So this is your third time coming to Montreal to show one of your films at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma?
“Yes. I love this city and I love this festival. It’s a very intelligent festival, it has edge and they’ve got good taste in movies.”
Well, they’ve selected Heaven on Earth, and it is indeed an interesting movie, not to flatter you–
“No-no, please flatter me, I like it!”
Ok! One of the things that’s interesting about your film, right from the start, is how you create that contrast between Chand’s life back home in India, as seen in those early scenes which are very festive and colourful, almost Bollywoodish, but once Chand is sent to Canada to get married, it becomes much bleaker…
“There’s no question that it’s more colourful and far more warm in India than here in the winter… When I came to Canada as an immigrant, it was in January. It was so cold, and everything was grey. I thought, where has the color gone?”
The film becomes this very realistic domestic drama, but then things shift again as some fantastic elements are introduced… I read that this was inspired from an Indian play?
“More or less. The play itself is based on a very old Indian folk tale, about the myth of the cobra. In that sense, it’s about mythology; it’s about the power of imagination to help us, like it does for Chand. Her imagination helps to deal with a situation that’s very unpleasant. And when she’s done with it, when it’s taken her to the other side, she doesn’t need it anymore. It’s served its purpose. For me, that was very interesting. For me, the reason to make this film was not just to portray domestic violence in the immigrant community; it was more about the use of the imagination, and myth. It’s fascinating, and when you read Joseph Campbell, you realize that it’s in all the cultures, whether it’s Egyptian or Norse or Indian… Myths inform us as people.”
But, with most of the film being almost like this kitchen-sink drama, those fantastic, mythical elements come as kind of a shock, no?
“The whole thing is that you have to be in Chand’s head… Slowly, as she starts slipping, as she gets into another reality, you have to be like her; you don’t know what’s going on. Like, she questions herself: “Am I going mad? Am I dreaming? How is this possible?” You have to become like her. I think that it’s very important that the audience goes through this journey with her.”
In that regard, it was crucial for the lead actress to be utterly convincing, as is the case here with Preity Zinta, right?
“Yes, absolutely! One of the real joys for me was to work with Preity, because she really nailed it, and with such ease… I mean, she worked very hard, but it never showed, it never shows on film that she’s working very hard to be this person.”
This is very different from what we’re used to see from Preity Zinta, who’s usually all made up and goofy–
“Funny and laughing and so cool… She’s always the cool chick in Bollywood movies.”
So how did you know that she had that depth, that vulnerability?
“I saw it… I met her by accident in England, I was talking to her and suddenly, it hit me that she would make a perfect Chand. It’s all about instinct. I didn’t think for a second that she couldn’t do it. I knew she could, I had absolute complete conviction that she would really nail Chand.”
How was it for to work with a superstar like her for you and your crew?
“Most of the crew didn’t even know who she was! But I think that if you’re really a big star, you don’t care about stuff like this. Preity is too secure in her stardom to want to be recognized or anything. She ate with us, she travelled with the rest of the actors, she didn’t have a car for herself, she didn’t have her own hair and make-up… I told her that I really wanted her to get to know the other actors, I didn’t want them to feel that she was anybody different, because it’s a very intimate film… And she got it, she never made a fuss and she got along with everybody.”
It’s funny how Bollywood actors can be these huge stars in half of the world, but practically unknown here…
“Totally — in many countries, if you have Shahrukh Khan and Brad Pitt next to each other, nobody would look at Brad Pitt! They know who Amitabh Bachchan is, but they don’t know who Al Pacino is, and they don’t care! The only group of people that can challenge Hollywood and stand on their own in half the world is Bollywood.”
Going back to the film, it seems that, with immigrant women being so isolated and so far from their family, it’s even worse for them to be stuck in abusive relationships. At least if you’re in your own country, close to your family–
“There’s a network, you have support, which you don’t if you’re in another country. Plus, if you’re not fluent in the language… That’s why many people don’t even call 911, they’re too ashamed to; they don’t know how to say that they need help. And women like Chand, they never heard of shelters. How would she know that there’s a place she can go to?”
So escaping in her imagination, in fantasy, is pretty much the only thing she can do?
“There’s no other alternative. Either that or you die, you kill yourself. To find the freedom, you have to be open to the idea that there is a course that you believe in that can take you out of it… Many people believe in God, and that to me is very fantastical! Whether you’re talking to a cobra or to God, what’s the difference? Whatever helps you…”
You mentioned earlier that, in regards to casting, instinct is key for you. I get the feeling that through your career in general, that’s also been the case.
“Absolutely. I don’t have a five year plan or anything… Like, after Water was nominated for the Oscar, every studio that had a script that had to do with strong women wanted me to do it. I was getting all these offers by big studios, $60 million dollar films, $80 million dollar films… I was really tempted; my God, can you imagine, all this money? But none of the stories totally and completely inspired me the way Heaven on Earth did… There was something about it that I said, yeah, I’m learning something as I’m writing it… Hopefully, I’m gonna challenge my audience, I’m not gonna give easy answers. I want to grow as a filmmaker, I want to experiment with style, I want to experiment with content. That, you cannot get in Hollywood.”
“I mean, I am doing a project that is a Hollywood project, with Miramax… It’s called Reading Lolita in Teheran, it’s based on a fabulous book.”
Never say never, I guess!
Heaven on Earth open in Montreal on October 31st.