006] on the making of Water….

DM: …and the unmaking of Water and the remaking of Water [laughter] and a mother-daughter relationship.

EC: That's intriguing to me.

DM: It's a fabulous book, it really is.

EC: Do you know who the publisher is?

DM: New Market. It's called Shooting Water.

EC: Shooting Water, that's something to look forward to. So now that you're done with the elemental trilogy, I understand you're going to do a film about immigration laws in Canada; Exclusion, I think it's called?

DM: It's called Exclusion but it's not about immigration laws in Canada because the laws have changed; but, it really is an exploration about racism. And there's not a female actor in it! I am a believer of feminism. Certainly my eye is a feminist eye but that doesn't mean my films are feminist films.

EC: These tyrannies affect all people; women and men. John Abraham's character in Water was such a sympathetic portrait of a man.

DM: Of course.

EC: He was dealing with his own conflict.

DM: I know.

EC: As was the priest from whom Shakuntala sought advice. You mentioned you're making Exclusion as your next movie, but what kind of movie would you not make?

DM: What kind of movie would I not make?! An action adventure! I would not know how to make an action adventure. I wouldn't know where to put the camera for an action adventure. I would like to make a horror film though!

EC: That's interesting! You have such an interiority in your films, there's that emotional texture of interiority in the way the camera moves, that the filmgoer is really taken into an internal space. I can definitely see how an action film would not work for that. Could you speak a little bit about the music used in Water?

DM: It's the same composer [A.R. Rahman] that I used for both Fire and Earth. He works at night so you have to put your clock backwards; it's kind of a retro case of jet lag. But it's worth it. He's a sufi so that's in the composition and you can feel it!

EC: I loved the song that came up when Kalyani [Lisa Ray] and Narayan were falling in love!!

DM: Oh, the rain song!

EC: I just loved that!! It felt very jubilant and you could feel it and you wanted to get up and dance with them.

DM: I know. That's the purifying and the cleansing and the embracing aspect.

EC: In all of the interviews that I've read, I've not seen or heard you speak about who your influences are. Perhaps I've not read the right interviews.

DM: I grew up with Hindi films. Only when I was about sixteen did I see the films of Satyajit Ray. And then after him Ozu. I love them both for their humanitarian treatment of their characters.

EC: Who among your contemporaries do you feel is in league with the humanitarian causes in your own films?

DM: I feel that way and still do that Emir Kusturica is marvelous. Underground. Life Is A Miracle. For me he's a master. He's the only one I can think of right now.

EC: Last night you were talking about how your fan base is growing….

DM: I was talking about that?

EC: Weren't you saying that in Toronto you have a huge Chinese fanbase?

DM: I didn't say that; Chi-hui Yang said that. I would never talk about my fanbase.

EC: You don't think about making film that way?

DM: No.

EC: When you're making your films, they're for you?

DM: No. They're for me, of course, but also they're for an audience. They aren't genderless. They're not made for a specific gender, a specific race.

EC: Your films empower the marginalized. I know your films have been embraced by women, by a queer constituency, who feel that you have given voice to—not just the plight—but the strength to overcome the plight.

DM: That's good!

EC: With that I'll let you go because I bet you have answered a million questions in a day full of interviews.

DM: This was delightful. I mean, it was very interesting because this was a different interview. It's been a breath of fresh air.

EC: It's great for me, Deepa, because I'm in a second phase of my life. When I retired on disability I thought, what do you love? What do you want to do now for the rest of your life? And I thought: film! It has to be something to do with film. And to love film and write about film lovingly. Not to be a critic. And try to understand what filmmakers are really doing. I consider you one of the masters.

DM: Aw, thank you.

EC: I congratulate you on Water.

DM: I'm so glad you liked it.

EC: Are you kidding? I loved it!! I'll probably rush off to see it again this evening at the Embarcadero screening.

DM: Oh good!! I feel very strongly—and I know—that I really love Water.

EC: It grabbed me the most of the three films in the trilogy. I've always been a traveler who has lived under the principle that water that flows cleans itself.

DM: Yes!

EC: That's why I was all the more appreciative when you were talking about how it took you four years to process your anger that you then came out with this film in which there was no anger. Maybe a little temper tantrum now and then…

DM: But that's the kid! That's the kid. She's in character. But, I mean, I did not feel any anger during the making of the film. I felt—it was not even jubilant—it was just very clear.

EC: I understand you hired an "anti-publicist" when you continued the filming in Sri Lanka?

DM: Yes, we did. The producer did! [Laughter] We filmed under a different name. We gave it a horrendous name, we called it River Moon or something like that.

EC: Do you have any feelings about anticipating the release of Water in India?

DM: No....

EC: Well, again, congratulations and I look forward to your future projects.

DM: Thank you. Thank you so much.

EC: Thank you for these [autographed dvd covers]; I have friends who will be so jealous! They've been envious: "You're meeting DEEPA MEHTA!!"

[Mutual laughter.]

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