You might want to indulge in a spicy masala chai tea and warm pashmina when you read this story about Indo-Canadian filmmaker, Deepa Mehta.
Her contributions to the film industry are as long as they are steeped in provocative and important conversations about traditional beliefs and social mores around India’s women, misogyny and discrimination.
As if this tackling these challenging issues were not enough, Deepa’s films have also explored broader topics including India’s violent history and modern-day struggles ranging from gang warfare to the immigrant experience. It’s why, in part, the uncompromising Deepa Mehta is our WS feature for September 2019.
Deepa’s style is dramatic, hard-hitting and spellbinding. It has incited Indians to riot in the streets and burn effigies in the Ganges River. Yet, nothing has stopped Deepa from pushing the boundaries as a woman born in Punjab, India now living in Canada.
As an Indo-Canadian, Deepa grew up in New Delhi and studied in the foothills of the Himalayas. Armed with a degree in Philosophy, she got her start making movies for the Indian government. It was there that she met her first husband, Paul Saltzman, a Canadian film director, and soon moved with him to Canada in 1973.
A broad range of films followed, quickly garnering attention, particularly her directorial feature-film debut, Sam & Me. It tells the story of a young Indian boy and his unlikely friendship with an elderly Jewish gentleman in Toronto. The film had a whopping $1 million-dollar budget – the highest at this point – for a woman working as a director in Canada in 1991.
This put Deepa on the map and won her an honorable mention at the Cannes Film Festival. It also led in 1996 to her founding Hamilton-Mehta Productions with her second husband, producer David Hamilton. More dramatic and commercially successful movies followed, and Deepa continued to explore what was close to her heart – India’s national and cultural identity.
The revolutionary quality of her work stretched the boundaries of India’s tolerance, especially because she was a woman asking questions about long-entrenched beliefs and practices crucial to India’s legacy. Other than her comedic 2002 Bollywood Hollywood movie, Deepa’s movies have been seriously engaged in controversy. Thankfully, their widespread acclaim has made Deepa one of my favorite artists and one of Canada’s most internationally renowned filmmakers.
Deepa fans would agree she’s best known for her Elements Trilogy of films, beginning in 1996 with the first film, Fire. Fire speaks to two contentious subjects that stirred anger and discontent: arranged marriages and homosexuality. The love affair between two sisters challenged India’s conservative views and riots in the streets quickly denounced Deepa as a casualty of western corruption.
Earth followed in 1998, calling out the gut-wrenching details of India’s 1947 partition. Set in Lahore, the actual city line dividing the border of a Hindu-dominated India and a Muslim-dominated Pakistan, audiences watched the political chaos through the eyes of a little girl named Lenny.
If Indians were unhappy with Deepa’s film, things got much worse with Water in 2005. Earth and Water ripped apart old traditions and exposed new value systems, especially Water which dealt with the story of suicide, misogyny, and mistreated widows.
In Water, deep-rooted customs isolate and victimize widows. Even though the law forcing their exile from others in society is no longer enforced, Hindu Fundamentalists and other conservative groups feared Deepa’s movie would cause another religious war.
This worry was not unfounded when, during the filming, over 2,000 protesters destroyed Deepa’s set, burning and throwing it into the Ganges. Eventually, the film was completed in secrecy, taking four years with filming done in Taiwan. Although Deepa was forced to use an alias movie title and to hire bodyguards, her efforts were rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film in 2007.
In the advent of today’s global women’s movement and popular television shows like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, Deepa is set to light the world on fire again with her latest tale about India. Always creatively driven to stop women from leading marginalized lives, Deepa’s new series Leila premiered on Netflix in June 2019.
It’s based on the novel Leila by Prayaag Akbar, adapted by Urmi Juvekar, and written and directed by Deepa. It’s a dystopian story of India that’s a dark and futuristic new world order in 2047 – exactly 100 years after India’s Independence. Aryavarta, a word taken from the ancient Hindu texts meaning noble or excellent ones, is a sectarian world filled with great suffering and religious and social discord.
Hindus are separated from Muslims and meant to remain so. The first season introduces this terrifying world in six episodes. There’s still no word as to whether the show will renew for another season, but I can’t imagine it won’t if viewers are as riveted as I am by the sharp plot twists, complex characters and captivating cinematography.
The opening scene sets the tone, with men violently dropping through the glass ceiling and shattering a serene family scene. Shalini is ripped away from her husband, Rizwan (Rahul Khanna) as he is lovingly teaching their daughter, Leila to swim. Huma Qureshi plays Shalini, a Hindu married to a Muslim and the mother of a mixed and therefore “unclean” child, Leila. Shalini’s crime is defying the established order and she must be purified.
To this end, Shalini is beaten and taken to a re-education house for other women like her. They are subjected to the strict and degrading tutelage of Guru Ma (possibly named after the crushing history of Gurjara-Pratihara, an ancient Indian king from the tenth century). Guru Ma shames them into spying on each other and committing unthinkable and demeaning acts of servitude. He whips their bodies and minds, preaching the Aryavarta way – one devoid of emotion and conscience.
The privileges and luxuries reserved for the wealthy, those born into the Hindu elite, exist here. Clean water is rationed, and women are locked behind sky-high walls that separate a network of city centers. People cannot escape or move between them.
This brave new world examines the same disconcerting issues familiar to Deepa. Deepa asks us to reconsider a future rife with protracted religious unrest, water shortages, disease-ridden streets, class divisions, homelessness, and other fundamental dividers in India’s overcrowded states.
This Netflix series does not disappoint and delivers more of Deepa’s immersive and thought-provoking experiences. In classic style, she continues to challenge history’s lessons and our relationship to each other. Deepa knows “the power of cinema is that it can start a dialogue.” Leila does just that, as we wonder if Shalini will be reunited with her daughter and if victimized women living under unjust and dehumanizing rules will escape?
There is a palpable Deja Vu as the women in the re-education camp chant “Hail Aryavarta.” Their indoctrination feels all too familiar. It underscores controlling media messages that threaten our happiness with fear and distress. Should people be prepared to die for Aryavarta, and relinquish their personal freedoms? Political ideas have the power to dominate and protect an unjust world order.
Deepa’s prescient series challenges what peace means from a personal and national perspective. We must fight segregation and exercise freewill without succumbing to the notion that somehow injustice will always prevail. We must do more than worry for the people of Aryavarta and challenge our understanding of justice, just as Socrates did in Ancient Greece. Deepa Mehta follows in the steps of other historic greats demanding our attention to freedoms hard fought and won. The one certainty I know, at this moment in time, is that I am cheering for Shalini.