Filmmaker Deepa Mehta on being a transnational artist, why her new film based on the December 16 Delhi gang rape incident is pitched from the perspective of the perpetrators, and why she is opposed to censorship.
You have tried to reimagine the lives of the six men involved in the Delhi gang-rape incident of December 16, 2012, in your film, Anatomy of Violence. Why did you choose to look at it from their perspective?
I was in Delhi in 2012 when the event happened and, like others was haunted by the horrors of the attack and by the young woman’s death. My producing partner, David Hamilton, and I began to research and I planned to write a screenplay, inspired by, but not based upon, these events, backed by Maven Pictures.
Maven was initially interested in the victim’s story, but after long conversations, they became intrigued by my idea of shifting the focus to the rapists, and by my desire to not re-victimise the victim or cause more grief to her family. My curiosity about what could possibly cause these six young men to perpetuate the brutal violence played a huge part in the project. After all, no one becomes who they are in isolation.
What has been the toughest part of making this documentary?
Anatomy of Violence is not a documentary, although I understand why you would think that. It does feel hyper-real. It is a dramatisation. It mixes fact and fiction in an improvised exploration of the events leading up to, and following, the notorious gang rape of a young woman. The film also imagines the nature of the woman’s life, her family, hopes and dreams. What I found most useful in making Anatomy of Violence was my experience in directing scripted movies, and working with actors, helping them shape scenes and discover what is inside and underneath the words. I could not have made a film as unscripted and improvisational as this one without that. The toughest part of making this film was the editing process. It was a massive task to shape all the raw material into a coherent and moving story.
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Tell us about the filming process.
I reached out to theatre director Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry and arrived in Chandigarh a year ago for a script workshop. The actors in Chandigarh, recommended by Neelam from her group, were asked to create scenes imagining the rapists’ backgrounds from five perspectives: from childhood; from the most traumatic moment in their lives; from the relationship with their families; from their jobs; from their friendships. All of these scenes were to get us right up to the attack — to the moment when the young woman gets into the bus. I never planned to show the attack.
After the first day, I had an epiphany — the dramatic scenes that these actors created using the most essential but rarely used tool of our trade: an original imagination. I found myself directing the camera, irresistibly drawn into the scenes as the actors created them, and needing to capture them cinematically before they disappeared. I wanted to capture the rawness of what was being enacted: an immediacy that reflected their fractured lives.
What was your next step?
We transformed overnight into a tiny guerrilla movie crew, borrowing props, finding locations on the run, and getting the assistance of people on the streets. After 18 days of shooting in Chandigarh, we moved to Delhi for the part of the story about the fictionalised woman victim and her fiancé. These scenes were less improvised; I had a precise idea of how to reveal imaginary glimpses into her life. And I imagined the last scene of the movie — the interview with Bittu, one of the condemned rapists/killers. Somehow, we needed to get into their heads after the trial and in jail.
The subjects you have worked with in your films have been varied. How do you decide on them?
It’s pretty instinctive. If I am drawn to the existing material, or if it’s something I want to learn more about, I start working on it. There are, of course, many dead ends along the way. But then, some of the stories or characters stick with me. Then, David and I figure out how to get it made. Each film has a different impetus and a very different production path.
Patriarchy has been a recurring theme in your films…
Many of my films centre around women characters who are involved in all kind of struggles. This was not a plan, but when I look back — there it is. While exploring women’s lives, the characters usually come up against ‘patriarchy’. It’s just there, so often in the way, diminishing women’s lives and potential everywhere in the world. I am interested in looking at the issues that my characters in Anatomy of Violence face: the dehumanisation of bottomless poverty, the rage of hopelessness, political paralysis, sexual and family violence, and, yes, gender inequality caused by patriarchy.
On several occasions, you have run into trouble over your films. What do you feel about these controversies?
We never set out to cause controversy. I don’t really like my films to be only referred to as ‘controversial’. That, for me, can reduce their value and their artistry.
I am a devoted believer in freedom of speech and am opposed to censorship. If the subjects in some of our films upset certain factions or individuals, that’s a side effect of looking at volatile subjects. Sometimes, cultures and governments are highly sensitive. I am always hopeful that the larger messages of humanity will prevail. But, yes, there have been rough times — the troubles with Water; Midnight’s Children, which was also shot in Sri Lanka, ran into political intrigue; public screenings of Fire were jeopardised. I have learned to not get dragged down by the accusations and attacks. I have had to grow a fairly thick skin.
Some of your films have been literary adaptations. Do you approach such projects differently?
This depends on the novel and the involvement of the author. Earth is based on Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa’s remarkable novel Cracking India, which has a rock-solid narrative. I wrote the screenplay relatively quickly and Bapsi was a wonderfully insightful advisor. The renowned Canadian author Carol Shields writes enjoyable, clever novels and I adapted her Republic of Love pretty much on my own, with her approval. The biggest challenge, of course, was Salman Rushdie’s vast, roomy and famous Midnight’s Children. He did the heavy lifting, with lots of back and forth with me. The final screenplay is primarily his.
Did you expect Midnight’s Children to receive a wider response?
I am happy with the way Midnight’s Children has gone on to have a widespread and growing life in DVDs, at festivals and literary events, on TV, online, in all sorts of unexpected and gratifying ways. Movies have afterlives that are often surprising, and this one lives on for many people.
Do you take critics seriously?
Well, my response to reviews really fluctuates. I do not seek out all of them, but I don’t avoid them either. Sometimes, I learn things from reviews and rethink some of the choices I made, or look at my movies more dispassionately.
Do you plan to make a mass entertainer?
Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) was an exuberant and re-energising experience for all of us. David and I were reeling after the shutdown of Water and we managed to get this made relatively quickly, before remounting Water. It was a great boost, and also a box-office success. I would like to make another comedy.
Your films have always dealt with social issues. Do you believe that filmmakers should shoulder the responsibility of being the voice of the society?
This is such an important and interesting question. I have thought about this a lot. I would never say that it is an artist’s responsibility to be the voice of their society. Not all artists are able to do that or want to do that. However, I do feel a growing responsibility for what my work says about the world and how it might help affect change, or at least encourage conversations. For example, in Anatomy of Violence, we wanted to give the audience a glimpse of the imagined and even tragic lives of the rapists, so viewers could examine the complicity of a society that breeds such individuals.
Even though you shifted to Canada more than three decades ago, most of your films are rooted in India.
About half my films are set in Canada and the other in India. I am rooted now in Canada, but many of my lifelong interests are in India. I straddle both worlds. I have been described as a ‘transnational artist’ and I like that.
Till recently, Anatomy of Violence didn’t have a distributor. Have you found one?
We did not expect this film to be handled by conventional distributors in north America or India. It will have many kinds of screenings, community events, online exposure, and alternative ways to be distributed, seen and discussed.
Why do you think the number of women directors has not grown as it should have?
At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, a record-breaking 30 per cent of all films screened were by women directors. It was only 20 percent two years ago. Of the 20 high-profile Gala film screenings at Toronto, an all-time high of seven films were by women. We all know how hard it has been for women directors to find success and to be entrusted with larger movies — there remain entrenched barriers and biases to overcome.
What’s on your directorial wishlist?
My great friend and distributor Hussain Amarshi and I have been talking about a movie about the Komagata Maru debacle (the failed 1914 voyage from Hong Kong to Canada) for over 10 years. We have piles of notes, partial drafts, photos, plans, and ideas. But, I am most excited about adapting Naresh Fernandes’s Taj Mahal Foxtrot for Bob Ezrin and the big screen. Both projects present exciting challenges and possibilities.