Indian-born and Canada-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta is widely known for her movies Fire, Earth and the Oscar-nominated Water. Though the three movies are often branded as an “elemental trilogy,” Deepa pushes back on the characterization. “I didn’t think of them as a trilogy. If I had thought that, I would have done a film called Wind. I mean, how can you have a film called Wind? One led to the other. It evolved.”
Deepa told us how every film she’s ever done has been about a subject that deeply intrigued her. Her latest film, Funny Boy, about a gay teenager in Sri Lanka finding love at the onset of a civil war, is no exception.
My love for film started when I was very young, because of my father being a theater owner. After school, we’d end up inside the movie hall and see the middle or end of a film. I saw the first film I ever saw about 60 times, different aspects of it.
At a very young age, I realized that there was something very intriguing about the whole process. I was about 8 years old and I couldn’t believe that something that I couldn’t touch, that I couldn’t smell, could make me cry. That something that was not tangible had that power—that was the magic. Suddenly, you’re drawn into a world, which has nothing to do with your world, but somehow involves you. That’s how my love for movies started.
I didn’t want to become a filmmaker. Every Friday, we used to get very nervous in our family, because of the box office of the new film to be released in one of my father’s movie halls. His mood would depend on whether the box office was good. He was never angry, but he was just down. I thought that if this business can affect your family in such an extreme way, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I realized I love movies, but I decided that I wanted to become an academic because it felt so safe. There were no Friday box offices to worry about and that felt really nice.
Later, when I finished at the university in India, a friend who had a small documentary film house in New Delhi asked me to help as a receptionist. After two days of helping, they said, “Deepa, you’re fired.” I said, “What do you mean, I’m fired? I’m not even getting paid.” They said I was not very good at being polite on the phone. We just laughed about it and they said they needed someone to do sound, so I learned how to do sound. Then they said, “Okay, you’re good at this. Do you want to learn how to use a 16mm camera?” I learned that and I learned how to edit on a Steenbeck. That was my first introduction to film—not watching them, but actually touching it.
For my first short documentary film, they sent me off with the small camera and a sound person to do a three-minute documentary on how wheat grows. I said, “I beg your pardon?” But that’s when I really learned about filmmaking because there was a farmer sitting, smoking his hookah, and he was watching his field of wheat. I thought, “I can’t show how the wheat grows. It’ll take 10 years.” So I decided: Let me be inventive. That’s the magic of film for me. How you can use your imagination. I had a close-up of him waiting, and then he’d have a sip of water. Then he’d look away, and then the camera would look at the sky and the birds. We never looked at the wheat. I thought that was interesting. Of course, the documentary film house thought it was terrible, but that’s what got me into filmmaking.
Driven by curiosity
What’s always driven me is curiosity. All my films have something to do with a subject that I really am intrigued by, but don’t know as much about.
I did Fire (1996), because I was really intrigued about love and what happens when you fall in love. [Fire was the first mainstream Indian film to focus on a lesbian relationship.] We all want to be loved, there’s no question about it. Why is something forbidden—especially if women do it? Who sets up the rules? Can we cross that boundary, whether it’s our color, language, race or sexuality? The price we pay to embrace love is huge. That’s what drove Fire and it led to Earth (1998), because it felt like a natural extension.
Earth is based on a book called Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa. What attracted me to the book—which is about the partition of India into India and Pakistan—was a blurb by the author that, “All wars are fought on women’s bodies.” I thought, “My God, this is the book that I want to do.” What happens to women who are the first victims of any kind of war?
Then Water (2005) became about patriarchy. What happens when women, who are segregated when they lose their husbands, become non-figures, cease to exist? What makes women cease to exist without their husbands? That shook me. When I read about what happens to widows in India, I was very intrigued. I went to Varanasi and wrote the script.
From outrage to Oscars
When Water was nominated for an Oscar for the then-titled Best Foreign Language Film, I was really surprised because it was a film that was made in Hindi. I’ve often said that if India gives me the stories, then Canada gives me the freedom to express them. There were so many problems and controversies in making the film: death threats, people burning my effigy, protests. [The film follows a group of widows forced into poverty after their husbands have died.] Then to come through all of that and, at the Oscars, it be just about the film. That was something that made me feel hopeful that there was justice.
Being at the Oscars and on the red carpet was so surreal. We grow up watching the red carpet and people walking on it. Suddenly there were three women wearing saris and we were all brown. I felt like I was representing not only Canada, but women, and colored women. It was very important. You don’t need people’s affirmation that you exist, but sometimes it’s really important that they see the cause behind what you’re trying to do. That felt really good.
Making “Funny Boy”
I read Shyam Selvadurai’s novel Funny Boy about 26 years ago, when it first came out. I was a big fan of James Baldwin while growing up in India. Around the same time that Funny Boy came out, I finished reading Giovanni’s Room and that impact was huge on me. In it, Baldwin wrote (I hope I’m not butchering the quote), “What’s the big deal? I love him, he loves me, and nothing else in heaven matters.” I thought, “Yes, of course.” I think it was Giovanni’s Room that really propelled me towards the Funny Boy novel. Another aspect of the novel is, of course, the politics of it. The LGBTQ aspect in Funny Boy was huge for me, because it was around the time I was making Fire, so it was like the worlds were coming together.
Funny Boy is a very particular story that takes place on a small island at the beginning of the civil war that lasted for 26 years. The gay love story is so important. It is about somebody having the courage to be in love and to express it. This happened in Sri Lanka, but it could have happened anywhere in the world. The universality is, of course, love. The celebration of love—against all odds—that’s what attracted me to Funny Boy.
On adapting a novel for the screen
Adapting a movie with the novel’s author has been different with different writers. With Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children (2012), I wanted him to write the script, and he absolutely did not want to write it. He just wanted to keep away from it and said I should write it. But we’re dealing with an iconic book and an iconic writer. I felt it was important to get his perception into the film and into the script. Much to our surprise, we were pretty much in harmony about how the film should unfold. I learned a lot working with Salman. I learned a lot about giving, about cinematic language, about silence and about how to deal with criticism. All those things help.
With Shyam for Funny Boy, it was very different. His novel had been around for more than two decades. Shyam is Tamil, a minority group in Sri Lanka. He grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He comes from the same family that is reflected in the book and in the film. He came to Canada as a refugee. It’s semiautobiographical and to do a film on a person who’s right there, who’s been through everything that you are making a film on, is a bit rattling. You don’t want to offend anybody. I thought it very important that we do this together. This is—more than any other film—a real partnership. I’m very grateful to him.
The transition from writer to director
Every director has a process and when I finish writing a script, I actually put it away for a couple of weeks. Then, when I pick it up, I pick it up as a director. The first time I read it, it stops being a script, and I ask myself, “What’s the color of this film?” I don’t know why I do it.
When I read Funny Boy—with my director’s hat on—I felt that the color of Funny Boy was ocher, like a really bright yellow that’s muddled: the saris, the dawning of the day, the setting of the sun. I also felt it was the green of the palm trees. A tropical paradise. Then, the red became the red of anger, fear, blood. Of course, the flip side of anger and fear is love. When hatred turns to love, we have hope. And I want that so badly for the world, especially now when we are becoming so divisive.
We are all free slaves
There’s a line in Funny Boy which is not in the book, but which is very important to me. At the end, they land safely in Canada and the mother says, “In the new world, he can do whatever he wants. We are all free slaves.” For me, that’s the question of identity: Will we ever stop being slaves? When will we stop being slaves to the preconceptions about what we are supposed to be like as an Indian? People look at me and wonder, “Are you going to talk like Apu in The Simpsons?” “Do you love Bollywood, meditation and yoga?” “Which slum do you come from?” There are so many preconceptions for Blacks, Muslims—anybody who’s not white. We come with a baggage of preconceptions.
I feel very strongly that with Funny Boy, we have an opportunity. The window is open right now where people are paying attention to BIPOC films, people of color, women. I don’t know how long it will last. I’m so skeptical. Where does representation start and tokenism take over?
I think it’s really important that the minority get to tell the stories now. If the window is open, let’s go through it. With Funny Boy, there is an opportunity for many people to understand what happened in Sri Lanka to the Tamils and the genocide. There’s also an opportunity to see a great love story. In Sri Lanka, homosexuality is actually a criminal offense.
We have refugees from all over the world. They bring their stories with them. It’s extremely important that we have a venue to tell their stories, because that is what makes the whole palette of filmmaking or writing or plays, or any kind of art, relevant and richer. Everybody’s experience of their trauma or their love or of their relationship with their family is different. It might be the same, but it’s different in the way it’s been lived out. That’s important. That will make the world a richer place, and perhaps we realize that we aren’t that different after all. Humanity is very important to me.
The two unknowable things
After my very famous foray into filmmaking about how wheat grows, I came home and I said to my father, “I don’t think I want to study Hindu philosophy. I don’t want to do my master’s. I want to be a filmmaker.” There was dead silence. I’d asked my mother already and she said, “Definitely!” But my father said, “Okay, you should do whatever you want to, but always remember that there are two things in life that you will never ever know about: One is, you will never know when you’re going to die. Never. The other is, you will never know how a film will be received. So, if you keep that in mind, you will be fine.”
We all have expectations that, yes, our films will be embraced and loved. But then, there’s some controversy and people are burning your effigy. Then, the next minute, you’re walking the red carpet. There are so many contradictions, but what has struck me and has really helped me in my life is what my father told me.
Header image from Funny Boy (2020)