“There is film being made that is not ‘Bombay’ and not ‘Western” “
Toronto-based Indian director Deepa Mehta emigrated to Canada in 1973 and made her first film, Sam and Me, in 1990. Two years later, she went on to direct Hollywood stars Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda in Camilla. After her stint in Hollywood, Mehta set about making the first movie in her trilogy of Fire, Earth and Water. Fire (1996), about the transgressive relationship between two sisters-in-law in a middle-class Delhi household, received much critical acclaim though it ran into problems with the censor board in India. The film was released in India only last summer.
- There were six films at the Toronto film festival that had South Asian, but mostly Indian, talents. Is this a promising sign?
I would not say “promising”. Next year there may not be six films with South Asian content and talent. But it is inspiring. Speaking from a personal point of view I see the evolution of a hybrid filmmaking. There is film being made that is not ‘Bombay’ and not ‘Western’, and I mean that in all aspects of film. In terms of talent, production design, how the director deals with actors and characters have a sensibility that is no longer one that comes out of Indian cinema.
- What does this sensibility allow you to do?
I can be uninhibited about subject. Whether it is about choices for women (Fire) or Partition (Earth) I did not have to think about the repercussions as I would have in India. Nor did I have to wonder about the censor board. That being said, the Indian censor board has passed Earth without a single cut. So you never know. The film will be released in India on 5 November. I wish it were being released in Pakistan simultaneously.
- How did you come across Partition as a subject?
I have always thought about it. I grew up in Amritsar and my father went to Government College Lahore. So I grew up with the disillusionment of Partition. Sectarian war, as a subject, fascinates me. So when I came across Bapsi Sidhwa’s book, where a Partition story is told from the point of view of a child, I loved it.
- Who did you imagine were the audience of the film? It is a melodrama, and a love story starring the popular Bollywood hero Aamir Khan. Will it cross over to the West?
I did not think of an audience when I made the film. It is a personal enterprise. The film has very little English in it. I decided that the film be mostly in Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati because I could not imagine the characters speaking English.
Nobody knows Aamir Khan outside the region. Who has seen [Khan’s] Ghulam in the West? But I want everybody to see the film. Most people in the West have seen Gandhi and have no clue about Partition and the other side of Independence.
I think calling the film melodrama is a put down.
- I was referring to your idea of hybrid filmmaking. Earth has a love story, songs, and Aamir Khan but at the same time the film leaves you with an unresolved crisis unlike conventional melodrama. Did you think of Lahore as a location?
I wanted to shoot the entire film in Lahore. We applied for permission at the Ministry of Information but did not hear from them. Simply did not hear from them. This was last August  and I had to start shooting by January.
- Naseeruddin Shah says that expatriate filmmakers and writers lack an intimacy with the Indian subject.
I have spent half my life in India. I grew up in Delhi. But do you have to live in India to be insightful about India? A lot of people talk about this issue of being in or out. It may have to do with insecurity.
- What is your next project?
Water. I am putting my passion of Fire and Earth to rest. It is set in the 1920s in Banaras. I am writing the screenplay myself.
“You don’t hear of writers and painters worrying about their audience”
– Naseeruddin Shah
“Naseer!” The man yelled from two feet away from us. “Who would have thought I would run into you walking up Yonge St!” This was a South Asian man running into Naseeruddin Shah and myself as we were walking to catch a film at the Toronto Film Festival. “I have seen your films and they have been so important to me,” he says.
Before we ran into this man I was thinking of writing for a Toronto newspaper and introducing Naseeruddin Shah as India’s Dustin Hoffman, or the thinking person’s Indian actor. I felt the insanity of meeting him in a city where nobody knew him, and living in another city (Lahore) where nobody can meet him (or, more importantly, see him perform on stage as in Mahatama Versus Gandhi, which has just completed runs in Bombay and Delhi). Naseer signed the man’s package and allayed my panic.
Naseeruddin Shah’s roles in Shyam Benegal’s movies made him an icon of the Indian New Wave Cinema of the 70s. For me, a kid growing up in Karachi, his images were memorable because they did not adhere to formula. But these films were not popular; your local videowallah still refers to them as ‘art films’. However, the “Ghalib” Naseer played for Gulzar and Doordarshan crossed over into the popular imagination, and that includes the imagination of Pakistanis between Karachi and Mississauga, Ontario, whose local videowallahs keep only the Bollywood potboilers.
Naseeruddin Shah was at the Toronto Film Festival showcasing two of his premiered films. I had a chance to talk to him about Such A Long Journey and Bombay Boys in the context of international productions having Indian talent behind them, and to address questions of audience, expatriate writing, political art, Pakistani cinema and the film he wants to make on Gandhi.
In person, Naseer expresses the same kind of anger, disillusionment, humour, frustration and compassion that we have come to expect from his screen performances. It seemed a strain on his voice to talk. He neither smiled nor nodded. None of the usual gestures gave him away. I would sharpen a witticism, wait for an opening and only then would I get a smile out of this oyster. One another thing, his speech retains the anglicisms of the 60s. Like my father he can say: “Tell that Charlie to bugger off.”
- What did you think of Deepa Mehta’s Earth?
Did not like it. Is there no other subject for these filmmakers? Is there nothing they can show from contemporary India? I know Partition is the most important subject, but the way Earth and Train to Pakistan treat it, it does not move me at all. Three pages of Manto tells you what you want to know.
Earth is melodrama. It is the use of the Indian formula film genre to tell the story of Partition. What I like is that Earth kept within that formula.
Earth is also Hollywood formula. The sex scene was more important than the scenes of partition violence. Cinema cannot serve a didactic purpose. It cannot change the world. Cinema is not art either. I think an artist as a filmmaker comes along once a century. The best cinema can do is to give images of the contemporary.
- What about the Indian cinema you were part of in the 70s?
The so-called New Wave Cinema of the 70s was not art. It was not a movement. It was a group of people. These filmmakers wanted anything but a formula film. So a lot of films were applauded that did not have merit. And they all lost money. So that now if you want to make a film off the beaten track you will have a hard time because of the memory producers have of those films.
These days Mani Ratnam does well with finding the balance between the art and the commercial.
- You want to make a film yourself now, based on the play Mahatma Versus Gandhi. For a person who claims to not be interested in politics this is one hell of a subject. To put together a film of this kind you will have to pursue it zealously.
(Cracking a smile) I am interested in Gandhi the private person. Obviously his public life affected his private but I am interested in Gandhi the father. This is an area about which little is known. And it is not talked about. The play is about a father and a son, and I am interested in it because I had a difficult relationship with my father.
- What do you think of this international South Asian, but mostly Indian, cinema-making you are watching in Toronto? Indian novels are being made into films by Indians, or in collaboration with Indians. Will there be opportunities for roles, and storytelling of the kind you prefer?
These writers and filmmakers are expatriate. They lack an intimacy. In the film Such a Long Journey, though the story is based around 1971, I feel there is such a distance from the Bangladesh War. I still felt 27 years away from it.
- Give me another example of this lack of intimacy.
For example, in Bombay Boys, the Naveen Andrews character should have become a Bollywood star, and we should have seen what happens after that. But these expat filmmakers are not familiar with the industry, have not grown up with that – they would not know.
- So what would you have done if you were making that film?
There are these three expatriates who come to Bombay in search of something. One of them finds out that he is a mediocre musician, another finds his brother. The third stars in a film, which is a hit, but leaves the film world at the end of the movie. I think he should have been shown to have found stardom. What happens to people who have talent, or no creative urge at all, when they become stars in Bombay? They actually believe people love them. Mr Bachhan (Amitabh) to this day doesn’t understand why his films are failing. How can people not love him? It does not even occur to him that he may be giving a sub-standard product. Govinda the character is Govinda the person off-screen. But you have to be from the industry to know this.
- Perhaps these expatriate filmmakers, as you call them, are figuring out their audience.
You don’t hear of writers and painters worrying about their audience. There are very few writers writing in India. These people you hear of are all outside.
- What about cinema in Bengal or in the South?
Telugu cinema is very big. They have big budgets and innovate on the formula. But it is impossible for me to act in the languages of the south. I tried. I had to repeat numerals for dialogue: ikees bees chabees satees ikees. And then be dubbed over.
- What about playwrights?
We do theatre in Bombay in Gujarati and Marathi and Hindi. But it is mostly Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter and Brecht. I wish we did plays written by Indians but there have been, say, three Indian plays written in the last 50 years. It is difficult.
The censors are terrible. You can’t show corrupt officials. The kind of satire I saw in the Pakistani show Fifty/Fifty of the late 70s would be impossible in India.
- Have you seen Pakistani films?
Yes, some from the 70s. Nadeem was a good actor. What are Pakistani films like these days?
- Formula films reign. Though the pace of Urdu film production has picked up over the last couple of years. Which means less rape and violence. The formula in Pakistan was the Maula Jat formula. It sired hundreds of Punjabi clones. They crowded out everything.
Yes, the formula film. It’s the Sholay syndrome. What happened to Nadeem?
- He was part of it. Judging from cinema hoardings I remember from the mid-80s he tried his hand at playing the angry middle-aged man. He lives in Lahore.