Interview with director Deepa Mehta

by Vittorio Carli

Deepa Mehta is one of the most accomplished and vital directors currently working in India. She lives in Canada, but she spends at least six months a year in the land of her birth shooting films.


She is a jack of all trades and has made documentaries (“ At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch"), television shows (“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”), and feature fictional films that are more real and relevant than most documentaries (“Fire,” “Water,” and “Earth.”)


Like another Indian born expatriate director, Mira Nair, she likes to examine the collisions of different cultures, genders, and classes in her films.


Mehta set off a firestorm of controversy with two of the film in her recent trilogy. Some were offended by the on-screen depiction of lesbianism in “Fire” and her uncompromising look at the plight of widows in Indian society in “Water.” At some of the openings of the films, effigies of her were burnt. Protesters went so far as to firebomb the theaters where “Water” opened, and some charged that she had sold out and presented unflattering depictions of India to please the west.


But “Water” is not a cheap or cynical piece of exploitation, but a strong and moving social realist film. It depicts the terrible lives that some widows led in 1930s Indian society.


It’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen on women’s right’s issues, and it’s surely the best film I saw so far in 2006. The film itself is so powerful that it may draw tears from some viewers.


I recently spoke to Mehta when she visited Chicago. She gave brief but well thought out answers to my interview questions.


1.) Can you tell me about your  background?


I was born in India. I was raised there and went to a university there.  I got married to a Canadian.  I did my first film in India then my husband and I moved to Canada.  We have a daughter and we now have joint custody. I never went back to India full-time, but I spend about six months of the year since I left there.


2.) How did you get started as a film maker?


I grew up with films. My father was a distributor and an exhibitor, We  ODed on films. We saw them after school and always talked about them.  By the time I went to the university I was reacting against them. I got back into it though.


3.) Who were some of your filmmaking influences? Did  you see the Apu trilogy?


I grew up on a steady diet of Hollywood commercial cinema. I was 16 when I first saw the Apu Trilogy, and those films had a huge impact on me. But I also admire Yasujiro Ozu’s body of work. “Floating Weeds” is one of the finest films I've ever seen. And I loved Kenji Mizoguchi's work and Japanese films in general from the '40s, '50s, and '60s


4) Did studying philosophy help prepare you in any way for film making or screenplay writing?


When you are taught philosophy, it’s a discipline which exposes ways of living. It helped me with “Water” particularly because it has lots to do with Hindu philosophy.

My degree of philosophy and knowledge of Hinduism have both served me well.


5) Do people use interpretations of the myths that will advance whatever agenda they have?


Absolutely, but that happens all over the world. We often omit what would not benefit us.


6.) Why did you movie to Canada?


My husband lived there. Generally when you get married, you follow your husband to whatever country he goes to. This is true in North America as well. If your husband goes to from New York to LA, then you follow. And remember this was 25 years ago.



7.) You worked on the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” television series. What was it like working with George Lucas?


I started out making documentaries then I made my first feature, “Sam and Me.” Rick McCallum was George Lucas's producer.  He saw it in London, and admired it.  They were doing the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” and were looking for directors.  They thought I would be good to direct the one in India. It was a wonderful experience working for George and Rick.


8.) Some of the theaters were firebombed when they showed “Water.” Were you surprised at the extreme reactions against “Fire” and “Water?”


Yes, I never set out to make a controversial movie. I'm a story teller and to see that kind of reaction is appalling. It's crippling and I don't wish it on anybody.


9.) What do you say to critics that say your films are anti-men?


I just think my films are pro-human. The men in “Fire” were victims too. They were victims of tradition subjugating their own independence to fulfill what was expected of them.


10.)  Is it possible to balance freedom with tradition?


It's a difficult process. There's a conversation in “Water” about how to let go of traditions that don't work anymore. It's very difficult to question and change tradition, but it need to be done.



11.) Have things improved for women in India since you lived there? Have things gotten better for widows since the 30s when water takes place?


Of course, there has been lots of groundwork and grass roots work that has been done on behalf of widows in the last 10 or 15 years. The reeducation to make widows independent has caused a great improvement.  Child marriages are completely illegal, and you don't have children going into ashrams today, Younger widows in the 20s don't shave off their hair. Things have improved


12) You worked with Bridget Fonda. What was that like?


We worked together in “Camilla.” It was also Jessica Tandy’s last film. It was a great experiences and I loved it.


13.) How is Lisa Raye to work with?


I worked with her in two films. “Bollywood/Hollywood” was our first project, and we recently worked together again in “Water.”  She's very bright and hard working. I like her very much. I think of her as a friend not just as a co-worker.



14.) Who would you ideally like to work with?


Well I just love my current cinematographer, but I'd love to work with Chris Doyle someday. I don't want to work with any specific actors just to work with them. If they don't fit a role then what's the point?


15.) Were your female characters inspired by your own experiences or those of real widows you know or are they mostly fictional?


Not directly . In some sense there might be a sentence that you use, but it might come from a man not necessarily a widow. Certain dialog stays with your and it may have stayed with you. There was one widow character based on a real widow I know years ago but that was it.


16.) Do you consider yourself a feminist director?


Well it’s obvious that I am a woman so my eyes are slightly different, but I'd rather think of myself as a humanitarian filmmaker than a feminist


17.) Do you prefer doing TV or film? What are the benefits or drawbacks about working in each medium or type of project?


I don't see any drawbacks.   Working is the most important thing. I really like documentaries. I did a documentary around six months ago. It was the first I’d done in 15 years and it was a great experience. Exploring and trying out new things keeps it exciting.



18.) Did you encounter much bias or cinematic bias because you are an Indian female film maker in Canada?


Not at all.  Canada is very different because Canada is a multi cultural country rather than a melting pot like the United States. In Canada, we are encouraged to nurture and be proud of our culture. I am an Indo Canadian, and I never felt the need to merge into a nebulous Canadian mass. I feel that I am being a good Indian by being a good Canadian and there's no conflict. Everyone is encouraged to celebrate where they're from there.


19) What future projects will you be working on?


I'm doing a film called “Exclusion” which takes place in India in Canada. It's about an incident that happened in 1914.


Water review by Vittorio John Carli


“Water” is a highly humanitarian Indian drama with a worthy social agenda. It seeks to draw attention to the terrible plight many widows face in India.


The director Deepah Mehta, comes from a unique cultural background. She was born in India, but she moved to Canada in the early ‘70s. She was caught between two cultures, and between a traditional and modern mind set.


Even though she lives in Canada, Mehta often uses film to explore Indian issues. Like James Joyce, she is a great expatriate artist who left her country physically but not mentally.


“Water” is the final film in a superb trilogy. All three films are named after elements, and two of them caused have considerable controversy.


“Fire (2000)” dealt with a married woman that fell for her sister-in law.

Protesters hated the film’s lesbian theme so much that they burned down the first cinema

that showed it.


The second film, “Earth (2002)” is a fine cross cultural love story that illuminates with

the cultural differences between India and Pakistan.


“Water” is the strongest film in the trilogy, and it had made the biggest critical splash. But it was not universally acclaimed.


It caused some Indian critics to accuse Mehta of pandering to the West for showing only the most negative side of Indian culture.


The day before the film opened, protesters threatened the director directly and they burnt effigies in her likeness.


The controversy was inspired by the unflattering portrait of the life an Indian widow in the 1930s.


At the time, only three options were available to women who lost their husbands. They could live chaste, impoverished lives with other widows or they could marry their husband’s brothers with the family’s consent. The only other option was suicide.


Chuyia is a girl who was married off against her will when she was eight, and her husband died before she even got a chance to meet him.


She is understandably miffed that she has to live a celibate life at a widow’s ashram with a bunch of older women. Chuyia angers the head of the ashram, Madhiumati, because she is not compliant enough.


Madhiumati enforces social conventions and traditions, but she is a corrupt hypocrite. She pimps a widow named Kalyani in return for ganja and money. But Kalyani gets an unexpected opportunity that threatens the social order.


Kalyani meets a peaceful, modern follower of Gandhi who reads her sweeps her off her feat by reading her romantic poetry. Even though she has little formal education, he treats her with respect as an intellectual equal.


She plans to run off to marry him, but Madhumati will stop at nothing to preserve the social conventions and her own rule. The situation ends in a heart breaking tragedy that will leave few eyes dry.


“Water” is a towering achievement. It just may be the most poignant and powerful film about women’s issues since Ousmane Sembene’s “Moolade.”

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