Spotlight on Deepa Mehta

Spotlight on Deepa Mehta

By Jan Lisa Huttner

(First Posted in 2006)





Water, the third part of Deepa Mehta’s “Elements” trilogy, premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival after years of disappoint- ment and delay, and is finally being released in the USA this spring.


Mehta first achieved interna- tional promi- nence with the release of Fire in 1996. Newlyweds Jatin and Sita are both from proper middle-class fam- ilies. They’re expected to find satisfaction in their arranged marriage, but nei- ther of them can.

Ignored by her husband, the bride slowly devel- ops a passionate interest in her sister-in-law Radha. Jatin’s brother Ashok is a religious man and Sita assumes that Radha is equally devout, but as the two women get to know each other, Sita realizes that Radha’s spirit has been stifled by Ashok’s ritualistic self-abnegation.

The release of Fire sent shock-waves throughout India where a lesbian relationship between two characters named after Hindu goddesses was per- ceived as a deliberate affront by fundamentalists. But Mehta’s elegant storytelling skills and the powerfully restrained performances of her two lead actresses (Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das) were widely acclaimed in the West, where Fire received numerous film festival awards.


Two years later, Mehta released Earth, based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s autobiographical novel Cracking India. Unlike Fire which is set in the vague present, Earth is set at a specific point in historical time: the moment right before British rule ended in 1947, prompting India and Pakistan declared themselves to be separate coun- tries.

Earth’s main character is Lenny Sethna (Maia Sethna), the daughter of a prominent Parsee fam- ily living in the cosmopolitan city of Lahore. Lenny has been born into a very comfortable life; Hindus, Moslems, and Sikhs all dine together as friends at her parents’ gracious table. But soon political disagreements intrude on her world, and Lenny watches in confusion as the adult relation- ships around her begin to fragment. Atrocities on all sides lead to escalating violence and inevitable tragedy

Mehta is careful to show the unfolding horror through Lenny’s innocent eyes, and told from a child’s perspective the story of this one specific ethnic conflict achieves heart-breaking universal- ity.