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Deepa Mehta: Sidestepping Midnight’s stalkers

It's not as if Deepa Mehta courts controversy. "Oh God, I hate it," she says, widening her kohl-rimmed eyes. We're sitting on a sofa in a Toronto hotel room, and she's rasping from laryngitis. "I don't want to be a controversial filmmaker. I just want to be a filmmaker."

But controversy has a way of stalking Mehta. Her first feature, 1998's Fire, about two unhappy New Delhi wives who become lovers, was pulled from theatres after protesters vandalized cinemas and a minister called the film "alien to our culture." Mehta petitioned India's Supreme Court and led candlelit vigils for free speech; eventually the film was re-released.

Her 2005 film Water, an uncompromising look at the plight of widows in 1930s India, was scuppered the day before shooting was to commence in February, 2000, when the government revoked her location permits and protesters stormed the set, burning most of it and throwing the rest in the Ganges.

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It took Mehta four years to put the film back together in a new country (Sri Lanka), shooting under a false title. Water earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign film – but also lost distribution in Kuwait because the poster featured a blurb from Salman Rushdie, the equally controversial novelist and a new friend of Mehta's at the time.

As difficult as those incidents were, however, they don't compare to the lowest point in Mehta's life: losing the custody battle for her daughter, Devyani, after her "acrimonious" (her word) divorce from the Canadian documentary maker Paul Saltzman (Prom Night in Mississippi) in 1983. "Nothing ever came close to that and nothing ever will," Mehta says. "This is kid stuff, that was real."

She says this the way she says everything: quietly, but with such conviction one cannot doubt that beneath her lush, grey-streaked black hair and the flowing scarves she favours is a spine of steel.

So when Mehta's latest film, Midnight's Children – with a screenplay by Rushdie based on his Booker-of-the-Bookers-winning novel – crashed into its own controversy she didn't panic.

She was shooting again in Sri Lanka because, unlike modern, highrise-mad India, it still has the colonial architecture she sought. But three weeks in, the production was shut down after the Iranian government expressed distress to the Sri Lankan ambassador that a Rushdie work was being filmed.

Mehta and her producer (and mate of 20 years), David Hamilton, stashed their equipment at the Canadian High Commission and worked the phones. Four days later, the President of Sri Lanka intervened and work resumed without further incident. The film opened in selected cities last week, and continues to expand across Canada.

"David was going nuts," Mehta says. "But I've been through so many of these things. Sometimes you know that whatever you do it's not going to work. But I felt with this that it would be all right."

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Not to say that it was easy. Midnight's Children is a sprawling novel. Rushdie's screenplay narrowed the focus to Saleem, a boy born in the first moment of an independent India, as both he and his new country came of age. But the 70-day shoot still had to deal with four generations over five time periods, three wars, 19 principal actors, 127 speaking parts, 3,000 extras, 15 newborn babies, and scenes with poisonous cobras, water buffaloes, temperamental geese and a disappearing elephant (it was there in one parade shot, then never seen again).

The toughest challenges for Mehta are not the logistical ones, however; they're the emotional ones, such as scenes featuring Saleem's whole family, "where you have eight people in one area, all of whom have different reactions," she says. "How am I going to shoot a moment to show how it impacts everybody?"

She smiles. "I've learned I'm far more motivated by emotion. I think most North Americans are more distant, more rational. I discovered that it irks me to shy away from something just because someone else thinks that if something is not cerebral, somehow it's wanting."

Accepting her emotionality, she says, "has been a wonderful process of embracing something that's intrinsically mine, that was missing in the way I was doing things. I was so aware of being too dramatic, or what is perceived as showing my heart too much. I was trying to be very stoic and North American, but it's against my nature. This is what I am, so take it or leave it."

The controversies over her films are not about her subject choices, she insists: "There have been many movies about lesbians and homosexuals, and about widows. I'm just a soft target. When [India's] ruling right-wing party wanted to draw attention to itself as the saviour of what is righteous, they looked around and found Fire. The same with Water – I was called un-Indian, a traitor to my culture, and then re-embraced because I was nominated for an Oscar. It's not about reality. And there's nothing remotely anti-Islam or anti-Hindu in Midnight's Children. It's a convenient canvas for what somebody needs politically."

"You can make anything political," she continues. "Think about The Graduate. Benjamin goes into a church and uses a cross to bar the door. Can you imagine if someone said, 'He's using the cross as a bolt: This is an anti-Christian film'? These are the times. That's what's scary to me."

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Her attraction to Midnight's Children was mainly personal, Mehta says. "It's about a search for family, identity, roots. I'm an immigrant here. So, who am I? … It's about going to a different place, the smells are different, and can you have family that's not your bloodline? It's a fascinating search for home."

When Mehta married Saltzman in Delhi, then moved with him to Toronto, she was "young and adventurous," she says. "I felt that nothing has to last forever. I can go back home. I really wanted to go back to India after the divorce, but I knew I would never see my daughter again if I did." Mehta now spends three to six months a year in India. "But I feel I've become very Canadian," she says, "which means I can totally embrace being Indian. That's the joy of being Canadian."

Her next film will take her into new territory. It's about the painter Henri Matisse and the 22-year-old woman who was his muse for his last two years and later became a nun. "He designed the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence because of her," Mehta says. "It's this strange, unlikely love story about age, talent, religion, art, exploration. This is emotional."

She plans to shoot next fall in the south of France. She's already cast Mila Kunis (Black Swan) as the nun, and would love Javier Bardem to play Matisse. If controversy arises, she'll deal with it.

"All of this is so ephemeral," Mehta says. "You just have to enjoy it. Accept the bouquets, duck the bricks and carry on."

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