Deepa Mehta feels Punjabi, the language in which she has made her latest film Heaven On Earth, has gained as much acceptance at the just-concluded Toronto Film Festival as any language film from any part of the world. "This was the film's first public screening. And no one saw it as an esoteric film in an Indian regional language."
And if Deepa had her way, she would not dub Heaven On Earth in Hindi for its Indian release in October, if it wasn't for the film's Indian distributor Ravi Chopra who thinks the film will have wider reach in Hindi.
"I've to respect Mr Chopra's opinion. He and his father the illustrious B R Chopra understand the Indian market much better than I do. They've earlier distributed my film Water", says Deepa.
If the just-concluded Toronto Film Festival is anything to go by, Indian cinema finally seems to be coming of age globally. In terms quality and connectivity, this year's just-concluded Toronto Film Festival has been the most prosperous productive and passionate year for Indian cinema at any international festival in recent times.
Deepa Mehta who was represented by her haunting and redemptive film on wife battering Heaven On Earth was bowled over by the films at the Festival with an Indian theme. "Not just me. But everyone was stunned by the films from and about India this year. My dear friend Nandita Das (who has been part of two of my most important works Fire and 1947 Earth) wowed Toronto with her directorial debut Firaaq. Nobody said it was a good first-time attempt. They looked at Nandita's film as a work of great wisdom and experience…that's how good her debut is."
The other 'India' film that Deepa fell in love with is Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire. "It takes an extraordinarily compassionate look at Mumbai. Nobody can accuse Danny Boyle of being patronizing towards the city. In fact the Indian films this year went beyond cultural paradigms."
Deepa's own Heaven On Earth had audiences glued to their seat even as the end-titles rolled by. "Everyone just sat in their seats when the film ended. I thought, 'Oh oh this one is a dud.' But when we got a ten-minute standing ovation I understood the 18,000-strong audience didn't move because they were so moved. I think Heaven On Earth connects even better with an international audience than my previous Water (which was short-listed for an Oscar) for the simple reason that domestic violence has more universal resonance than the plight of widows."
Preity Zinta who plays the battered wife in Deepa's film was clearly the queen of the Toronto festival. Says Deepa, "She scored with both the Indian and non-Indian audience. The NRIs were floored to see her deglamorized avatar in Heaven On Earth. And the firangs first saw her as this scared-timid-withdrawn abused wife and then at the Festival dos she appeared in a flaming-red gown as the chic suave diva-the Preity Zinta that Indian audiences know."
About the film's language, Deepa is nonchalant, "Punjabi is as Indian as Hindi or English. In fact last year it was Rituparno Ghosh's The Last Lear that was shown at the Toronto Film Festival. Though I'll dub Heaven on Earth in Hindi for some areas in India on the producer's insistence, I think audiences all over the world would read the Punjabi characters in Heaven On Earth without prejudice, just as Priyadarshan's Kanjeevaram was appreciated in the Tamil language."
The film of the Toronto Festival is Priyadarshan's lyrical painting-in-motion Kanjeevaram. Deepa can't stop raving about Priyan's paean to the saree weavers of Kanjeevaram "It is such a powerful document on human resilience. Every frame is as intricately woven as one of those sarees that the Kanjeevaram weavers pore over for months and months. I had seen only one film Viraasat by Priyan earlier. I was completely floored by Kanjeevaram. It's one of the best films to come out of India in recent times." Ironically, the Toronto Film Festival this year was the first festival that Priyadarshan ever attended.
Laughs Deepa, "Maybe the Indian presence at international festivals has begun to make some sense now."