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September 9, 1999
'To recreate a period piece in Delhi was a heroic task'
Aseem Chhabra in New York
Two-and-a-half years ago film-maker Deepa Mehta was in a bookstore in Seattle, when she stumbled across a book called Cracking India. Written by Pakistani novelist Bapsi Sidhwa, a Parsi, the book (titled Ice Candy Man in India) is set in Lahore during Partition. The book deals with the lives of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, but through the eyes of an eight-year-old Parsi girl.
"The title Cracking India [was] written in fine black print down the spine of a paperback," she said recently, in an interview in New York. She added that discovering the book was a real coincidence; she could have missed the book altogether, as it "could very well have been emblazoned in neon."
The book, Cracking India, has now been transformed into a feature film, Earth (1947in India)" -- the second installment of Mehta's trilogy (Fire was the first part and Water is in pre-production).
Starring Aamir Khan, Nandita Das (who also acted in Fire), and Rahul Khanna, who was recently seen in a major role in East Is East, the acclaimed off-Broadway play, Earth had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1998. Now, a year later, the film is set to be released in the US and India on Friday.
The subject of Partition is close to Mehta's heart. Her father's family migrated from Lahore to Amritsar just prior to Partition, leaving behind their properties and cinema houses. Mehta's father was a film distributor and exhibitor in Lahore, a profession he continued to follow in Amritsar. As a child, she grew up listening to stories of the about this particular holocaust.
"Talking about Partition was a way of life for Punjabi families," she said. "You would meet someone and they would talk about another family, that things will be never the same for them again. Fortunes changed dramatically and people lost so much."
"In Punjab, if you ask people what 1947 means to them, they will never say the Independence of India, they say the partition of India," she said.
Earlier speaking at a panel discussion in New York, sponsored by the South Asian Journalists Association, Mehta said her collaboration with Sidhwa would not have been possible if the two had not migrated to the West.
"Bapsi is from Pakistan and now a US citizen. I am from India and now live in Canada," she said. "If neither of us had moved from our respective homelands, the film just wouldn't have been possible."
Earth was shot in Old Delhi in early 1998, even though Sidhwa's novel and the film is set in Lahore. In 1997, Mehta and her executive producer, David Hamilton, applied to various Pakistani government ministries to shoot the film in that country.
"I was never denied permission [to shoot the film in Pakistan] because I was an Indian," she said. "I am sure the file got lost in the shuffle from one desk to another."
She said the book is very well-known in Pakistan and that Sidhwa received the Sitara-I-Imtiaz award, the highest honor in the arts that the Pakistani government bestows on a citizen. (However, speaking earlier at the SAJA event, Mehta said given the political climate in Pakistan, she had doubts if the film would ever be released in that country.)
After several months with no concrete word from the Pakistanis, Mehta and Hamilton gave up and decided to use locations in Old Delhi and convert them to resemble pre-Partition Lahore.
"To recreate a period piece in present Delhi was a heroic task," she said. "To dress the television antennae itself became a mammoth task, let alone the hundreds of the rooftop water tanks."
The film has several scenes shot on rooftops including, a charming kite-flying scene set to the music of A R Rahman and the lyrics of Javed Akhtar (Rut Aa Gayee Re, sung by Sukhwinder Singh of Chaiya, Chaiya fame). In another crucial segment, at night, the main characters watch riots on the streets from the rooftop of Dil Navaz (played by Aamir Khan), the ice candy man.
On the choice of the actors to play the lead roles in Earth, Mehta said: "My casting is very instinctive. I know my characters very well. It is very easy for me to look at an actor and say that this actor will suit the character that I have written."
Rahul Khanna, she said has the "beauty," "strength" and "dignity" that his character Hasan (the masseur) required in the film.
While writing the script and the character of Shanta, the ayah, Mehta felt she was describing Nandita Das.
"She is a very dear friend," Mehta added. "But that is not the reason I cast her. I think she is perfect for the role. I didn't want to do her any disservice. It's not a loyalty thing."
Das had a very difficult role to play in Earth, Mehta said. "She walks a very fine line between sensuality and innocence. I think Nandita did real justice to the character."
Mehta described Khan as a "thinking actor" and "an extremely well-read and well-informed young man" who does not carry a Bollywood veneer.
"Initially, the crew was slightly nervous," she said. "Here was a Bollywood star and what if he comes with all the baggage? We don't work the same way as they do in Bollywood."
At the same time, Khan himself was concerned, since Earth was going to be made in the mold of a North American independent film, where dialogues are recorded in synch-sound and not after the fact, in the dubbing recording studios. This meant for the first time, Khan had to learn his lines before the shoot.
In Bollywood the make-up person shows the mirror to the star between every shot, which is what Khan did the first day he arrived on the set.
"We didn't know how to react to that," Mehta said. "Each time he did that he became Aamir Khan again. He stopped playing the character. The cameraman [Giles Nuttegens] did not know what the hell was happening."
That night, Mehta talked with Khan for over four hours and both the director and actor expressed their concerns about the two very different worlds of film-making.
"From that day on it was marvelous," Mehta said. "I wished I had told him in detail how a set works, and he wished that he had told me that he felt uncomfortable with how we work. From that day it was a breeze. It ended up that everyone just loved him."
Right now Mehta is in the pre-production stage for her next film, Water, which involves, among other things, selecting her lead actress. The names of Bollywood stars Manisha Koirala and Tabu have been mentioned. Following that, in April 2000 she goes to Hollywood to direct a Fine Line Features (a Time-Warner outfit) production. The film, A Girl in the Paperbag, will star Nastassia Kinski and Eric Stolz.
Mehta says she knows the rules of Hollywood, even though the films she has so far directed are independently produced and funded.
"I am not a Steven Spielberg or a George Lucas," she said. "So the chances of my getting a final cut on a Hollywood film are like really dim. That is the reality and one learns."
She said she hoped her work would continue to allow her to move freely between North America and India. The 46-year-old Canadian-India film-maker moved to Canada after she met her future husband who worked on Canadian television.
"I moved for love," she said. The marriage fell apart several years ago.
Mehta never considers herself based in Canada. "I think I am based more in the airplanes."
"I feel very Indian. I don't feel Canadian at all," she added. "I like Canada. I think as an adoptive country, Canada has been very kind to me. But I feel very comfortable doing films that are set in India, because I grew up there. I didn't grow up in Canada playing in the snow. In fact, I have no racial memory or a personal history, even as an immigrant in Canada."
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