After a decade-long first innings where he switched between mainstream Bollywood and independent cinema, Indian filmmaker Hansal Mehta took a four-year hiatus and returned with the multiple-award winning indie hit “Shahid” (2012), starring Rajkummar Rao. “Aligarh” (2015), starring Manoj Bajpayee and Rao, won acclaim in Busan and around the world. Following its world premiere at Toronto, Mehta returns to Busan with the Asian premiere of Rao-starrer “Omerta,” a film about British-born, Pakistani terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh who kidnapped and murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
What made you choose the Ahmed Omar Saeed Shaikh story?
There are uneasy truths that we usually try not to confront. Omar’s story is one such truth. Governments believe that by bombing entire cities and destroying countries they will end radicalism. Instead we need to focus on individuals like him – educated, wealthy and completely radicalized. I see “Omerta” as a companion piece to my earlier film “Shahid.” Both examine individuals beginning with similar angst and embarking on a similar journey to avenge injustice through radicalism. While “Shahid” found his ultimate calling by becoming a champion of human rights, Omar went deeper into the world of terror and eventually spread a trail of violence. The irony of our times is that Shahid is dead while Omar continues to live. For me that is a dangerous sign of our times and this story had to remind us of the times we live in and the need for urgent solutions beyond mass destruction that will only breed more Omars.
Apart from brief sections in India and the U.K., the film is largely set in Pakistan. Given the frosty relationship between India and Pakistan, what were the logistical challenges of a Pakistan-set film?
We had to create Pakistan in areas of Punjab and Delhi. It would have been impossible to shoot in Pakistan even if we overcame logistical challenges because of the way “Omerta” implicates the state in sponsoring individuals like Omar. My production designer Neil Chowdhury and cinematographer Anuj Dhawan have been instrumental in maintaining the overall authenticity and resemblance of locations in the film.
Your latest release, the U.S. set heist caper “Simran,” has polarized critics and audiences. What is your reaction to that?
I was expecting a polarized reaction and it is not any different from the way my second feature “Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar” was received when it released in 2000. Some films and their intent are often understood much after all the hype and noise dies down. I do feel “Simran” will be ultimately seen for what it is – an interesting character study of a young girl who is unapologetically reckless and flawed. History will be kinder to “Simran.”
What are you working on next?
There are scripts that I have been developing with different teams of writers. I’m still exploring themes that excite me both emotionally and politically. I am also writing something that will feature my favorite actor Rajkummar Rao in another interesting part, something that will help us push the envelope and explore newer stories in our filmography.