Femography: Director Deepa Mehta

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Watching many of the major films from Bollywood history, one trend that stands out is the way that the films show a great respect for traditional values while at the same time providing progressive challenges to those values, ultimately earning the support from the keepers of the traditional values. Deepa Mehta, an Indian-Canadian director, takes a much harsher eye to Indian traditions in her most notable films. While she often makes films that, in location or culture, are distinctly Indian, the Western influences are evident. It is likely for this reason that her films have often faced protest and censorship in India.

After a few hard to find films and some work in television, Mehta broke through in 1994 with Camilla, one of the three features directed by Mehta that doesn’t engage with Indian culture. The main focus is on the friendship that develops between a young woman (Bridget Fonda) and her elderly neighbor (Jessica Tandy), who end up setting off on a trip from Georgia to Canada, where the neighbor once had a memorable violin performance. Endearing enough for its central friendship and some feminist themes, it leaves a bit to be desired.

Two years later, Mehta released Fire, the start of the Elemental Trilogy that remains her crowning achievement to date. Taking aim at the practice of arranged marriages, both for their oppressive nature for women and often their facade, it focuses on the relationship that blossoms between two wives within a family. As a modern story, this need to be married, and married to another Indian, is out of place in a globalized world. Earth (1998) looks at the partitioning of India, creating Pakistan to the East and West for Muslims and leaving the rest for the Hindus. We see this epic historical event play out through a diverse group of friends, ultimately seeing the tragedy in this fateful political decision, in arguably Mehta’s finest film.

Slipped in between the second and third parts of her trilogy, Mehta made two other films. Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) is some combination of homage, mocking critique or self-aware entry into the Bollywood tradition otherwise avoided by Mehta, though lacking a few of the things that make Bollywood really work when it works. As always you have marriage pressures and arbitrary romantic melodrama resolving to a happy ending, all with some song and dance mixed in. As things go, not a notable Mehta film or Bollywood-styled film. If B/H is typical of Indian romance, The Republic of Love (2003) is a bit too typical of Western rom-com structure, with a thrice-divorced man (Bruce Greenwood) who is somewhat cynical about relationships meeting a never married woman (Emilia Fox) who clings to idealized notions of romance. The performances of these two actors go some way to make it tolerable, but it lacks a certain vitality.

Returning to finish her trilogy, Water (2005) would earn Mehta an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. This time she focuses on the oppressive attitude toward widows, either expected to throw themselves on the funeral pyre or isolate themselves in convents of sorts, impoverished, to live out their days. Mehta’s most recent film, Heaven On Earth (2008) is the closest in tone to the trilogy, again focusing on an arranged marriage. This time there is an added dimension of globalization as the bride emigrates to Canada to live with her husband. This isolation from her own family furthers the peril of the new situation.

Mehta has been a fairly inconsistent filmmaker through her career, but especially when she uses hard hitting drama to comment on Indian culture, she provides some really rich additions to the world of cinema. Her next release, slated for this year, is an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, considered the best book in over a century if the Man Booker Prize is to be believed. Notably an Indian drama, it should be a good fit for her.

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  1. […] latest contribution to Sound on Sight, looking at the filmography of Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta is now […]

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