Releasing this Friday is Rehana Mizra’s directorial debut Hiding Divya. The film is the story of Divya, her estranged daughter Linny and Linny’s 16-year-old daughter Jia, and the effect Divya’s bipolar disorder has on all their lives. Hiding Divya tells a story of denial, shame, guilt and, most of all, love. For the cast of the film Rehana brought together an eclectic mix of stage and movie actors to create the characters in her film. To play Ravi, a childhood friend of Linny, Rehana cast theater and film actor Deep Katdare, who also is one of the executive producers of the film. About casting him, director Rehana said, ” Deep Katdare came on early in the process, and I did write the role for him as well. I’d seen his work in American Desi and Bombay Dreams with Madhur Jaffrey, and thought he’d be perfect for the comedic part.” The actor spoke to us about working on the film, what is so special about Hiding Divya and what he hopes audience will take away with them after they experience the film.
What prompted you to be a part of Hiding Divya?
There were two primary reasons I wanted to be a part of Hiding Divya. The first and foremost was the story/script. I really had not read an indie film script about South Asians that tackled the issue of mental illness before. It seemed to me that it would be an utterly unique undertaking, and after reading Rehana’s script, I knew that I had to be a part of the production. The second reason was that I wanted to work with the cast. I had worked with Madhur Jaffrey in the past in Bombay Dreams and we had a great time giving that show life in its Broadway debut. I couldn’t wait to work with her again. I had seen Pooja Kumar’s work and our paths had crossed socially on several occasions, but this was the first opportunity that we had to work together. I had always wanted to work with her, so this was a perfect opportunity.
What did you know about Rehana, the director before the film?
I knew Rehana very well prior to her directorial debut. While we had not worked together directly, I had seen some of her plays and was very impressed with her unique style of storytelling. South Asians have only in the last decade made significant inroads into the indie film circuit in the US. As the movement has grown, it is not surprising that some of the stories and the styles of storytelling have grown stale. Rehana brings a fresh perspective with her style, which is much needed for the South Asian indie movement to continue growing. As South Asians, we tend to focus on stories that we think people want to see, but I think it’s important to tell stories that matter to us; stories were are driven to tell. Rehana is the type of filmmaker and writer that does just that. I should also say that I knew Rehana personally as well before making Hiding Divya considering that her sister, Rohi, is married to one of my dearest friends.
What is your role in the film?
I play the role of Ravi Das, who is a childhood friend of Linny’s (Pooja Kumar) who tries to reconnect with her…romantically. He is, in some ways, a distraction for Linny in the midst of her family and life crisis.
What was her brief to you for your role?
Rehana gave me a great deal of freedom in terms of developing character. In some ways there are elements of Ravi that are very similar to me, and Rehana probably recognized that early on. Ravi is a doctor, and like a good doctor, he tries to fix people. I am not a doctor, but I tend, like Ravi, to try to be the fixer.
Ravi has the instinct of a St. Bernard. When he spots the slightest bit of trouble, he inserts himself into the situation in an attempt to save the day. While his intentions are noble, his execution is often very poor, and he ends up doing more damage than good. That having been said, I think that Ravi has an immense heart, and what he lacks in execution, he more that makes up for in kindness and self-sacrifice.
I think that Ravi serves a purpose in the story to help move the narrative forward, yet at the same time to reveal some of the otherwise unseen dimensions of Linny’s character.
How much did you know about bipolar disease prior to the film?
I knew very little about bipolar disorder prior to joining Hiding Divya. I had done some research on schizoaffective disorders for a screenplay many years prior, so I knew what bipolar disorder was. But I had no idea just how many people are affected by the disease and the different gradations of it.
I think this film will do a lot to bring mental illness to the attention of the Indian community and may help some families understand the behavior of some of their loved ones better. Hopefully it will go further in that it will help turn around the stigma that has surrounded mental illness in the Indian community as there are many drugs to treat disorders like bipolar disorder readily available today. Bipolar disorder is for many people, a manageable illness.
Did you have to do any research about mental diseases and the taboos associated with it in the South Asian community?
Rehana distributed some materials for us to read prior to the production. I was truly surprised to learn of the taboos associated with mental illness in the South Asian community. Of course, it made sense once I read about it. I don’t know just how unique it is to South Asian culture, but mental illness was not something my family ever discussed when I was growing up. If we knew anyone who suffered from mental illness, I don’t remember discussing it.
How is Hiding Divya different from any other film you have done in the past?
Hiding Divya is a dramatic departure from other films I have worked on in the past. To be honest, I have not worked on a dramatic film of this nature in the past. It takes a lot more out of you than I had initially realized. As an actor, you need to be keenly aware of your and other characters’ emotional arc through the story because you need to keep track of where you are in that arc when you are shooting out of sequence. That is not to say that character arc is not important in a romantic comedy or comedy, but only to say that switching in and out of emotional states takes more out of you that you think. My job, at the end of the day though, was nothing compared to that of the three actresses of the film.
How would you rate Rehana as a writer/director?
Rehana is among the best directors I have worked with. You would never have known that this was her film directorial debut if you were on the set on a day-to-day basis. That is not an easy feat to pull off. A film set is in many ways organized chaos. And while there are line producers and production coordinators who do a lot to try to control that chaos by keeping the production balanced and moving forward, the director is the one person who must navigate us all through the chaos to the truth of the story in a visually aesthetic way. Most directors are not able to accomplish this task the first time out; Rehana is the exception, not the rule.
Are you surprised at the interest the film has generated?
I am not at all surprised by the interest that the film has generated. I think that the films that people tend to gravitate toward are those that reveal a side of real life that either they do not have access to or did not know existed. In the case of Hiding Divya, I think the film reveals a side of Indian-American culture, specifically the treatment of mental illness.
What kind of message does Hiding Divya give out to its audiences?
I think the first thing the film is going to do for most South Asian audiences is illuminate the problem of mental illness and the stigma associated with acknowledging it in the Indian community. The second thing that I know the film will do is show just how damaging that stigma can be; how it can tear families and friends needlessly apart. I hope the message that South Asian audiences in particular take away from the film is that mental illness is a reality, it is not anyone’s fault, and it can be treated. More awareness of the problem and its treatments is the key, I think.