Filmmaker Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, India, and grew up watching films. Her father was a movie distributor. Mehta earned a Master of Arts degree in philosophy from the University of New Delhi and began her career as a screenwriter for children’s cinema in India. She immigrated to Canada in 1973.
Mehta has received international accolades for her provocative films about universally personal subjects. Beginning with her first feature film, Sam and Me (1991), about an Indian immigrant who befriends an elderly Jewish man in Toronto, Mehta developed an oeuvre that represents emotion through lush imagery. Sam and Me had an $11-million budget, the highest Canadian budget a woman director had been afforded at that time.
Deepa Mehta and Controversial Topics
Mehta's films present personal human conflicts in a naturalistic style, aided by the hypnotic rhythms of powerful soundtracks. Collaborating with composer A.R. Rahman and veteran actor Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Mehta infuses heavy symbolism with reserved depictions of potentially hostile situations. Fire (1996), about two love-starved sisters-in-law who turn to each other for comfort, was the first of her “elements” trilogy. Encompassing lesbianism and challenging the power imbalance between husbands and wives in contemporary India, the film drew both ire and praise. The second of the trilogy, Earth (1998), which was nominated for three Gemini awards, is a love story set among the struggles of diversely faithed friends during India's 1947 partition from Pakistan.
Not shying away from controversy, Mehta's final instalment in the elements trilogy was Water (2005), nominated for nine Genie awards and for an Oscar in 2006. The story of socially marginalized widows who are ostracized in conservative parts of India, the film went through a series of delays as violent protesters threatened Mehta's life and destroyed film sets in the holy city of Varanasi, where "widow houses" can still be found. The film shoot was eventually relocated to Sri Lanka under the pseudonym River Moon.
Although the trilogy survived the India Censor Board without a cut, many religious and conservative-minded leaders still see Mehta as a westernized threat to Indian culture. Citing socially responsible filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ozu Yasujiro and Vittorio de Sica among those she respects, Deepa Mehta challenges cultural traditions by using drama to break down stereotypes and give a voice to the individual.