Cracking the Earth

Rehan Ansari talks to Deepa Mehta about the latest edition to her element’s trilogy
By Rehan Ansari

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Toronto-based Deepa Mehta emigrated to Canada in 1973 and made her first film, Sam and Me, in 1990. She directed Camilla (starring Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda) in 1992. After her stint in Hollyvvood she retumed to Toronto and Delhi to make Fire in 1996, a film about the transgressive relationship between two sisters-in-law in a middle-class Delhi household (starring Shabana Azmi). Fire received much critical acclaim and was the first of her trilogy Fire, Earth and Water. There were problems with the censor board in India but finally Fire had its theatrical release there this summer. The fact that Fire had finally been released in India and Earth was premiering at the Toronto Film Festival had Deepa Mehta brimming with confidence on opening night. Toronto, in all its diversity, seemed to be there. As well, stars such as Vinod Khanna and M. F Hussain were out to fete her.

Rehan: There were six films at the Toronto film festival that had South Asian, but mostly Indian, talent as engines. Is this a promising sign?

Deepa: 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 hybrid filmmaking. There are films being made that are not Bombay and not from the west; and I mean that in all aspects of film. In terms of talent, production design, how the director deals with actors and characters, I have a sensibility that is no longer one that comes out of Indian cinema.

...do you have to live in India to be insightful about India?

Rehan: What does that sensibility allow you to do?

Deepa: I can be uninhibited about subject. Whether it is about choices for women [Fire] or Partition [Earth] I did not have to think about 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.

November 5th the film will be released in India. I wish it were being released in Pakistan simultaneously.

Rehan: How did you come across Partition as a subject?

Deepa: 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.

Rehan: Who did you imagine were the audience of the film? It is a melodrama. And a love story starring Aamir Khan. Will it cross over to the West?

Deepa: 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 Gujrati because I could not imagine the characters speaking English.

Nobody knows Aamir Khan outside the region. Who has seen 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.

Rehan: 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?

Deepa: 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.

Rehan: Naseeruddin Shah, in Toronto for the film festival, said expatriate filmmakers and writers lack an intimacy with the Indian subject.

Deepa: I have spent half my life in India. 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.

Rehan: What is your next project?

Deepa: 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.

Rehan Ansari is a writer who divides his time between Toronto, Lahore and Delhi and is a FISAA Fellow (Fellowship in South Asian Alternatives) with CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) in Delhi.

Handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Rehan Ansari
Rehan Ansari is a FISAA Fellow (Fellowship in South Asian Alternatives) with Delhi-based CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies). He travels between Toronto, Lahore and Delhi.
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