Deepa, we've known each for 35 years. How do you see your journey from the underrated Sam & Me and Camilla to Leila?
Journeys are just that, an exploration that somehow evolves or sometimes meets a dead end. Sam and Me was the beginning of an incredible exploration of a craft. It got me a Camera Dor award, recognition as a filmmaker everywhere except perhaps in India. But more than anything it gave me an opportunity to explore, be curious, objective about India. A country I still consider home but which ( I have accepted ) thinks of me as not one of its own.
Why do you say that?
In fact I am not really a genuine ‘Indian’. Nostalgia perhaps is a far stronger driving force than I had given credit to. Leila, a Netflix series based on Prayag Akbar’s novel is an inevitable part of that journey. India continues to amaze me and to do a couple of episodes based on its imagined future was too exciting an opportunity to let pass.
The film ‘Fire’ celebrated same-sex relationship long before it became fashionable to do so. Today when you see a film as evocative as God's Own Country and Call Me By Your Name on homosexuality what are your thoughts?
It’s not about the message for me, never ! Rather, it’s about the way a story is told. Call Me By Your Name or Moonlight for that matter are stunning films because of the way they are depicted, the narrative, the struggles, the entry into a world not known. Therein lies their beauty. A glimpse into the unfamiliar. I remember our conversation after you saw Fire. You hated it ! But yet we’re intrigued, the beginning of a dialogue and a friendship.
Leila has come right after your dark and disturbing Anatomy Of Violence about the Nirbhaya case. While the latter is set in a very contemporary India Leila is futuristic and still very contemporary as the 'purification' that the radicals speak about in your film, is also the magic mantra and a holy chant in present-day Indian politics. Your comments?
I chose to do Anatomy of Violence and Leila chose me somewhat. I was offered by Netflix to direct two of the episodes of Leila, the first being a pilot. I guess, in hindsight I accepted because it was the challenge of depicting a future which is already seeded and has begun to sprout as we speak. Today is tomorrow in Leila.
Huma Qureshi in Leila
At heart Leila is a mother-daughter film. That must resonated deeply with you.
Well ,you know about my daughter Devyani and the great love I feel for her. But honestly that has little to do with the true resonance I felt for Leila. On the surface, yes it’s about a mother’s search for her kid, but really it’s a woman’s search for dignity, equality and humanity.
About your actors, we have had our differences of opinion. Do you remember how much I argued against your casting of John Abraham and Lisa Ray in Water? But finally I was wrong. They were stunning. What about Huma Qureshi?
Ha ! Yes I remember you being aghast about John! But I really believe that things end up invariably the way they do, despite our not wanting to. Huma Qureshi was an absolute joy to work with. She is an absolutely brilliant actor and continued to blow me away all.
I can't help seeing parallels between the dystopian society in Leila and contemporary India. As an NRI Indian, are you worried or hopeful about the present and future of India?
The whole world is in a state of flux. The novel Children of Men by PD James seems eerily coming closer to reality, as is Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale. And Orwell’s 1984. It doesn’t take rocket scientist or an NRI to know that Leila along with many other dystopian novels is a cautionary tale about what can happen if we don’t pay attention to what IS happening. The future of the whole world is unknown.
You have gone through acute hardships in making your films, specially Water which you had abandoned in Varanasi. Do you remember the trauma you went through? How do you like back on the experience? Is it liberating to not have the moral police or the censor breathing down your neck in Leila?
Water was an experience that taught me tons. It wasn’t traumatic, just a huge pain in the neck. And we did get it made finally. So the pain ended in a triumph of sorts. Fire went through the Indian censors without a single cut. I think we confuse censorship in film with ratings. Netflix and other streaming services have distinct guidelines as to age-appropriate content. Censorship is an entirely different kettle of fish where somebody else decides for you what you should see or not. It’s pretty absurd in my ethos for adults to be treated as children.
Deepa Mehta with her team
Is the mother's search in Leila for her missing daughter a comment on the missing values such as inclusiveness in Indian society? Do you see India ever becoming the portrait of secularism that it once was?
India will become what Indians voted for.
Deepa, what are you working on next? What about your favourite project Komagata Maru?
We are working on a couple of films at the moment. Both are challenging. Just finished a pilot for an Apple series called Little America. It was an amazing experience based on a brilliant script by Rajeev Joseph.