Pioneering Director Deepa Mehta Reflects on Her Immigrant Experience: ‘Where Did You Learn Such Good English?

Deepa Mehta

Toronto-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta has been making films since the 1970s, including the Oscar-nominated “Water,” part of her elements trilogy; “Bollywood/Hollywood” and “Funny Boy.” Her TV credits include “Yellowjackets,” “Little America” and “Leila.”

As an immigrant to Canada from India, I felt “seen” twice in my life. And both those moments, ironically, were diametrically antithetical to each other.

It was my first foray into North America as a young newlywed documentary filmmaker. I missed my home and family, had no work, couldn’t get the fuss about ice hockey and was frankly surprised at the general questions thrown my way by well-meaning, educated young and old white folk. One lot expressed wonderment at my grasp of the English language. “Where did you learn such good English?” My answer usually was, “on the flight from Delhi to Toronto.” While the other lot expressed complete pity that I came from such an impoverished country, “notwithstanding yoga and meditation,” they added hastily. These views were so uninformed in their grasp of knowledge about India, that I never took them seriously. I only wished “world history” had been drilled into their heads as it was in mine back in school in India.

Around two weeks after my arrival, while at a friend’s backyard hang-out on a balmy day, we heard a young boy from next door shout out, “I can smell Paki shit. There she is, the Paki shit.” You could say I got “seen” for the first time at that moment. Honesty out of the mouth of a kid. Where had he heard this? At school? At the family dinner table? The point is he had vocalized what many felt but did not express. I was a colored immigrant, someone different, who was perhaps usurping the space rightfully meant for white people. A wake-up call for me. If it hadn’t been for the birth of my daughter Devyani in Toronto, I would have probably gone back home to Delhi. Instead, I hunkered down and tried to make the best of my life as “the other.”

I made documentaries about those who were like me, the disenfranchised. A 99-year-old woman who refused to leave her home. A Chinese parking lot attendant who was the first violinist with the Filipino Symphony Orchestra; Louis Lim listened to Beethoven while performing his mind-numbing job at an underground bank in downtown Toronto. A bunch of mixed-race teenagers, Sri Lankan, Indian, Indigenous, Black and Ukrainian, who used theater to deal with their troubled lives that arose from “not belonging.” All these next to zero budget documentaries happened with the help of friends. One worked the camera, the other sound and another edited. And I can’t forget the amazing generosity of Atom Egoyan, who helped me navigate my first feature film, “Sam and Me,” to Cannes. I learnt about collaboration and realized that what perhaps drove me was pure anger to prove that we, the colored folk, could also make films in an alien land amidst alien people. That immigrant stories were just as relevant as mainstream ones — a narrative I have held on to for what seems like eons.

To be an Asian filmmaker is to be a different kind of filmmaker. A filmmaker who is informed by our racial history, our parents who still speak in their native tongue, our music and our visual memory. All this is excellent, I now think. What I was wary about, I now embrace.

Years later, while writing and directing my own films produced by my partner David Hamilton (yes, he’s white), I think of the other time I was “seen.” Oddly enough it was when our film “Water” was nominated for the Academy Awards. If anything, I now realize that the two experiences, though disparate, are interlinked. Both emanate from being “different” and being “the other.” It’s taken years to realize that to take pride in being “the other” is what constitutes being true, kosher and liberated.

Often, I muse about Asian filmmakers who have made a difference in the way we are perceived. Satyajit Ray, Abbas Kiarostami, Gurinder Chadha, Mira Nair, Ritesh Batra, Aparna Sen, Anurag Kashyap, Asghar Farhadi, Ramin Bahrani are the few that come to mind. This is a tough business we are in, and if we felt disenfranchised before, after the pandemic perhaps we feel more at loss now than we ever did. Mired with well-meaning gestures, we often question the sincerity of the dole-outs we are now receiving by the politically correct and the privileged. Is our work and its merit truly recognized or are we a mere box that someone in power ticks off? I often tell the young and uber-talented filmmakers and writers whom I have mentored, through the Sundance Lab or the fab 1497, or on an one-to-one basis … dazzlers like Sandhya Suri, Agam Darshi, Haya Waseem, Arshad Khan and Zorawar Shukla, that they should avoid getting muddled by the small stuff. If the window has been unbolted, whether by people who sincerely want to build a more inclusive world or by those who carry the burden of white guilt (I’d like to believe it’s the former), we should take the opportunity and jump through the opening.

The world awaits us, our stories. As Luis Buñuel famously said, “It’s when you are particular that you become universal.”

So don’t celebrate Asian Heritage just today. How about celebrating it every week, month, year… in fact a lifetime?

Throughout the month of May, Variety will publish essays and stories from prominent AAPI artists, artisans and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of AAPI entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.