In Conversation with Richie Mehta (Part I)

Richie Mehta is the Canadian director of Amal and Siddharth. Recently he took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about his social conscience, his training, and his formative experiences.

What elements in your childhood and early years pointed you toward film?
It was a combination of things, really. As a young child, I just loved watching films, more so than even my avid, film-loving parents. I would absorb material related to film (who shot this, who scored this, who was that supporting actor in that film) before I could do my multiplication tables.

That told me something. And from that point, when I realized what a film was–that people made these things—I was fascinated that my emotions were being manipulated so clearly. How was this possible?

When I was 16 I went to India for the first time (being born in Canada with an Indian background). I spoke Hindi, so I could communicate. But I was so shocked by what I saw, by the fact that this world had far more pain and suffering than I knew of, and that I–by virtue of being raised in Canada–was part of the elite (which didn’t sit well with me).

It was a real shock to my system, and I said I wouldn’t go back to India unless I could address some of this. But it gave me perspective. It made me take advantage of every opportunity that came, both in my personal and professional life. And to this day it’s reduced my ability to take anything too seriously unless it really warrants it (such as social, economic, and environmental issues).

Fast forward a few years. After I had studied art and filmmaking, I saw a film in 2005 called Shooting Dogs, about the Rwandan Genocide. I was skeptical going in, thinking it would be too melodramatic. By the end, I was a mess, crying more than I ever have. The film was so successful in making me feel and understand the tragedy that I realized that this was the power of film: to make you empathize, to make you feel compassion, and to subvert our normal apathy.

Combine these incidents, and voila, you have me making these types of films.

What was your most beneficial educational experience? What or who in your training had the most—and best—influence on you, as a filmmaker and as a human being?
This is a tough one. I’ve had wonderful teachers all through my life, many of whom I’m still in touch with, from high school to university to post-grad to mentors in the field. My film professors, my art teachers, my English teachers, even a science teacher I once had (who told us, If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.) have all made a difference.

I will say that every time I go to India, I learn more—about myself, about humanity, about our capabilities as individuals and as a collective. It constantly reminds me of how we can survive in close quarters, with too little resources for too many people. And I will say, I’m always moved at both how remarkable we are and how terrible we can be.

What was the most mesmerizing experience for you while making Siddharth?
The initial inspiration–meeting the rickshaw wallah who told me he had lost his son, a man who didn’t even have a photograph, or even the ability to search for his son, as he had to work for the rest of his family. It shook me to the core, and inspired everything that came afterwards.

Did anything funny or strange happen on set?
Many things. When so many people are working towards a common goal or vision, it’s amazing what can occur. You just have to be completely open to grabbing it. There’s one scene where Mahendra is at a railway crossing, and walks from the bus to the crossing, only to be stopped by the passing train, before he goes off for a little walk. It all happens in one shot, with the train racing by perfectly. That was all an accident, there was never supposed to be a train passing in the scene. But it occurred, we captured it, and it was–in my estimation–magical, and related to the meaning of the film itself.

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