Deepa Mehta has become the voice of a new India, but India has a difficult time accepting what she has to say. Born in Amritsar in 1950, Ms Mehta moved to Canada in 1973. An NRI (Non Resident Indian) in India and an emigrant in Canada, she says that she refuses to choose whether she is Indian or Canadian. She is Deepa Mehta, a concerned moviemaker and storyteller.
Her bicultural roots may have helped her become one of India’s most controversial and taboo-breaking filmmakers. It is said that women salute her, but that men often despise her. “I am going to shoot you, madam,” one of them screamed in 1996 after the première screening of Fire, the first movie to explore lesbianism in contemporary India.
In Earth (1998), Ms. Mehta showed the religious intolerance and violence that erupted among Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The movie was better accepted by the Indian community, in large part because it was set in the past and because it investigated the effects of colonialism. Blaming the British is always a safe bet.
But Water, the final film in Ms Mehta’s trilogy on the elements, sparked controversy even before filming started. The shooting was supposed to take place in the holy city of Varanasi in 2000, but violence from local political parties and Hindu extremists forced Ms Mehta to retreat. Shooting resumed only years later in Sri Lanka. Even there, the movie had to be shot under a false working title.
Told through the eyes of a six-year old widow (yes, six-year old), Water tells the story of Indian women who are labeled as worthless because their husbands have disappeared. Forced to live in a house of confinement, they often turn to prostitution to survive. Ms Mehta chose Varanasi as the location of her film because “widow houses” still exist there.
Ms Mehta’s trilogy first explored the taboo of female homosexuality in Fire, then the taboo of religious extremism in Earth. Now comes Water, which attacks the taboo of social humiliation of women. Let’s hope that Ms Mehta’s movies make a difference.