Deepa Mehta’s provocatively vanguard, illuminatingly cross-cultural and visually exquisite filmic oeuvre – consisting of nearly twenty profound directorial projects – dealing with the intersection between the traditional and the modern and the tensions emerging from culturally rigid gender boundaries has garnered the helmer the well-deserved status of an internationally luminary in both Canadian and Indian modern-day cinema.
Mehta began her filmic career in the mid-1970s with a Golden Hugo-nominated short film, 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch (1976). Exactly a decade later, the budding director return to the big screen and her filmic proclivities with another documentary, K.Y.T.E.S: How We Dream Ourselves (1986), starring Kris Backs, Julie Ann Brunet, Elisha Burrows Nick Da Silva and Marla Davey as themselves as they vocalize their differing meditations on In 1988, Mehta offered her burgeoning audience the director’s first fictional, feature length film – co-directed alongside Norma Bailey and Danièle J. Suissa – in the form of Martha, Ruth & Edie (1988), a riotously droll, female-oriented social drama that sheds a light on the dynamic, intimate and captivating relationship between two women, who first encounter one another after both arriving late at a seminar centered on personal development.
Toward the end of the decade, Mehta deviated from the big screen to the sphere of television for her directorial involvement in four episodes of Cap Danger (1984-1990), a popular 6-seasons long adventure drama series following the escapades of a marine biologist and his family as they battle environmental-related crimes. Mehta returned to the world of film with her socially conscious, heartwarming drama, Sam & Me (1991), a tale of young Shwartza (Ranjit Chowdhry) who moves from India to Canada in search of wealth, before accepting a position as a caregiver to elderly Jewish man, Zayda (Peter Boretski), with whom he develops an eye-opening special relationship. The beautiful meditation on the power of friendship to transcend cultural boundaries garnered the auteur a Special Mention for the prestigious Golden Camera at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.
The auteur made a second splash in TV with another adventure drama, the Golden globe-nominated The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-3), directing a 1993 episode entitled Benares, January 1910 in which Indiana Jones himself attempts to enlighten a disillusioned trucker by telling him about his experiences with revered Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. In 1994, Mehta offered audiences an extension of her sensitive and poignant exploration on the richness of friendship in Camilla, an exploration of the concerted strength that young, Toronto-based composer Freda (Bridget Fonda) and former concert violinist Camilla (Jessica Tandy) derive from their authentic, profound friendship that flourishes after encountering one another in Savannah, Georgia during which time both woman feel emotionally detached and dissatisfied in regard to the men in their lives.
After delving back into the ‘Young Indiana Jones’ franchise by directing the Primetime Emmy-winning, The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Travels with Father (1996) – also returning to the series in 1999 with another instalment, The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Journey of Radiance – Mehta released the culturally probing, emotionally volatile (and aptly titled) romantic drama, Fire, that same year. The jarring, bold film – which the director also wrote – places an unwaveringly intense spotlight on Western cinema’s often ignored, minority women in the tumultuous tale of a middle-class family whose superficial contentedness gradually dissipates to reveal the deception in which they all lead their lives. Mehta places a strong focus on the consequences which arise as a result of the dismissal of feminine desire – a continuing theme in their oeuvre – as the wife of family patriarch Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), the eager-to-please Radha – a performance for which the actress Shabana Azmi won the Silver Hugo for Best Actress at the 1996 Chicago International Film Festival – and her sister in law Sita (Nandita Das) decide to take the satisfaction of their desires into their own hands.
Two years later, Mehta returned with another mightily-named romantic drama, Earth, set in the mid-twentieth century war tale tracing the political upheavals between India and Pakistan in the experience of a young girl, Shanta (Fire’s Nandita Das) who finds herself caught in the love of two different men. Staying in the vein of the romance genre, Mehta adds a comedic twist with her follow-up drama released at the turn-of-the-century, Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), following the deceptive escapades of Indo-Canadian Rahul (Rahul Khanna) who attempts to appease his parents’ wishes that he marries a Hindi girl – anathema to his own desires – by passing off young escort, Sunita (Lisa Ray), as his bride-to-be. After directing another – albeit less lighthearted – romantic drama, The Republic of Love (2003), based on Carol Shields’ namesake novel, Mehta and actress Lisa Ray reunited two years later for the auteur’s third instalment in her perspicuously named series in the Oscar-nominated Water, centered on the difficulties traversed by a group of widows living in 1930s India, who are plunged into poverty and mired by a series of social restrictions while, conversely, Gandhi’s party is making waves with regard to women’s rights.
The following year, Mehta returned to the documentary genre with a sobering exploration of the cultural and traditional origins of domestic violence in Let’s Talk About It (2006), before Heaven on Earth (2008), offering a tale of the plights experienced by those forced into arranged marriage in the tale of a young Punjabi woman named, Chand – a performance for which actress Preity Zinta won the Silver Hugo for Best Actress. Several years later, Mehta released the optimistic Midnight’s Children (2012), set during the period of India’s independence from Britain, followed by an exploration into Vancouver’s arms and drugs gangs in Beeba Boys (2015). The auteur’s latest film, a jolting crime drama, Anatomy of Violence, audaciously dealing with the internationally scandalous case of a young woman who was gang raped by six men on a New Delhi bus in 2012, was released last year to widespread acclaim and garnered the auteur a nomination for a Golden Spike at the Valladoid International Film Festival. Indeed, Mehta has never shied away from the exploration of tough, painful subject matter in her films, a characteristic of her work which interacts with the maverick’s intensely sensitive, eternally sharp filmic style to form deeply, indispensably unique pieces of cinematic art.