Maninder Chana is an award-winning writer, director, and actor whose latest film to be released, Little Terrors, deals with an American boy recruited by terrorists in Delhi to bomb a U.S. embassy. The film was completed two years ago and released this week. The Medium sat down with Maninder Chana to speak with him about his latest piece.
The Medium: What was the first thing that attracted you to the film?
Maninder Chana: The reality of the situation. We did the film a couple years ago but everything that’s in the film is paralleled from today’s headlines. There was a universal spirit to the story. I have a journalism background as well, so I’ve seen a lot of things you’re not really supposed to see. There are just tons of things from my background that I pooled into this. There was a lot that I probably could bring to the film and to find an understanding of Islam, even if it’s in the basic sense.
TM: Why was it so important for you to take on a film like this?
MC: It was a challenge. It was a challenge from a storytelling perspective. There’s also something that I thought from an outsider’s perspective—because I’m not Muslim—that I could probably say about the religion that someone inside of it couldn’t, because Islam equals terrorism to a lot of people. The defence that Muslims have is “We’re a religion of peace”, but they never go beyond that; they never explain why it’s a religion of peace. So I thought by juxtaposing the sayings of Muhammad, I could show that this was the saying of Muhammad, and here’s a bastardization of Islam. That way, without preaching too much, you get a sense that this is really being manipulated for the benefit of people who basically want power over other people.
TM: There was great insight into both sides of the story, not only with Samih but also with Steve. What were your biggest challenges in accurately portraying both sides?
MC: When Daniel Pearl was beheaded, which was one of the things I brought to [the film] The Mighty Heart—was that you never got to know the journalist, you never got to know Daniel Pearl or that character. It was really about the outside events of that. I really wanted to bring a heart to the character that this is a living breathing human being and it’s a kid who is really brought up in a culture we’re brought up in that can be easily manipulated when he has no other choice. I wanted to juxtapose that kind of storyline to it and just trying to keep the other side as well because I felt that if I didn’t bring the bastardization of why these people believe what they believe and what they use in terms of bombings and different events and mistakes that have been made by the American side, it wouldn’t be fair.
TM: How was it working with child actors on a movie that dealt with such heavy content?
MC: It was hard. It’s a difficult thing to bring children from a “have” culture to a “have-not” culture. It was a bit of work […] they were newcomers. Most of them had theatre background, but it’s a very different thing. I gave them exercises, a little thing that we called “sense memory exercises”, to kind of build out each scene and bring something new to it. Also to connect that to real things in their lives and bring real emotion to the characters. It was a bit of a process and I think the first couple of days of shooting they realized the seriousness of what they were doing and they realized the work that I’d given them was really beneficial and they popped after that. It’s a bit of work, and India is also a daunting place to shoot. It was 20 consecutive days of shooting and it was not a super-professional crew, as I’m used to.
TM: Given things that are happening in today’s headlines, do you think it would be harder for people to digest the film now?
MC: I don’t think so. I think it’s probably more beneficial that people see the film now than a couple years ago when people felt that things were kind of dying down. They were never dying down, but we were withdrawing from the situation. [Terrorism] is continuing to be never-ending because [it’s] a tool and you can’t fight a tool. You can’t have a war on terrorism; it’s almost oxymoronic, in a sense. Terrorism is a weapon people use to win something; it isn’t a war you can go against. I think it’s probably a stronger film in light of what’s going on now in terms of what it can say. I think it’s important in that whole realm to know that at the end of the day this is a small fraction of people who’ve manipulated Islam for their own benefit and the majority of Muslims in the world are kind, gracious, and humanitarian. I think it’s an important film today.
TM: Given the mature content in the film and everything that’s going on today, are you expecting any controversy to be thrown your way?
MC: I hope not. I’ve actually had a friend of mine reach out and say this film’s coming and look out for it because I hope a lot of Muslims actually go out and see the film. I think it’s something that nobody’s kind of told their side this way and I hope that they gravitate towards it and get behind it.
TM: What was the most difficult thing for you accomplish in the making of this film?
MC: What it always is: getting your shots and getting your days and getting your story. Murphy’s Law works overtime on a film set. It’s where it lives and breathes. You fight for every shot, you fight for everything that you can get. Canadian films don’t look like this film. You got these epic shots, and you see it through somebody else’s eyes, but you always know what else you could have gotten. In India it was tougher because you don’t have the same mentality that you have here. Here, you ask somebody to get you something and there’s 10 people who will go run and get it. There, “It’ll be done soon. Somebody will do it.” And then you find yourself screaming. Then it becomes crazy. I never shouted so much in my life, and similar directors say they had the same experience. I made sure also that I brought a Canadian-American–style cinematographer with me.
TM: What is the message you hope people will take away from a film like this?
MC: That’s a question I keep getting asked. I hope it’s understanding and I hope it’s not what I said earlier—that Islam equals terrorism. I hope it’s a film that [shows that] deep down we all want the same thing, we all want a connection. Unfortunately, some kids connect to the wrong things, but we all want a connection to our fellow man. I think what I want people to get out of the film is a sense of understanding of what Islam is versus the bastardized version of what Islam is. Islam doesn’t equal terrorism. I gave Samih four different father figures and they kind of represent four different ideas that are going on in Samih’s head. It’s trying to showcase a multitude of different versions of Islam and letting you decide.
This article has been corrected from the print edition. Chana is not a Muslim and Daniel Pearl was a character in The Mighty Heart, not Little Terrors, among other transcription errors. A notice will be printed in the September 22, 2014 issue.