This may or may not be a good thing, but when one meets the India-born Canadian resident director Deepa Mehta, the first thing that crosses your mind is the controversy surrounding some of her movies. When I ran into her at the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival, where she is on one of the juries, she was not too pleased about this link.
"There have been other things in my life," she was a trifle irritated, and when I asked her for an interview, she quipped that I have not even been keeping track of her work. Not true though.
I know she had helmed movies such as Bollywood/Hollywood, Heaven on Earth and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children – apart from the trilogy of Fire, Earth and Water.
Fire provoked fire; hardline Hindu nationalists saw it as a celebration of lesbianism (wonder how they let the Festival screen the sexually graphic lesbian story, Blue is the Warmest Colour), while Mehta screamed that it was not. And it was not. It was all about relationships, and sex or just about a hint of it between two women in the movie was purely incidental.
Then came Water, which had the fundamentalists once again on a warpath. The leading ladies of the film, Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi, had tonsured their heads and were all set for the shoot in Varanasi, when they were literally driven out of the city along with Mehta and the other members of her team. This time, the contention was that Mehta was filming a story about the widows of Vrindavan. They were being shown in poor light. As if nobody knew about them and their torturous existence in horrible widow homes.
Eventually, Mehta did make the movie, but after five years with a different cast: Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas and John Abraham. But they were poor substitutes for Shabana and Nandita. Ray looked more like a model, and far from the young widow she played. Abraham was his wooden best. Yes, Biswas was a redeeming feature of sorts.
But during my conversation (which Deepa did allow), Mehta – who shot Water in Sri Lanka – would not agree that Nandita and Shabana would have made the film far, far better than what it was.
Well, leaving the trilogy behind, Mehta was all set to do a film on Komagata Maru. This was a Japanese ship that sailed with 376 Indians from Punjab to Vancouver in 1914, but only 20 were allowed to enter Canada. The rest had to return to India, enduring a lot of suffering.
Mehta had the money and the script ready, but then Midnight's Children came. The book's author, Salman Rushdie, was a friend, and the film happened very quickly. It was a huge volume, and would have been very difficult to film.
Although Rushdie helped Mehta with the screenplay and adaptation, the movie was largely criticised. It was indeed disappointing, did not quite emotionally connect. Some went to the extent of calling it a nightmare. I found the film to be a big yawn. It did not grip me, the way Fire had or even Earth.
Now, Mehta is about to shoot Secret Daughter, based on a book by Shilpi Somaya Gowda. The plot is about a girl child, about adoption, and unfolds in India and San Francisco. Principal photography will begin in March, and the movie will be ready for Toronto in September 2014.
Mehta loves Toronto, loves India too. But India does not like me, she rues. This is why most of her shoots have taken place in Sri Lanka, which I suppose passes off for India’s West coast.
The 15th edition of the Mumbai Film Festival ends on October 24.