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Deepa Mehta

Deepa Mehta1949, Amristar, India

Deepa Mehta occupies a unique place within the Canadian film industry. One of the few filmmakers to have a truly international outlook, Mehta has shot and set films in both Canada and India. In Deepa Mehta as Transnational Filmmaker, or You Cant Go Home Again, from North of Everything (2002), one of the most comprehensive articles on her career, Jacqueline Levitin calls Mehta a transnational filmmaker. Mehta herself refers to her films as hybrids. She is a humanist who has often attacked intolerance and prejudice; the content of her films and her outspoken distaste for hypocrisy have made her one of Canadas most controversial directors.

Mehta was born into the film industry as her father was a film distributor in India. After finishing a degree in philosophy, she immigrated to Canada in 1973, where she formed Sunrise Films with Paul Saltzman. Mehta worked on a number of television series before turning to short documentaries. In 1991, she made her first feature film, Sam and Me. Nikhil, a young immigrant played by Ranjit Chowdhry (who also wrote the script), is forced by family obligation to care for Sam, an aging Jewish man (Boretski) who has been more or less abandoned by his children. When they become too close, both families intercede.

Sam and Me introduced Mehtas characteristic motifs and interests. Intolerance and prejudice are set against the need for understanding and the realities of a multicultural society; and though Mehta invariably gives priority to individual needs and (in particular) desires, she also acknowledges the pull and also, the comfort of tradition. Sam and Me also criticizes Canadian society for its superficial devotion to multiculturalism, establishing Mehta as a filmmaker who was unafraid of exposing hypocrisy. (At the same time, she also criticized funding agencies for their refusal to back the project because it didnt fit into their definition of a Canadian film.) Sam and Me is told through the eyes of an innocent; and in subsequent works, Mehta would continue to express links between pain, wisdom and experience.

Sam and Me won an honourable mention for the Camera dor prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and following that, Mehta was offered several plum projects. George Lucas recruited her in 1991 to work on his The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles television series and she was hired to make Camilla (1993). Mehta was unhappy with the way the film was edited, and she swore to devote herself to her own projects in the future.

Mehtas next effort, Fire (1996), remains her most controversial. The first installment in a planned trilogy to be shot in India, Fire recounts the relationship between two neglected and oppressed sisters-in-law, Radha and Sita (played by Indian stars Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das). Their growing attraction to one another and their eventual liberation comes at a cost: the disruption, and ultimately, the destruction of the joint household they live in. Though Mehta clearly sympathizes with her heroines, she acknowledges how custom also imprisons the men. The film was met with violent protests when it was released in India in the fall of 1998 and was eventually withdrawn from distribution.

Earth (1998), the second part of the trilogy, examines the sectarian strife following the departure of the British and the partition of India. Told through the eyes of a young girl, and inspired in part by stories told by Mehtas mother about partition, Earth is staunchly realist, much like its predecessor, but it is marked by a more ambitious scope and may be Mehtas finest work to date.

In 2000, Mehta returned to India to shoot Water, the final installment in her trilogy. But even before shooting began, fundamentalists rioted and destroyed the sets, going so far as to burn effigies of Mehta and her cast. Disheartened and unsure if she would make another feature, Mehta returned to Canada where she made Bollywood/Hollywood (2002). A buoyant romantic comedy, complete with musical numbers in the tradition of Bollywood, the film represents a break with her previous work, both in terms of style and atmosphere. Decidedly upbeat, the film focuses on a young Indo-Canadian millionaire (Khanna) whose family pressures him to marry. He meets a young woman (Ray) in a bar, and assuming she cant be Indian because no self-respecting Indian woman would ever be alone in a bar, he asks her to masquerade as his fiance.

Bollywood/Hollywood is remarkably consistent with Mehtas other work in theme, commenting on the situation of many Indo-Canadians, caught between family and tradition on one side and Western culture on the other. It also proffers the most complicated and most fulfilled notion of identity in her work to date, acknowledging the possibility of the co-existence of tradition and individual need.

Mehta has consistently worked with the same crew (including Gilles Nuttgens, cinematographer; Barry Farrel, editor; Anne Masson, line producer; and David Hamilton, her partner and producer) and she often casts the same performers. (For instance, Nandita Das is featured in both Fire and Earth and was cast in Water; Ranjit Chowdhry is featured in all of Mehtas films except Earth; and Rahul Khanna appears in Earth and Bollywood/Hollywood.) Stylistically, her work is rigorously designed, featuring very particular colour palettes. Her visual approach is restrained with little or no camera movement. She has consistently cited Satyajit Ray as her key influence an influence that is evident in both her manner of filmmaking and the humanist philosophy behind her work.

By Steve Gravestock

Film and video work includes

At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch, 1974 (director)
Danger Bay series, 19841989 (director; TV)
Travelling Light, 1986 (director; producer; TV)
Martha, Ruth and Edie, 1987 (co-director with Daniele J. Suissa, Norma Bailey; producer)
In Limbo from Inside Stories, 1988 (actor; TV)
The Twin from Inside Stories, 19891991 (director; TV)
Sam and Me, 1991 (director; producer)
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles series, 1992 (director; TV, one episode)
Camilla, 1993 (director)
Fire, 1996 (director; writer; producer)
The Young Indiana Jones: Travels with Father, 1996 (co-director with Michael Schultz; TV)
Earth, 1998 (director; co-writer with Bapsi Sidhwa; producer)
Bollywood/Hollywood, 2002 (director; writer)
The Republic of Love, 2003 (director; co-writer with Esta Spalding)
Water, 2005 (director; writer)

Note: Updated to April 2005.

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