"Curiosity is what motivates me generally, curiosity about the oppression of women in particular." -Deepa Mehta
Toronto-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, India in 1949. Because her father was a film distributor and theater owner, she was exposed to film at a very early age. She grew up watching commercial Indian cinema, and realized the emotional power of cinema when she was just thirteen.
She went to the University of Delhi, where she received a degree in philosophy. With no formal training in filmmaking, she began her career after graduation when she joined a company making documentaries. She moved to Toronto at the age of 23, where she began to create films that would soon establish her as a talented and controversial filmmaker.
Mehta describes herself as "a citizen filmmaker of the world. Or at least one that has one foot in India and one in Canada." She initially moved to Toronto with plans to move back to India, but ended up staying and becoming a Canadian citizen. Her films, however, are mostly set in India, and they challenge traditional beliefs prevalent in Indian culture. As a result of her controversial subject matter, her films have been fiercely protested by various Hindu fundamentalist groups. Because of this, Mehta is often accompanied by armed bodyguards when traveling in India.
Mehta is best known for her three films: Fire, Earth, and Water.The first film in her "Elements Trilogy," Fire, deals with the development of an intimate relationship between two Indian women. The lesbian relationship in the film is condemned and seen as an offense to the family. Sita, one of the women in this relationship, says, "There is no word in our language that can describe what we are, how we feel for each other."
When the movie was released in 1996, right-wing party Shiv Sena organized demonstrations and forced the closure of several Bombay and New Dehli cinemas that were showing this film. Rocks were thrown into movie theaters, consession stands were thrashed, and Deepa Mehta received death threats. Shiv Sena issued a statement saying, "If women's physical needs are fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse and the reproduction of human beings will stop." Bal Thackeray, founder of Shiv Sena, said that contrary to the story in the film, lesbianism did not exist in Hindu families.
Mehta remains proud of her film and she has defended its message by saying, "Lesbian relationships are part of the Indian heritage and the film brings into the public domain the hypocrisy and tyranny of the patriarchal family, the issue of women's sexuality and makes a strong statement about women-women relationships."
The second film in Mehta's trilogy, Earth, addresses nationalism during India's partition. And the third film, (Oscar-nominated) Water, tells the story of a child bride whose husband-to-be dies and is then banished to a home for "unwanted" widows. Because of rampant protesting, it took Mehta seven years to make Water. She describes the first day on the set of the film: "I believe there was a crowd of around 12,000 people who arrived on set. They threw our sets in the river. They burned my effigy. It was quite ugly."
One of her newer films, Heaven on Earth, addresses domestic violence in an arranged marriage. I have yet to see this film, but it looks like Mehta is continuing to create a nuanced portrayal of women facing different forms of oppression.
Trigger Warning: This film trailer contains graphic domestic violence.
Mehta continues to be a talented and provocative artist. She is set to begin filming an adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children this year and her latest film Komagata Maru is set for release in 2011. I strongly recommend Mehta's films. Her career is an impressive one that deserves to be watched.