'Deepa Mehta is a gangster," says the leading man Randeep Hooda, with no smile at all. And then, leaning in closer: "She's a gangster, I tell you."
Hooda is the fetching and unruffled star of Beeba Boys, Mehta's brash and stylish new drama on Sikh mob life in Vancouver. Speaking with The Globe at last month's Toronto International Film Festival, the Bollywood-famous Hooda says he's been offered the same type of mob story in at least four different scripts, but they didn't interest him. "They were blood fests or wannabe Quentin Tarantino films," he says. "They didn't have the soul that Deepa's script had."
Although Hooda was thrilled when he received a phone call from Mehta about Beeba Boys, he did have reservations. "I was wondering about a woman making a gangster movie." Once on set, however, his doubts were quickly and unceremoniously snuffed, like a punk double-crosser in a thug flick. "She was blunt and in your face if you didn't listen to her," Hooda says. "You don't want to upset Deepa."
You don't say.
Following the chat with Hooda, the director herself arrives in the same hotel suite. Wearing an excellent pair of red, plastic-y sneakers, she carries herself with a friendly sort of authority and a let's-do-this efficiency. The photographer taking a quick portrait of her asks if he can a get shot of her with her glasses on: "Of course," she answers. When he stretches out the sitting a little too long, she tells him to hurry it up. And when he tells her he's a fan of her work, she mockingly replies, "As is The Globe and Mail," fixing me with a glare from across the room. That's a sign. And then it gets awkward.
Photographs taken, Mehta sits down beside me on a couch, where I congratulate her on the film. She rolls her eyes and laughs, "Thanks."
Oh. What's with the sarcasm?
"Oh, come on, you guys decimated the movie," she says, again with the flip laugh. She is referring to the underwhelming review of Beeba Boys The Globe ran during the festival. I protest, explaining that I enjoyed the movie, and that it was a colleague who reviewed it. She goes on to complain about what she perceived as "pot shots" and "personal digs" in the review – Mehta's objections are unfounded in that regard; the review was negative but not unprofessional – but otherwise the mood of the Oscar-nominated director soon takes a turn for the better.
Beeba Boys, a quirky, comical and casually violent drama based on the wave of Indo-Canadian crime on the West Coast in the 1990s, is Mehta's 12th feature film. It's an unhesitant first step into gangland fare, but another in an oeuvre built on marginalized groups and the search for voice and identity. The titular band of vicious drug dealers, led by Hooda's ruthless Jeet Johar, are the gangs of second- and third-generation South Asian Canadians. They arouse fear and assert themselves in a highly visible way; their malevolence is dressed in turbans and tailored suits. Hooda's lead hooligan is a Punjabi mix of Scarface's Tony Montana and Saturday Night Fever's Tony Manero. "In order to be seen," he says, "you have to commit to being seen."
Mehta has said the ultimate message of the film is that crime doesn't pay, but there is a romanticism that comes with the gangster life.
"It's the macho mythology," says the Toronto-based Mehta. "There's something infinitely attractive about negative role models, especially within a community where there aren't role models to look at."
Role models, the more badass the better. Nobody pushes the Chinese around much any more, we hear Jeet say in Beeba Boys, since Bruce Lee came on the scene.
"Young kids are looking for someone to protect them," Mehta says. "They don't want to be called ragheads in school. So they look at someone like the film's Jeet Johar to kick ass."
At the risk of stirring up Mehta's own wrath again, I bring up a complaint I have about Beeba Boys. Paul Gross's slimeball character is visually intriguing, but the role is a semi-cameo. I wanted more of him.
"He had to go," Mehta says with a smile and a shake of her head. "Sorry, Brad."
Sorry, not sorry. Spoken like a gangster. Everybody's a critic – it's the filmmaker's life.