Photo by Michael PowersINDIAN WRITER-DIRECTOR DEEPA MEHTA SITS AT A poolside table at the Hollywood Roosevelt, jet-lagged after flying into Hollywood from Australia the day before. Tired and maybe a little bored with the PR rounds, her enthusiasm for interviews seems at low ebb. “I'm not interested in doing films on the immigrant experience,” she says a touch impatiently. “I find it very boring right now.” Mehta is responding to a question about the cultural provenance of her most recent films. Fire, about a love affair between two New Delhi wives, and Earth, her newest, about the destruction of a household during the ruinous partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, are the first installments of a trilogy that will conclude with Water, on which Mehta has already begun pre-production. Both Fire and Earth resist definitions of identity, a resistance that might, in part, result from the fact that Mehta herself has spent many years traveling between India and the West, specifically Toronto. The suggestion, however, touches a bit of a nerve.
“I have a deep desire to demystify a lot of the preconceptions that I myself might have about my own culture, let alone how Westerners perceive it,” she says. Mehta admits, however, to “straddling two cultures,” and that her films are somewhat a response to objectifying labels. “The idea of being marginalized by being exoticized is something that really bugs me,” she says, “so I'm sure that becomes a part of the work I do.”
The daughter of a film distributor, the 49-year-old Mehta remembers seeing her first movie when she was about 7: “It was a very dramatic film, as popular films tend to be, and I remember asking my dad, 'But how is it that something I can't touch or smell has the power to move me?'” Heavy question for a 7-year-old, but though Mehta's family “lived movies,” the thought of making them was far from her mind. She had already finished her master's in philosophy at Delhi University and was preparing to write her dissertation, when she fell in with a group of filmmakers doing government documentaries on family planning. “I said, 'Why not?'” she says, “and that's how I rediscovered how much I love film.”
Her first feature, Sam & Me, won a Camera d'Or honorable mention at Cannes in 1991 and caught the eye of George Lucas, who hired her to direct episodes of his Young Indiana Jones TV series. She also directed Camilla, a Canadian-U.K. co-production that proved disappointing. “Seduced” by the prospect of working with Jessica Tandy, Mehta became involved in a project over which she had little control, and decided she would never again work on something about which she felt less than passionate. She then embarked upon Fire — she was working on the film when the trilogy was conceived. “Fire is about the politics of sexuality,” Mehta recalls, “and the next one was going to be about the politics of territory, of land. That's when I thought about Water as well.”
In the way of her countryman Satyajit Ray (whom she admires greatly, and who established his own career with a trilogy), Mehta endows Fire and Earth with a humanism that makes them easily translatable to any culture. Focusing on a group of friends — Sikh, Hindu, Muslim — who are torn apart by the upheaval following the withdrawal of British colonial rule, Earth is about people of different backgrounds who have lived together peaceably for centuries, only to be torn apart by the rearrangement of boundaries. “It's all about identity — 'Who are you?' — and human emotions, love, betrayal, revenge,” Mehta says. “War gives us a real legalized umbrella to re-enact our worst possible potential.” With Water, set in the holy city of Benares, Mehta will explore the politics of religion and conclude her trilogy. After that, there's only one thing about her future of which she is sure. “I knew very clearly,” she says with a hearty laugh, “there was no way in hell I was going to do Air.”
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