By Utpal Borpujari
Fresh from the critical acclaim of “Heaven on Earth”, Deepa Mehta is now busy in developing what would be her biggest-ever films – “Exclusion”, based on the Komagata Maru incident, and a screen adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning “Midnight’s Children”. Both films would star top names – the former will have Akshay Kumar as Gurdit Singh, the leader of the unfortunate passengers of Komagata Maru who were not allowed to land in Canada, most of whom were massacred by British forces when they tried to return to India – while the latter will star Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das and Rushdie himself. Mehta spoke with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on the two projects:
Why and when did you decide to take up the subject of Komagata Maru incident for a film?
I am interested by the story, not the issue. Without a story, you cannot do a film. It is a story about the human spirit. These 379 men, two women and two children came across to Canada in 1914 to seek a better life, to escape British persecution in Colonial India, and they were not allowed in because people were scared that they were Brown. It was just amazing how the colour of one’s skin decides one’s future. What struck me about the story was how racism is rooted in economics. I went to Johannesburg during the Apartheid days, around 1975. There was two lines, one for the Whites, one for the rest – the Indians, the Chinese, the Arabs, all non-Whites. Then I went there two years later, when there was a huge oil boom in the Middle East. And I suddenly see all others were still in the Coloured Line, but the Arabs were in the White Line. So, racism is all about money. Suddenly in one year, the Arabs became White! If the perception about India is changing today, it is because of its economic situation. It’s not that they have suddenly found a long lost love for us.
What kind of research you have done for this film?
A lot. And not only by going to the archives, but also by depending on oral history. The descendents of those on the ship are still there, the records of those who had registered with the gurdwaras in Punjab are still there. There are a lot of people from Hoshiarpur, Amritsar and Jallandhar districts. It’s an amazing story.
So, you have stuck to the historical narrative?
You cannot fictionalize much, because it is living history. There is not much to dramatise because it by itself is a very dramatic story. Obviously, I cannot deal with all the 379 passengers, so I have to focus on Gurdit Singh, Mewa Singh, the shore committee, the lawyer, the two women, Raghnath Singh who was the traitor. There were a lot of obvious thing that are dramatic. I think Akshay will be fabulous as Gurdit, that’s my instinct as a director says.
Will you shoot in the actual locations?
No, because the shoreline has changed tremendously. I will have to move further north, towards in Vancouver, Victoria.
Will it be costly also in terms of sets, etc.?
No, because there are still lots of old buildings there. And it will be criminal to spend huge amounts of sets in such difficult times. I would rather save the money and spend it in days of shooting. It will be shot next year.
Next year you are also doing Midnight’s Children? Apart from it being a classic piece of literature, what else attracted you towards it?
I will do that towards the end of next year. Isn’t that enough (that it is classic literature). It reveres history, and I love the idea of history, more so of the birth of a nation.
Would it have a contemporary resonance?
It’s timeless, because what it talks about is the spirit of a nation, the corruption of a nation. It talks about the birth of a nation, about the tragedy of a nation. So, it is a wheel of a cycle that continues in different aspects. So I feel that will continue till time immemorial.
You are co-writing the script with Rushdie. He is also said to be interested to act in it..
He is acting in it, in the role of Ramaswami. It is finalised. He is a very good actor, don’t you think he would be right for the role of Ramaswami? Nandita will be terrific as Padma, and Shabana will be very good in the role of the beautiful grandmother. Seema Biswas will be perfect for Mary, remember how good she was in Khamoshi.
Who will play Salim, the protagonist?
I am looking at 3-4 people. It will be best for if I one who can play someone who could play 25 and then 35-40 and could also be 80.
Will you strictly stick to the narrative of the book or will you pick up certain strands?
It is far more liberating that I am co-writing the script with Salman. If you are doing it with the writer, it is much easier. If I had done it on my own, I would have had to be far more careful, to take his approval. The good thing about Salman is that he is very film savvy. He understands the language of cinema and he knows that it cannot be verbatim as it is in the book. For example, Some of the dialogues will be in Urdu or Hindustani. They are not there in the book, but in film it would look very odd – and Salman was the first one to admit that – if people in the region in the 1930s talked in English.