I first met Vancouver-based filmmaker Manny Mahal in 2017, when I programmed one of his films for the DOXA Documentary Film Festival. In a single unbroken POV shot, For My Mother retraced his mother’s final steps in South Vancouver before she was killed in an accident.
The film screened on Mother’s Day. In the Q&A after the screening, Mahal talked about making the film. He also talked about his mom and the person she was: a passionate hockey fan, a devoted parent, a traveller and adventurer, a character through and through.
This month, Mahal released his documentary on CBC Gem. For My Father is told from the perspective of Mahal’s dad, Inderjit. His father is a very different subject: he’s recalcitrant (at first), stubborn, grumpy, but also a fascinating onscreen presence when he finally relents to the filmmaking process.
For My Father is a fascinating journey that takes decidedly unexpected routes, some deeply funny and others heartbreaking. It is also a story about two men growing up in two very different worlds: India and Canada. The complexities of the father-son bond are often fraught at the best of times. Add in the intricacies of culture, generational divide, as well as some unspoken family history and you have the recipe for a riveting tale.
The Tyee asked Mahal about the process of making his new film with his dad, how it affected their relationship, and what exactly is going on with those 1980s suits.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: Did it take a lot of convincing to get your father to participate in making the film?
Manny Mahal: At first, he was definitely hesitant and when he first agreed to it, I think he thought it would just be one day of interviews. It turned out to go on for months. But I have to give my father credit, when I explained how important it was that I hear his story, he let it all out. There wasn’t any question or story he held back on and it’s the sole reason I was able to go on such a journey.
Without getting too spoiler-y, did you have any inklings about the family dramas that are depicted or were they a total revelation to you?
Ridiculously enough, almost every story was a complete revelation. For the first 23 years of my life, I don’t think we ever engaged in a conversation longer than 10 minutes. It wasn’t out of malice or ill will, I was just a spoiled second-generation Canadian who never thought twice about the privileged childhood I had. And my father rarely cared to open up, for a reason that I would come to find out had a lot to do with his older brother, a man whose name I didn’t even know until we sat down to talk about his story.
What was behind your decision to physically embody your dad in the film (i.e., wearing his clothes, growing and/or cutting your hair)?
It was only after I recorded all these interviews with him, and played them back, that I felt they could be dramatized. Some were hilarious, some were intense, some were downright stranger than fiction. That’s when the director's light bulb went off and I thought, these stories deserve a proper cinematic treatment, and you know what, so does Dad. And if anyone gets to be Dad, it’s going to be me.
Did you have any apprehensions about telling a story that was so deeply personal, not just for yourself, but for the other members of your family?
Honestly, I had no apprehensions. Because I’m lucky enough to have an incredibly supportive family. They backed the whole journey of this project from day one. Even when I asked to shoot scenes in their homes, they opened their doors wide. They gave me the complete freedom to represent our family story. There would not be a film without that level of support.
A great many men have complicated relationships with their fathers. How did the experience of making your film change how you relate to your dad?
Our relationship changed immeasurably. Before this project I think we both thought the other one was an alien. And rightly so. I mean, my father grew up in the scorching hot villages of India, and I spent my childhood in freezing cold ice rinks in Canada. So, when I was younger, I thought he’d be the last person I should go to if I needed advice or guidance in my Canadian life.
But in learning about the struggles my father went through in coming to Canada, working as hard as he did for his education, and his strength in overcoming the tragedies that hit our family, I began to see him as the man whose shoulders I couldn’t be prouder to stand on. And there’s no chance I would ever have seen him this way if not for this project.
Your dad is quite a fascinating character onscreen. Did he come to enjoy aspects of the filmmaking process after going through it with you?
I think he might’ve come to enjoy it a bit too much to be honest! At the beginning he didn’t know what was happening around him. I was setting up lights, microphones and cameras. He’d sit there looking utterly confused. But by the end he would just ask “how long till the shot?” like a veteran producer, then say “OK, come get me when you need me” as if walking back to his trailer or something!
He truly went from humble interviewee to complete A-list talent just like that. Even when I was shooting scenes in which he was not needed physically, he would come down just to hang out with us, share more stories, and even poke fun at me with the other crew members. I certainly didn’t expect him to take to the process in such a fun way.
Your mother is also a big part of the story. Did you understand her life differently after making the film?
One of the great revelations during the process was learning that my mother supported my father when he went through school. I had grown up under the classic gender divided household of dad goes to work and mom stays home. But when my father told me how my mother worked at UBC so that she could pay for my dad’s college education, it blew me away.
She was the original breadwinner of our household! And in hearing how my father spoke about that, I came to also realize just how much love was shared between my parents. How they both shouldered the load of raising the family, making the sacrifices they had to make, and just how much dedication they both had to give us the best life they could.
It’s these stories that have given me a lot of strength in my life today.
'For My Father' is screening on CBC Gem.