Heralded as the most creative director working on social issues affecting women - both past and present - Canadian-based Deepa Mehta is the mastermind behind films such as the trilogy Fire, Earth and Water. DEVANSH PATEL quizzes the genius on her latest film, Heaven on Earth
HER films are known to create pandemonium amongst politically incorrect society but her latest film Heaven On Earth aka Videsh has made the politically correct stand up too and not only notice this extraordinary piece of story telling but also recognise it.
How? Well, Preity Zinta won the Best Actress award at the prestigious Chicago Film Festival last year for her role as a battered wife in Videsh and she is now nominated alongside Susan Sarandon at this year's Genie Awards - the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars - which take place in April.
With so much attention surrounding the film, Deepa Mehta should have blushed all pink - but instead the talented director goes all purple. Believe it or not, the Holi colour just isn't coming off her face!
"My friends have painted my face all purple and I am scared to get out of my hotel room and attend press conferences," she said.
Speaking to your Bollywood columnist exclusively, the affable, confident and dynamic Deepa let her demons out - revealing her inspiration to make films, her aspirations to work with Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukerjee, her next film with Akshay Kumar, her new find in Videsh, Vansh Bhardwaj, her coming together with the Oscar winner AR Rahman and why she can deal with the authenticity of India far better than the West.
Q Under what name is your film releasing across the globe besides India?
A Across India, the film will be released with the name Videsh and in the rest of the world as Heaven on Earth.
Q With a story so strong and its message out loud and clear, do you think a change in the name of a film really matters when it's speaking of a universal subject?
A I am not the distributor of the film, I am a film maker. If the distributor knows that the change in the name is helping Indian audiences, I will listen to them because that's not my expertise.
Q Jag Mundhra had shown some startling issues surrounding a Punjabi woman's plight in his film Provoked. Are we going to see your woman, Preity Zinta, going through the same torment in Videsh?
A I must say that Heaven on Earth or Videsh is very different from Provoked. It's like what Shakespeare said - there are three stories in the world and it's how you tell them that makes one different from the other. Yes, this story is partly about domestic abuse but, for me, the film is about the power of imagination. When reality becomes so grim, how can you use your imagination to liberate yourself? That is what the film is about. The milieu is of course the isolation of the first generation working class immigrant, whether they are in the US, the UK, Australia or in this case Canada because it's the first generation that suffers the most.
Q Films are often tagged as commercial, art house or world cinema. What tag fits the kind of films you make or have made over the years?
A This is so bizarre (laughs). I don't think I fit any of them. I just write and tell stories. Only when a film is very particular, that's the very minute it starts becoming universal. I hope my films are universal.
Q Let's talk about the word 'universal' then. How universally inspired do you have to get to tell stories each time you make them?
A I am attracted to stories. I don't sit down and say 'What is going to be my next film and what are its issues?' If the story is generally about a subject that I wish to know more about or I don't know so much about, I get glued on to it. For example, it was the sectarian war in my film Earth which really intrigued me. Also, Rwanda was going on at that time. I just couldn't understand the whole concept of sectarian war. I wanted to explore it further and that's why I did Earth. I used religion to cover up the marginalisation of certain sections of the society - it's a misuse of religion by society and that's how Water came around. Heaven on Earth has a lot to do with understanding the word 'abuse' in a larger canvas. It just doesn't come out of nowhere. Everybody is a victim, even the abuser. The point is, there is no black and white. That's what motivated me to do Videsh. It's not about issues but wanting to know more about something.
Q Let's talk about your new find - Vansh Bhardwaj. Tell us a bit more about this talent.
A He is amazing. It's his first film. He was a lead in the play I saw, a play by Neelam Man Singh Chowdhary. She did Girish Karnad's Naag Mandala. I was so blown away by the play that I used it in the film too, with Girish's blessings. I think that theatre actors have a lot of depth and discipline. I asked Vansh if he wanted to be a part of my film and he readily agreed, and you put him with a star like Preity Zinta, nothing beats it. I must say, Preity was very generous to Vansh.
Q The Best Actress at the Chicago Film Festival 2008 - Preity Zinta. Will she be able to surpass the best?
A (Laughs). I think it'll be really immodest if I said that this isn't her best performance to date and the other directors won't like me too much. But she is superb in the film and, personally, I think it's a world class performance.
Q Preity is also nominated under the Best Actress at the Genie Awards 2009 along with top international celebs, right?
A Yes, you're right. She is nominated for the Best Actress in a Leading Role along with Susan Sarandon. The awards are to take place in April.
Q Do you agree that it takes a director to suck out the best of the hidden talent from an actor in order for them to win an award on a global platform? And why can't other directors do the same?
A I think it's the work. It doesn't necessarily have to say that a director is very important. I can never forget Cher in the lovely movie Moonstruck. What a wonderful performance! Everybody was shocked that she could act like that. She also won an Academy Award for the Best Actress for Moonstruck and she went up on the stage and said: 'I would like to thank my hair dresser'. She didn't thank the director. It was a bit weird but what I'm trying to say is that, generally, good directors really take out wonderful performances. But for a film to do well, it isn't the director alone. It has to start from the script.
Q What is it that you're trying to say with Heaven On Earth?
A It's outdated now that the West has a lot more to offer than India. You can't be simplistic about it. So if anybody was able to revisit the fact then perhaps, they would not be so ready to leave home. As the character says in the film: "Sometimes it's better to live in Hell than in Heaven where there is more self dignity".
Q What other films are you working on?
A I'm working on two films currently. One is called Exclusion with Akshay Kumar and the other is based on Salman Rushdie's book Midnight's Children.
Q Any film maker likes commercial and critical acclaim. Are you content or hungry for more?
A The day I get content, I will stop making films. Contentment makes you lazy and gives you a false sense of security. If you want to make films, you need to be hungry for more.
Q In your future projects, would you like to work with actors from your past films like Aamir, John, etc?
A I can't think of any right now. But I am really looking forward to working with Akshay Kumar in my next film. And I hope the day comes when I work with Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukerjee.
Q You're a Canadian citizen. Don't you get impressed with stories from the West as well?
A Yes, some of them. I just feel that I can deal with the authenticity of India and Indians far better. It's not that I haven't done anything in the West. I have. I think to get into the Western mind set is difficult for me. Not impossible, but it's not entirely satisfactory.
Q You've worked with the music director AR Rahman before. But how about working with the Oscar winner now?
A (laughs) Yes, AR did the music for Fire, Earth and Water. I'd love to work with the Oscar-winner now, you're right (laughs). He definitely deserved an Oscar. But we should never ever forget that he has always been a brilliant music director and just because the West has recognised him doesn't mean that he is more recognised now.
Q Sum up your film Videsh in one word, please!
A Videsh is a celebration of the imagination.