In a world where the portrayal of Indians in film comes predominantly from Bollywood, Deepa Mehta is a beacon of authentic portrayals of South Asians from outside of popular Indian cinema. Born in Amritsar, India and having lived in Canada for the bulk of her adult life, Mehta has become a feminist icon without even trying. She tells the stories of real Indians, both in their native land as well as in North America, and touches on an array of topics that are crucial to South Asians, but are rarely ever discussed or portrayed accurately in movies like domestic violence, homosexuality, arranged marriages, widowhood and religion.
Mehta has established herself as the go-to for the realistic portrayal of the lives of South Asians—particularly Indians, since that is her motherland—and does it in a haunting, clever and unashamedly open way. In Heaven on Earth she tackles the topic of domestic violence and the pressures of in-laws that many South Asian women experience. The film is terrifying in its stark honesty and the slow build of terror that the protagonist—a traditional woman who has come from India to be married to an Indian-Canadian man she’s never met—as she tries her hardest to keep her husband happy in an attempt to have the marriage she knows she deserves.
Mehta’s films often focus on women living through some sort of inner turmoil. Forbidden love is the theme of the first in the Elements Trilogy, Fire (1996) telling the story of two unhappily married women who find emotional and physical love in each other, despite it being considered a sin by their culture. In Water (2005), the conclusion of the Elements Trilogy, Mehta takes us to 1930s India and the widows of an ashram—a sort of monastery for widowed women—and the often misogynistic practices of South Asians, some of which carry on to this day.
Culture itself plays a big part in Mehta’s films for she seldom strays from what she knows: the contradictions, double-standards and centuries-long conflicts that South Asians face and create. Earth (1998), the second in the Elements Trilogy, is the story of Partition, when India split into what is today Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (though originally Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan itself). The topic of Partition, which was brought on as an eventual result of the British colonization of India, is a hot topic and one that still stirs up strong emotions for those who lived through out as many were forced to choose between their homelands and their religion and a lot of the rivalry among these countries today is a trickle through of this great event.
To make a film about such a turbulent time in recent South Asian history is not only a bold move, but an admirable one as it goes right to the gut of many of the cultural problems that these countries face today. The movie follows a group of Indians in modern-day Lahore who—despite their religious differences—live harmoniously, but have an unnecessary wedge driven between them essentially by colonization (that’s an incredibly generalized and simplified statement, but not completely untrue). It’s yet another, subtler way that Mehta examines culture clashes for which her movies are also well-known.
Mehta’s films are not always so challenging. Sometimes she takes on a lighter tone when dealing with these issues as is apparent by her award-winning Bollywood/Hollywood (2002). This light-hearted rom-com pokes fun at Indian stereotypes and the worldwide infatuation with Bollywood movies instead of tackling serious social issues with a heavy hand. Still, Mehta manages to point out some crucial problems with South Asian culture, particularly for the women who are born into it.
Despite their troubles, Mehta’s females are always admirable women, even if somewhat unrealistic. They are perhaps a suggestion of what women, all women, are capable of being and the strength they possess and need only to tap into. These women are possibly a reminder that there is room and encouragement for even South Asian women to stand up against the patriarchy that has pushed them down for centuries in the name of protection. Mehta is consistently reminding us that despite what people have told us our whole lives, we are strong, we are capable and we are deserving of something better.
Heaven on Earth: The Films of Deepa Mehta runs at TIFF Cinematique from October 8 until November 15.