Deepa Mehta, who has been described as "Canada's most internationally renowned woman film-maker" (Levitin, An Introduction..., p 273), was born in 1950 in Amritsar, a city on India's border with Pakistan. Like many other Hindu families, Mehta's parents had fled the newly created Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947. Mehta's father was a film distributor and owned a number of movie theatres. As a child, Mehta watched hundreds of movies in her father's theatres but did not have an early interest in becoming a filmmaker. Mehta studied philosophy at the University of New Delhi.
After graduating from university, Mehta had her first experience in the film industry when she went to work for a company that made educational and documentary films for the Indian government. Mehta had the opportunity to direct her first film, a documentary about a child bride based on the experience of a fifteen year-old girl who had worked in Mehta's family home. It was at this time that Mehta met Paul Saltzman, a young Canadian filmmaker who was doing research in New Delhi. They married, moved to Toronto in 1973, and with Mehta's brother Dilip, started Sunrise Films. Sunrise Films began by producing documentary films and then branched out into television work.
In 1974 Mehta made her Canadian directorial debut with an acclaimed documentary, At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy. Together Saltzman and Mehta undertook a documentary film series, Spread Your Wings, about the inventiveness and dedication to crafts of young people around the world. In 1985, Deepa Mehta directed Travelling Light, a television documentary about her brother Dilip, a renowned photojournalist. This film was nominated for three Gemini awards and was a finalist award at the 1987 New York International Film and Television Festival.
In 1987, Mehta produced and co-directed Martha, Ruth and Edie, a film based on works by Alice Munro, Cynthia Flood and Betty Lambert. It was screened at the Cannes International Film Festival and won the Best Feature Film Award at the 11th International Film Festival in Florence in 1988. Mehta's debut feature film Sam and Me was released in 1991 and won an honourable mention in the Caméra d'or category at the Cannes International Film Festival. This film, like many of her later films, is both a deeply personal film and a film that has universal emotional content. With the success of Sam and Me, Mehta received offers to direct two episodes of George Lucas' television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the big budget feature Camilla (1994).
In 1995, Mehta, now divorced, began work on Fire, the first of a powerful and controversial planned trilogy of films set in India. With Fire, Mehta, determined to maintain artistic control of her films, began her practice of taking on the dual role of writer and director. Fire (1996), a film that tells the story of two middle-class Indian women trapped in arranged marriages, earned Mehta critical acclaim and awards including the International Jury Prize for the Best Film at the Verona International Film Festival in 1997. Critics attributed Fire's widespread success, in part, to Mehta's ability to build empathy across cultural borders. Mehta herself commented:
"Even though FIRE is very particular in its time and space and setting, I wanted its emotional content to be universal. The struggle between tradition and individual expression is one that takes place in every culture. FIRE deals with this specifically in the context of Indian society. What appealed to me was that the story had a resonance that transcended geographic and cultural boundaries."
(Fire Zeitgeist Films, online)
The second film in Mehta's trilogy, Earth (1998), is about the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan as seen through the eyes of a young girl. Earth, described as an intimate epic, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 1998. Earth was India's entry for the 1999 Academy Awards and has won numerous awards. In speaking about Earth Mehta commented:
"Film is a powerful medium and my hope is that Earth will produce a dialogue and force people to think more deeply about the cost of such divisions... I wanted to tell this really large story from the standpoint of an intimate group of friends from different ethnic groups and trace out the process of partition through them."
The filming of Water, the third film of Mehta's Indian trilogy, began in 2000. However, Mehta was forced to abandon shooting when violent controversy erupted, instigated by Hindu fundamentalists. Speaking about returning to Toronto after the Water experience in India, Mehta said, "It took me about 3 months to decide what I wanted to do next, and sitting at my kitchen table I said really what I wanted to do was something that was life-affirming, that was fun, that was foot-tapping, that made me feel glad to be alive, and I wrote Bollywood/Hollywood (Talk Cinema, online).
Bollywood is the name given to the distinct style of Indian commercial cinema based in Bombay. In Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) Mehta uses both genres as backdrop to a movie about the lives of Indian families in Toronto. In speaking about this well-received film Mehta said:
"When I was introducing the film at the Toronto Film Festival last year, I said to them, it would really help if you'd put on your dancing shoes and park your grey cells in the basement. Because it's not an intellectual, logical film. It's a film about the spirit of feeling good, and singing and dancing. And if you're open to it, a window into another culture. To see how more than 1 billion people live and survive in the world."
(Talk Cinema, online)
Mehta's most recent film, Republic of Love, based on the Carol Shields novel by the same name, premiered at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival.
Mehta has developed a well-earned reputation as innovative and courageous filmmaker whose movies often address the universal issue of identity and tradition. Mehta herself notes: "If you think of Sam & Me, Fire, Earth, even Water, all of them were about where does one's own voice stop and the baggage of tradition begin. It's the conflict between the individual voice and the voice of tradition...I don't sit down to write a script with these ideas in mind, in as much as they always seem to come out in my films." (Wise, p. 36)
Cole, Janis and Holly Dale. Calling the Shots: Profiles of Women Filmmakers. Kingston, Ontario: Quarry Press, ©1993, p. 133-142.
Cormier, Jim. "Mehta morphosis." Chatelaine (November 1993), p. 58-61, 190-191.
Cuthbert, Pamela. "Deepa Mehta's Trial by Fire." Take One (December 1995-February 1996), p. 28-31.
"Deepa Mehta: 11 Million Dollar Director; Take One Talks to Deepa Mehta." Take One. (Fall 1994), p. 38-41.
"Excerpts from a Master Class with Deepa Mehta." In Women Filmmakers: Refocusing. Edited by Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis, and Valerie Raoul. Vancouver: UBC Press, ©2002, p. 284-291.
Fire Zeitgeist Films. "Deepa Mehta on Fire." http://zeitgeistfilms.com/film.php?directoryname=fire (accessed February 3, 2004).
Flahive, Gerry. "Young Hands, Old Skills / Sunrise Films." Cinema Canada (February 1980), p. 14-17.
Gillmor, Don. "The Divine Miss M." Toronto Life (October 2002), p. 102-108.
"Interviews and Conversations: Deepa Mehta - September 21, 2003." Talk Cinema. www.talkcinema.com (accessed February 3, 2004).
Levitin, Jacqueline. "Deepa Mehta as a Transnational Filmmaker, or You Can't Go Home Again." In North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema since 1980. Edited by William Beard and Jerry White. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, ©2002, p. 270-293.
Levitin, Jacqueline. "An Introduction to Deepa Mehta: Making Films in Canada and India." In Women Filmmakers: Refocusing. Edited by Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis, and Valerie Raoul. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002, p. 273-283.
Monk, Katherine. Weird Sex & Snowshoes: And other Canadian Film Phenomena. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2001, p. 200-202.
Phillips, Richard. "An Interview with Deepa Mehta, Director of Earth." World Socialist Web Site. www.wsws.org/articles/1999/aug1999/meh-a06.shtml (accessed February 3, 2004).
Wise, Wyndham. "Bollywood North: An Interview with Deepa Mehta." Take One. (September-November 2002), p. 32-36.