With her epic trilogy of films named after the elemental forces of Fire, Earth, and Water, Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta (born 1950) vaulted to the first rank of artists concerned with the status of women, as traditional roles collided with the forces of the contemporary world.
Exploring the experiences of women in her native India has placed Mehta in the midst of intense controversy. She has been burned in effigy, seen the stars of her films threatened with violence, and struggled to see her films completed and shown. Nevertheless, she has persisted in the face of daunting obstacles. "I see myself as a very emotional filmmaker rather than a radical," Mehta told Diane Taylor of London's Guardian newspaper (referring to Fire). "I made [Fire] because I want to understand myself." Early in her career she told Pamela Cuthbert of Take One, "The point is: if you want to make films, you'll find ways of making them." Her career has borne out that confident assertion.
Grew Up in Film Industry Family
Mehta was born in Amritsar in northwestern India in 1950, but she moved with her parents to the capital of New Delhi when she was a child. Her family spoke English at home. The marriages of Mehta's mother, and of several of her aunts, were arranged by their parents. She grew up with India's vigorous film industry in her blood, for her father worked as a film distributor. The family's fortunes rose or fell according to the success of his latest releases. "I grew up with cinema, with Friday-night openings and Monday-morning grosses," she told Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was a favorite family maxim that there are two things one never knows: when one is going to die, and how a film will do at the box office. At first, she herself showed little interest in a film career, majoring in Hindu philosophy at the University of New Delhi.
After finishing her studies, Mehta made a few short documentaries for an Indian studio. A marriage to a filmmaker both solidified her return to cinema and precipitated her departure from India; she met Canadian documentarian Paul Saltzman when he was in India making a film, married him, and moved with him to Toronto in 1973. Raising a daughter, Devyani Saltzman, she worked as a scriptwriter for children's films. She also made several documentaries of her own; At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch (1975) depicted an almost-centenarian who remained an active and vital yoga practitioner. Mehta became a Canadian citizen but retained strong ties to India.
In 1983 Mehta and Paul Saltzman divorced, a wrenching process that saw Devyani forced to choose which parent she wanted to live with. She stayed with her father, and mother and daughter were estranged for some years. After the divorce Mehta returned to filmmaking with renewed energy. She made several more documentaries, including one about her brother, photojournalist Dilip Mehta, and in 1988 and 1989 she directed episodes of the Canadian television series The Twin and Danger Bay. With two other women she made a feature-length film, Martha, Ruth & Edie (1988), consisting of three separate vignettes about three women who meet at a self-help conference.
The experience gained on that film gave Mehta traction in getting financing for a feature of her own. Sam & Me, released in 1991, told an intergenerational story about an elderly Jewish man living in Toronto and a young Indian Muslim immigrant who works as his caretaker. The film won the prestigious Camera d'Or award for the best work by a first-time filmmaker at the Cannes Film Festival, and Mehta's career was launched. Although she remained less well known in the United States than in Canada and much of Europe, the film won influential U.S. admirers. These included Star Wars director George Lucas, who hired Mehta to direct several episodes of his Young Indiana Jones Chronicles television series in the early 1990s. She also served as executive producer for the Canadian lesbian-themed drama Skin Deep.
Directed Jessica Tandy
In her first big budget feature, Mehta had the opportunity to direct the 84-year-old British theatrical actress Jessica Tandy in one of her last roles (and in a brief nude scene). Camilla was a story of friendship that crossed generational lines, dealing with two women, an elderly concert violinist and a young composer (Bridget Fonda) whose ambitions are frustrated by her husband. Mehta, as a first-time major director, was not given final control over the shape of the film, which earned mixed reviews, and she was dissatisfied with the results, telling William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that "I don't want to talk about that one—it's terrible."
Mehta had more success when she returned to familiar terrain. She planned Fire, which appeared in 1996, and then conceived the idea of a trilogy of films, all set in India and all dealing with forces that had shaped Indian culture either in the present day or over the last few generations. And it was Fire that first introduced Mehta to the pressure of dealing with large-scale controversy, the result of the film's unprecedented-for-India depiction of a lesbian relationship. The film was mostly in English, but at one point a character says that in Hindi there is not even a word for lesbianism. The creative process that led to the film began as Mehta was looking at a colorless, frozen Canadian lake in winter, and pictured orange, white, and green—the colors of the Indian flag. From there, she began to devise a story of unhappy women in arranged marriages. She has said that she did not set out to make a film about lesbianism per se, but about emotional connection and honesty.
In Fire, for which Mehta directed her own screenplay and also served as co-producer, she depicted two sisters-in-law; one, Sita, has found that her husband is more attracted to his Chinese mistress, while the other, Radha, is frustrated because her spouse has taken a vow of celibacy on the advice of a local spiritual leader. The two women become emotionally close and then physically involved. As with most Indian films, the on-screen depiction of sexuality was tame by Western standards, but the reaction from Hindu fundamentalists after the film's release in India was swift and immediate.
Mobs, with the tacit and even stated support of Hindu extremists in India's ruling BJP party, attacked and looted theaters in New Delhi, Bombay, and other cities that had booked the film. Mehta, on her way to India for the opening in late 1998, was met by a phalanx of 40 armed guards assigned to protect her. A major battle over the film erupted in the Indian press, and the country's legislature divided into pro- and anti-Mehta camps. The threat of violence hung in the air. "I did have supporters, but they, too, were intimidated and threatened," Mehta told Arnold. "A group of doctors and lawyers in Bombay decided to put up posters around the city defending me. But no one in Bombay—a city of 11 million—would print the poster. They finally had to go all the way to Madras to find a printer who would take the job. It was that scary."
Made Film About India-Pakistan Partition
The controversy simmered down after a few months, not coincidentally after fundamentalist Hindus suffered a setback in their efforts to control the BJP. Indian censors approved the film, which had won 14 film festival awards around the world, and it opened largely without incident. By that time Mehta had already completed the second film in the trilogy, Earth. That film was set in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. When it had been home to Mehta's parents, however, India and Pakistan were both part of the same British-ruled colonial territory. As India achieved its independence from Britain in 1947, however, majority-Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan were split into two different countries, with large, violence-ridden migrations occurring as adherents of each religion streamed toward the new borders. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Mehta's film, plotted through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl, took place against the backdrop of these events and showed the dissolution of friendships and romantic relationships under the pressure of religious hatreds.
Earth (1999), based on a novel by Bapsi Sidwa, drew calls for a ban from Hindu extremists who believed that it showed Hindus in a bad light. Mehta's portrayal of the violence of India's partition, however, was nonsectarian. "Not only did it seem imperative to show what the Partition did to innocent people," she told Bridget Kulla of Off Our Backs, "but somehow, in doing so, we hoped to understand why war is waged and why friends turn enemies, and why battles are inevitably fought on women's bodies." Protests associated with Earth were nonviolent, and the film played successfully across India.
Protests flared again after Mehta began filming Water in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi (formerly Benares), in northeastern India's Uttar Pradesh state, in January of 2000, and this time they were aimed at shutting the film down before it could be made. Protesters burned Mehta in effigy, and although she tried to raise the cast's spirits by asking what the effigy had been wearing, the situation soon became intolerable after thugs set fire to sets and threatened the film's female stars with rape. Hindu fundamentalists objected not only to the film's story, but to the title as well, which referred to the sacred Ganges river simply as water.
The film dealt with the historical plight of widows in India, centering on a widowed child bride who is sent to an ashram or sanctuary in Varanasi after her husband's death. There she meets a variety of women, some of whom try to escape from the grim conditions in which they find themselves. Michael Buening of the All Movie Guide called the film "a Dickensian exposé on the poverty and societal oppression associated with widows' ashrams." (The fundamentalists' view was that the widows were living in an exalted state.) Mehta tried to calm the protests by agreeing to cut certain lines from the film, and once again she had backers as well as detractors: an organization of Indian prostitutes staged a march in support of Mehta. But renewed attempts at filming were once again met with violence, and the actors and crew were trapped in a hotel at one point. "We have done everything according to law," star Shabana Azmi told Sudip Mazumdar of Newsweek International. "Yet we're being punished, and lawbreakers are moving about freely." Once again, it seemed that officials were ignoring the intimidation of Mehta and her crew. Finally Mehta suspended filming and returned to Canada. A budding renewal of her ties to her daughter Devyani, who had signed on as an assistant camera operator, was interrupted as well.
Despite offers (questionable in terms of security) from other Indian states to let Mehta film there, Water languished for several years. Mehta's troubles mounted when Indian novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay accused her of plagiarizing the film's plot from his book Those Days, an accusation Mehta answered with denials and a lawsuit that was eventually settled out of court. Azmi, who had shaved off her hair for the film, became the subject of a fatwa from Islamic clerics. Mehta lightened the mood of her filmmaking with a romantic film made in Canada. Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) was a lighthearted take on India's film musicals. She also directed The Republic of Love (2003), a romantic drama.
Finally, after filming in secret in the island nation of Sri Lanka off of India's southern coast in 2004, Mehta completed Water. The filming also reunited her with her daughter, who chronicled their experiences in a memoir, Shooting Water. The film was screened at the Toronto Film Festival, where U.S. director Stephen Spielberg told Mehta that it was the best film he had seen in the past five years. The film did strong business in Canada and Europe, was shown widely in the United States, and was slated for distribution in India at the end of 2006. Looking back on the violence she had faced, Mehta told Bob Longino of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "It was a horrific time, but later I could put it in perspective. I thought about the relationship between politics and art and freedom of expression and what that means and what drives extremists. I realized it really wasn't about me." In 2006 she was signed to make a new film, Exclusion, a historical drama about a group of Indians on a ship who were refused entry to Canada. Filming in India for part of the film was planned.
Saltzman, Devyani, Shooting Water, Penguin, 2006.
Women Filmmakers and Their Films, St. James, 1998.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 19, 2006.
Guardian (London, England), November 13, 1998; April 21, 2000.
New Internationalist, September 2000.
Newsweek International, February 28, 2000.
Off Our Backs, March 2002.
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 27, 2006.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 27, 1999.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), May 7, 2006.
Take One, December-February 1996.
Time Canada, September 12, 2005.
Times of India, September 6, 2006.
"Deepa Mehta," All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com (December 16, 2006).