19 February, 2007, Reuters
By Krittivas Mukherjee
MUMBAI: Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta will explore racism in her new film Exclusion, inspired by a real life incident in which a shipload of Indians was turned back from Canada in 1914.
“The script is ready and we should begin filming by the end of the year,” Mehta, 57, said in a weekend interview.
Mehta, whose Water – about the oppression of women in India in the 1930s – has been nominated for the Oscars in the best foreign film category, has signed Bollywood’s iconic actor Amitabh Bachchan to play a Sikh nationalist who hires a ship and sails to Canada with hundreds of Indians in search of a new life.
But the passengers of the Japanese Komagata Maru are turned back from Vancouver by Canadian authorities using new exclusion laws aimed at keeping Asian immigrants away. It was then forced to Hong Kong from where it went to Kolkata where British colonial police fired on passengers to quell a protest, killing some of them.
Mehta says what appealed to her in the Komagata Maru incident was the passengers’ fight for dignity. “Most of my films are about human dignity, be it Fire or Water. Exclusion also tells about a 58-year-old Sikh revolutionary with a very strong sense of dignity,” said Mehta, who has lived in Toronto since the age of 23.
Mehta says she picked Bachchan to play the Sikh revolutionary and businessman, Gurdit Singh, because he “can show power without screaming”.
"The angst of a man whose dignity is dared – it’s not screaming anger. Bachchan is just right for that,” the filmmaker said. Mehta says, as a filmmaker, she can understand this angst when Hindu zealots stopped her from filming Water in India in 2000. Two days in to shooting, angry members of Hindu right-wing groups stormed her locale, set fire to the sets and issued death threats to her, saying her film was a vulgar denigration of Indian tradition and culture.
Water is about the oppressed life of Hindu widows in their murky ghettos of a city in 1930s India. Mehta says she had to wait for a few years for her anger to ebb, and finally shot the film in secrecy in Sri Lanka.
"It can’t be all OK. One can’t go through the trial by fire and not be affected,” Mehta said when asked if she had been able to put the protests behind her. But she insists there is no bitterness because “what happened was not the doing of all India but a small radical group”.
“But all that has made me more resilient,” she said. Her movie Fire in 1998 also drew flak from hardline Hindu groups because it showed a lesbian relationship.
As Water opens in India on March 9, Mehta feels her resilience as a filmmaker has triumphed.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said, adding she had been saddened that Water could not be shot in India.