In looking at the turbulent life of an American who married the last crown prince of Korea in 1959, only to be shunned by his family because she could not produce an heir, Deepa Mehta finds more than a dramatic story. "I see it as a film about the survival of dignity," says Mehta, who will be directing the biopic of the princess for Focus (makers of Hollywood film, Brokeback Mountain).
"In the end, it turned out he was impotent," she continues, talking about her first film for a Hollywood studio (Focus is a division of Universal). "But what is endearing, yet tragic, about this story is that Princess Julia, who came from a poor Ukranian-American family, adopted Korea and fell in love with its people and culture, despite the attitude of her husband and his family."
The prince, who divorced Julia in 1982, died last year.
"He had royal blood in him," she says, "but the question is, who has the real nobility? To me, that honour belongs to the princess."
Mehta, whose film Water was nominated by Canada last week as its Oscar entry in the foreign films category, is in New York to meet with the 77-year old widow who carries the title Her Imperial Highness Princess Julia Lee of Korea, as part of research for the film, tentatively called The Julia Project. Mehta is delighted working with a Hollywood studio that backs fiercely independent filmmakers such as Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain). Though her 1994 film Camilla, starring Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda, was distributed by a division of Walt Disney, it was an independent venture.
The Julia Project has been on the Focus slate for several years. "They saw Water a few months ago," Mehta says, "and approached me to do this film. I seem to be drawn to subjects in which people fight for their dignity." She refers particularly to The Exclusion, her $15 million historical film to be shot in late spring or early summer next year in Canada, India, China and Japan.
Mehta will work on The Julia Project after The Exclusion -- revolving around the odyssey of men and women aboard the ship Komagatu Maru -- is filmed. The Exclusion may star Amitabh Bachchan as a nationalist who challenged the British in an extraordinary way in the second decade of the twentieth century.
"I am very keen on this extraordinary actor to play the role of Gurdit Singh, who hired a Japanese ship that sailed from Hong Kong to China, Japan and then Vancouver, carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, and sought to give them a haven in Canada, far from the gaze of the British," she says. A substantial number of the passengers had fought against the British Raj. "Like The Julia Project, The Exclusion also focuses on people who fight for their dignity."
The Exclusion is Mehta's most expensive project yet. In fact, its budget almost equals that of all her seven films starting with 1991's Sam & Me. The Julia Project could cost about $20 million. "It is good to have a big budget," Mehta, whose Water cost about $3 million, says.
"But, if a film doesn't offer an unforgettable story, deeply etched characters and strong performances, what good is a big budget?"