It’s always flitted uneasily across a maze of blurred lines, how actors furnish responses to the age-old question relating to their craft. To what extent do they become the character they play? It’s ‘professional distance’ for some and ‘entering the skin’ for others. For actors answering to a specific ethnic description, irrevocably marked out by that in a film industry whose default colour is white, the reference to skin leads to another troubling element, a permanent canker, in fact, on the body. Is there, looming over each individual person they portray, an ‘Indian’ or ‘Hispanic/Black/Asian’ type that they must fill out (or cancel out) first? Can they act at all without coming to terms with this element at the outset?
There’s a touch of novelty to the way British-Indian actor Dev Patel came to that old, and often cliched, moment that seems to take hold of expatriates: the archetypal search for roots. Dev, looking manlier than the image we have of him from Slumdog Millionaire, with long, rock ’n roll locks and an artsy beard, was at the Toronto International Film Festival with his latest project, Lion, in which he plays Saroo Brierley. The film was first runner-up for the festival’s focal People’s Choice Award (just behind La La Land).
Deepa Mehta’s brother Dilip showcased his documentary, which tells the story of Sunny Leone’s rise from a small Canadian town to Bollywood.
Now, Dev found something in common with the reel-life Saroo, who was adopted by Australian parents and, 25 years later, found his way back to his native Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh using Google Earth. That link was, of course, rediscovering identity. During the press conference for the film at TIFF, Dev, who was born and raised in England, talked of the roundabout route his own life took to reach that juncture. “Growing up in school, I spent most of my existence trying to shun my heritage, to avoid getting beaten up or bullied or just to fit in. And then I kind of discovered—India!” That was, of course, through Slumdog. And therein lies the empathy: “It sounds so cliched but I understand myself and where I come from more and that’s something I could feel in Saroo’s character,” the actor explained.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan tries VR
As the new-look Dev Patel was posing with fans, his Slumdog co-star and ex, Freida Pinto, was also in Toronto, part of the TIFF Dialogues. This one was titled ‘Women At The Helm: Because it’s 2016’. That latter phrase is from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s catchy explanation as to why half his cabinet appointees were women.
But yes, as far as Indian films go, TIFF may have become female-friendly far before the liberal, progressive (and a rather personable 44-year-old) PM arrived on the scene. Its recent major presentations from India have been led by women directors. This year it was actress Konkona Sensharma’s directorial debut with A Death in the Gunj; last year it was Meghna Gulzar’s Talwar. In 2014, there was Shonali Bose’s Margarita, with a Straw. And that’s not including Indian-origin directors like Mira Nair or Toronto’s own Deepa Mehta.
Janki Bisht, the lead for Deepa Mehta’s new film
Speaking of Deepa Mehta, she brought what’s perhaps her most unusual film yet, Anatomy of Violence, to TIFF. Also unusual was her choice for the lead role of Janki, played by 26-year-old Janki Bisht, an employee of a BPO in Gurgaon. How come? Turns out Deepa Mehta has been familiar with this newcomer actress through her young life, as Janki’s father has worked at the Mehta family’s Delhi home for a very long time.
And speaking of the Mehta family, Deepa’s younger brother, Dilip, too was at the festival—with his documentary, Mostly Sunny. It tells the tale of the rise of Sunny Leone from Sarnia, a small town in Canada (where the local Indo-Canadian community remains mortified with this distinction), to adult entertainment star to the juncture where she, seemingly incredibly at that point, managed a transition to Bollywood.
A still from Dilip Mehta’s documentary Mostly Sunny
There’s a family connection here as well. When Leone, born Karenjit Kaur Vohra, first entered the porn industry, she was asked to select a screen name, and having blanked out, chose the first that came to her mind—Sunny. That happens to be the first name of her brother! You always learn something new.
Learning something new could also be applied to legendary Malayalam film director Adoor Gopalakrishnan. He brought his first feature in eight years, Pinneyum (or, aptly enough, Once Again) to TIFF. Adoor was spotted at the Industry lounge at TIFF, peering through a virtual reality headset as he checked out Right to Pray, an Indian VR documentary that premiered at TIFF’s inaugural POP VR special event. The short’s producer, Anand Gandhi, was helpfully at hand, guiding Adoor through the virtual wonderland; quite a distance from the elegant doom of Elipathayam’s old Kerala.
By Anirudh Bhattacharya in Toronto