Filmmaker Richie Mehta, whose second and third feature films will be in theatres in June, took an afternoon last Thursday to visit UTM—his alma mater back in ’01—to talk about how he went from a Sheridan film student and a “schmoe” from Brampton to an award-winning director whose movies have budgets in the millions.
I can’t do this event justice without some background. My introduction to Richie Mehta’s work was through the Hindi-language film Amal, which was screened at TIFF in 2007 and was nominated for Best Motion Picture and Best Director at the 29th Genie Awards, among many other American and international awards. It was also my favourite movie for a couple of years. It’s a moving story: Amal, a poor autorickshaw driver in New Delhi who displays genuine goodness—and not an exaggerated goodness, but the real-life, unglamorous goodness we so admire in a few friends—one day has an elderly, world-weary millionaire for a fare. The next few days are hell, filled with serious financial and emotional troubles. Meanwhile, little does Amal know that the millionaire has left him his entire fortune, but the man’s jealous relatives are scheming to seize it. But Amal is longsuffering, quite admirably. He patiently undergoes the hard life that, in reality, so many of the underprivileged constantly put up with. It was because of this movie, written with a script so unlike the one Hollywood would have given it, that I was eager to hear Mehta talk.
Two or three dozen of us gathered in the MiST and had the typical pizza offering. Then Mehta stepped up and took the mic. He’s shortish, not terribly charismatic, but he had our attention. The event was called “Backpack to Briefcase: Discover Your World Stage”, but Mehta quipped that he’s actually gone from “backpack to backpack”. A lot of his life these days, he said, is travelling all over the world for festivals, pitches, business meetings, and, when he gets a chance, the shooting itself.
He showed us a three-and-a-half minute movie he made in 2002 at Sheridan after graduating from art and art history at UTM (where he was actually editor-in-chief of the Medium… fancy that). An Indian boy spies an Indian girl at a cafeteria and imagines asking her out and fast-forwarding to an elaborate traditional wedding, but never works up the courage. More interesting than this first attempt at a movie was Mehta’s explanation of how it came to be. He pitched a 25-page script to his professor/producer. He was told to cut, cut, cut. “Your essential idea isn’t original,” he was told. “You can make the film well, and you should do so for this project, but you don’t need 25 minutes to say that this guy lives in his mind. You’ll bore the audience to death.” Or words to that effect. In retrospect, Mehta agrees. The final script was one page, plus visual effects.
When he was shooting that film, he said, there was a moment when his cellphone was on—that was a new thing back then—and he turned it off, because he recognized that “this is where I want to be; I don’t need to be talking to anyone else than who I’m with right now”. If he could find a way to keep doing this for the rest of his life, he said, “I’d have won at life.”
After he graduated, he didn’t have a great idea of how to proceed. He made a lot of shorts, particularly for companies (and even universities) who wanted him to promote this or that, or to cover this or that event—just take video, edit it in a day, and send it over. There were also a few grants—Canada, he pointed out, has the highest arts funding per capita in the world. All of this paid bills, but he started to realize that you don’t work up to being a director by taking smaller jobs. Unlike other film industry positions where you’re an apprentice to a master, directors just come out of nowhere with the skill and a good idea and people will come around them to help them make it. So he decided to go for it.
That was when his brother Shaun (a high school teacher) showed him the short story he’d written that was the basis of Amal. Blown away by a story that he felt dealt with a lot of the themes that had troubled him about his heritage, Richie got together a group of friends in the industry and convinced them to come to India and make a short film adaptation in 10 days. He’d cover everything but the plane ticket with a fundraiser that they organized. So they did it.
Can I just say… what an experience? Does it take that kind of spontaneity and faith in what you’re doing to start a career in the arts? Well, that, said Mehta, and hard work and luck. (And quoted Jefferson: “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”)
The short film was popular. It connected with people. And it wasn’t long after that that he realized it was time to make a feature film. He would expand Amal’s short version. He entered a movie-pitching competition at TIFF, where most of the industry heads in Canada were gathered—a room of a few hundred people, all waiting for you to convince them to put a huge amount of money into your movie. He realized that if he failed here, it would take him a long time to crawl back to credibility. And he saw the amazing things other people were doing and realized he couldn’t worry about the competition. He just had to worry about doing the best he could do. In the end—however it happened—he won. The $10,000 prize was supposed to start him off.
The next step was to approach a producer and use this as the catalyst for getting money in the real amounts you need to make a film. He shot for $1,000,000, and he knew he wanted three of India’s biggest stars in the movie. He needed them not only to make it good, but because attaching their names to the project would make it more credible. In order to make his whole thing work, he figured, “I had to make this film as if it was my last.” Because if it broke down or turned out terribly, nobody would stake that much on him again. At least not without years of working to build himself back up.
One of the stars was Naseeruddin Shah. Mehta said that when he went to India hoping to run into Shah and get him to sign on, “It was like if you went to New York and hoped to get Al Pacino.” He got to India and was staying with an older relative for a while, putting together lists of people he knew who might know someone in the industry who might know someone. Then, none day, Mehta happened to overhear an itinerary of the day’s meetings being given to his relative, who was trying to start a film school. “And showing up later in the day will be so-and-so, that other guy, Naseeruddin Shah, what’s-his-face, and…”
He realized that if he stood outside the building, his star would come by in a few minutes. So he did, and sure enough, a limo pulled up and there was Shah. He had about 20 seconds to pitch the role to Shah while they walked up the stairs to the meeting. Luck struck again: Shah loved the idea and wanted to hear more in his office the next day.
Once Shah had signed, finding and signing the other two actors was a breeze, said Mehta. And securing the money became easier as each new name stacked the deck in his favour. There was one condition: he had to presell the movie before he’d be given a cent. The producer explained to him that in the real movie industry, you first have to go to distributors and get them to agree to show your movie to ensure that the film will actually go somewhere. Mehta approached every major distributor in Canada and pitched his movie to them… and they all said no.
So that was it for his dream.
It had been a year since that pitching competition at TIFF, and just out of curiosity, Mehta decided to attend the one that year, just to see what people were pitching. (He volunteered at TIFF every year.)
After the event, he hung around for a bit and happened to see a friend at the back of the room talking to “a really cute girl”. That girl turned out to work for the one major distributor he hadn’t approached. Her boss was there, too. Mehta spoke to him and, miracle of miracles, they agreed to take the movie. He had his money for Amal.
In the MiST Theatre, Mehta didn’t go into much detail about the shooting process itself. He was here to tell us how he’d gone from school to career. And the rest reads like an inevitable history. Of course the film did well. Of course he planned another. He’s also into sci-fi, and wanted to make a film in the genre. Of course he set his sights higher the next time: he wanted $2,000,000 for his next budget. And he’d have to work twice as hard to get it.
He has two feature films ready to be distributed now: a sci-fi one called I’ll Follow You Down and another Hindi one called Siddharth. (The Toronto Star interviewed him when Siddharth showed at TIFF last year—Google the article if you’re curious.)
His hard work has paid off. But all of it, he said, comes at a cost. He knows that making movies is what he wants to do. It’s the reason he gets up in the morning. His name wouldn’t even have to be attached to his films for him to keep doing this—he’d just want to see that people saw the line of thinking that links his work, that they got his films and connected with them. And so far they have. The flipside is that he has no spare time. His friends are building up their lives with families and houses. Mehta is always on the move, always convincing the next person to take a risk and put their faith in him.
Lots to think about here, lots of lessons to be learned. Particularly for the surprisingly many UTM students who either plan for or secretly wish for a career in the arts. Will it take hard work? Yes. Will you have to put everything else aside? Yes. Is luck involved? Yes. We should probably be prepared to accept all of those if we want our own “world stage”.
In any case, all I can wish for is that UTM holds more events like this. A peek into a future that, arguably, we could have.