The two predominant themes in the work of writer-director Deepa Mehta are 1) the transcendence of age differentials and cultural barriers and 2) passion in its various guises. Drawing on her own status as a woman whose identity straddles two disparate worlds, her native India and her adopted homeland of Canada, this gifted filmmaker sheds new light on the seemingly banal topics of friendship and history. In a handful of films, Mehta has emerged as a potent voice in world cinema.
The daughter of a film distributor, Mehta was raised in Delhi, India along with her brother, photojournalist Dilip Mehta. While obtaining her degree in philosophy at the University of New Delhi, she met Canadian Paul Saltzman, whom she married. In 1973, they settled in Toronto where she broke into the film industry as a scriptwriter for children's movies. Mehta learned as she went, starting as a writer and editor on documentaries (many made in tandem with her then-husband under their production banner Sunrise Films) before stepping behind the camera to make the documentary short "At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch" in 1975. Several other documentaries, including one on her brother "Travelling Light: The Photojournalism of Dilip Mehta" (1988), followed, as well as the occasional small screen assignment (e.g., the Canadian-produced "The Twin" 1988).
Mehta moved into fictional films with 1991's "Sam & Me", about the unlikely friendship between an Indian hired to look after an elderly Jewish man, establishing a central motif in the director's work: overcoming obstacles to form a bond. The Muslim immigrant and the Hebraic man grow to trust and enjoy one another's company despite the growing objections from their communities. Material that easily could have devolved into maudlin claptrap was tempered by Mehta's levelheaded direction and writing. While it depicts the Indian immigrant striving to maintain his integrity, the film also examines the closed mindset of communities banding together by culture. Although it flirts with melodrama, "Sam & Me" showcased an intriguing directorial voice. "Camilla" (1994), Mehta's second feature, was almost a distaff remake of her first, this time with Hollywood stars Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda as an elderly violinist befriended by a much younger musical aspirant. Despite the presence of such luminaries, the film received a limited release, yet it also exhibited the director's capability with actors.
Between her first two features, Mehta received a big career boost when George Lucas tapped her to helm the "Benares, January 1910" segment of the ABC series "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" in 1992. She was invited back in 1996 to handle the Greece segments of the TV-movie "Young Indiana Jones: Travels With Father" (The Family Channel). By this point, Mehta had begun working on the script for a proposed trilogy. Newly divorced, she wrote and directed "Fire" (1996), a beautifully realized portrait of friendship and love between two unhappily married Indian women, a newlywed in an arranged marriage and her older sister-in-law. Mehta has said she set out to make a film "about the intolerance in class, culture and identity" and she more than succeeded. Some, however, found the film one-sided with the male characters depicted as boors and chauvinists while the lesbian aspect to the women's relationship upset religious leaders around the world. (Theaters showing the film in India were firebombed.) Seen as a feminist tract by its harsher critics, "Fire" upset many males as it challenged society's patriarchal norms by allowing its female characters degrees of choice.
No less controversial was her follow-up "Earth" (1998), based on Bapsi Sidwha's semi-autobiographical novel "Cracking India", set on the eve of the 1947 independence of India and the subsequent creation of Pakistan, a little explored historical period that resulted in the deaths of more than a million people and the displacement of some 12 million more. As filtered through the eyes of a Parsee child, the story unfolded to examine issues of nationalism, religious fervor, friendship and betrayal. While the historical events provided a dramatic background, center stage was a love triangle between a Hindu nursemaid and two Muslims, a masseur and an ice candy vendor. Mehta wrote and directed an intimate epic that demonstrated the horrors of separatism and ethnic cleansing that had a universal resonance. She had announced plans for the third installment in her trilogy "Water", which would focus on a child bride widowed by age seven, but filming was suspended due to local protests in India. Additionally, Mehta was developing "A Girl in the Paperbag" with Nastassja Kinski and Eric Stoltz attached as co-stars.