Terms of Endearment: An Interview with Siddarth Director Richie Mehta
In young Indian-Canadian auteur Richie Mehta’s newest picture, a middle-aged New Delhi resident who can barely support his wife and two kids by fixing zippers sends son Siddarth to work in a factory in far away Ludhiana. The cat who runs the factory is related to them distantly, but — as Mahendra (Rajesh Tailing) is told by his employer Om (Amitabh Srivasta) and discovers when his son never returns for a scheduled holiday — family can mean very little to men when money stands between them. Getting the police involved in this violation of child labor law proves tricky for Mahendra, who is forced to take matters into his own hands. To Mehta’s credit, Siddarth doesn’t shirk from the various moral quandaries the story raises and he coaxes dextrous, moving and often very funny work from much of his cast.
Ontario native Mehta — whose previous film Amal was a hit on the festival circuit a half-decade ago, and whose forthcoming Gillian Anderson sci-fi picture I’ll Follow You Down opens in August — premiered his latest movie at last year’s edition of Venice. The film has subsequently enjoyed a robust festival run, with stops in Toronto, London, Abu Dhabi, Dallas and Seattle. Distributed by Zeitgeist Films, the picture opened this weekend in New York City.
Filmmaker: Was this based on an anecdote that you had heard or was this a completely fictional tale?
Mehta: It was based on a direct experience I had where I was in India and I took a Rochdale Ride with a fellow. We started chatting and he asked me for help. He asked me if I knew where this place was. I had never heard of the place he was referring to and I said “No, I don’t know where it is, I’m sorry. Is it a neighborhood? Is it a building?” He says, “I don’t know what it is either, but that’s where my lost son is.” He sent his 12-year-old son away to the place I showed in the film. He never heard from his son again and went looking for him. He believed he’d been kidnapped and sold into child slavery. He can’t take any more time off work, he’s got to support the rest of the family, and all he can do is ask people for help. It had happened a year prior, so he’s been asking people help for a year.
He didn’t have a photograph of his son, he never took one, and he didn’t know how to spell his son’s name, so he couldn’t file a proper report. I took his phone number, and when I went home where I was staying in Delhi, I did a Google search and I found it in five seconds. The idea that it takes someone like you and me five seconds to find a place on Google but this guy doesn’t have access to that struck me hard. It took this guy a year of asking people on the streets, but still no luck. So that was the point of entry. I tried to help the guy, but the kid was way long gone. And the number the guy gave me was incorrect. I could never even find him again. So I kind of said to myself, “Well, the only thing I can do with this information is in a very truthful way go tell this story in the most realistic way.” But at the same time I wanted to showcase the India that I had experienced and continue to experience, which is essentially people being kind to each other.
Filmmaker: How long did it take you to write a fictional version of that man’s story?
Mehta: At the time I was working on my other one, my science fiction film, which was taking me a while to cast. So I was in LA doing some casting work and I kind of foresaw that it could take another year, two years. I was making a backup plan in case that didn’t work. And this had been about nine months since the event, and it was still haunting me. So I started jotting some things down and within a month I had a full outline, then it took a year of fleshing it out. I went back and did some more research. I went on the journey that this guy went on. I wanted to make it as simple as possible. I didn’t want to embellish, I just wanted to explore what is the end result of this situation. How did he get money for the bus? How did he do this? How did he do that? So I just kind of started working it out point by point. It was the shortest I ever spent on writing a script.
Filmmaker: Was it difficult to raise money? It’s a very small and intimate movie about this desperate man and his family. In the context of Indian production this seems somewhat unusual, no?
Mehta: It was very unusual but it was along the lines of my first film Amal, which was in the same world and in the same kind of milieu. People in Canada financed them all, and so it actually didn’t take long at all to finance, ironically. I also realized a lot of fresh techniques doing my first film in Delhi in terms of how to do it again much cheaper. We didn’t need the same amount of money, but it was all private. We raised the production financing from the profits that I had gotten from Amal, which took about five years to get. Once we got those in I just kind of convinced my producers, “Guys, let’s just keep the money in the bank and let’s go make another one.” And then we raised in private off of that. It wasn’t that hard to sell, because when you pitch the story, it does kind of tug on your heartstrings, talk about certain issues.
Filmmaker: Were there things that you learned in the production of Amal about shooting in Delhi that were key aspects of being able to do this cheaper and more efficiently?
Mehta: I’m not gonna take a big crew if we’re shooting on the street, because you need to get it and leave before anyone notices. It’s basically about being as unobtrusive as possible. So with Amal we had a big crew, like a hundred people, all that kind of stuff. And I realized if you choose the right people who know India really well, you can do this without a big cast and crew but with the same value, because you’re really capturing the environment. So we went in with a crew of eleven people in this film and planned out every shot before we started. As a result we actually finished early every day. We never had any infrastructure problems. We controlled everything from top down. You really have to be realistic about it, break it down for what works for you and then go into that place. Because the more resources you take, the more attention you’re attracting, and that’s the worst thing.
Filmmaker: Did certain possibilities open up in the storytelling while shooting that you hadn’t previously anticipated?
Mehta: Yeah, one of the things that me and the lead actor Rajesh Tailang, who also did the Hindi translations as I wrote the script in English, decided beforehand was that one of the purposes of the film was to break stereotypes of what we expect people to do in these environments. We expect people to rip this guy off when he needs help. We expect it to be a male cop, not a female cop. So things like that, we made it a point to actually go against that. And as we started shooting, it just comes to life and you see a lot of humor coming out, a lot of whimsy. They start talking and they’re funny, they’re charming and they’re cute and this and that. I wanted people to warm up to this environment despite the tragedy and that’s what came out during production. We were hoping it would be there, but then I think it just came alive. When you write stuff like that, you write jokes here and there and you’re like “Are we digressing now?” When we were shooting, it wasn’t digressing, it was actually bringing everything to life, and that’s the whole point. It’s a hard thing to plan this aspect of a production, but with this film more than anything I’ve ever done, I wanted you to not think about the process of filmmaking as you’re watching it.
Filmmaker: That kind of naturalism I think is something that is harder to do than a lot of people give one credit for. Were there models or references at all for the type of tone and some of the aesthetic principles that went into play when you shot?
Mehta: Two big ones would be Michael Winterbottom’s In This World and Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold. They’re very grim, there’s not an ounce of humor in those films, and I think for good reason. I mean they’re very well done. I kind of held those very high. I really question whether or not they were actors.
Filmmaker: I think that they are using non-actors, correct?
Filmmaker: Whereas in this film I believe you are using actors, no?
Mehta: Absolutely. I think that is also a budgetary constraint. When you’re using non-actors, you have to have a little bit of leeway to play with them, and we didn’t have any leeway. What you saw is what we shot. I also had the real fortune of working with a casting director who plays the gangster in the film at the railway station, Mukesh. He’s also the casting director and he’s a very prolific casting director in Bollywood, and a very good friend of mine. He cast the film, and his expertise at casting people who absolutely represent the type of person that they’re playing, especially street people, that’s his thing. So I knew I didn’t have to do that, because if you’re casting non-actors, I think you have to workshop them and really get them into that place, and we didn’t have the time or energy for that. When I had an expert with me on my team, knowing this is what he can do, I knew I didn’t have to worry about that. I took his guidance and we went through it and found the right people. The woman playing the police officer, she knows that type of police officer so well that she can play it. The guy playing the food stand guy, he knows the food stand guy so he can play that. So these actors are from that world.
Filmmaker: Is there a method that you have developed over your several features now in terms of how you prep your team? Do you spend a lot of times watching movies or talking about references in the beginning? Do you want them to come with their own kind of preconceived notions?
Mehta: In the very beginning, when I’m getting some of the key creatives on board, I’ll reference some of the other stuff in the other films. But then after that I don’t. With the exception maybe of the d.p., who I will give all kinds of visual references to. But beyond that I kind of let them respond to the material. I use to do so much vetting of the material and so many rewrites and checks and balances to make sure that when we go to war the mission is correct. I think that I kind of let them respond to it and go with that and glean material for what it is. Because I’m not trying to go after cinephiles with the film. I’m really trying to make it accessible.