From Soul Diva to a Goddess...
Film Producer Ismail Merchant talks about his latest movie and casting Tina Turner.

March 12, 2004

Ever since he put together his first production visionary filmmaker Ismail Merchant has been both unpredictable and surprising.

In a career that has been far from ordinary he has gone from being a kid who had a dream whilst living in Mumbai to making big Oscar winning films. One of the greatest producers ever to come out of Asia, Merchant has never lost touch with his roots throughout his rise to international stardom. That is why he mixes up big films on the international stage with movies set in India.

Apart from being timeless classics, one thing that all of the respected filmmakers productions have in common is that the cast list is usually loaded with major names. For his latest film, The Goddess, Merchant has pulled off another casting coup by persuading legendary soul diva Tina Turner to play the lead role in the film.

Then years ago I saw Tina Turner at radio City Music Hall performing in front of thousands of people. She arrived magnificently on a crane and landed in the audience. People went berserk when she did this. She gave a performance that was so extraordinary that I thought, if there was something this woman can do then it is become the goddess Shakti," says Merchant in his usual baritone voice.

Ismail Merchant and Tina Turner look set to be a formidable team.

A number of commitments on Merchant's side, combined with Tina being one of the hardest working pop stars in the world meant that it took the award winning filmmaker around a decade to fully cook up the idea. By the time the story had taken shape, Tina had been retired for around four years and so it wasn't a certainty that she would agree to do the film.

Ever the optimist, Merchant felt that allowing time for the project to develop allowed everything to fall into place, from the scripting of the film to Tina being in a place where she was ready to take on a new challenge.

"If you consider that some films can take as long as 25 years to make, then this is a relatively short time. I didn't pursue the idea immediately, although it had remained in my mind. Then around a year ago, I woke up one morning and once again thought of tina turner playing the goddess Shakti. I contacted her manager Roger Davis and he in turn sent the idea to her. Roger said that she would like to see you, go and meet her in Zurich," explains Ismail. "Two nights before I arrived, Tina told me that she had a dream that a stranger would come to her and a new life would start for her."

A practicing Buddhist for 25 years, Tina was immediately excited about the idea of playing the goddess Shakti. The 64-year-old diva felt that she could do justice to the character and was looking forward to learning a new type of dance and music. Tina's strong belief in prayer and faith was also another push towards her agreeing to do the role.

"The cosmic energy of Shakti attracted me to this film and the film to me. It signifies a new energy, new abilities and new beginnings. I fed the desire in me which wanted me to feel the energy of thousands of people in a stadium. Now I want to go to another message," explains a clearly excited Tina. "The epitome of my career was when I could fill a stadium of 190,000 people, but now I am ready to move into another kind of performance. I want to re-invent myself. Everyone expects Tina Turner to come back with a new album, but I will give them this movie."

As well as playing the lead role of the goddess Shakti, Tina will be singing songs in English, Sanskrit, and Latin in the film. Merchant, who will also be directing, is quick to explain that the theme of the movie is a universal one that is connected to nationalities all over the world.

"The film is different in every way to productions I have done previously. It is a supernatural film; it has energy that is Shakti; one that the world revolves around. It is about a goddess who has the power of the past, present and future. She has a relationship with a painter played by Matthew Modine and tells a story about three lovers that takes place in ancient India. The story shifts between the past, present and future," explains Merchant.

To be shot in a single schedule later this year, the film is generating a massive buzz because it will be re-inventing the goddess of soul and it will be another film from the impressive Merchant-Ivory stable. What has added to the buzz is the electric combination of Zakir Hussain and Tina Turner (who hasn't recorded since the nineties) teaming up for the film's soundtrack. At this point Merchant pauses the interview and exclusively plays some of the excellent tracks for me.

"The film has such energy and charge that only Tina could have played the lead role in this film. I think she is a natural; the greatest gift we have received in the world of music and dance. Zakir Hussain has done a fantastic job with the music," he says.

Merchant took Tina on a tour of India last month to help prepare for her role. The trip included a visit to the temples of South India, a cruise down the river Ganges and having a private dinner with some of the biggest names from the Indian film industry in Mumbai. Tina also did a lot of extensive shopping and took time out to learn more about the Indian culture. The tour captivated the hearts and minds of the press, public and celebrities alike.

"In real life she is a goddess, so it had to be her in the film. I can't think of any other performer who can play this role because Tina's appeal is universal. People everywhere know her," explains Ismail.

When the film releases next year, it promises to be a winner. With two legends like Merchant and Tina Turner on board, nobody would bet against it.


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