Playback’s 2018 Hall of Fame: Deepa Mehta

The Fire-y filmmaker's subject matter is never easy. Neither was her rise to fame.

By Fiona Morrow

In 2000 in Varanasi, India, the night right-wing religious zealots burned the set of Water to the ground and the phone in her hotel room rang with death threats, Deepa Mehta lay down on her bed and read an Agatha Christie novel.

Almost two decades later, writing in a 2017 TIFF blog post, the Indian-born director recalled an emotional flight back to Toronto “after an excruciating two weeks, constantly surrounded by the police as I was being hounded by trolls who’d characterized me in the press as the evil woman who had sold her soul to the West.” It was, she writes, a turning point. “I felt for the first time ever I was going home to Canada, a place I could equate with safety.”

Without question one of Canada’s foremost filmmakers, Mehta has played it anything but safe in her work. From the oppression of arranged marriage (Fire), to the politics of partition (Earth), to how widows are treated in Hindu society (Water), to what makes men rape (Anatomy of Violence), to the South Asian gangsters of B.C. (Beeba Boys), she has been unafraid to explore challenging subjects.

She grew up surrounded by cinema: her father owned a movie theatre and film distribution company in Amritsar, India, and she would watch films from the projection booth, the sound of the 35mm reels whirring in her ears. Her father also introduced her to filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and she regards the few days she once spent on set with him in Kolkata as “life-changing.” Though it was shocking for an Indian woman at that time, her parents supported her decision to pursue film over academia.

While directing her first film in the early ’70s – a documentary about a child bride – Mehta met Toronto filmmaker Paul Saltzman. They married in 1973. But by the time Mehta’s breakthrough feature Sam & Me received an honourable mention in the best first feature category at Cannes in 1991, the marriage was over and the couple had divorced.

It would be another five years before the release of Fire, the first part of Mehta’s Elements trilogy, and the work that would define her path as a filmmaker. In the meantime, she ventured into Hollywood, working on George Lucas’ TV version of Indiana Jones (“That was the greatest fun”), before taking on Camilla (1994) for Miramax (which wasn’t).

“Harvey Weinstein was obnoxious and a bully,” Mehta says. She recalls waiting outside his office for a meeting and hearing him verbally tearing another director to shreds. “I could hear him telling the director he was useless and didn’t know what he was doing. Then out walked Bernardo Bertolucci and I nearly fell off my chair.”

Camilla, a road-movie starring Bridget Fonda and Jessica Tandy, suffered the same fate as so many other Miramax features, with Weinstein re-cutting it and changing the score. After completing her director’s cut, Mehta walked away from the project and never watched it again.

Demoralized, but determined to give her directing career one last shot, Mehta wrote Fire. While the film went on to premiere at TIFF, sell to more than 30 countries and is considered a landmark film in India for its lesbian subject-matter, Mehta originally hit a wall when she looked for financing. The answer, turned out to be her future husband and long-time producer (and the person who persuaded her to write a screenplay of her own), David Hamilton.

“It was tricky,” says Hamilton. “I told Deepa that if I became her producer, it would put our personal relationship under strain.” And it did: the couple broke up and reunited more than once during the process. Hamilton, who has produced all of Mehta’s work since, says they have reached a working compromise. “If I say there is no money for something, I will not listen to anything she has to say for 24 hours, but after that, if she still insists it must be done, then I will back her all the way.

“I know Deepa,” he adds. “She is quick to react and fight her corner, but she is also pragmatic. Knowing she can still have her way, she will put every effort into coming up with another solution.”

After Water’s production shut down, Mehta was desolate. “She needed to do something completely different,” recalls her friend and long-time distributor Hussain Amarshi. At TIFF 2000, he was invited to a jury lunch at the director’s house, and he told her she should do something light and fun. Released in 2002 by Mongrel Media,

Bollywood/Hollywood took US$2 million at the box office. “It was a big hit. There was never a question that we wouldn’t work together again, and for that I am deeply grateful,” Amarshi says. “Deepa is a phenomenal creator, completely dedicated and a great collaborator.”

Water eventually shot in Sri Lanka and went on to open TIFF in 2005. Nominated for best foreign language film at the 2007 Oscars, the movie that almost broke Mehta brought her back to Hollywood. “You get recognition and lots of offers,” she says. “I must say, it wasn’t that easy to just do what I wanted to do at that point, so yes, it was tempting [to be pitched] all these big budget projects with big stars attached.” But after being burned by the bad experience with Miramax and Camilla, she took a pass. “I don’t regret it. Whether that shows strength of character or stupidity, I don’t know.”

Instead, she explored international arranged marriage in Heaven On Earth, took on an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and confounded critics with the B.C.-set gangster flick Beeba Boys, cementing her auteur credentials along the way.

Though funding is never a sure thing, she says it has become easier and remaining independent allows her to make challenging work, such as Anatomy Of Violence, inspired by the gang rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi. “The idea was not to talk so much about the victim as it was to look at what makes a monster. We don’t become who we are in isolation,” she says, adding the film was never intended for general release. But instead, it is used as a tool for teaching and discussion in keeping with the her tendency towards work that involves an element of social justice.

Next, Mehta will return to Sri Lanka in April to shoot an adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s gay coming-of-age novel, Funny Boy, set against the backdrop of the civil war. Meanwhile, she has contracted Maudie screenwriter Sherry White to begin work on an adaptation of Kathleen Winter’s story of an intersex child, Annabel, which is expected to start shooting in early 2019.

A voracious reader of everything from Hindu philosophy to pulp fiction, Mehta says she is driven by her curiosity. “Generally I hear a story or I read or see something, and I think, ‘Why did that happen?’ For example, I meet a widow, and hear about these houses of widows, and then it blows me away that I’ve seen an aspect of Hinduism I’ve never seen before.

“Also, it doesn’t take rocket science to look at my work and see I am a feminist and deeply interested in women’s voices,” Mehta adds. “I think you have to put yourself into a film. I make it, so somehow it is bound to reflect my concerns.”

Playback‘s Canadian Film & Television Hall of Fame was founded in 2007 to recognize extraordinary achievements in the Canadian entertainment industry. Inductees are selected by a jury of their peers.