- Punam Mohandas
- 07 November 2019
‘Audiences are more sophisticated now.’
SWA Exclusive interview with writer-director Richie Mehta
Canadian born Richie Mehta returned to India to pursue telling his cinematic stories because, according to him, he meets the most amazing people here in his ancestral land. While his previous movies did not exactly set the box office afire, it is the runaway success of his web series ‘Delhi Crime’ (aired on Netflix) and for which he spent six years only on the research, that catapulted him into the showbiz spotlight. Richie spoke to SWA for an exclusive interview. Here're the excerpts:
Speaking of ‘Delhi Crime,’ the series has been very well received and critically acclaimed too. Did you expect such an audience reaction?
“Nope!” Exclaims Richie. “I was and continue to be, very surprised!”
In your opinion, are digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime more viable forums to discuss social and other pertinent issues, compared to the Hindi film industry?
“I do think so, yes,” he says quite emphatically.
Is this compelling film makers to challenge their boundaries by venturing into more off-beat themes, as it were?
“I believe so, yes. Digital media seems to be a place where independent Indian films are finding a home (many of which never got proper releases prior to this.) And I think audiences are more sophisticated now and demand complex characters and ideas that are more relevant to their own experiences,” he states with conviction.
How did you start as a screenwriter?
“I began by trial and error, working on short experimental videos in art school, then longer narrative short films in film school and eventually graduated to feature films. But by the time I wrote my first feature ‘Amal’ in 2007, I had already written over 20 short films. Most were unwatchable,” he laughs, “but at least I developed the habit for writing.” Incidentally, ‘Amal’ is based on a short story written by Richie’s brother, Shaun.
You were also the editor-in-chief of your university campus newspaper as an undergraduate student. Do you think being an editor has favourably impacted your film making or story telling skills?
“Immensely,” Richie says immediately. “Editing is the only craft of filmmaking indigenous to filmmaking (all other crafts hail from a different tradition). And therefore, to me, it is intrinsically linked to how a film unfolds, how it is written, shot, and ultimately pieced together to incite an emotional response from viewers. I realize this all sounds very scientific, and, in a way, it is. But I write, conceive and shoot my projects all around the concept of an edit. Working with someone as incredible as Beverly Mills, my editor on ‘Delhi Crime’ and ‘India In A Day’ helps; she has a way of challenging me in the process which I’ve never encountered, and the result is always far superior than my original idea.”
What is your process from idea to final script?
“My process now is to start with an inspiration – usually an encounter with someone,” he says ruminatively. “It could be a five minute conversation, or just a series of observations. Usually, within a few seconds I instinctively know if I should pursue this further. And if so, I know that it will cost me years to explore that issue or topic or idea further. Then I research, meet more people, get more facts around the topic, spend more time in that world - usually in solitude. And then, once I’ve reconciled to the fact that I really want to make something from this and I know what that something is, I unspool the narrative, which emerges from what I have learned, and what my original inspiration was, as in, the reason I wanted to do this.”
In ‘Delhi Crime,’ you took a very humane view of cops and their personal lives. Your character sketch of the female DCP too was bang on - the vulnerability, the raw emotion balanced by the hard hitting innate ‘cop- ness.’ How much of this is fictionalised and how much based on the real DCP on the Nirbhaya case, Chhaya Sharma?
“I tried to write the character of Vartika as close to Ms Sharma as I could. And then I found an amazing actor – Shefali Shah - and she made it her own, made the words fit her mouth and made the movements work for her. Shefali and Ms. Sharma were so closely aligned in my mind – I saw Ms Sharma come to cinematic life through Shefali,” he says admiringly.
‘Delhi Crime’ was originally intended as a feature film, however, Richie changed his mind when he saw the scope of his research and realized he would not do justice to the story in the length of a film. The series is now gearing up for its second season with the same cast, but with the retelling of a different crime.
I ask Richie to divulge some details about the runner-up series he’s writing.
“Actually, I’m not,” he says, surprisingly. “I am an EP on the show; others are writing it.”
From being inspired by real-life stories, he then went on to make a sci-fi film, ‘I’ll Follow You Down.’ (This movie was released outside Canada and the USA titled, ‘Continuum.’)
How different was the entire experience of scripting and then shooting such a film?
“It was a delight! That script took me over a decade, on and off. It was a head-scratcher in terms of narrative paradoxes. And working with actors like Gillian Anderson, Rufus Sewell, Haley Joel Osment… it was magical to see them do their thing. Also, crews work very differently in Canada than India. Every second of the day must be planned out. I love that style too, both as a genre and as a working process. I hope to return to it soon.”
‘Amal’ and ‘Siddharth’ did not get a wide audience reach and I wonder aloud how this affected him as a film maker.
“Those films never got proper releases in India, until the (digital) platforms of today. It was odd at the time yes, as they saw theatrical releases all over the world except India!”
Was it harder for you to come here from Canada and make inroads into the Hindi film industry, more challenging to get acceptance?
“I never tried to make ‘inroads’ into the Hindi film industry,” Richie says emphatically. “I have always written my own material and raised finances independently, so I never really tried to get hired within the industry per se. Having said that, my collaboration with talent and artists from India has always been immensely rewarding, facilitated by a handful of key supporters since the start of my career who have been kind enough to stand by me.”
What made you come to India to make your films and choose it as the milieu to base your stories in, especially as you have been quoted to have said there are issues of corruption and 'pervasive cultural misogyny' in the country?
“Well, there are issues of corruption and pervasive cultural misogyny in every country on Earth. But the main reason I keep returning to India is that it is my ancestral home, a place I will always love deeply. And most importantly, I keep having those encounters I mentioned earlier, the ones that last only a few minutes, but inspire me to investigate for years. It stems from the fact that I keep meeting the most amazing people – on Earth – in India.”