Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, acclaimed director shares his insights into filmmaking in an exclusive interview with Geetika Pathania Jain about his upcoming film, Mirzya.
Geetika Pathania Jain (GPJ): Rakeysh, thanks for making yourself available for this exclusive interview. What would you like to tell our readers from India Currents about your new movie Mirzya?
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (ROPM): Mirzya is based on the legend of Mirza-Sahiba. It’s in the collective consciousness of South Asia. It’s an epic love story which has a likeness to the tragic love stories of Romeo and Juliet, Heer Ranjha and Laila Majnu.
I first saw the play when I was in college. What really resonated with me was the part of Sahiba, the strong female protagonist. Here was a woman who was pretty arrogant, maybe even a bit vain. Very aware of her inner beauty, not just her outer beauty and she uses that as a weapon. Mirzya falls in love with her. There’s no logic to why we fall in love—when love beckons, everything else fails. And so they elope on her wedding night. Mirzya is a skilled mounted archer, and they are pursued by a posse of her brothers. They ride for three nights and four days and finally they take shelter under a tree. There is only one more night of travel left. It’s getting dark and there she imagines that her brothers have arrived, and that Mirzya, a sharp shooter kills them one by one. And at a cathartic moment in the story, she picks up the arrows, breaks them and scatters them around. Dawn breaks and her nightmare starts to come true. Her brothers arrive and they are soon surrounded. Mirzya wakes up, grabs his bow and arrows and finds them broken. He looks intently at Sahiba, and seems to ask—Why? And, then hundreds of arrows kill him, and he lies there bleeding to death, and Sahiba is taken away.
Typically, at the end of the play, the director would ask the audience—why did Sahiba break the arrows? And we would struggle to come up with answers—but, do we really know why we hurt the ones we love the most?
GPJ: The story of Mirzya and Sahiba is a famous Punjabi story and also one which resonates with today’s times. What do you feel about the fact that, in contemporary times, this could be construed as an honor killing? How do you feel about some of these regressive traditions and how can we be careful to not glamorize this idea that women who transgress will be answerable to their families who have the ultimate responsibility of bringing them back into the fold?
ROPM: On the contrary, it’s a question of why we do what we do in love. Somewhere deep inside of me the question remains—why did Sahiba break the arrows? Mirzya was quite capable of defending himself from any kind of attack—he was such a great archer that he could hit a moving target while galloping on his horse with his eyes closed. With this burning question inside of me, I called Gulzar bhai and said, “a cup of tea?” and he says “aa jao, beta.” (Come over, son). We are neighbors so I walked across to his house.
GPJ: Gulzar! Gulzar is such a well-loved lyricist and important part of Indian film culture. So what did Gulzar say?
ROPM: I asked Gulzar, “Why did Sahiba break the arrows? So he said“bachoo, tum woh Sahiba se ja ke poochho.” (Kiddo, go ask Sahiba).
GPJ: Ha ha. Super response.
ROPM: I told him—I’ve been looking for her, and she seems to elude me. He had a twinkle in his eyes and told me to travel this journey to find the answer. Why do we do all the crazy things that we do when we’re in love?
GPJ: That is indeed a question to be asked to all the hopeless romantics and all the star-crossed lovers. Rakeysh, as you may know, India Currents is a community magazine for the Indian diaspora. My next question is about the followers of your art in the West—are we in your thoughts at all?
ROPM: It may sound corny, but I think of you all the time. And the reason is this: I want to tell Indian stories to the world. I want South Asians to be proud of Indian cinema and take their friends out and say it’s not just all song and dance. So it’s always been our endeavor to keep raising the bar with each story that we tell. Someone at the Venice Film Festival named me un-Bollywood and I loved it! I treasure that article so much. And the time has come for us to tell human stories that interest the world at large: not just stories about conflict. To introduce ourselves, our culture, our tradition, not in a jingoistic fashion but in a more universal way because we all know that human emotions remain the same across any culture.
GPJ: I have really enjoyed your previous works. Do you feel that this film is a precursor or a successor to any of the films you’ve made?
ROPM: My first film, Aks, was a paranormal thriller which had its roots in the Ramayana. My grandmother told me at the end of every story—Ram and Ravan are both inside you. So I brought that idea out in a contemporary thriller.
To address questions of corruption, I did Rang de Basanti. Rather than pointing fingers and saying: “In India, nothing works,” you have to be part of the system to change it.
And then I went on to make Delhi 6. I belong to Old Delhi and grew up in an environment of intolerance. When you look at the mirror, you are looking for Allah, you are looking for Bhagwan—you will find that answer inside you. Please don’t break mosques and build temples or break temples and build mosques. So, that was Delhi 6 and then Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was obviously about the pain of Partition. Milkha Singh was one of those kids who suffered—a 12-year old who saw the massacre of his family during the ethnic violence of 1947. But even then, he grew up to be a world champion. Milkha Singh gave us that kind of confidence and pride.
There are so many love stories—and I wondered is there something more to this beast called love? The strong female character in Mirzya drew me close to the story. Somewhere I found that connection in Mirzya’s character as well. He is a Sufi man to the core, who lets his girlfriend be what she is and accepts her even at his death. I think he realizes that Sahiba had a tear in her eye when she broke the arrows. She was making the supreme sacrifice— she sacrificed the one she loved the most to avoid a bigger bloodbath. That’s how this myth of Mirza-Sahiba plays out in India today.
GPJ: I really want to congratulate you on taking on something that brings to contemporary times an ancient legend. Also, you seem to be grappling with the question—why did she do something which seems so counter-intuitive like breaking the arrows? Is that what the film hinges on—the answer to that central question— is that what you are seeking?
ROPM: It’s a parable. The question is why do we do what we do? Something within you that makes you do things—have we forgotten this silent voice inside us amidst the whole noise outside us? I’d like to leave you with a thought that when you see this movie, you should see it with a loved one and if you’re not seeing it with your loved one, then just go back home and hold his hand and share a moment because every moment that we’re together we are blessed. The loved one could be your father, brother, husband or it a boyfriend. It doesn’t matter. Love plays out in various ways—it can make you crazy, it can make you seek revenge. But the purest form, which I learned by telling this story, is giving in love. Our sacrifice is the purest emotion and I hope that comes through.
Geetika Pathania Jain is a frequent contributor to India Currents magazine. When she is not writing reviews or grading student papers, Geetika can be found enjoying the great outdoors.