From Amristar to Sam and Me: How Deepa Mehta Got Started

June 23, 2008

Now, continuing with a bit more of an in-depth look at our sidebar profiles, today’s pick is Deepa Mehta – one of the country (and the world’s) most acclaimed, provocative, and politically engaged filmmakers.

The Oscar-nominated director of Water is set to tackle the shameful Komagata Maru incident – one of Canada’s major moral oops moments, when, in 1914, the government turned away 397 Indians (most of whom were Sikh) who attempted to land and establish themselves in Vancouver. Due out sometime in 2009, the film will hopefully force North Americans to take a hard look at the exclusion laws that ounce served to keep the continent “untainted” by “coloured” immigrants.

Deepa grew up in the shadow of the Indian Partition of 1947. She also grew up with movies. Mehta’s father was a film distributor who owned a number of theatres in Amritsar, near the Pakistan border. She fell in love with the romance of Hindu cinema, as well as the Hitchcock movies her father would show on Sunday mornings. After seeing how the pursuit of weekly grosses had worn her father down, though, Mehta’s love for commercial cinema slowly faded. When it came time to go to university, the bookish teen chose to study Philosophy at the University of New Delhi.

As is true of so many graduates of liberal arts programs, though, Mehta emerged with few answers where questions of career were concerned.

“By the end of university, the only thing I knew about my future was that I needed some time off,” she remembers. “I needed time to decide if I wanted to study further. A part of me definitely wanted to, but I needed to decipher what I really wanted from what others thought I should do. Luckily, my parents never pushed me. They never expected me to be a lawyer or a doctor or anything.”

During what she identifies as her “awkward period,” Deepa met Anil, the owner of Cinema Workshop, a company that made documentary films for the Indian government.

“He said, “While you’re deciding what you want to do, why not work for me?,” Mehta recalls with a smile. “I couldn’t see why not, so I agreed.”

“Cinema Workshop was a wonderfully interesting place. There was a five-person team: Anil, who was the administrator, his wife, the creative brains behind it, a writer, an editor, and a camera person. They were this tight-knit group of creative people, all of whom loved what they were doing. I was only hired as a gopher for a few months, but they realised early on that I wasn’t going to be very useful in that regard. I couldn’t type. Even the coffee I made was horrible.”

Mehta loved to watch Joya, the editor, work on her Moviola machine. She had read about editing in books, but the process she witnessed in Cinema Workshop was magical. Since she was of little use in other areas, Mehta was allowed to help Joya. She learned to edit, then she picked up sound engineering, and finally began playing around with a camera and writing scripts. Though the films she helped to pen were two-minute educational pieces like “How to Grow Wheat,” Mehta loved that she was learning.

Soon after, Deepa set out to make a half-hour, black and white documentary on her own. Her first film was called Vimla. It was a simple story about a maid servant’s daughter who, at the age of fourteen, was getting married. The film documented Vimla’s excitement and examined what the concept of marriage meant to her.

Lightning Strikes

“By this point, I was hooked on directing,” Mehta says. “All of my reservations about working in the film industry went out the window. The documentary seemed like a completely different animal from the film world I’d experienced growing up. As a child, when a new film was released, the stars would come to my father’s movie halls. They’d even eat lunch at our house. I saw them up close and, as a result, the cinema world lost its lustre. But documentary was different. It was real and had the power to be very meaningful.”

But when Cinema Workshop closed down, Deepa needed to look elsewhere. She took a job working for the youth section of a newspaper while she was searching for more film experience. At one point, she was assigned to write about the Canadian High Commissioner’s daughter. While working on the story, she met Paul Saltzman, a filmmaker from the CBC who was in Delhi shooting a documentary about the High Commissioner.

Lightning struck and the next thing she knew, Deepa’s life had changed.

“He was incredibly knowledgeable and I was keen to see how other people made documentary films,” Mehta recalls. “We fell in love, were married six months later and we moved to Toronto.”

Deepa had never planned to move away. She had visited Europe and North America, but she always assumed she would stay in India.

“At the time, though, leaving was easy, because I didn’t think it would be forever,” Mehta says. When you’re young, nothing seems permanent. It doesn’t feel like you’re making life-altering decisions, even when you are. Even though we were married, I felt like I was “trying out” Canada.”

In the beginning, Deepa was shocked that filmmakers could access government money to make their movies. That hadn’t been the case in India, and she found the entire concept very “luxurious.” She also discovered types of cinema she’s never encountered before: everything from Buñuel (who remains her hero) and Kurosawa to the French New Wave masters and the great Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

Soon after her arrival, she, her husband, and her brother Dilip set up Sunrise Pictures on the third floor of a house in the Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. They didn’t really know why. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

“Paul had made a number of films and I had worked on my own documentary,” Mehta says, “so we just decided to make a go of it together. Everyone did everything. I did sound, I thought up projects and I wrote them. We didn’t really think about where it was going. We were simply working on a project-to-project basis, and dealing with a deteriorating marriage.”

At 99

After arriving in Canada, Mehta had been fascinated by the way North Americans treated the elderly. As soon as parents got old, they were shipped off to special care facilities. In India no one sent older people away. They were seen as occupying a vital role in the home.

One day, she ran across an article in the Toronto Star about a 99 year-old woman who practiced yoga. Her name was Louise Tandy Murch, and Deepa instantly knew she had to meet her.

“I just knocked on her door and said, “I’d really like to talk to you” ” Mehta recalls. “We became friends right away. I never planned to make a documentary about her, but the notion gradually dawned on me and she accepted. I got a grant from the Canada Council and made the film for $5,000. Paul was working at Global at the time and a friend of his shot and produced the film.”

That film was a short called At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch. After stepping away from the world of film for two years following the birth of her daughter, Devyani, Mehta slowly phased herself back into the world of Sunrise, working on Spread your Wings, a documentary series about traditional crafts, and Travelling Light, an “artist at work” documentary about her brother Dilip. Later, she produced and co-directed Martha, Ruth and Edie, her first foray into fiction: a film based on works by Alice Munro, Cynthia Flood and Betty Lambert. When it screened at Cannes and won some awards, Mehta felt she had begun to find her feet and was perhaps ready to take on a feature.

Sam and Me

She thought she wanted to make a film about an Indian immigrant coming to Canada and living amongst Jewish people. She was still mulling it over when an old friend from India told her that her son, Rajit Chowdry, was moving to Toronto. Mehta knew that Rajit had written scripts for Indian TV and thought that they might be able to help each other out.

“One day, the doorbell rang and I found Ranjit shivering in his sneakers, ” Mehta recalls. “It was 20 below zero. He looked wild and fun and when I invited him in, we started to talk about the film I wanted to do. Ranjit said he would write it and he set to work right away.”

That movie ended up being Sam and Me – a film about the friendship between a young Indian man named Nikhil, who comes to Canada to stay with his uncle, and Sam, an ageing Jewish man who yearns to return to Israel.

Getting money was virtually impossible. The funding bodies were nervous about giving money to a recent immigrant. But they persevered, got it made (with Ranjit playing Nikhil and Mehta behind the camera), and went back to Cannes and won a Honourable Mention in the Camera D’or category.

The next thing she knew, Mehta went from being someone who had to struggle to fund projects to being courted by Hollywood. Though making films would continue to be a grind – especially as her subject matter became more engaged, Deepa Mehta had emerged onto the world stage.

“Through my twenties,” she says, “I never worried about the direction of my career. I only concerned myself with being able to make my next project. I still function the same way today. To a filmmaker, “success” is when you don’t have to suffer the pain of running around to raise money. When and if that moment ever comes, you are successful. Otherwise, you just worry about getting the next film made.”

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