You curated a tribute to Indian cinema at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. How do you rate Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) vis-a-vis other festivals?
I don’t think its fair to compare. Each festival has its own space and place. Given the limitations, I think its quite reassuring to see what MFF is doing. And its grown over the years. The film fraternity across the world respects MFF and feels honoured to be invited because of the way it is organised and the platform it offers to some superlative cinema, which wouldn’t have a chance at a commercial release. After all no film maker wants to see his work die a quiet death.
What about the argument that dynamic of MFF is being penetrated by a mainstream Bollywood influence?
What about it? Every festival across the world carries a stamp of its country, its city. Why should MFF be apologetic about mainstream Bollywood? Why can’t we have an eclectic mix of both commercial and art house cinema. Even Hollywood does it. They know that having a sellable Brad Pitt in the lead will help take the film, however small, places. Here too, I know filmmakers like Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap are choosing to work with big stars. We have to make it clear that both these worlds are not and cannot be mutually exclusive.
Violent protests have greeted some of your previous films. How has this changed you?
I never set out to make a controversial movie, not even with Fire and Water. I’m a storyteller and that kind of violent reaction is appalling. It’s crippling and I don’t wish it on anybody. In the end it does no one any good, neither me the filmmaker, the cast, the crew and least of all, the film which most people begin to form opinions on without having watched it.
It is horrible to be told you can’t make this film. It’s supposed to be a democratic country. It wasn’t pleasant but I wouldn’t change the way I work because of it.
Some critics insist your films are anti-men to the point of being misandrist?
My films are not anti any gender. They are pro-human. For example, for me the men in Fire are also victims. They’re victims of patriarchal masculinist tradition that subjugates their own independence to fulfill what is expected of them.
Were you worried about the comparisons that would be made between the book and the film?
You are always worried about the comparison. There are people who I call the “adaptation police” and it’s inevitable that the two works will be compared. Films and books are two very different mediums but there are rare occasions when the film does better than the book. For example, Life of Pi was a fabulous film, I liked it better than the book.
You shoot your films under an alias, why is that?
The only reason is to be quiet about the whole thing. You are making a film you don’t want the press there conducting interviews and delaying the production plan. Press is important after production. We shoot with a schedule in mind and every moment is precious.
Is it really possible to balance freedom and tradition?
It’s difficult but not entirely as impossible as is made out to be. The status quoists will give you hell because they have the most to lose. But having heart and going on is important for all change. There’s a conversation in Water about letting go of traditions which don’t work anymore.
It’s very difficult to question and change tradition, but it needs to be done.
You have strong female characters in all your films. Are these inspired by your own experiences, women you know or are they mostly fictional?
What one sees around certainly gets imbibed and manifests in one’s work. Look around. Things are changing for women, but how much are they really changing? Sometimes only the paradigms change but the exploitative continuum stays on. As a woman and a filmmaker I’m going to react to that.
Is that why you end up being labelled a feminist director?
See, labels are quite lame and lazy. In fact they’re the easiest thing to do. Once you label something you don’t have to engage or interact with the person or their work.
Powerful, moving human stories grip me and I will continue to tell them unmindful of any label.
Having said that, it’s obvious that as a woman the way I see things is slightly different. But I’d rather think of myself as a humanitarian filmmaker than a feminist.
Have you encountered much bias, generally or in a cinematic way because you’re an Indian female filmmaker in Canada?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Canada is a multi-cultural country unlike the melting-pot in the United States. In Canada, we’re encouraged to nurture and be proud of our culture. I’m Indo-Canadian, and never felt the need to merge into a nebulous Canadian mass. I feel like I’m being a good Indian by being a good Canadian and there’s absolutely no conflict. Everyone’s encouraged to celebrate where they’re from there.
You’ve dabbled with both television and film. Which do you enjoy working on more?
For me, working is the most important thing. I really like documentaries. I’ve done documentaries for TV and full length feature films. They are both great learning experiences and keep challenging you as a filmmaker. Exploring and trying out new things always keeps it exciting.
How did you come about making Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children into a film?
He is a friend. We were sitting down at dinner and I simply asked how he felt about me making the film. And he said, sure. He also wrote the screenplay.
Some feel the script for Midnight’s Children suffered at the hands of Salman Rushdie.
I’ve seen those views and I completely disagree. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to condense and visualise a 500-page novel that spans three wars, charts the lives of dozens of characters and covers decades of tumultuous history. So I asked Rushdie to personally adapt and edit the novel for the screen.
We had several meetings on the way the narrative would flow for the film and independently wrote that down. You’ll be amazed at how much we had in common when we compared notes. He really didn’t want to write the screenplay. I had to literally arm-twist him into it. And trust me no filmmaker will knowingly take a risk if he/she knows something will not work.
What is the next project you are working on?
It’s a film based on Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda which happens out of India and the US. Very importantly, it has nothing to do with anything controversial. I’ve always felt very strongly about the way the girl child is treated in India right from her birth, and often horrifically even before she’s born.
Have you thought of the cast?
No, its too early. I’m still writing and hope to shoot in March next year so the casting is not done.
It’s very rare that one thinks of the cast while writing the script. It happened with 1947 Earth. I knew even when I was writing that I wanted Nandita Das to play Shanta, the ayah.
Do you make films to change attitudes of the audiences or make them think?
I don’t like films with messages. Those films are better off as documentaries. I do films that concern me and that are of concern to me. It is important to me that women be treated equally in all walks of life. My films will talk about that. But I’m not out to change the world. If it makes people think, that’s excellent but I won’t make it give out a message. That would be terribly arrogant.
Women are treated as third rate citizens in this country. If things had changed, the gang rape wouldn’t have happened. If Delhi is known as the rape capital of the world, then there is something seriously wrong there. What has changed, is that there are many more women, who are concerned about what has happening. I was in Delhi when the gang rape occurred and I saw so many women protesting on the streets, it was good to see so many people being vocal.
Do you have a lot of young filmmakers approaching you for advice?
I do. What I invariably tell them that filmmaking is easy because you can shoot a film on your cellphone and edit it with technology that is readily available. What is equally important is to make sure how many people watch the film. It is no use if you are the only one appreciating your work.
Most young filmmakers take this process for granted.