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[FILM] Deepa Mehta - Indian-born Director's "Water"

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  • madchinaman
    Deepa Mehta Biography http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Mehta.html Canadian-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, India in 1949. She received a
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2006
      Deepa Mehta
      Biography
      http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Mehta.html


      Canadian-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, India in
      1949. She received a bachelors and masters degree in philosophy
      from the University of New Delhi, where she met her husband,
      Canadian filmmaker and producer Paul Saltzman. Shortly after
      getting married, she immigrated to Canada in 1973. However, the
      marriage was short lived, and they divorced. She has one daughter,
      Devyani, of whom Mehta says: "I really admire her. She is proud and
      satisfied of being who she is. That is something lovely about her
      and possibly nurtured by her father and mother's absolutely crazy
      life"(Ramchandani).

      Because her father was a film distributor and theater owner, Mehta
      grew up on movies. After school she would go there with friends and
      watch movies for free, yet she did not realize she had a serious
      interest in films until after finishing her education: "By the time
      I was in university I knew I wanted to have nothing to do with film!
      I had been saturated with it…I was going to do my dissertation for
      my PhD, and I met a friend who said they needed someone to work part
      time in a place called Cinematic Workshop, a small place that made
      documentary film in Delhi. I learned how to do sound first, and
      then I learned camera work; I leaned to edit and then finally I made
      my own documentary and discovered how much I loved it" (Craughwell
      F10).

      Being raised in India yet living in Canada, Mehta felt confused
      about her identity for a long time: "I've never felt Canadian. I
      used to be upset about being called an ovisible minority, that's
      what they called coloured people there. I used to come to India and
      was called an NRI [Non Resident Indian] here. The problem was not
      about belonging anywhere; it was a dislike for labels…Now I feel
      very happy being who I am, Deepa Mehta" (Ramchandani). Mehta views
      herself as a kind of cultural hybrid. Quoting a character from
      Salman Rushdie's collection of stories East, West who is asked
      whether he is British or Indian, Mehta says, " 'I refuse to choose.'
      That's how I feel. I refuse to choose. I spend about half of each
      year in each country. My daughter is a Canadian. I'm an immigrant
      here, and I wouldn't stay exclusively in either place" (Lacey C8).

      Mehta's main point in making films is to challenge blind tradition
      in India: "It was important to set it [the films] in India because
      the story is happening there. It is a microcosm of India, the
      challenging of traditions. I seriously wanted to break the
      stereotypes of India, the 'exotic' India of the Raj and the princes
      and the mysticism. Exotic India doesn't really exist" (Kirkland
      11/24/97).



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      Works

      Although Mehta has no formal training in filmmaking, she began her
      cinematic career producing documentaries and writing scripts for
      children's films. In 1991, Mehta produced and directed her first
      feature film Sam & Me, a story about an unlikely friendship between
      two outcasts who form a deep bond despite the fact that neither is
      welcome in the other's world. It won the critic's Honorable Mention
      at the Cannes that year. In 1992, she guest-directed a one-hour
      episode of George Lucas's Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The
      following year, Mehta directed her second feature film, Camilla,
      staring the late Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda. It was released
      worldwide in 1995. Also, Mehta directed the final episode of
      Lucas's Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in 1994.

      Mehta's other works include a trilogy composed of Fire, which is
      about the politics of sexuality; Earth, which is about the politics
      of nationalism; and Water, which is about the politics of religion.
      Mehta wrote, directed, and produced her third feature film Fire. It
      opened the Perspective Canada Programs at the 1996 Toronto
      International Film Festival, where it tied for the Air Canada
      Peoples Choice Award. Earth, based on Bapsi Sidhwa's novel Cracking
      India, was shot in New Delhi in January 1998. This film also won
      many awards including the Prix Premiere de Public at the Festival du
      film asiatique de Deauville, France in March 1999 and the Critic's
      Awards at the Schermi d'Amore International Film Festival. The last
      in the trilogy, Water, was shot in 2000 and recently released. The
      film sparked controversy in Varanasi, where the shooting was
      supposed to take place, but due to protests and vandalism from the
      local political/religious parties, shooting was moved to West
      Bengal.



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      Fire

      Credits:
      Shabana Azmi (Radha)
      Nandita Das (Sita),
      Jaaved Jaaffery (Jatin)
      Kulbhushan Kharbanda (Ashok)
      Kushal Rekhi (Biji)
      Ranjit Chowdhry (Mundu)



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      Mehta admits her films are influenced by her life and her
      experiences: "When I wanted a divorce it took me two years to do it,
      even though I considered myself a liberal woman. It was during
      those two years I wrote Fire" (Ramchandani). The film is a powerful
      critique of the rigid norms of a patriarchal, post-colonial society
      that keeps both sexes down. All of the characters are trapped in
      their own lives, but two of them find a way to escape by discovering
      their inner desires (Morris).

      The film opens with the image of a family sitting in a vast field of
      flowers with the mother telling a tale of a group of people who live
      in the mountains. "They had never seen the sea," she says, "though
      they wanted to see it. They were sad because of this. 'Don't be
      sad,' and old woman says, 'what you can't see, you can see—you just
      have to see without looking' " (Morris). This becomes the theme for
      Mehta's film—discovering one's true nature and choosing to live
      authentically, no matter what the cost.

      In the film, the wives of two brothers, who are subjected to the
      traditional Indian female role of silently cooking, cleaning, and
      producing children to occupy their time, find in each other what
      their husbands refuse to give. The women enter into a lesbian
      relationship. The film sparked much controversy and violence in the
      Indian community, eventually being banned. When it was released,
      right-wing extremists stormed theatres, ripped down posters, threw
      Molotov cocktails at the screen, and staged violent skirmishes in
      the streets of New Delhi and Bombay (Kirkland 8/7/99). In reaction,
      Mehta said, "The bisexual relation became a symbol of how far one
      can go to break that traditional mold. Are they willing to pay the
      price of the passion? By making it bisexual, I raised the stakes.
      Initially, especially in India, the gender issue was really the one
      that got everybody in flames, dare I say. But it has done what I
      desire and hoped that Fire might do, which was start a dialogue.
      They have gotten over the gender thing and now it's perceived as a
      film that has questioned the status quo and the status of women"
      (Kirkland 11/24/97).



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      Earth

      Credits:
      Maia Sethna (Lenny Sethna)
      Nandita Das (Shanta, the Ayah)
      Kitu Gidwani (Bunty Sethna)
      Arif Zakaria (Rustom Sethna)
      Eric Peterson (Mr. Rogers)
      Kulbhushan Kharbanda (Iman Din)



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      While the larger theme of Earth is the violent political upheaval of
      1947 during the partition of India and Pakistan, the heart of the
      film is a love story involving three people: Shanta, a beautiful,
      young Hindi governess to an eight-year-old Parsee girl, and Shanta's
      two suitors, Hasan and Ice Candy Man, both Muslim (Craughwell F10).
      The film, which depicts the mistrust, racism, religious intolerance,
      and violence that erupted then and continues today among Sikhs,
      Muslims, and Hindus, is seen through the eyes of the eight-year-old
      Parsee, who is part of an independent sect that is neutral among
      Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus.

      While exploring the division surrounding partition, Mehta also
      investigated the effects of colonialism: "Even though my film is
      very particular, in the sense that it's set in 1947 and it's about
      the division of India into India and Pakistan, it's also really an
      exploration of what colonialism does to countries. So wherever the
      British, or it could be anybody but for us it was the British,
      whenever they flew [sic] the country, they divided it. And they
      leave us holding the mess" (Craughwell F10).

      Mehta used this film as an opportunity to say something about the
      period because she felt no one really knew about it outside India
      and Pakistan, but she wanted it told through a neutral perspective
      (Kirkland 9/11/98). The film did not provoke the violent reaction
      that Fire did; a board of government censors approved it with a
      single cut, the elimination of profanity (Kirkland 8/7/99).



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      Water

      Credits:
      Shabana Azmi (Shakuntala)
      Nandita Das (Janaki)
      Akshay Kumar (Narayan)
      Manorama (Madhumati)
      Vinay Pathak (Rabindra)



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      The third film in the trilogy is about Indian widows in the 1930's.
      In the past and present, women whose husbands died were forced to
      enter "widow houses." Labeled as worthless because their measure of
      worth, their husbands, was gone, they were often forced to turn to
      prostitution in order to survive. Mehta chose the holy city of
      Varanasi as the location of her film because widow houses still
      existed there. However, even before production on the film began,
      controversy was ignited.
      Two thousand protestors stormed the ghats, destroying the main film
      set, burning and throwing it into the holy river. Protestors burnt
      effigies of Mehta, and she received threats to her life. Three main
      political/religious parties led the angry mob: Bharatiya Janata
      Party (BJP), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHU), and the Kashi Sanskrit
      Raksha Sangharsh Samiti (KSRSS). Also, a party, Raksha Sangharsh
      Samiti (RSS) formed overnight specifically targeting Mehta. The
      KSRSS claimed themselves as the guardians of the culture of Varanasi
      and threatened her with violence. The RSS claimed that the world
      did not need to hear the problems of the widows in India and argued
      that Mehta has been poisoned by western influences and was simply
      looking for a story to sell (Yuen-Carrucan). Following the protests,
      the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee intervened and
      allowed the filming to continue. The filming was moved to West
      Bengal. In reaction, Mehta said, "What is so scary is that people
      are reinterpreting what the rules are regarding culture. If I could
      just say one thing to those who oppose my work, it would
      be: 'Lighten up guys' " (Harding 4/21/00).



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      Works Cited

      Craughwell, Kathleen. "Movies Grounded to 'Earth' Political Upheaval
      in 1947 India is the subject of the second film in director Deepa
      Mehta's trilogy." Los Angeles Times 9 Sept. 1999: F10.

      Harding, Luke. "Screen: No bridge over troubled Water." The Guardian
      [India] 21 April 2000.

      Kirkland, Paul. "Deepa's values are down to Earth." Toronto Sun 25
      Sept. 1999.

      ---. "Deepa Mehta takes on the customs of India in the first of
      three works." Toronto Sun 24 Sept. 1997.

      ---. "Sects and violence in Mehta's cinema." Toronto Sun 11 Sept.
      1998.

      ---. "Will Earth spark a Fire? Deepa Mehta expecting another stormy
      debut in India for her latest film." Toronto Sun 7 August 1999.

      Lacey, Liam. "East meets west in Deepa Mehta's film." Globe and Mail
      [Toronto] 20 Sept. 1997: C8.

      Morris, Gary. "Burning Love: Deepa Mehta's Fire." n. pag. Online.
      Bright Lights Film Journal. Internet. 10 Nov. 2001. Available:
      www.brightlightsfilm.com/30/fire.html

      Ramchandani, Vinita. "Passionate Plots." (6 Dec. 1998): n. pag.
      Online. The Week. Internet. 10 Nov. 2001. Available: www.the-
      week.com/98dec06/enter.htm

      Yuen-Carrucan, Jasmine. "The Politics of Deepa Mehta's Water." n.
      pag. Online. Bright Lights Film Journal. Internet. 10 Nov. 2001.
      Available: www.brightlightsfilm.com/28/water.html

      ===

      Filmmaker back in her element
      In "Water," Deepa Mehta continues the examination of Indian society
      she began with "Fire" and "Earth."
      By Tina Daunt, Times Staff Writer
      http://www.calendarlive.com/movies/cl-et-mehta25apr25,0,6671813.story


      The movie sets were torched by Hindu extremists on the banks of
      India's Ganges River.

      There were death threats — so many that director Deepa Mehta was
      forced to hire bodyguards. Images of her were burned on the streets.

      She had only six minutes of film completed on her movie, "Water,"
      when the production was shut down in 2000 by the Indian government
      amid threats of more violence. Critics claimed that the story, which
      depicts dire conditions in a Hindu widows' ashram, was blasphemous.

      Frustrated, Mehta returned home to Toronto, where she has lived
      since leaving India in 1973. She put the screenplay in a box and
      left it on a shelf until she was able to let go of her anger. It
      took her four years to resume the project.

      "The film is so fragile, to impose my anger on it would have really
      distorted it," said Mehta, who ultimately made the movie in Sri
      Lanka in 2004 under a fake name, "Full Moon." "It's a story about
      hope, and that has to come through. Anger and hope just don't work
      together."

      On Friday, the movie — Mehta's fifth feature film — opens in
      theaters in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. It's already
      opened in Canada, Australia and Spain, to much acclaim. And it
      screened last month at the Bombay Film Festival, where reaction was
      surprisingly positive, Mehta said.

      The New Delhi-born Mehta is hopeful that "Water" will be shown
      throughout India later this year. Either way, she has secured her
      place as a voice of a new India. "Water" is the third installment in
      Mehta's elemental trilogy, which included "Fire" (1996) and "Earth"
      (1998) — controversial films that also explore gender disparity and
      religious turmoil.

      The movie is set in 1930s colonial India, when young girls were
      often married to older men to secure their family's financial
      existence. Eight-year-old Chuyia — played by a young Sri Lankan
      actress, Sarala — has little memory of her wedding when her family
      informs her that her husband has died. In accordance to Hindu laws,
      she is taken to a widows' ashram — a dismal, gloomy place. Her head
      is shaved — a sign that she is a widow who must spend the rest of
      her days suffering and grieving for a man she never knew.

      Chuyia rebels. Her youthful determination has a strong effect on the
      other widows, especially the devout Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and
      the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a woman forced into prostitution
      to support the ashram. Kalyani is pursued by a handsome village
      intellectual (Bollywood star John Abraham) who wants to free her.

      Mehta said she came up with the idea for the movie 10 years ago,
      after she saw an old widow on the steps of the Ganges River. The
      woman was "bent like a shrimp, her body wizened with age, white hair
      shaved to her scalp, she scampered on all fours, and furiously
      looking for something she had lost." Passersby ignored the widow,
      even when she sat down to cry, as if talking to her would bring bad
      luck.

      "I was curious about this," said Mehta in an interview recently
      outside a Brentwood coffee shop. "I wanted to know more."

      She discovered that although some of the widows' homes had been shut
      down in India, there were many still in existence. And the
      conditions were shocking. "I ended up spending a lot of time in
      widows' houses," she said. "What was palpable was the despair. But
      it never ceased to surprise me, the ability of the women to survive."

      She wrote the screenplay on her kitchen table in her small Victorian
      house in Toronto. She would get up early in the morning, make
      herself a cup of Earl Grey tea, light a Rothman cigarette, and
      write — longhand — in a spiral notebook.

      Mehta's father owned a cinema in India when she was young, so
      pursuing a film career seemed very natural for her. (She remembers
      getting dressed up on Sundays to go watch the latest American movie,
      usually something starring Elvis Presley.)

      She acted a little, and then after immigrating to Canada, she met
      and married Paul Saltzman, a Canadian film producer and director.
      They started a small company producing documentaries, television
      series and, eventually, feature films.

      In 1992, Mehta caught the eye of George Lucas, who brought her in to
      work on "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles." After that, she found
      herself prominently on Hollywood's radar.

      In "Water," Mehta said she wanted to show the sorrow of the widows,
      but also their spirit. Early reviews have credited cinematographer
      Giles Nuttgens, also a Lucas protégé, with capturing the scene with
      a poetic lushness. Composer Mychael Danna (known for his recent work
      on "Capote" and the upcoming "Little Miss Sunshine") did the score,
      drawing on the themes of traditional Indian folk music.

      The movie has received rave reviews worldwide. "Mehta herself has
      clearly progressed, honing her cinematic skills to the point where,
      here, she manages to do what her native country never has: Forge a
      cohesive unity, a colorful marriage of content to style," movie
      reviewer Rick Groen wrote in November in Canada's Globe and Mail.

      Mehta said she has found the positive response "overwhelming." Her
      cast has found it heartening as well. Ray, one of the stars of the
      movie, said people asked her if she really wanted to get involved in
      making "Water," considering the controversy.

      "I said, 'Bring it on.' This is even a more compelling reason to be
      involved with this. We need to support freedom of expression. I
      think this film is really a testament to that," she said. "It's a
      strange thing, filmmaking. It requires a sort of alchemy. It's hard
      to predict how a film will do, but on a gut level you know when
      something special is happening. That's how we felt about this."
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