Q&A: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra


Director Rakeysh Mehra's third feature, "Delhi-6," is the tale of an American of Indian origin who travels to the Motherland with his terminally ill grandmother to fulfill her dying wish, to be buried at her birthplace. What begins as the story of a man experiencing the sights, sounds and spices of his ancestral home turns into a film about community and ultimately a journey of love and hope when it is needed the most. "Delhi-6" debuted two days before the 2009 Oscars, which saw "Slumdog Millionaire" sweep eight major awards. While Mehra's is not a Bollywood film, it could reap the benefit of the world's attention following "Slumdog's" success. Whether "Delhi-6" succeeds overseas, what's certain is that Mehra is a new face for Indian cinema -- one that embraces the country in all its beauty and ugliness without risk of exploiting its poverty. Shahnaz Mahmud talked to the 45-year-old Mehra the day after "Delhi-6" premiered in New York.

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The Hollywood Reporter: "Delhi-6" is timely in light of the recent bombings in Mumbai and the attention being paid Bollywood in the wake of "Slumdog Millionaire" -- a British production shot in India. Would you consider "Delhi-6" to be the true Bollywood breakthrough film?

Rakeysh Mehra: I think it's kind of arrogant to say that about my own work -- it's kind of embarrassing -- but I hope it is. It's truly an Indian film. And it's an Indian perspective of India. It does not hide any of our pockmarks. In fact, it shows us a mirror and reflects on our own society, rather than just the notion of poverty in India. That's not what India is about today. India is much bigger, much more complex as a society. Lakshmi Mittal is the second-richest man in the world and on his way to becoming the wealthiest. But, at the same time, a church has been burned somewhere and a temple has been razed to the ground and ethnic violence has erupted somewhere else. So it's a complex society. It's a melting pot, and that is the reflection. I hope that it is a breakthrough in trying to show ourselves and discover that (diversity) is where our strength lies.

THR: Can you expand on that?

Mehra: India is a funny place. There are bulbs, but the electricity goes off. There are schools, but there are no books. The teachers get degrees in a college, but they can't get a job. There are water taps, but no running water. So, how does this country work? Somehow, in India, it does.

THR: I had heard that this film was seven years in the making. Is the final product different from your original vision?

Mehra: The film was seven years in the thinking. It had been placed on the back burner. There absolutely were major changes from the original vision. It evolved as I grew as a person. I had written the script and gave it to Abhishek (Bachchan) seven years ago. I then got to make "Rang de Basanti" (Paint It Yellow). I grew as a person after that. So, I explored more complexities. In every person -- in every story -- there is another story. The more you dig, the more you get. And the more I dug, the more I found why I was doing things a certain way. So that led me to the current film.

THR: Did you want Roshan (Bachchan's character) to die at the end of the film?

Mehra: I did write Roshan's death as the ending and lived with that draft for a year. That ending had a greater impact (in some ways). But I gave it up because we need love today. We don't need to open our wounds. We need to dress them and ... heal.

THR: It's been written that this film has a great personal meaning to you. What are some of your favorite childhood memories?

Mehra: I grew up in Delhi-6. So, that's my neighborhood. (The '6' refers to the postal code for the old part of the capital). The people, the places, the instances. Waheedaji (Waheeda Rehman) is playing my mother -- my mom is also ailing. And she also is getting ready to depart, so she is doing the funny things that Waheedaji does in the film (like selecting an urn for her ashes). She also is very happy to go back to the place she was born. So that's the closest to me.

THR: The scene of the cow giving birth in the street was really great.

Mehra: I witnessed that in Chandni Chowk (one of Delhi's oldest bazaars).

THR: Those are the things you can't make up.

Mehra: Well, the situation you make up, but somewhere deep down you have witnessed things like that. The white dove was my father's favorite. He, like Om Puri's character, had many doves. There are so many things -- the alleys, every taste, smell, every person. The characters are as real as they can get. I think that's something amazing about India, that there are so many stories to tell. And such beautiful stories to tell. It's the age-old campfire business. At best, you're doing your grandmother's job in telling stories.

THR: Is it fair to say that this film is slightly different from the typical Bollywood film? It seems to me that it has more mass appeal. Or is this a part of the changing face of Bollywood?

Mehra: It is not the changing face -- it is the new face of Bollywood.

THR: What do you mean by that?

Mehra: I think it's to be more assertive -- to have more self-respect. To not be afraid of showing our ugly side. Not to escape to Switzerland every time (an oddly trendy location for many Indian films starting in the 1960s) or show a hundred girls dancing. And not to exploit our poverty. Not to sell to the West what their perception of India is. It's important to show hope in the land that we come from. It does not matter what the backdrop is. It does not matter as long as the story is about hope, passion and human victory.

THR: Is there any concern that Bollywood films will have to give a little in order to gain more of a global reach?

Mehra: The moment you give something, the audience is not interested in (your) idea. The audience wants to know how localized you can get. Japanese animation sells because it's Japanese and it's not Hollywood. That's why it's huge. To make a significant change, for people to get up and notice, Indian movies will have to Indianize entertainment. We'll have to develop a taste, and that taste is not only around song and dance. That will not have a permanent resonance. You can't define your cinema around it.