Saturday, February 11, 2006

Anita Mujamdar interview, star of "Murder Unveiled"

Canadian actress, dancer and writer Anita Mujamdar, is the award-winning star of the CBC film "Murder Unveiled." She is a 2004 acting graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada and holds a degree in English, Theatre and South Asian Languages from the University of British Columbia. Her Indian dance training originates in Kathak, but she has also studied Bharat Natyam and Odissi. Anita is also a member of the 2005 Tarragon Playwrights Unit.

Inspired by a true story, "Murder Unveiled" is a modern day Romeo and Juliet tale of a beautiful young South Asian Canadian girl who falls in love with a handsome rickshaw driver in India. When her family discovers that they have secretly married, her father first attempts to persuade the young man to divorce his daughter. When that fails, her family hires assassins to seek revenge. Filmed in Canada and the Punjab Region of India with an all South Asian cast from Canada, the U.K. and India. Introducing Anita Majumdar as Davinder, starring Chenier Hundal as Surinder; also starring Hassani Shapi, Lushin Dubey, Sanjay Talwar and Vinay Pathak.

Ms. Majumdar recently spoke with me prior to the film's debut on Monday, February 6, 2006.

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1. What was the most difficult part of playing the role of Davinder, the character based on Jassi Kaur Sidhu? Did you ever feel there was an element of the community that didn't want the story developed into a film?

First I'd like to clarify that I didn't actually play "Jassi" in the film. It's probably more accurate to say that Jassi's circumstances were what the film was based on and not her character. Davinder is quite different as a person from Jassi (as I understand it). But I think the most difficult thing in playing Davinder was the struggle between her love for her parents and her desire for freedom of choice, but still loving her parents no matter what they do to her. Davinder can't understand why she can't love her parents and her husband at the same time. Both sides require that she love one or the other, but never both. What's really tragic is that she never has a chance to defend herself and while every obstacle possible is thrown her way she continues to love her family whole heartedly. I understand the nature of that love, but it frustrated me, and continues to frustrate me, that she's never allowed to voice her wants and desires because of the patriarchal environment she lives in and when she does go after what she truly wants she's unjustly punished for it. Too many women around the world have to live and die like this, even in Canada.

2. Do you believe that by shedding light on this terrible injustice that some Canadians will see some Indo-Canadians in a negative light?

I don't think so. I think film very aptly portrays this particular circumstance as being quite unique. Watching the ending of the film, it's very obvious that the focus is on one particular family that made an unjust choice in the name of honour from the community, but instead receives shame from them. The film concerns humanity, and not a particular faction of Canadian society.

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3. You won the Best Actress award at the 2005 Asian Festival of First Films for your portrayal of Davinder in Murder Unveiled. Were you shocked when you won? Were you familiar with the other nominees and their work?

I was absolutely shocked when they announced my name! I stopped believing that I was actually nominated by the time the awards rolled around. I thought they were just being nice by giving me a nomination! And yes, I was fairly familiar with the other nominees, which was also why I didn't quite believe my nomination was legit! I didn't have a chance to see Dragon Eye Congee or Unarmed Combat because they both screened after I got into Singapore which was later into the festival, but I saw a clips of Shin Yin and Marilyn Yee's work respectively and was really impressed. Also to be in the same category has Minnisha Lamba (who was just a force to be reckoned with in Yahaan) and Chitrangada Singh (words cannot describe her work, she's just brilliant!) was such an honour and not to mention be in a grouping of films that are trying to make a difference with its commitment to this craft. I couldn't have asked for more.

4. In the recent Fifth Estate episode, they mentioned that Jassi was being considered as a wife to a 60 year-old business associate of her family. Is this sort of arranged marriage, based on business more than love, actually all that common in Canada?

See, I'm pretty unfamiliar with what's common and uncommon in the South Asian community when it comes to arranged marriages. My parents told me from the age of 4 that I had to find my own husband when I grew up. The world of arranged marriages fascinates me, but isn't part of my world per say. So when I heard about Jassi being married off to a 60-year businessman, it struck me as odd and quite backwards. I'd heard about that sort of arrangement made in rural parts of India, but not in Canada. The optimist in me hopes and prays that it in fact IS NOT common in Canada, but unfortunately this is a common practice in too many places around the world.

5. Do you know if Murder Unveiled will be shown outside of Canada at any film festivals?

Murder Unveiled screened at the Asian Festival of First Films in Singapore and was also screened at the River to River Festival in Florence, Italy.

I'm not sure if it'll screen anywhere else only because CBC has international rights to the film, but here's hoping! I think it's an important film and should be seen and discussed.

6. Have you seen Deepa Mehta's film Water and if so, what did you think of its portrayal of the long-standing injustices that many widows face?

Again, I'm not the best person to ask about the long history of injustices committed against widows in India since I haven't researched it to the extent Deepa obviously did. I've never visited a widows' ashram or spent extensive amounts of time with widows, but I'm certainly aware of the treatment of widows throughout the ages there, and I thought the film really did justice to the issue to extent of my knowledge. Deepa's a very thoughtful film-maker; she does her research and gives her heart and soul to each of her projects. There's no reason for me to doubt the accuracy of her film.

7. Years ago, when she was still on MuchMusic, while commenting on the 1992 Patrick Swayzee film City of Joy, Monika Deol commented on how she was disappointed that there were so many Western films that showed the poverty-stricken side of India, instead of the modern, developed side. Since then, India has become known for the fastest growing, largest middle-class in the world. What are your thoughts about how Western filmmakers show India to Western audiences?

I think western audiences are much more receptive in accepting the many facets of India. But it's still uneven in terms of perception The western perception of India is about 15 years behind the times. India used to be a country known for its very rich or its very poor, so we see these films based on the very rich or the very poor, but rising numbers of middle class shows an indication for the need of telling stories that appeal to that cross-section of society, which Indian filmmakers are taking advantage of, but has yet to be depicted in the west.
Personally I think it's always a question of accuracy and balance. City of Joy didn't show me anything that I hadn't seen with my own eyes in the slums of Calcutta, so that way it was an accurate portrayal, but at that time there was nothing to counter it to show the splendor of India. And why just blame western filmmakers for an imbalanced perspective; popular Indian filmmakers have been notorious for making films about a fantastical India while completely ignoring the poverty and social issues that exist there. The "East or West, India is the best" concept of film making isn't accurate either. It really just comes down balance, and we can only get to that point by continuing to make films, which I think will expand global understanding.

8. Do you believe we'll ever see a time when Canadian movies are made about Indo-Canadians simply living in Canada, without any ties to India and the East? Do compelling stories exist that are more Canadian-centric?

I think we already have examples of it in our main stream media. Harold & Kumar is a great example of a movie about just existing without making a big deal about the "issue of race". Vik Sahay plays a South Asian lawyer on This is Wonderland without making it about race. To expect all of this to happen over night is unrealistic. Canada has a long history of struggling to accept its multicultural society, but there are wonderful signs of hope. I'm absolutely certain that we will get to a point where actors can be Indo-Canadian, but not have the issue be about being Indo-Canadian, but patience is a virtue. Our film and theatre is broadening its scope now because we are insisting on pushing the envelope. But it's also key to remember that films and plays based on ties to India and/or the East are made because there's an audience for it. These are stories that still need to be heard and experiences that still need to be shared. When the demand dies, so will these kinds of films.

9. I've always believed that Indo-Canadians should talent should emerge in order to tell our stories, be it through music, theatre, books or film. Do you see such a talent base emerging in Canada and if so, can you name some others who we should be following?

We have a huge pool of Indo-Canadian talent in Canada. It blows my mind when I think about it! There's Anand Rajaram who is by far one of the greatest actors we have. He's truly the master of physicality and has a fantastic sense of comic timing and his play Cowboys & Indians is a testament to his immense talent. There's also the brilliant Richie Mehta who's short film Amal did the festival circuit around the world and garnered innumerable awards and finally secured the Toronto Film Festival bid to turn Amal into a feature film. He's definitely a director to look out for and he's so young that he's going to be turning out a plethora of brilliant films in the years to come, I guarantee it. And Sanjay Talwar who is making his debut at the Stratford Festival stage this season as Orsino in Twelfth Night (you might remember him as the investigating police officer trying to uncover what happened to Davinder in Murder Unveiled.) Nazneen Contractor was another South Asian actor to have graced the Stratford stage, not to mention one of the most beautiful actresses we have in Canada. And of course there's writer/playwright Anosh Irani, who after his first published novel (The Cripple and his Talismans) was named amongst Canada's top ten novelists. I had the great privilege of acting in his second written play, Bombay Black, this past January. Again, for someone so young as Anosh to create his own niche and popularize his own category of writing is such a step forward for Canada. It tells us that Canadians are ready to hear other stories and at the same time take ownership for them.

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10. What's next on your plate? As a multi-talented person (dancer, writer, actress), is there a particular career path that you would like to follow?

I'm acting in renowned playwright Guillermo Verdecchia's new play, Bloom, that'll be on at the Theatre Centre in Toronto at the end of February. I play a war orphan in a post-apocalyptic world who is traumatized by amnesia and shares a home with an old war veteran who holds the secret to her past. I'm also doing a remount of my own one-woman show, Fish Eyes in the first week of July in Vancouver (Roundhouse Theatre). I feel it's time to give back to the city that raised me. I'll also be working on an adaptation of the stage version of Fish Eyes into a screenplay this year. The rest is all up in the air, which I think is alright since I'm aching for a break before jumping back into the fire.

In terms of career path, I have no idea! I love acting, but I want to keep creating to keep it fresh and exciting for myself. When it becomes old and stale that's probably the point I should stop doing it. But I don't imagine I'll stop balancing the actress/dancer/writer in me. I always want to keep juggling those balls and because where they land is the foundation of my work.

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