A year ago director Richie Mehta premiered his charismatic indie film Amal at the Toronto International Film Festival. Now, as he gets set to return to TIFF this fall, his poignant story of a poor auto-rickshaw driver in New Dehli who is offered a billionaire's fortune will be screening in suburban cineplexes across Canada.
Despite the success of Amal, which opened yesterday in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, the Mississauga-born filmmaker confesses he has the jitters as he turns his attention to shoring up support for his next project - a film about war and chess, fate and destiny.
"The hustle begins immediately as soon as TIFF starts," Mehta says. "I get nervous ... because it's game time. You can get as much as you put in."
But the 29-year-old director - no relation to Deepa Mehta, someone he describes as a trailblazer for Canadian South Asian filmmakers - may not have to hustle so hard this time.
He has gained a lot of credibility with Amal, screening his film everywhere from Sudbury, Ont., to the Bahamas to the Czech Republic.
Mehta says the emotionally powerful story about Amal's moral struggle is the source of the film's success, and the exotic setting strangely helps people relate to the characters.
"I think people would look at this and say, 'Wow, an Indian film, exotic location - it looks really interesting. Why don't we go see what this is about?' And then you find it's about you," he says. "I think when you're in a place that does seem exotic, you're willing to suspend your disbelief a bit more."
Based on a short story written by his brother Shaun, Amal, which has earned at least 15 awards, won the hearts of festival audiences wherever it played.
"One guy e-mailed me right after the San Francisco festival and said that based on feelings the movie evoked, he went home and proposed to his girlfriend," Mehta says. A jury member at a German festival told him the film forced her to rethink her perspectives on poverty and wealth.
For Mehta and actor Rupinder Nagra, who plays the title role in Amal, pushing the film meant being in the right place at the right time and employing a mix of charm and clever ploys. (They once distracted a filmfest employee while they flipped through her party planner to figure out which parties they could crash to schmooze.)
"What's interesting is now we're invited everywhere," Nagra says. "I said to Richie at the first couple of events [last year] 'This is weird - we're actually allowed to be here.' But now we have this go-get-it type of attitude and nothing can stop that."
Mehta managed to snag Seville Pictures ( Brideshead Revisited, Just Buried) as a distributor, courting them in the near-empty ballroom at a 2006 TIFF mixer as a few stragglers remained.
The connection secured the filmmakers 47 per cent of the film's funding from Telefilm Canada, allowing the director and his crew to travel to India and shoot the 118-minute film in 29 days.
It also meant their movie would eventually appear on big screens. Mehta and his producers, David Miller and Steven Bray, were able to hand-pick theatres where they wanted their film to appear - targeting suburban audiences with high concentrations of South Asians who might be particularly interested in the film.
The film's journey from festival darling to big-screen gem may well challenge the filmmakers' own perspectives on wealth and poverty as they prepare to make a little more cash from showings at the likes of AMC and Empire Theatres.
"The idea was we want to appeal to the art-house crowd but also the Indian suburban crowd," Mehta says.
But despite the big screen treatment, he doesn't think a boost in profits will contradict the film's message that sometimes the poorest of men are the richest. "Obviously it'd be nice to make money - but the goal is sustainability," he says. "I got to make the movie I wanted to make."
Mehta, who studied art and art history at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus and film at Sheridan College, says "growing up I loved movies more than anything. I wanted to be a moviemaker - I just didn't know how to do it." He made five or six short films before the opportunity came along to make Amal as a feature.
Nagra, who made his feature film debut as an actor in Amal, now jets between London, Mumbai and Toronto as he hones his craft. It's a far cry from his upbringing in Hamilton, where he started out studying medicine. After switching to acting, he founded an improv comedy troupe called Step Up.
Offering the film to audiences in their suburban neighbourhoods means a great deal, Nagra says, noting the movie has received a lot of support from Canada's South Asian community. Some of the most touching feedback has come from Indian immigrants.
"Those who recently came from India have said, 'Thank you so much for creating this beautiful postcard of India,' " he says. "As an actor you think: Okay, I did my job."