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The two predominant themes in the work of writer-director Deepa Mehta are 1) the transcendence of age differentials and cultural barriers and 2) passion in its various guises. Drawing on her own status as a woman whose identity straddles two disparate worlds, her native India and her adopted homeland of Canada, this gifted filmmaker sheds new light on the seemingly banal topics of friendship and history. In a handful of films, Mehta has emerged as a potent voice in world cinema.The daughter of a film distributor, Mehta was raised in Delhi, India along with her brother, photojournalist Dilip Mehta. While obtaining her degree in philosophy at the University of New Delhi, she met Canadian Paul Saltzman, whom she married. In 1973, they settled in Toronto where she broke into the film industry as a scriptwriter for children's movies. Mehta learned as she went, starting as a writer and editor on documentaries (many made in tandem with her then-husband under their production banner Sunrise Films) before stepping behind the camera to make the documentary short "At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch" in 1975. Several other documentaries, including one on her brother "Travelling Light: The Photojournalism of...
The two predominant themes in the work of writer-director Deepa Mehta are 1) the transcendence of age differentials and cultural barriers and 2) passion in its various guises. Drawing on her own status as a woman whose identity straddles two disparate worlds, her native India and her adopted homeland of Canada, this gifted filmmaker sheds new light on the seemingly banal topics of friendship and history. In a handful of films, Mehta has emerged as a potent voice in world cinema.
The daughter of a film distributor, Mehta was raised in Delhi, India along with her brother, photojournalist Dilip Mehta. While obtaining her degree in philosophy at the University of New Delhi, she met Canadian Paul Saltzman, whom she married. In 1973, they settled in Toronto where she broke into the film industry as a scriptwriter for children's movies. Mehta learned as she went, starting as a writer and editor on documentaries (many made in tandem with her then-husband under their production banner Sunrise Films) before stepping behind the camera to make the documentary short "At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch" in 1975. Several other documentaries, including one on her brother "Travelling Light: The Photojournalism of Dilip Mehta" (1988), followed, as well as the occasional small screen assignment (e.g., the Canadian-produced "The Twin" 1988).
Mehta moved into fictional films with 1991's "Sam & Me", about the unlikely friendship between an Indian hired to look after an elderly Jewish man, establishing a central motif in the director's work: overcoming obstacles to form a bond. The Muslim immigrant and the Hebraic man grow to trust and enjoy one another's company despite the growing objections from their communities. Material that easily could have devolved into maudlin claptrap was tempered by Mehta's levelheaded direction and writing. While it depicts the Indian immigrant striving to maintain his integrity, the film also examines the closed mindset of communities banding together by culture. Although it flirts with melodrama, "Sam & Me" showcased an intriguing directorial voice. "Camilla" (1994), Mehta's second feature, was almost a distaff remake of her first, this time with Hollywood stars Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda as an elderly violinist befriended by a much younger musical aspirant. Despite the presence of such luminaries, the film received a limited release, yet it also exhibited the director's capability with actors.
Between her first two features, Mehta received a big career boost when George Lucas tapped her to helm the "Benares, January 1910" segment of the ABC series "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" in 1992. She was invited back in 1996 to handle the Greece segments of the TV-movie "Young Indiana Jones: Travels With Father" (The Family Channel). By this point, Mehta had begun working on the script for a proposed trilogy. Newly divorced, she wrote and directed "Fire" (1996), a beautifully realized portrait of friendship and love between two unhappily married Indian women, a newlywed in an arranged marriage and her older sister-in-law. Mehta has said she set out to make a film "about the intolerance in class, culture and identity" and she more than succeeded. Some, however, found the film one-sided with the male characters depicted as boors and chauvinists while the lesbian aspect to the women's relationship upset religious leaders around the world. (Theaters showing the film in India were firebombed.) Seen as a feminist tract by its harsher critics, "Fire" upset many males as it challenged society's patriarchal norms by allowing its female characters degrees of choice.
No less controversial was her follow-up "Earth" (1998), based on Bapsi Sidwha's semi-autobiographical novel "Cracking India", set on the eve of the 1947 independence of India and the subsequent creation of Pakistan, a little explored historical period that resulted in the deaths of more than a million people and the displacement of some 12 million more. As filtered through the eyes of a Parsee child, the story unfolded to examine issues of nationalism, religious fervor, friendship and betrayal. While the historical events provided a dramatic background, center stage was a love triangle between a Hindu nursemaid and two Muslims, a masseur and an ice candy vendor. Mehta wrote and directed an intimate epic that demonstrated the horrors of separatism and ethnic cleansing that had a universal resonance. She had announced plans for the third installment in her trilogy "Water", which would focus on a child bride widowed by age seven, but filming was suspended due to local protests in India. Additionally, Mehta was developing "A Girl in the Paperbag" with Nastassja Kinski and Eric Stoltz attached as co-stars.
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"I wrote ["Fire"] at the end of my own 14-year marriage to a white Canadian. I had always thought of myself as a liberated, emancipated woman, but when we married I never questioned the idea that I would follow him. I was a good, obedient wife. To give up went against everuthing I had been taught about being a woman. To be divorced questioned my deepest ideas of self-worth." --Deepa Mehta quoted in SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, August 15, 1997
"When I was growing up, sometimes we had a lot of money and sometimes we didn't, depending on how well my father's films did. He always used to say to me, 'There are two things in life you never know--when you're going to die and how a film is doing to do.'" --Deepa Mehta to Diane Taylor in "Lesbian Sisters, Freaky In-laws and Pervy Men. This is Indian Life as Deepa Mehta Knows It", from THE GUARDIAN, November 13, 1998
"I'm really tired of 'exotic' India. It just doesn't exist anymore. The othe extreme is an Indian with a begging bowl. And in between, there are 350 million people who are not unlike the people in the West." --Mehta quoted in NEW YORK, August 25, 1997
"I'm not really Indian, I'm not really Canadian. I'm a bit of both or a lot of one and a lot of the other. But I feel lost. I don't know where I belong." --Deep Mehta quoted in TORONTO SUN, September 11, 1998
"Reading a Deepa Mehta script is like watching the movie itself." --Indian actor Rahul Khanna, co-star of "Earth", quoted at www.indiabollywood.com/profiles/deepa-mehta.htm
"The partition of India was like a Holocaust for us and I grew up hearing many stories about this terrible event. Naturally I was attracted to this subject.
I have my own theory about why there has been such a silence about this tragedy by western filmmakers, and it is just a theory. I think it is bound up with a number of attitudes that prevail in the western countries about India. Obviously I am not including everybody in this generalisation, there are many exceptions, but there are several conceptions that prevail in the west about India. There is firstly the spiritual India-a place where you go and find nirvana. Secondly, there is the conception that India is entirely poverty stricken, with a permanent kind of begging bowl attitude. There is the India of Maharajas, princes and queens, and the India that comes from nostalgia for the Raj. And there is always the prevailing pressure that people should feel superior to some other place: look how bad India is with all the beggars, aren't we lucky to be better off.
It is uncomfortable and difficult for some filmmakers to produce works that destroy these perceptions. India brings specifically fixed images in many western minds, and the minute you start de-exoticising that, you have you deal with Indians as real people, and there is a pressure not to do that.
Finally, there are many dark political questions about partition that the British establishment doesn't want brought to light. When you know the real history of partition and the responsibility that lands in the laps of the British, obviously you understand why it is a very uncomfortable subject for them. Generally the response there has been to romanticise Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten. This is done to such a degree that I find it quite nauseous." --Mehta quoted on World Socialist Web Site (www.wsws.org)
"There are a quite a number but there is one group of great masters. There is Satyajit Ray whose work has played an enormous part in my appreciation for the cinema. I regard him as one of the most lyrical and humanist filmmakers of the century. I also admire Mizoguchi, Ozu, Vittorio de Sica, as great masters."
"There are three contemporary directors that immediately come to mind whom I enjoy and am inspired by. I think Emir Kusturica is brilliant, and one of my favourite films of all time is 'Time of the Gypsies'. I like the fact that he doesn't flee from an emotion, he embraces it fully. He doesn't seem to give a damn about how his films will be perceived. If he wants to be irreverent he will be. I like the use of music in his films, I love the heart of his films and they always carry a very strong political message. I also like Pedro Almadovar very much-I like his black humour-and I like Peter Weir, because he has managed to keep his integrity as a director while making his films very accessible. That I admire enormously. I am sure I could go on at length."
--Deepa Mehta quoted on the World Socialist Web Sit (www.wsws.org)
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