Canada's South Asian Film Success

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 5, 2007

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 5, 2007

Canada's South Asian Film Success

Name the nationality of these movies:

• In 1971, on the eve of India's war with Pakistan, a bank teller living in Bombay is asked to launder some money by a man claiming to be with the Indian secret service.

• In 1938, as Mahatma Gandhi rises to power in India, one of his followers, an affluent law student, defies his mother to court a young widow who works as a prostitute.

• In 1949, as the Partition provokes bloodshed between Sikhs and Muslims, lovers from opposite sides tumble into a tragic romance.

Though set in India, these three vivid epics are all Canadian films - respectively, Such a Long Journey (1998), Water (2005) and Partition, which opens across Canada next week. Over the years, with the prominence of Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, our cinema has developed a reputation for austere, existential drama inflected with bizarre sexual behaviour. But the extraordinary success of Water - which received an Oscar nomination this week for Best Foreign Language film - points to a more classical strain of storytelling that has emerged from Canada's South Asian immigrant community. It tends to favour romance over sex, passion over irony, lush detail over chilly minimalism. And intolerance is a persistant theme, whether in contemporary romantic comedies like Touch of Pink or period tragedies like Water.

Directed by India-born Canadian Deepa MEHTA,Water was one of last year's top-grossing foreign-language titles in North America, earning $5.5 million at the box office. Now, another South Asian immigrant, Vancouver's Vic Sarin, is hoping to tap into Water's success with Partition. Like Mehta's movie, the story revolves around a Romeo and Juliet tale of forbidden romance set against a rich period backdrop. Partition is not as strong, or subtle, as Water. Its characters don't run as deep, and both the sentiment and the melodrama are more transparent. But Water is Mehta's seventh feature, a quiet masterpiece finessing a complex trilogy about women's oppression in India. Sarin is best known as a cinematographer; on Partition, he's also writer, producer and director - a tall order.

The movie was inspired by a story from his childhood in Kashmir. His father had a Sikh friend who would come to his house for secret trysts with a Muslim woman. Once their taboo romance became hopeless, the couple took a suicide leap from the local dam. The man survived to see his lover's body washed ashore, then jumped a second time to join her. Sarin's melodrama tells a different story. Jimi Mistry (East is East) plays Gian, a former Sikh soldier with the British Raj, who saves a Muslim girl named Naseem (Smallville's Kristin Kreuk) from Sikh slaughter and becomes her husband. Neve Campbell plays a colonial Englishwoman who carries a flame for Gian yet helps his new wife find her Muslim family in Pakistan. And they are far more hostile to the marriage than her Sikh in-laws.

With a swelling score and steam locomotives bisecting panoramic landscapes, Partition echoes David Lean epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. "That was deliberate," says Sarin. "When you think of films set in India, you expect them to be bigger than life, because of Gandhi and Passage to India and the texture and the sheer volume of people." On the other hand, he adds, "It's a totally Canadian film." (Partition's $10-million budget is unusually lavish for a production financed entirely in this country). "And its essence is so Canadian - it's about peace and tolerance."

Hussain Amarshi, president of Mongrel Media, Water's Canadian distributor, says he's loath to classify the country's South Asian cinema as such. "It has to be seen as Canadian cinema," he says. "Water could not have been made in any other country. Canada allowed Deepa to make this kind of film. There is a desire, given the cultural makeup we have, for films that are more internationalist."

Meanwhile, with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's trade mission to Mumbai last week, there has been talk of creating Bollywood North in Canada. But Amarshi is skeptical. "From a cultural standpoint, there is nothing to be gained by it," he says. "Bollywood, just like Hollywood, is a world unto itself, a dream factory. And Canadian cinema will never be like that. Our strength is art house films." But Amarshi would welcome a Canada-India co-production treaty to make those films - and enhance our emerging role as a beacon of international cinema.

Maclean's February 5, 2007