Deepa Mehta: the first of iAWW’s 10 Most Influential South Asian Women in Entertainment

Photo: Sadia Uqaili

Her emotionally resonating films have played at every major film festival in the world, and thanks to an illustrious repertoire, that includes the critically acclaimed Elements Trilogy: Fire, Earth and Water, Deepa Mehta has solidified her position as Canada’s undisputed transnational filmmaker. With over 25 awards in her bag, Mehta is the only Canadian female director to have been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category (Water). Additionally, she has the distinction of receiving virtually every top honour bestowed by the Canadian government, including: Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement (2009), Member of the Order of Ontario (2013) and Officer of the Order of Canada (2013). The 68-year-old helmer is currently in pre-production for the feature film adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai award-winning novel Funny Boy.

She has shattered barriers and paved the way for the next generation of female filmmakers. Her work, unapologetically, challenges stereotypes and is fearlessly provocative. It is with this spirit that we proudly present a Q&A with director, producer and screenwriter, Deepa Mehta, the first of iAWW’s 10 Most Influential South Asian Women in Entertainment. 

Where were you born and where did you spend most of your childhood? 

I was born in Amritsar and spent most of my childhood in Delhi.

What was your childhood dream? 

Honestly, I don’t remember.

Can you tell us a little about your educational background?

I have a degree in Philosophy from University of New Delhi. 

Have you faced any obstacles because of your gender or ethnicity?

Luckily, No.

Which female figure has been your biggest source of inspiration?

My mother, who is neither impulsive nor judgemental. I’ve always appreciated her innate sense of fairness. My love for punctuality comes from a lesson she taught me: if you’re punctual, it shows that you respect the person you’re going to meet.

How has your childhood influenced your filmmaking process?

My exposure to music and the arts started very early at home. My father was a film distributor. I didn’t find the industry glamourous at all. Right from actors coming to our house, and directors, to the process of distribution – I was exposed to the film world at a very young age. I also watched a lot of movies growing up. My father taught me one of my most important lessons. He told me, ‘There are two things one can never know about. One, when one will die. And two, how a film will do at a box office.’

When did you realise you wanted to be a director?

It was post-university, as I was preparing to start my Masters. I was helping with a Cinema Workshop. But again, I wasn’t crazy about the film world then. 

How did you learn the craft of filmmaking? 

On the job.

How did you raise financing for your first feature film Sam & Me? How difficult was it?

Very difficult. It was all through Government financing.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from your first film?

That it’s alright to not know certain things (like camera, lenses etc) and the importance of asking questions. 

Was it easier the second time around?

Yup.

What inspired you to write Bollywood/Hollywood?   

The sense of wanting to have fun. It was the Crazy Rich Asians of its time.

What is your process of casting? Do you know who you have in mind during the writing process? 

Sometimes I do. I like working with actors. Casting depends, every project is different. 

Do you create storyboards before filming?

No way.

Are big stars necessary to get a film financed? 

I don’t know. Probably. But then again, it’s also rare because big stars seldom commit to small independent films and small independent films still get made.

How do you get the best out of an actor? Do you allow actors to improvise or do you prefer they stick to the script? 

I’m a strong believer of workshops and rehearsals. We don’t read lines in our workshops. Instead, this is where actors get to know their characters. And if they know their characters, they can improvise a bit, but cannot go off script.

How long do you take editing a film? 

About 12 to 13 weeks. I like doing the initial assembly cut and then walking in and working on it with the editor.

FireEarth and Water – did you always intend on making a trilogy?

No. But at the end of Fire, I already knew that I was making a film on the partition and that’s when Shabana Azmi asked me what the name of the film was. And I said ‘Earth’. So, it just happened.

Which out of the three films was the hardest to make and why?

Fire, because it was my first film in many ways. It was the first film that I wrote.

Which of the three films is your favourite?

Earth.

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you found out Waterwas nominated for an Academy Award?

At home watching television.

What can you tell us about Leila, your new series from Netflix? 

Leilais based on the book by Prayaag Akbar. It is set in a dystopic future and is the story of a mother searching for her daughter. 

You are the only Canadian woman to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category andthe only Indo-Canadian woman to win a genie award for writing. Do you feel you have responsibility on your shoulders?

It’s not so much about being a woman, but a human being. Of course, it’s a responsibility. As a woman, it’s being responsible to not portray women with a stereotypical male gaze. 

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career?

Fire and Water being shut down were challenges. But these things made me resilient and taught me not to give up. 

Is it easier for you to get a project off the ground now or is it just as hard as it was 30 years ago?

Much easier now.

How are things changing for women in the film industry? Are opportunities increasing?

Yes they are. And about time. But still not fast enough.

What advice do you have for females wanting to become a director? 

They have to know why they want to become directors and that this is not an industry with glamour and is a lot of hard work. Then if they want to do it, fantastic.

by JSK

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