Deepa Mehta’s countenance and mood, and her crisp green salwar-kurta, match the bright weekend morning. She doesn’t seem anxious about the imminent release of Videsh–Heaven on Earth in India as she talks about the film at her parents’ home in New Delhi. Videsh tells the story of Chand, played by Preity Zinta, a young woman from India who leaves for Canada to marry a man, who works as a taxi driver and whom she has never met. Mehta spoke with Lounge about abuse, working with Salman Rushdie, and why she no longer minds labels. Edited excerpts:
Home turf: Deepa Mehta at her parents’ house in New Delhi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
You are working with Rushdie on a film adaptation of Midnight’s Children. Can a film do justice to the book?
Certain books call out to be made into films, some don’t. Midnight’s Children is written like a film; it is cinematic. The writer’s collaboration is very important. I have been working with Salman, who is a friend, for six months, and we are in sync about what we want. When he says something, I get it.
A girl from India trapped in an unhappy marriage abroad is not a new story.
As Shakespeare said, there are only three stories. It is about the way you tell it. Abuse is universal—irrespective of class, colour or geography—and it takes on different hues in different cultures. Videsh looks at abuse in an immigrant culture. It is a culture of isolation for first-generation, working-class families. All they come with is their religion, Bollywood and a sense of Indian “family values”.
There are elements of magic and fantasy in the film. That sounds escapist when compared to the realism of, say, Fire and Water.
That is because I loved Girish Karnad’s play Nagmandala and took his permission to use the story, which has been adapted from a folk tale. The play is about a neglected and abused wife who is given a magic root by a wise woman to feed her husband so that he will fall in love with her. But the wife feeds it to a snake by mistake. Videsh is not a kitchen-sink drama and I feel this is a natural shift for me.
Women oppressed in the name of tradition is a common thread running through your films. Are you drawn to this issue?
I don’t make films on issues, I make them on stories. For issues, I’d make a documentary. I wouldn’t call Videsh a film on abuse; it is a story of a woman who immigrates. Just as Fire is not a film on lesbianism—it is a film about a woman exercising an extreme choice. The part about sexuality is collateral.
Preity Zinta and Vansh Bhardwaj in a still from Videsh. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
What is working with Bollywood stars such as Zinta and John Abraham like?
I choose actors if they are right for the character. But if there are two people equally good for the character and one is a star, I’ll choose the star. I have found stars to be incredibly disciplined. Preity had no hair person, no make-up person, no starry nakhras (tantrums). My next film, Exclusion, is with Akshay Kumar.
Do you relate to India as an insider or outsider?
My formative years were in India, and as (film director) Luis Buñuel said, only when a film is very particular can it be universal. The particularity I know is India. But the lens of my camera is a Canadian lens, or an NRI lens. For long, I didn’t like being called an NRI—it’s like being called an exile. I think I am acknowledged as an Indian when I walk the red carpet or when they burn an effigy of me! India gives me an identity and Canada gives me the freedom to express that identity. Indians feel comfortable saying I am not an Indian, I am an NRI. It’s simplistic, but I don’t fight it.
Videsh released in theatres on Friday.