INTERVIEW: Deepa Mehta's Elements, From "Earth" and Beyond
by Maya Churi
In 1947, India was split into Hindu and Muslim states, a division that would cost the lives of a million people. Canadian-Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta chose the violent political separation between India and Pakistan as the subject for her film “Earth,” the second in her trilogy of films set in India. Her first film “Fire” was an intimate portrait into the lives of two women struggling with their sexuality. While her debut received much acclaim here in the U.S., fundamentalist factions in India embarked on a violent protest against the film, deriding its lesbian themes. With “Earth,” Mehta takes politics to an epic scale, focusing on how the partition of India after independence affects the lives of a few individuals, and in turn, the whole country. “Earth” premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival and was picked up by Zeitgeist Films for a U.S. release. Mehta recently spoke to indieWIRE about her elemental Indian trilogy, the problems of independence, and the colors of “Earth.”
indieWIRE: What are the similar themes between “Earth” and your last film “Fire”? How will the next one “Water” compare?
Deepa Mehta: They are very different films. The trilogy is about elements on one level that nurture and destroy us. They are very tangible elements. “Fire” is about the politics of sexuality, “Earth” is about the politics of nationalism and “Water” is about the politics of religion.
iW: Did you work closely with the writer of “Bapsi Sidhwa” on the screenplay of “Earth”?
Mehta: No, no, I wrote the first draft and sent it to her. She gave me her notes and I sent her the draft as I finished. We didn’t sit down together to write it.
iW: Did you have a relationship with her prior to this?
Mehta: Oh yeah, I’d met her before and I admire her very much. Lucky for me she understood, that a book and a film are different mediums.
iW: All that many Americans know of India’s independence is through films like “Gandhi.” They know about the British rule, but it was always Indians against the British and your film shows Indians pitted against Indians. Prior to the independence the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were all united in their common enemy but once that enemy left there was no longer that bond. Can you talk a little about the film in relation to what is happening in the world today?
Mehta: The enemy really divided and ruled then left. There is no nostalgia for British raj in this film. The reason I wanted to do a film about the partition of India into India and Pakistan was that also it is an exploration about what happens with sectarian war, whether its’ Rwanda or Kosovo or which ever country has been colonized and where the colonizers left, the way the French left Vietnam, they’ve always left a country that’s divided. 52 years later, for us, we are still struggling with the same boundary issues. As is Ireland or Kosovo.
iW: You studied philosophy in College, why did you start making films?
Mehta: I’ve always loved movies. My father was a film distributor and I grew up with them. I met someone who had a small documentary house in Delhi. I was wondering if I should do my dissertation or not and it seemed a good stopgap thing to do was to help make documentaries or learn something about them. I started working and fell in love with [film] all over again and never went back to do my dissertation.
iW: In terms of filmmaking as craft how did you approach ‘Earth’ versus how you approached ‘Fire’? They struck me as very different.
Mehta: They are very different scripts. “Earth’s” canvas is much larger. The machinery to make the film was much larger. They were different in that sense. But, I approached them in exactly the same way for myself and what the script demands. The stories are different but it all comes from me. The logistics are different, but it’s exactly the same — it’s just about human interaction on a very basic level.
iW: You use a lot of bright colors, lots of reds, how do you work with your DP and your production designer?
Mehta: I sit down before, talk to both of them and I use my daughter’s crayons to do the color pallet of the film. There’s a reason for that; the script evokes some colors that it seems to cry out for. In “Fire,” it was orange, white and green and in “Earth,” it was mostly terra cotta, red and yellow. Those are the primary colors we wear in India.
iW: What are the differences between shooting in Canada and the USA versus shooting in India?
Mehta: It’s much more fun shooting in India, it’s chaotic but great fun.
iW: Tell me a little about working with Aamir Khan, he is very famous in India isn’t he?
Mehta: Yes, he is. He’s an actor before he’s a star. He’s one of those rare commodities who’s a star/actor. Very disciplined, very professional. It was a pleasure working for him. I gave him the script and he just responded to it.