September 10, 2008

Actress-Turned-Director Mines India’s Past Toronto Film Festival

By Joan Dupont

The Toronto festival has always been rich ground for films from India. This city is home to Deepa Mehta, famous for her trilogy on the making of modern India - "Fire""Earth," and "Water." The director has set her new film, "Heaven on Earth," on Canadian soil, portraying an Indian family cloistered in anger and frustration. It is a bold film, with Preity Zinta, a Bollywood star, as a young girl shipped abroad to marry a man she has never met, and who rejects her. It does not have a Bollywood ending.

The night before "Heaven on Earth" had its premiere, Nandita Das, the popular actress and human rights advocate, showed "Firaaq," her first film as director. Das, who has played in 36 films, was the star of Mehta's "Fire," about two women in a traditional household who fall in love; and "Earth," which took place during the devastating partition when British India was divided to create Hindu- majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, ending in carnage.

Mehta and Das, strong women from Delhi (Das still lives there) who have much in common, were once close. Then came "Water": Mehta was routed from Benares when she tried to shoot the historic story of exploited widows in the holy city. The project was brought to fruition four years later, outside India, and won an Oscar nomination. But Das, originally set for the lead role, was no longer part of the film. In order to keep the film under wraps, Mehta went with a new cast. "I was very sad and disappointed," Das said, "but it's over: I have let go of those feelings." She added: "Acting is a small part of what I do,"

Das, now 38, is a ravishing, very serious and very funny woman. She has been honored as a political rights activist and has served on the Cannes jury. Her debut as director made a splash at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last month, where Salman Rushdie introduced the film. "Firaaq," for all the anger and anguish it portrays, is a surprisingly fresh film, composed around a cluster of stories.

An Urdu word that means both separation and quest, "Firaaq" is set during the aftermath of the Gujarat Province riots in 2002, when Hindus and Muslims clashed: women were raped, and families slaughtered in a stunning replay of the partition. The film was made in Urdu, Gujarati and English. The director brings intensity to her characters' plight, with sharp instinct for rooting out their hidden fears.

"I was interested in what happens when the violence subsides," Das said. "People were less ashamed of how they talked about what happened, and that shocked and disturbed me. I cut out some of the stronger stories because they divide people; if you take ordinary people it's easier to relate to. I didn't start filmmaking looking for a story, instead, the stories compelled me to become a director."

The script, co-written with Shuchi Kothari, who lives in New Zealand, is a triumph of interwoven dramas, set in Hindu and Muslim families. There is a housewife who has refused entry to a Muslim woman who knocks on her door, and turns on herself in remorse; a musician clinging to his idealism as long as he can; two girlfriends suddenly suspicious of each other; a Hindu-Muslim middle-class couple who sense each other slip away as events challenge them; and a small boy seeking shelter.

"I was in Delhi when the riots broke out," Das said. "It started with the train incident: Muslim boys on the platform weren't paid for the tea they served. Some started throwing stones at the train, and then a gasoline tank exploded. There was a fire. The media said that these boys started it and that 'Every action has a reaction.'

"That was the official attitude and when the government adopts that attitude, who can people turn to?"

Das went to the province, was invited to forums, and addressed students. "But this film isn't just about what took place historically," she said. "It's about what has happened to us as people. Look at what happened after 9/11, and not just to Americans."

The filmmaker is deeply disturbed by what she sees as blatant fear-mongering in U.S. politics and feels that her characters are distant relatives. "How sad it is to be pushed to the wall and feel that you have to prove your innocence at all times, hide your identity. That's what I see happening."

She chose actors whom she admired - "Some I knew, others became new friends; many shared my passion. As an actor you don't always have a chance to communicate your feelings."

The award-winning actor Naseeruddin Shah plays the old musician: "He is a wonderful actor: He plays a man in denial about the horror going on around him, but in a poetic way, not from ignorance, but from idealism.

"I love Brecht's line, 'Will there be singing in the dark times? There will be singing of the dark times.'"

The actress thought, for a split second, that she could play the role of the Muslim's Hindu wife. "But I'm glad I didn't. Because as a director, you internalize everybody's stress; you become a parent on the set."

Her own parents gave her a lot of room to explore possibilities. Her father, Jatin Das, is an artist; her mother, Varsha Das, a writer, is the director of the National Gandhi museum in Delhi. "My grandparents were part of Gandhi's movement, so all these things have become part of me."

She started out with art, classical music and dance. Not cinema. "I never saw a Bollywood movie and the others thought I was pompous, but it just didn't happen." After getting a degree in geography she took a year off to see what she wanted to do next.

"My parents gave me the leeway to discover things on my own. It wasn't common at all in India to take a year off. I decided to do my masters in social work. I wanted to work with people and understand the world we live in."

Das was drawn to politics doing street theater in support of workers' rights. A close friend and fellow activist was murdered. "I think I grew as a person, became more aware, responsible: it was important to have a purpose in life."

She did field work with a women's organization when she was 19. "I was very idealistic and still am. Then I started working with children. That was sheer joy."

The most difficult casting job she had for the film was the part of Mohsin, a 6-year-old who has been orphaned and reappears throughout the different scenes, searching for a safe place. She found Mohd Samad in the old city of Hyderabad. "But he couldn't stop smiling and we needed Mohsin not to smile. Finally, I had to take him after all, because he had the intelligence we needed."

Das only began watching movies in college. "European films: my friends wanted to become filmmakers so we went to the French or Russian Embassy to see Godard or Tarkovsky and then to regional fests with films in regional languages. That's why I do so many films in other languages. I don't know some of these languages really, but I have a good ear.

"Then, I met Deepa, we hit it off: she was wonderful, and we did 'Fire' together, and 'Earth.' We had a deep rapport and working relationship."

Today, she says, she would love to act in an Almodovar film, or with Kiarostami. "I also like Fatih Akin, the young German director."

After the Toronto debut, "Firaaq" will be shown at festivals in Vancouver; Busan, South Korea; London; and Dubai. "I want to reach out with this film," she said. "Most people don't know what really goes on in India - they're happy with the yoga. It is a place where you find the most modern, progressive, and the most conservative and bigoted. There is violence and harmony. But it's hard to grasp. Recently someone in New York asked me, don't you have elephants there? And I said, actually, we have a parking problem, so now we have donkeys."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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