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Adventures in Feministory: Deepa Mehta

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"Curiosity is what motivates me generally, curiosity about the oppression of women in particular." -Deepa Mehta

Toronto-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, India in 1949. Because her father was a film distributor and theater owner, she was exposed to film at a very early age. She grew up watching commercial Indian cinema, and realized the emotional power of cinema when she was just thirteen.

She went to the University of Delhi, where she received a degree in philosophy. With no formal training in filmmaking, she began her career after graduation when she joined a company making documentaries. She moved to Toronto at the age of 23, where she began to create films that would soon establish her as a talented and controversial filmmaker.

Mehta describes herself as "a citizen filmmaker of the world. Or at least one that has one foot in India and one in Canada." She initially moved to Toronto with plans to move back to India, but ended up staying and becoming a Canadian citizen. Her films, however, are mostly set in India, and they challenge traditional beliefs prevalent in Indian culture. As a result of her controversial subject matter, her films have been fiercely protested by various Hindu fundamentalist groups. Because of this, Mehta is often accompanied by armed bodyguards when traveling in India.

Mehta is best known for her three films: Fire, Earth, and Water.The first film in her "Elements Trilogy," Fire, deals with the development of an intimate relationship between two Indian women. The lesbian relationship in the film is condemned and seen as an offense to the family. Sita, one of the women in this relationship, says, "There is no word in our language that can describe what we are, how we feel for each other."

When the movie was released in 1996, right-wing party Shiv Sena organized demonstrations and forced the closure of several Bombay and New Dehli cinemas that were showing this film. Rocks were thrown into movie theaters, consession stands were thrashed, and Deepa Mehta received death threats. Shiv Sena issued a statement saying, "If women's physical needs are fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse and the reproduction of human beings will stop." Bal Thackeray, founder of Shiv Sena, said that contrary to the story in the film, lesbianism did not exist in Hindu families.

Mehta remains proud of her film and she has defended its message by saying, "Lesbian relationships are part of the Indian heritage and the film brings into the public domain the hypocrisy and tyranny of the patriarchal family, the issue of women's sexuality and makes a strong statement about women-women relationships."

The second film in Mehta's trilogy, Earth, addresses nationalism during India's partition. And the third film, (Oscar-nominated) Water, tells the story of a child bride whose husband-to-be dies and is then banished to a home for "unwanted" widows. Because of rampant protesting, it took Mehta seven years to make Water. She describes the first day on the set of the film: "I believe there was a crowd of around 12,000 people who arrived on set. They threw our sets in the river. They burned my effigy. It was quite ugly."

One of her newer films, Heaven on Earth, addresses domestic violence in an arranged marriage. I have yet to see this film, but it looks like Mehta is continuing to create a nuanced portrayal of women facing different forms of oppression.

Trigger Warning: This film trailer contains graphic domestic violence.

Mehta continues to be a talented and provocative artist. She is set to begin filming an adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children this year and her latest film Komagata Maru is set for release in 2011. I strongly recommend Mehta's films. Her career is an impressive one that deserves to be watched.

Deepa Mehta's Fire creates controversy and protests in India [SAWnet]
Deepa Mehta Talks Water [MovieWeb]

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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Interesting. I've only seen

Interesting. I've only seen Earth fully and parts of Fire. I honestly did not find Earth all that feminist. In fact, there were a couple of points that made me quite uncomfortable - like when the young girl's male friend tells her jokingly that one day he would tell her what rape was, after she inquires as to what rape is. Also, there were many feminist elements left out of the film that were in the book. The book upon which Earth was based, from my understanding, was a feminist book, and the film took much of that out. I've also seen Bollywood Hollywood which I was not a fan of at all. I haven't written her off but what I've seen so far has left me feeling lukewarm about her work.

I haven't seen Earth or

I haven't seen Earth or Bollywood Hollywood, but after seeing Fire and Water I'd definitely qualify Mehta as a feminist filmmaker.

Earth

@Anonymous: I admit that I have not seen Bollywood/Hollywood and it's been a couple years since watching Earth. I do remember Earth being a very violent movie, and I remember the scene you speak of (when her friend implies that he will eventually rape her). However, I don't think that impilicitlly makes the movie "not feminist". While very uncomfortable to watch, that scene (and many other scenes in the film) reflect the unfortunate reality that violence against women is commonplace, especially during times of conflict. But I would be interested in hearing more detailed criticism of the film (as well as more about how it differs from the book), if anyone would like to chime in!

Ashley McAllister, Outreach Coordinator

I watched Fire with my mouth

I watched Fire with my mouth open and tears running down my face. One of the most evocative and beautifully sensual films I've ever seen.

It's also worth pointing out

It's also worth pointing out that many many feminists, lesbians, queer-friendly people, anti-censorship people, intellectuals etc -- all overlapping in different ways -- also held counter-protests to the Shiv Sena's hooliganism and brought about a public discourse on female homosexuality in India.

Thanks!

That is DEFINITELY worth pointing out - I should have done so in the post! When Fire was released in India, lesbianism was put on the big screen bother literally and figuratively. The counter-protests sound like they were incredible (and had a much larger turnout than the Shiv Sena's protests). You're very right, the Shiv Sena protests propelled a HUGE lesbian, feminist, anti-censorship movement. If any of ya'll are interested in reading about it, there is a really great article about the activist work that followed the Shiv Sena protests here.

Ashley McAllister, Outreach Coordinator

Mega Mehta!

I saw "Water" when I was about 15. The colors and the angles in the cinematography are beautiful. The story is brutally sad, but ever since I saw it, I knew that Mehta was serious about her work and her commitment to these issues.

I tried to rent "Fire" through Netflix, but my mom didn't think it would be appropriate for me to watch at the age I wanted to. So, naturally, I went on YouTube and found the film split up into several 10-minute parts. "Fire" incorporated more humor than "Water", and was set several decades later, but the tragedy was still present.

I might see "Earth", and I remember seeing the trailer for "Heaven On Earth" a while ago...ever since Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for Best Director, I've been intent on learning about other female directors. I hope to become one. I love film.

Thanks for posting this, Ashley! :)

Female Directors

Thanks for the comment, Natasha. You said you were interested in learning about other female directors, so I wanted to point you over here.

Ashley McAllister, Outreach Coordinator

Your tagging of this series sucks

Guys? I want to link the whole series to my blog. But your tagging only links the last four articles. And its not this series alone that has that problem. Can you all spend some time fixing the tagging so that people can follow the series posts easily and effectively please?

Yeah, we know

Hi there,

We are a nonprofit here, and while we try to make our blog as navigable as possible, our tagging system, which only links back to the most recent tagged posts as opposed to all of them, is one of the things that could probably use some work that we don't have the money to pay for–we're aware of this, and we don't need you to tell us that we "suck."

Next time, try using the search function instead: http://bitchmagazine.org/search/node/feministory

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

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Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Failed to capture instead offended.

To be honest her movies were forced on the Indian people by extreme leftist institutions of India. Story telling are traditional arts and techniques and ways to get the idea across are unique keeping listeners sensitivity and comprehension in mind. Enforcement of her movies on people of India reminded one of Nazism and Communism - how they are experts in utilizing 'state machinery' on imposing an alien concept and ideology on common people. In Indian context she should have taken lessons from Raj Kapoor, on how to get issue awareness and ideas across Indian people without insulting or hurting their sensitivity and faith. In my opinion she failed because she offended the very audiences she was trying to 'target'.