Deepa Mehta

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Deepa Mehta
Deepa Mehta.jpg
Mehta speaking at the 7th Annual Canadian Filmmakers' Party in 2012
Born (1950-09-15) September 15, 1950 (age 68)
ResidenceToronto, Ontario, Canada
OccupationFilm director, screenwriter, film producer
Years active1976 – Present
Known forElements Trilogy
Spouse(s)Paul Saltzman (1973–1983)[1]
David Hamilton (– present)
ChildrenDevyani Saltzman (daughter)
RelativesDilip Mehta (brother)

Deepa Mehta, OC OOnt ([d̪iːpaː ˈmeːɦt̪aː] born September 15, 1950) is an Indo-Canadian film director and screenwriter, most known for her Elements Trilogy, Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005).

Earth was sent by India as its official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and Water was Canada's official entry for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (making it only the third non-French-language Canadian film submitted in that category after Attila Bertalan's 1990 invented-language film A Bullet to the Head and Zacharias Kunuk's 2001 Inuktitut-language feature Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) and the first to receive an Oscar nomination.

She co-founded Hamilton-Mehta Productions, with her husband, producer David Hamilton in 1996. She was awarded a Genie Award in 2003 for the screenplay of Bollywood/Hollywood. In May 2012, Mehta received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Canada's highest honour in the performing arts.[2]

Early life[edit]

Mehta was born in Amritsar, Punjab[3] though her family moved to New Delhi while she was still a child, and her father worked as a film distributor.[1] Subsequently, Mehta attended Welham Girls High School, boarding school in Dehradun on the foothills of Himalayas [4] She graduated from the Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi with a degree in Philosophy.[5]


After completing her graduation, Mehta began working for a production company that made documentary and educational films for the Indian government.[6] During the production of her first feature-length documentary focusing on the working life of a child bride,[6] she met Canadian documentarian Paul Saltzman, who was in India making a film and whom she was to marry and migrate with to Toronto in 1973.[7]

Once in Canada, Mehta and Saltzman along with Mehta’s brother Dilip started Sunrise Films, a production company which initially made documentaries before moving on to television work. Under the roof of Sunrise Films Mehta and Saltzman would create the television series Spread Your Wings (1977–79) on the creative and artistic work of young people from around the world.[6] Additionally, Mehta directed several episodes from the Saltzman produced CBC drama Danger Bay (1984–90).[7]

Mehta also made a few documentaries including At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch (1975)[6] and Traveling Light (1986), a television documentary focusing on Mehta’s brother Dilip, a photojournalist, which would go on to be nominated for three Gemini Awards. In 1987, utilizing the works of Alice Munro, Cynthia Flood and Betty Lambert, Mehta produced and co-directed Martha, Ruth and Edie. Screened at the Cannes International Film Festival, it would go on to win the Best Feature Film Award at the 11th International Film Festival in Florence in 1988.[6]

In 1991 she made her feature-film directorial debut with Sam & Me (starring Om Puri), a story of the relationship between a young Indian boy and an elderly Jewish gentleman in the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale. It broke the record at the time for the highest-budgeted film directed by a woman in Canada at $11 million.[7] It won Honorable Mention in the Camera d'Or category of the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Mehta followed up with Camilla starring Bridget Fonda and Jessica Tandy in 1994. In 2002, she directed Bollywood/Hollywood, for which she won the Genie Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Mehta directed two episodes of George Lucas' television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The first episode, "Benares, January 1910", aired in 1993. The second episode was aired in 1996 as part of a TV movie titled Young Indiana Jones: Travels with Father.

Mehta directed several English-language films set in Canada, including The Republic of Love (2003) and Heaven on Earth (2008) which deals with domestic violence and has Preity Zinta playing the female lead. It premiered at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.[8] Also in 2008 Mehta produced the documentary The Forgotten Woman, directed by her brother Dilip.[7]

In 2015, Mehta wrote and directed the crime thriller Beeba Boys (2015), a film starring Randeep Hooda as Jeet Johar, a proud observant Sikh and a ruthless gangster. It premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.[9]

Elements trilogy[edit]

Mehta is best known for her Elements TrilogyFire (1996), Earth (1998) (released in India as 1947: Earth), and Water (2005) — which won her much critical acclaim.[10] Some notable actors who have worked in this trilogy are Aamir Khan, Seema Biswas, Shabana Azmi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, John Abraham, Rahul Khanna, Lisa Ray, and Nandita Das. These films are also notable for Mehta's collaborative work with author Bapsi Sidhwa. Sidhwa's novel Cracking India (1991, U.S.; 1992, India; originally published as Ice Candy Man, 1988, England) is the basis for Mehta's 1998 film Earth. Mehta's film Water was later published by Sidhwa as the 2006 novel Water: A Novel. All three films have soundtracks composed by A. R. Rahman.

Fire follows the love affair between two sisters-in-law whose own torrid marriages bring them together in a passionate romance. It caused controversy upon its release as several Hindutva groups took issue with its central lesbian romance, one that was seen to break traditional family and religious value within society, as there were protests in cities across India.[11] Internationally, the film was critically acclaimed and would go on to win the Most Popular Canadian Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival.[7] This was also the first feature length dramatic film which Mehta both wrote and directed, a practice which she would continue throughout the rest of her career.[6]

Earth focuses on the time before and during the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and how the life of one family was uprooted by this historical event. The film resembled Mehta’s own family history as her parents fled the newly created Pakistan in 1947 whilst Mehta herself was born in Punjab, not far from the Indian/Pakistan border.[6]

Water is the story of an eight-year-old child widow who is forced to enter a house of widows for the rest of her life. The film, meant to be shot in India, was attacked by Hindu fundamentalists who saw the film as disrespectful and who took issues with Mehta’s earlier films and their portrayal of Hindu culture.[11] Riots broke out, sets were destroyed, and death threats were issued towards the actors and Mehta, forcing production to stop. The regional government then overruled the permission given from the central government to the production which allowed them to film in the holy city of Varanasi however,[11] four years later the movie was made in Sri Lanka.[12] Water opened the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006.[13]

Elements Trilogy: Looking Further[edit]

Fire (1996)[edit]

While Fire opened at the Toronto Film Festival in 1996 and won an award at the People's Choice Awards, it faced severe criticism from extreme religious groups in India. There were protests, bans, and violent attacks on the movie theaters showcasing the film. The leaders of these extremist groups and conservative politicians even endorsed these acts. Manohar Joshi, chief minister of Maharashtra, described the film as being "alien to Indian culture".

Fire tells the tale of two women, Radha and Sita, who are sisters-in-law. Radha (Shabana Azmi), is the wife of the oldest brother in a joint family household, who has failed to produce a child. Her husband, Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), never lets her forget his disappointment and takes up a life of celibacy and renunciation. Radha's marriage lacks both emotional and physical love, and forces her into a deeper domestic role. Radha becomes someone whose sole job is to cook, clean, and take care of the needs of other family members. Ashok's younger brother, Jatin (Javed Jaffery), is more outgoing and rebellious than Ashok, and is in love with a Chinese immigrant. Much to his disappointment, he is arranged to marry Sita (Nandita Das), in turn forcing a young and naive girl into another loveless marriage. The household appears to be a well-oiled machine, until Sita's obliviousness to old rules slowly tears down the conventions that bind the household together. Upon discovering her husband's affair, rather than retreat into her role as a housewife, Sita turns toward demanding for privileges and equal rights. The deprivation that both Radha and Sita are forced to endure brings them closer together, igniting a deeply intimate emotional and physical connection.

Mehta's thoughts on Fire[edit]

Mehta maintained that Fire had little to do with pushing the boundaries of sexuality in a different cultural context, but rather a tale that critiqued and commented on rigid structures of many joint family households in India. The core of the film, she explains, is a longing for self-expression: "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." Mehta also discusses the controversy surrounding Fire in several interviews, where she mentions that the Shiv Sena, a political party in the state of Maharashtra, had "trashed movie halls overnight and said that the film was against the Indian culture". The conservative public outcry was that "lesbians don't exist in India and this was evil from the West". However, Mehta mentions that during one of the first protests in New Delhi, there was a candlelight vigil with several women and young men carrying placards that said "we are Indians and we are lesbians". Several Indians, despite the protests, appreciated the film and appealed to the Indian Censor Board in favor of Mehta.[citation needed]

1947: Earth (1998)[edit]

Deepa Mehta's Earth, based on a novel called Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, is the second film in the trilogy and concerns one of the biggest political turning points in Indian history, the 1947 partition of India. This was a time when India found itself in a state of political turmoil created due to the departure of the British Empire, dividing the country into Hindu and Muslim territories. Earth is set in Lahore, which during the partition was a city in the middle of the blurred border between a Hindu-dominated India and a Muslim-dominated Pakistan, and depicts the events that unfold due to the eruption of a civil war from the political chaos taking place all over the country.

Earth tells the story of both camaraderie and rivalry between two religious communities in India through the eyes of a little girl, Lenny (Maiya Sethna), who is from an upper-middle class Farsi family not involved in the ongoing political turmoil. The adult Lenny, who narrates the story, reveals the devastation and tragedy occurring in the country through the character and relationships between those she interacts with on a daily basis, mainly her Hindu babysitter, Shanta (Nandita Das). Shanta often takes Lenny to the park where they interact with a group of men, involving those from Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities- functioning as the microcosm of Indian society. And together these communities, represented by these different people, form a united family. Shanta's charm and beauty attract many men towards her, especially those from the group, namely Dil Nawaz "the Ice-Candy man" (Aamir Khan), whom Lenny adores. But Shanta falls in love with Hassan (Rahul Khanna) the masseur, another member of their group- forming a proverbial love triangle that eventually results in tragedy. The romantic tension that arises is caused by the fact that Shanta is a Hindu and the two men are Muslims. When the partition takes place, both communities face devastation as they are driven out of their homes and forced into their respective countries. Hindus and Muslims turn on each other in the utmost violence and Sikhs get caught in the crossfire; hundreds of thousands are killed. In the film, this starts affecting the men in the group; friends turn against friends and eventually become enemies. The once charming and kind Dil Nawaz becomes a savage hunter, after seeing his sisters decaying bodies amongst thousands of other Muslim bodies on a train going to Pakistan, and roams the streets searching for Hindu preys. Hassan, on the other hand, implores his friends to see reason and stick by each other despite religious differences. However, during this turmoil, his voice of reason is powerless and is dominated by religious fanatics. As the events become more and more catastrophic in the film, Shanta and Hassan's romance is destroyed by a seething Dil Nawaz who watches them have sex and eventually murders Hassan, despite him being a Muslim. At the end, the two communities remain divided and the one spark of hope between the two is obliterated by hatred.

Collaboration with Bapsi Sidhwa[edit]

Bapsi Sidhwa, who wrote the book this film is based on, like Mehta, is an Indo-Canadian immigrant. This encouraged Mehta to collaborate with her to tell the story of the sectarian war that tore apart the countries that they both called home. Mehta carefully tells the tale of a peculiar relationship between politics and nationality, confronting her viewers with multiple questions on cultural-identity and religious-identity. In the end, the film neither blames politics/religion nor praises it, but rather leaves the audience searching for answers on the multiple forms of identity and the complexities of inter-religious relations during a period of political unrest and the inevitability of mass violence during this time.

Water (2005)[edit]

Water also generated controversy like Mehta's Fire. In fact, the film was controversial in India even before production, as Hindu fundamentalists complained about Mehta's portrayal of Hindu widows and their stance in society. One Indian nationalist party, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, condemned Water as an "attempt to misplace the identity and character of widows by presenting them as a laughing stock to movie waters in the Western world.[citation needed] When the film began production in Varanasi, an angry mob attacked the crew, stormed the location, and burned Mehta's effigy in public. Mehta closed down production, fearing the safety of her cast and crew. "In many ways I felt I was watching a movie. I was scared. I had never seen so many machine guns. I had never had such immediate physical threats or death threats that I was the focus of, and I must say I was really upset. Upset sounds too good, I was devastated. And it took me a year or more to get out of it." Production resumed after five years and was filmed in secret in Sri Lanka.[citation needed]

Water is set in 1938, a time in India when colonial rule was on the verge of collapse, and there was discourse amongst Indians regarding their social and political future. The story's main protagonist is Chuhiya (Sarala Kariyawasam), a recently widowed child who has fallen victim to the strict and notorious rules of widowhood in an ashram located along the Ganges in Varanasi. The matriarch of this ashram, Madhumati (Manorama) is willing to go to any extent for the survival of the ashram and herself, including offering one of the other widows, Kalyani (Lisa Ray) who hasn't cut her hair off like the others, as a prostitute to the rich zamindars in the area. Narayan (John Abraham), an upper-class, devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, falls in love with Kalyani and decides to marry her against the laws that prohibit the remarriage of widows. Despite these laws being lifted, deep-rooted religious customs drive Madhumati to cut off Kalyani's hair, in the hopes to make her "unattractive", and confines her in a room. Despite Kalyani's rescue by one of the other widows, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), she eventually commits suicide upon learning that she once served Narayan's father as a prostitute. Chuhiya, consequently, is turned into a prostitute by Madhumati which eventually leads to the shattering of the blind faith that Shakuntala had on religion and traditions. Shakuntala carries Chuhiya to a rally by Gandhi, who acts as a voice of true liberation that doesn't only come from political freedom but the healing of wounds inflicted by ancient customs and traditions. The manner in which she rescues Chuhiya, by frantically putting her in Narayan’s arms, depicts a sense of liberation from misogynistic conventions not brought on by religion, but by man’s interpretation of it. While the film begins with the prospect of a love story, it ends with enlightenment from a feminist perspective and hope for a brighter beginning.

Recognition for Water[edit]

The film was showcased at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2005, receiving great praise from the critics and audience members. It won three Genie Awards and several prizes from all around the world. Eventually, it was also brought into a bigger limelight when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated the film for the Oscars in the best foreign-film category.

Mehta as a Transnational Filmmaker[edit]

Mehta's marriage to a Canadian citizen, and her migration to Canada, gave her a hyphenated identity as an Indo-Canadian woman. This identity comes through in her films, which offers the audience a fresh perspective and context within an environment that is cross-cultural As a result, Mehta is also known as a diasporic filmmaker. Mehta's films, which are diasporic in nature, produce a transition between cultures and societies. Furthermore, it produces a dialogue between Mehta's home and host societies. Evidently, by looking at the Elements Trilogy, there is communication between society in India and societies in the West. The topic of colonialism is heavy in this trilogy (being brought up in both Earth and Water) along with the discourse created between women questioning their place in rigid customs and seeking more liberation, and the comparisons of family dynamics and structures with that of the West, which has contributed greatly to the understanding and context transnational cinema in the modern Indian society.

Midnight's Children[edit]

Mehta collaborated on the screenplay for Midnight's Children with the novel's author, Salman Rushdie.[14][15][16] British-Indian actor Satya Bhabha played the role of Saleem Sinai[17] while other roles were played by Shriya Saran, Seema Biswas, Shabana Azmi, Anupam Kher, Siddharth Narayan, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan,[18] Shahana Goswami[19] and Darsheel Safary.[20]

The film was released on 9 September 2012 at Toronto International Film Festival[21] and would be nominated for Best Motion Picture along with 7 other nominations at the Canadian Screen Awards.[7]


Many of Mehta’s films across her career have focused on the duality of her national and cultural identity which has informed much of her filmmaking as she has been described as the "quintessential transnational filmmaker".[22] With her childhood and heritage informing her of key Indian and Hindu traditions, she has been seen to compare these practices with a more "Westernized" philosophy that has often resulted in controversy.[11] The production of her film Water was delayed by protests from Hindu fundamentalists whilst several of her other films releases have seen boycotts across India, including the film Fire.[11]

Personal life[edit]

In Canada she met and married filmmaker Paul Saltzman whom she divorced in 1983. The couple have a daughter, Devyani Saltzman, an acclaimed author, curator and cultural critic.

Mehta is currently married to producer David Hamilton.[23] Her brother, Dilip Mehta, is a photojournalist and film director, who directed Cooking with Stella, which he co-wrote with Deepa.[5]

In May 2013, Mehta received honorary degrees from Mount Allison University and Concordia University.

Mehta participated in a TV PSA for the charity Artists Against Racism, and is a member of the organization.[24]


Year Film Notes
1991 Sam & Me
1994 Camilla
1996 Fire
1998 Earth
2002 Bollywood/Hollywood
2003 The Republic of Love
2005 Water
2008 The Forgotten Woman documentary - writer [25]
2008 Heaven on Earth
2012 Midnight's Children based on the novel by Salman Rushdie[14]
2014 Exclusion about Komagata Maru incident
2015 Beeba Boys [26]
2016 Anatomy of Violence
2019 Leila A Netflix original film based on a missing girl named leila


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Deepa MehtaBiography Notable Biographies
  2. ^ "Deepa Mehta biography". Governor General's Performing Arts Awards Foundation. Retrieved 12 February 2015.
  3. ^ "The Canadian Encyclopedia bio". Archived from the original on 4 December 2008.
  4. ^ "Welham Girls' School". Archived from the original on 15 October 2006. Retrieved 1 October 2007.
  5. ^ a b Beard. p 270
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "Deepa Mehta - Celebrating Women's Achievements".
  7. ^ a b c d e f "Deepa Mehta".
  8. ^ "Toronto film festival to 'salute' Indian cinema". The Economic Times. 2008-09-03. Retrieved 2008-09-07.
  9. ^ "Toronto to open with 'Demolition'; world premieres for 'Trumbo', 'The Program'". Screen Daily. Retrieved 28 July 2015.
  10. ^ Catsoulis, Jeannette (28 April 2006). "Movie Review: Water (2005): NYT Critics' Pick". New York Times.
  11. ^ a b c d e Burton, David F. "Fire, Water and The Goddess: The Films of Deepa Mehta and Satyajit Ray as Critiques of Hindu Patriarchy". Journal of Religion and Film. 17: 1–22.
  12. ^ "Deepa Mehta: A director in deep water - all over again". The Independent. 19 May 2006.
  13. ^[permanent dead link]
  14. ^ a b "Rushdie visits Mumbai for 'Midnight's Children' film". Archived from the original on 14 January 2010. Retrieved 3 March 2011.
  15. ^ Subhash K Jha (2010-01-13). "I'm a film buff: Rushdie". The Times of India. Retrieved 2011-03-03.
  16. ^ Mendes, Ana Cristina; Kuortti, Joel (2016-12-21). "Padma or No Padma: Audience in the Adaptations of Midnight's Children". The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 52 (3): 501–518. doi:10.1177/0021989416671171. ISSN 0021-9894.
  17. ^ "Deepa finds Midnight's Children lead". Times of India. 21 August 2010. Retrieved 9 April 2011.
  18. ^ Dreaming of Midnight’s Children
  19. ^ Irrfan moves from Mira Nair to Deepa Mehta Archived 4 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine.
  20. ^ Jha, Subhash K. (31 March 2011). "Darsheel Safary Darsheel Safary in Midnight's Children". Times of India. Retrieved 20 May 2011.
  21. ^ Nolen, Stephanie (15 May 2011). "Mehta at midnight". Globe and Mail. Retrieved 17 May 2011.
  22. ^ Stojanova, Christina (2010). The Gendered Screen: Canadian Women Filmmakers. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. pp. 217–232.
  23. ^ "'Deepa Mehta is rightly being celebrated'". 23 February 2007. Retrieved 4 January 2010.
  24. ^
  25. ^ Nathan Lee (7 August 2008). "Stigmatized by Society". New York Times. Retrieved 11 February 2014.
  26. ^
  27. ^ "Honorary Degrees For Leaders In Arts, Business And Law". 2009-11-05. Retrieved 2011-03-03.
  28. ^ "Rush wins Governor General's Award". CBC News. 2012-03-06. Retrieved 2012-03-06.
  29. ^ "25 Appointees Named to Ontario's Highest Honour". Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.
  30. ^ "Appointments to the Order of Canada". 2013-06-28. Retrieved 2013-06-29.

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