Issue 20 / In-Depth With Deepa Mehta

In-Depth With Deepa Mehta

Oct 19, 2015


Director Deepa Mehta dishes on her new gangster flick, Beeba Boys, and looks back on her long history with the Toronto International Film Festival.

Of all the filmmakers who walked the red carpet at TIFF this year, few have so storied a history with this festival as Deepa Mehta. In 1991, she announced herself as an intriguing new voice in Canadian cinema with her debut, Sam & Me, which opened the festival and marked the start of a decades-spanning partnership, which has seen TIFF serve as the launchpad for most of Mehta’s work, including the incendiary, Oscar-nominated Elements trilogy (1996's Fire, 1998's Earth and 2005's Water) — which turned heads in Hollywood and incited violent protests abroad for its raw, uncompromising engagement with issues of homosexuality, partition and gender inequality — as well as her 2012 adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s celebrated novel Midnight’s Children, to name just a few. Along the way, she’s worked with such industry giants as Aamir Khan, A.R. Rahman, Anurag Kashyap and Hollywood icon Jessica Tandy, who made one of her final screen appearances in Mehta’s 1994 road trip dramedy, Camilla.


Ranjit Chowdhry and Peter Boretski in Deepa Mehta's debut film, Sam & Me.
Photo Credit: TIFF via Film Reference Library

But sitting across from Mehta in a suite at the Intercontinental Hotel on Front Street, I quickly discover that one of the more interesting aspects of her cinematic journey is that it almost didn’t happen.

“My father was a film distributor in India,” she explains. “So I grew up with film and realized that I really wanted to have nothing to do with them. Because it’s such a volatile business, and it’s not consistent. [I’m not talking] about the paychecks, which are non-existent — I’m talking about people’s tastes; our concerns might remain the same, but our tastes change. It’s so fickle.”

“I wanted to do something that was really steady,” she continues. “So I [went] to do my masters in philosophy; and I just sort of fell into [filmmaking], helping a friend out, did a documentary and said, ‘Hmm, this is interesting.’”


Mehta followed Sam & Me with Camilla, starring Bridget Fonda and Oscar-winner Jessica Tandy. It did not compete at TIFF.
Photo Credit: TIFF via Film Reference Library
 

Around this time, she met her first husband, Canadian documentarian Paul Saltzman, with whom she immigrated to Toronto in 1973. It was here, a couple decades later, that Mehta first broke through with the auspiciously received Sam & Me — a tender, nuanced tale about the unlikely friendship between an elderly Jewish man and the young Indo-Canadian immigrant who serves as his caretaker. Despite the fact that Mehta spent her formative years in New Delhi, Canada played, and still plays, a crucial part in shaping her identity as an artist.

“I feel like both [Indian and Canadian], and I think many people do in Canada. We’re all hyphenated,” Mehta chuckles. “India is very organic in many things I do. I’ve said this often: Indians inspire me to [tell] the stories I do; Canada gives me the freedom to express them.”


Next came Mehta's most acclaimed and controversial work, the Elements trilogy, beginning with 1996's Oscar-nominated FIre, starring Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi.
Photo Credit: TIFF via Film Reference Library
 

The latest product of that inspiration and opportunity is Beeba Boys, an alternately stylish, silly and brutal crime thriller following Jeet Johar (Monsoon Wedding’s Randeep Hooda) and his gang of quirky, colourfully dressed criminals as they battle for control of the Vancouver underworld.

“I love gangster films,” the director enthuses. “It’s fascinating; it’s about the ascent of a minority group and the descent . . . the easy way into power and money.”

For Mehta, it was also the chance to introduce Hollywood to a new kind of criminal — some slick, wise-cracking killers they hadn’t yet met in the works of Scorsese or Coppola. “I haven’t seen any gangster films about brown people set in North America,” she says. "That's different." 


Mehta's latest is the gritty, kinetic gangster pic Beeba Boys, starring (L-R) Gabe Grey, Ali Kazmi, Waris Ahluwalia, Randeep Hooda, Steve Dhillon and Jag Bal.
Photo Credit: Mongrel Media 
 

While she based Beeba Boys on several true stories of Indo-Canadian crime lords, Mehta is quick to note that, despite a message in the end credits which asserts that “This maelstrom actually happened” — the maelstrom itself is not, by any means, a biopic.

“There are so many gangsters that people know about, but I think it’s an amalgamation of a lot of events and characters,” she explains. “Otherwise, I would’ve bought the rights to one of their stories; it would’ve been much easier. But those didn’t interest me. What interested me, for example, would be that a lot of them live [with the parents], so that’s based in reality, but how they live at home is something I had to invent . . . It does happen [in the film], but how it happens is my doing, so I take responsibility for that.”

The primary point of interest for the director is clearly her main character, kingpin Jeet Johar, a walking contradiction of a man who mercilessly floods the streets with blood and drugs, but is also a devout Sikh and doting single father — in Mehta’s eyes, a tragic antihero of “wasted potential.”

I wonder aloud if it’s a difficult trick for a filmmaker to pull off — wrapping the loving family man and the merciless killer up into one believable package. But Mehta is quick to note, she’s dealt with this conundrum before.

“I did a film called Heaven on Earth that dealt with a domestic violence situation,” she says, recalling her 2008 TIFF entry, “and I had to find the same [humanity] in the husband who abused. You can’t say, ‘No, there can be no humanity in a man who beats up a woman.’ There is very little, but that doesn’t mean there’s none . . . You have to find it. It’s that complexity.”


Back in 2008, Mehta arrived at TIFF with domestic abuse drama Heaven on Earth, starring Preity Zinta.
Photo Credit: TIFF via Film Reference Library
 

Clearly, though we’re here to talk about Beeba Boys, our conversation is taking on a more reflective, career-spanning trajectory than your typical interview. I can’t help but ask if she still feels like the same filmmaker who arrived here at TIFF 24 years ago.

“Oh, I hope not!” Mehta laughs. “But I think my concerns haven’t changed. My first film was Sam & Me, which was about a bunch of guys; there were no female characters in it, really . . . I feel very strongly that [Beeba Boys] thematically reflects what I’m intrigued by in all my films, which is about identity, about assimilation, about immigration, about being visible in a society that relegates you to be invisible  . . . So the concerns haven’t changed. Stories change, of course.”


Prior to Beeba Boys, Mehta's last TIFF debut was 2012 Salman Rushdie adaptation Midnight's Children, starring Satya Bhabha and Shriya Saran.
Photo Credit: TIFF via Film Reference Library

Something else that hasn’t changed all that much, she confides, is the fact that her technical mastery of the craft doesn’t quite match up to her lauded storytelling vision.

“[On Sam & Me], the cinematographer was a wonderful French-Canadian cinematographer called Guy Dufaux,” she recalls, “and I came on set and was given a viewfinder; so I was sort of adjusting the lens, and he said, ‘Deepa, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘Trying to figure out which lens to use.’ He said, ‘You’ve got it on wrong.’ I said, ‘Oh really?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about this; this is a close-up, this is a medium shot, this is a full shot. All you have to do is say that to me; communicate what you want to see.’ [That] was something that really for the rest of my life alleviated me from the fact that I don’t have intense technical knowledge.”

Nonetheless, throughout the years, being on-set has remained her favourite part of the process.

“Writing is . . . you know, I do it on my kitchen table. It’s very personal, but it’s very quiet. I don’t use the computer; I write long-hand. And it’s isolating in many ways, as it should be. But suddenly coming to life with actors . . . I love working with actors.”


2005's Water, starring Lisa Ray, completed Mehta's Elements trilogy
and nabbed her a second Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language FIlm.

Photo Credit: TIFF via FIlm Reference Library
 

So when can we expect her to be back at that kitchen table, crafting her next rich, singularly realized film world? Not for a while — Beeba Boys has taken its toll.

“Oh my God, I want to sleep for the next 10 months!” she laughs. “I do have a project; it’s called sleeping.”

Beeba Boys is currently playing in select theatres across North America. Moreover, now through November 15, TIFF is showcasing several of Mehta's movies throuhgout a month-long restrospective titled Heaven on Earth: The Films of Deepa Mehta. For tickets, visit tiff.net.

Main Image Photo Credit:  TIFF via Getty

Matthew Currie

Matthew Currie

Author

A long-standing entertainment journalist, Currie is a graduate of the Professional Writing program at Toronto’s York University. He has spent the past number of years working as a freelancer for ANOKHI and for diverse publications such as Sharp, TV Week, CAA’s Westworld and BC Business. Currie ...

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