Q&A: Deepa Mehta on the worlds of crime and assimilation

The Canadian filmmaker discusses the inspiration behind her latest project, Beeba Boys, and how far gangsters will go to fit in and "be seen."

By: /
November 11, 2015
Canadian director Deepa Mehta during preparations for the 79th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 23, 2007. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

It’s a gangster film like you’ve never quite seen it before, complete with bhangra beats, brightly coloured pocket squares and a cameo by David Suzuki.

Beeba Boys, released last month and directed by Deepa Mehta (Water; Midnight’s Children), takes viewers inside the world of Vancouver’s Indo-Canadian gangs. The character of Jeet Johar, leader of the ‘Beeba (good) Boys,’ is not your average Tony Soprano. He’s always impeccably dressed, loves Suzuki, has his laundry done by his doting mother, and wants to be his son’s hero – his ‘Optimus Prime.’ 

It’s not all flash and games though – Mehta’s gangsters grasp for a sense of belonging in a society radically different than the one their immigrant parents grew up in, often with dangerous results.

OpenCanada sat down with Deepa Mehta during the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss multiculturalism in Canada, what drives someone to devote their life to a gang, and her reasons for wanting to shine a light on this particular segment of Canadian society.

You’re the first woman to direct a gangster film in 40 years. Why that genre, and why did you choose – out of all the stories in the world – this particularly Canadian story?

For me, as a filmmaker, everything starts with a story. If there’s a story that interests me, that I know that while I’m doing it or re-telling it I’m going to learn something more, then it’s exciting. It’s a genre that I’ve always loved – I mean who doesn’t love The Departed, or The Godfather, or John Woo and the Yakuza stories? The film Beeba Boys is not based on as much as inspired by true events, true characters, and then it’s an amalgamation of what happened, and that becomes the story, so the story is original in that sense. 

And when I heard about [the gangsters of Vancouver], I mean I was just so intrigued, because though I have seen films on the [Chinese] Triads, or the Italian Mafia, or the [Japanese] Yakuza, or the hard-core gangsters of Somalia or Sri Lanka, I’ve never seen or even heard anything about the Indo-Canadians, so that intrigued me. All my films thematically have something to do with identity, assimilation, immigration — how we fit in. I was intrigued by the whole sociological idea that crime is a sort of step towards assimilation. 

Throughout the film the ‘Beeba Boys’ have this constant need to be seen, whether that comes out in the colourful clothes they wear or the over-the-top confidence they try and project – does this speak to the immigrant experience in Canada? Despite being second, third generation – is this a way of trying to fit in as Canadians?

They are Canadians! I personally really don’t like the hyphenated – I’m really tired of being an Indo-Canadian. I’m a Canadian who happens to be Indian. That’s about it. So first of all they’re Canadians. There’s the character of the cop in the film who says, ‘they aren’t immigrants, will you stop calling anybody who’s coloured an immigrant!’

What is assimilation? It’s much easier in the United States because everybody becomes an American. I like the fact that in Canada we are given an opportunity to hold on to where we come from. But there’s a limit to it – how do we prevent ghettoization, and when does multiculturalism stop being [about] stereotypes that the white dominant society imposes on its communities that are not white. To break that stereotype for me was imperative. We have to rethink what we mean by visible minority, what do we mean by multiculturalism, how long does somebody have to be an immigrant before they become a Canadian? That is the question.

The real people you spoke with who inspired these stories, they were searching for something more – a sense of belonging. Why is it that they, and the characters in the film, turned to gangs and crime instead of, say, team sports, community theatre, or something on the less violent end of the spectrum?

I think it’s about easy access to power. If you’re marginalized as a community, it’s much easier to take out a gun and put the fear of death in somebody rather than go and do your PhD and become a doctor that everyone admires.

The character Jeet Johar, who’s the head of the gang, says that before Bruce Lee came on the scene the Chinese were really marginalized, and now [people are] petrified [of them]. Jeet brags, ‘Nobody messes with the Indos since we came on the scene!’ So it’s bravado – and it’s also brotherhood. Those are the foundations of gangs, so it’s not any different than say an Irish gang or a Greek gang or whatever. That’s the reality.

How do you hope the Indo-Canadian – apologies for the hyphen! – community in Vancouver and across the country will react to this film? Are you worried you’ll be criticized for shining a negative light on a hitherto mostly hidden problem?

If I’m doing a story on say people who are [victims of] domestic violence, like in Heaven on Earth, set in a Punjabi community in Toronto, it’s not that that’s the whole community – that’s a section of the community, but culturally it does inform it.

The same thing with Beeba Boys, it’s a section of our community, and I think as people who come into a country and want to assimilate, it’s really important for us to be accepted. In order to be accepted, we do what is the first natural thing that anyone does when they come to a new country: we don’t want to create waves, we do not want anything that is negative about our community to be talked about, in case people look at that and say that’s the whole community. 

Beeba Boys is [about] a troublesome section of our community, and we have to do something about it, instead of sweeping it under the carpet. I feel we should start a dialogue, take responsibility, and as the outer community, the larger community that is looking at us, they should also take responsibility because we are all together as being Canadians.

Are the stories of Sikh gangs widely reported or are they better known in B.C. than in the rest of Canada?

It’s a serious problem; like I said, you don’t even hear about the Triads, forget this. These are – compared to the Mafia – very small gangs. I think that Canada is really divided by the Rockies, it’s like when news passes the Rockies everybody gets collective amnesia. [There] are many things that are strange about Vancouver, it’s a fascinating city, it’s beautiful. The people on one level are so-called lotus-eaters and are into granola and yogurt, but on another level there’s a real underlying racism that hasn’t been resolved.

When looking at other countries and their experience with immigration, I’ve always looked at Canada as doing something right, relatively speaking. From this story, do you gather that there’s more to be done on that front?

It all has to stem from politics, and a cultural history, a recognition that something has not been done as it should be. I think comparatively, Canada’s amazing. But I feel that just because we’re amazing, doesn’t mean we can’t be more amazing. We can’t stop. I think that the Syrian refugee [crisis] is a case in point. Saying that we want 10,000 to come is ridiculous – it’s nothing. Why aren’t we taking responsibility? It starts from before people come. The nurturing has to start from the beginning. We have to understand that if people want to come to our country, whether it’s Canada, whether it’s Germany, whether it’s any country in the world, that they’re going to enrich it. We aren’t doing them a favour. We’re a good country, but I think we are capable of much more. I mean, 10,000 is actually disgraceful.

And how do you explain that we don’t know what’s happening in the West Coast? And also that we have no idea of different cultures. We keep talking about how we’re multicultural – it’s all about happy ethnics being trotted out to do our little folk dances, so you have Caribana, Indian stick dances…we’re either that or we’re terrorists, there’s nothing in between. If we really do want to understand the cultures we come from, what’s happening within those communities, then we have to be aware.

My family is Greek, and when My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out, I had friends from all different kinds of backgrounds, Indian, Polish, Italian, telling me how much they could relate to the film. In Beeba Boys too I could see elements of my family (despite having no known gangsters as relatives). Is this what you hoped for while making the film – that it will reach across the divide and be universal even though it’s about a very particular set?

I keep on quoting my favourite director, Luis Buñuel, and I keep on saying the minute you’re particular is the minute you become universal. I think it’s a very particular story, but it is a universal story. So as a filmmaker, I would love all communities, not just ours, but all communities, to find themselves in it. 

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a comedy but I could relate to it – it was delightful, to this day. Is a great piece of cinema? Probably not. But does that matter? I loved that, because there was some freshness to it. I was like, I’ve never seen this before. And I feel that the way people are reacting to Beeba Boys is that, my god, I’ve never seen this, and that’s great.

What’s the message you’d like viewers to take from Beeba Boys?

Crime doesn’t pay. That’s what the film is about, you know. They might be kick-ass gangsters, and you can start off by wanting what their mantra is, which is ‘money, respect, power’ (and style, let’s not forget,) but it doesn’t end well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.