Smitha Radhakrishnan chats with first-time feature film director Richie Mehta about working with family, attracting big stars, and putting 100% into a character named Amal.
Connecting Personal Issues to the Big Picture
Smitha Radhakrishnan has been publishing her podcast Desi Dilemmas from Podbazaar since November of 2005. On August 2007, she joined Asia Pacific Arts. Desi Dilemmas weaves together narratives, opinion, and research with Indians on three continents, to place common issues facing desis in a larger social and economic context.
Questions? Comments? Write to her at email@example.com.
The recent Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles opened with a special feature film. Amal boasted an all-star cast of veteran Indian actors like Nasiruddin Shah, Roshan Seth, and Seema Biswas, among others, and a young, first-time Canadian filmmaker, Richie Mehta. This was neither a Bollywood style bonanza nor any kind of easily place-able “diasporic” film. It was not an “identity” film or a love story, but rather a fable. A fable with an improbable storyline and, as the director himself put it, a “sucker-punch” ending, replete with lessons about the true nature of wealth. The thing about Amal, named for the lovable lead character, is that you only realize how much it is a fable afterwards. When you’re watching it, you see the complexities of India’s urban class landscape unfold with sharp realism, and you embrace a set of human characters that you feel are your friends.
I had the opportunity to speak with Richie Mehta about how and why this film was made, how a young guy from Toronto with a very specific vision could woo the likes of Nasiruddin Shah to work with him -- how a first-time filmmaker gets to open major film festivals all over North America. So, today, I get to share with you the story behind Amal, about the people and processes that took it from short story to big screen, and beyond.
Amal started out as a short story, written by none other than Richie Mehta’s own brother, Shaun, an MBA who gave up a corporate career track to be a high school teacher by day and a writer at night. Shaun wrote a story based on a personal experience with auto-rikshaw drivers in Bangalore.
Richie Mehta: My brother Shaun was doing his MBA like a good Indian son in Bangalore, and he basically speaks Hindi just like me. We speak with a Canadian accent. So, every time he would take rickshaw rides with the rickshaw drivers there. You know, he speaks Hindi with the accent, they believe he was a foreigner then they would rip him off and charge him. So one day he met this one guy who’s very, very sweet, very kind and humble, and wouldn’t accept a tip and held some integrity with his job, no matter what. And Shaun was so moved this he wrote this short story.
From there, the short story turned into a short film. The short film won a competition and landed him a good chunk of seed money with which to make the feature film. And then, the brothers got together to write a script in a give-and-take process that balanced a visual mind with a dramatic one.
Mehta: When we just set out to write this, it was very clear that the essence came from him but I had the final veto power to deliver. If there’s something I disagree with, when I go to such a shoot I can change anything I want. So with those two things in mind, we kind of were each others' like BS meter. Because the essence came from him, I figured if he doesn’t really get what I’m really playing with, then it’s not really fitting in with the paradigm. And for him, if I don’t get what he’s talking about, if it's affecting my vision of the film, hoping that he’s the director -- that he doesn’t get away with it. I have the tendency to make things very, very subtle, and he has the tendency to dramatize more of things. His strength is really about story. He’s amazing coming up with stories. Points and ideas and leads and stuff like that. And then my background, because it’s very much cinema, is about trying to make things visual, and we don’t have to say certain things and it will be there. We complement each other. Because we’re brothers, we don’t beat around the bush. Yeah, he’ll be like “This sucks, right?” and I’ll be like, “Yeah, you’re right.” So it was really good. It was just about the material and we enjoyed the process, had a lot of fun, and we’re definitely working together for other stuff.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this film is how realistic it looks. If you’ve spent any time in urban India, you recognize every scene: the inside of an auto rikshaw, the accented English spoken inside a five-star hotel, in contrast to particular Hindi of the street-side dhaba. Whoever made this film, I remember thinking, lives there, or has at least lived there a long long time. And yet, the director himself calls this film one that is written from a Western perspective. Why? Because it makes us cognizant of our own North American notions of wealth in a very specific way.
Mehta: I really think a lot of the observations, the essence of the whole project come from me and my brother's attempt at understanding what makes that place so beautiful, and we’re trying to go get the essence of it. And so that, I think if an Indian were to see this film from India, they would say, Big deal, so what? Like, it’s every day life right? My perspective, and from our perspective, it’s like, No, you guys don’t get it. Where we come from, the stuff that you take for granted over there is the most valuable thing in the world --- certain types of integrity, and that type you would find in an environment like that where it really is survival of the fittest. So that’s why I think it comes from me --- my perspective, my brother’s perspective and our team that made it.
Amal might focus on the integrity of the little guy, but as a film, Amal is studded with larger-than-life stars. One of the film’s central characters is played by Nasiruddin Shah -- arguably one of the most formidable, respected actors in Indian cinema. He’s been acting for over thirty years in theater, films, Bollywood, Hollywood, you name it. The story of how Richie Mehta landed Nasiruddin Shah in his first film is a great one.
Mehta: I had set aside a couple of months to go to Bombay to find him and then the other actors. And I didn’t know how. I just kinda say, you know what, I’m gonna go there and stay with an uncle friend and figure it out. I basically landed in Bombay and thirty two hours later, I just bumped into him on the streets. And I literally pitched in the project and he was like, “I’m very interested, let’s do this. Let’s talk more.” I was literally this kid from Canada who just saw him and pitched it, and it was like one in fifty million or something. And so when that started, when that happened, everything started happening. Like that. For everything to fall into place. It was cool. You know what it is? It’s that whole idea of if you want something bad enough and you put all of your energy into it and you listen to all the signs around you, it happens. I’m walking through from that. Like when you put a hundred percent of energy into something, it’ll happen.
Mehta’s focused, almost spiritual approach to the making of his film is complemented by a diverse range of visual influences that come together in rich and surprising ways.
Mehta: Definitely the biggest cinematic influence on this film was probably Salaam Bombay!. To me, it obviously went a very long way to creating this verisimilitude. It was a very traumatic story, Salaam Bombay! because it was so realistically depicted, we never questioned any of the drama. We just kind of went along with it because it felt so real. And it showed a side of India that cinematically is very rarely shown. So that was a huge influence in putting this together for sure. At the same time, there was a whole side of the film which was very classical Hollywood. I remember there was this one bar scene we did with Roshan Seth. And to me, that scene was completely driven out of like, the drama you might see from the forties or fifties: very classically lit, very classically shot in Hollywood. Stylistically, those two styles just evolved throughout the film, like they started to change. In almost from the very beginning it starts with a very wild and crazy, and we're on the street, and then it starts to change stylistically, and the rich people’s roles become wild and crazy towards the end. We’re trying to redefine our sense of wealth: who is actually the one rich in the film. So stylistically the two styles that really influenced me was the realistic depiction of India versus the classical Hollywood style which I grew up with as well. I try to put them both into the film.
Mehta is Canadian and thanks to the strong support of Canada’s National Film Board, whose competition landed him the initial seed money, he has been able to develop his independent artistic voice in a way that is financially feasible. Amal is scheduled for theatrical releases in Canada, India, and Europe, but is still on the lookout for a distributor in the US. And Mehta has even started exploring his next project: a film about chess, shot in the deserts of Rajasthan. In the meantime, Amal is still doing the festival circuit, so catch it while you still can at a festival near you!
Published: Friday, May 16, 2008