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Filmmaker Deepa Mehta on reading 60 books across continents

By September 24, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu

Filmmaker Deepa Mehta is a bilbiophile, and what she loves most about books is the way they smell. As the chairperson of the five-member jury for the inaugural edition of the JCB Prize for Literature, she read all of the 60-odd book entries in hard copy. “I guess I’m a traditionalist,” she chuckles, recounting memories of lugging the books across three continents over the past months.

Stories of home

Mehta, who had already read Jeet Thayil and Nayantara Sahgal (authors of two of the longlisted books), was only happy to revisit their work. While reading something anew was the biggest challenge, it is not a process she is unfamiliar with. “I find myself revisiting books that I love quite a lot,” she shares.

The filmmaker’s earliest memories are of her mother reading stories by Munshi Premchand to her at night, and of her father introducing her to Enid Blyton. “My mother used to say, and still does, that storytelling is about [opening] doors of perception,” she shares. Since she migrated to Canada in the early 1970s, Mehta’s annual, month-long trips to Delhi ensure that she remains connected to India. And yet, she confides, the books on the JCB longlist gave her deeper and wider insights into the India of today — an India that she does not inhabit any more. “Every book I read came from different passions, places and genders,” recalls Mehta. “But it was all about India, and that was extremely moving.”

Long lasting loves

Mehta feels that “books are so important because if you don’t grow with them, that means they didn’t have a shelf life”. She recollects devouring short stories by British writer Saki Munro, while in school in Dehradun. But over time, his work faded into oblivion, unlike that of Oscar Wilde, who Mehta can still relate to. “It’s like listening to Begum Akhtar when you were 10 and then discussing her when you’re 50 — it’s a totally different experience, but somehow they made an impact on you,” she reasons, reflecting on her long lasting loves like Sadat Hassan Manto and Premchand, whose short story Kafan she returns to time and again.

From page to screen

Two of her acclaimed works, 1947, Earth and Midnight’s Children, are adaptations born out of re-readings that revealed great cinematic potential. She finds the marriage of these two separate mediums an interesting one. “For me, if a book becomes a starting point for a film, it’s like someone else has laid the foundation and I have to envisage a house dictated by that foundation and yet make it my own,” she shares. What she particularly appreciated about the books from the JCB longlist was their visual nature. “I think all of them should be turned into films and that I should do them,” she laughs.

Mehta’s cinema is a niche within a niche: she is one of few Indian filmmakers, including Mira Nair and Vishal Bharadwaj, working on adaptations of literary texts. “But let’s not forget, nearly half a century ago, the great master Satyajit Ray was accessing Tagore and Bandyopadhyay,” she points. The tradition — hitherto ignored by popular Indian cinema — is gradually reviving as people take cognisance of books which are “complex, political, introspective, varied literature”.

As for herself, she is currently being “blown away” by last year’s Man Booker Prize winner Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. For someone whose reading choices are dictated by where her “headspace is at”, she prefers escapist literature while working (something like a John le Carré, for instance). But for her next film, again an adaptation, she turns to the delicate lyricism of Sri Lankan-born Shyam Selvadurai. “The filmmaker Buñuel said that when a film is particular, that’s the very minute it becomes universal. Funny Boy is set in a very particular time in history,” she says of the author’s 1994 novel. “Its particular story of discrimination about a homosexual relationship and its derision about the ‘other’ is a very contemporary subject,” she reveals. Clearly in India, it is. With the supreme court’s verdict striking down IPC section 377, finally decriminalising homosexuality after aeons, one can look forward to watching Funny Boy in theatres with true pride.


Writing about India

“It was like carrying a part of India with me,” says Mehta, about the contestants for the JCB Prize for Literature. Entries came in from 19 states across the country, many of them translations from eight different languages, amounting to over 15,000 pages of total reading. The diversity of gender, subject and voices that one sees in the books is reflected in the jury, which besides Mehta, includes novelist Vivek Shanbag, entrepreneur and scholar Rohan Murthy, Yale University astrophysicist and writer Priyamvada Natarajan and author-translator Arshia Sattar, with writer Rana Dasgupta as the literary director. A longlist of 10 books, announced by Mehta and Shanbag on September 5 in Mumbai will soon be followed by a shortlist of five (to be announced on October 3). Each shortlisted author will win ₹1,00,000, and the winning entry, to be announced on October 24, goes home with ₹25,00,000. If it is a translation, an additional ₹5,00,000 is awarded to the translator.

The winner of the JCB Prize for Literature (2018), awarded by the JCB Literature Foundation, will be announced on October 27. Details: the

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