With the University of Calgary’s Department of Communication, Media & Film bringing in Canadian screenwriter, director, & producer Deepa Mehta for the 2016 Canwest Global Lecture, we at UCFS figured that a screening of one of her films was in order. Nominated for an Academy Award for the film Water, Mehta has made a career out of creating emotionally intimate films that tackle challenging issues such as politics, violence, tradition, and gender issues, usually centred around India. Not only that, but her films have had to face the wrath of these very issues as they were being created and exhibited: the right-wing Hindu extremist party Shiv Sena storming her sets and setting fire to them, the banning of majority of her films in India at one point or the other, etc. Nevertheless, these challenges have never swayed Mehta and she continues to face these issues head-on.
Mehta’s film Fire (1996), the first of her famous Elements Trilogy, is a great introduction to the type of filmmaker Mehta is and the sort of issues that interest her. The film traces the relationship between two women, Sita (Nandita Das) and Radha (Shabana Azmi), as they connect over the fact they are both trapped in loveless marriages. A story of desire, love, and the bounds of tradition & culture, Fire was the film that put Mehta’s name on the map.
The film caused a lot of controversy in India, mostly due to the “lesbianism” elements depicted in the film. Except for a few minor changes, the film was passed uncut by India’s Central Board of Film Certification. On December 2 1998, however, more than 200 supporters of the Shiv Sena party stormed a screening of the film in a Mumbai suburb movie theatre, smashing glass and burning posters as they went. A day later, a screening of the film in a Delhi movie theatre suffered the same violence. More and more violence erupted in India, and the film was eventually forced to be withdrawn from theatres and referred back to the censor boards to be re-examined. The film eventually got to resume screenings in India without incident.
This type of violence against Mehta’s films started with Fire, and continues to this day. Her most famous film Water (2006) had to shut down production before they could even begin filming, due to right-wing party members in India storming the sets and setting fire to them. The film eventually started shooting again, but in Sri Lanka instead of India.
Nevertheless, it is striking and inspiring to see Mehta continuing on with challenging these issues, even though she literally risks her life doing it. Considering this film is in our Contemporary Female Directors theme for this semester, it should be noted that Mehta is perhaps one of the most badass female directors working right now. What makes her films so touching and engaging is her ability to tackle these massive and challenging issues and intertwine them into an intimate story of only a few characters. As Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times says,”for all her impassioned commitment as a filmmaker, Mehta never preaches but instead tells a story of intertwining strands in a whole compelling manner.”
By Raeesa Farooqi