THE FILMMAKERS

How Deepa Mehta mastered the art of telling stories only an Indo-Canadian could tell

Film critic Radheyan Simonpillai explores fluidity between cultural identities in Mehta's work.

Film critic Radheyan Simonpillai explores fluidity between cultural identities in Mehta's work

Deepa Mehta's "Water." (Mongrel Media)

This is part of a series of essays by panellists featured on the new CBC Arts talk show The Filmmakers. A panellist from each episode writes about the film being featured this week, which this week is film critic Radheyan Simonpillai discussing Deepa Mehta's Water. You can watch Simonpillai alongside filmmaker Rakhi Mutta and film critic Brian D. Johnson on the full panel here.

In the early 2000s, transnational cinema became a developing discussion in film criticism. Directors like Guillermo Del Toro and Ang Lee, among so many others, had a globalized perspective, whether they were making movies in Mexico or China or the US. In films like Chronos and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there was fluidity in culture and influence, occupying space beyond national boundaries.

That's a trait evident in Canadian cinema from the same period by filmmakers like Mina Shum, Atom Egoyan and, most resoundingly, Deepa Mehta. All of them made films in Canada that reflected on their cultural roots. Mehta's films often told stories about India that only an Indo-Canadian could tell: Fire, Earth and her Oscar-nominated masterpiece Water.

"India, the country of my birth, gives me its inspiration for its stories," said Mehta, when Water arrived at the Oscars. "But Canada gives me the freedom to tell those stories."

From left: Radheyan Simonpillai, Johanna Schneller, Brian D. Johnson and Rakhi Mutta on The Filmmakers. (CBC Arts)

Few Indian filmmakers would dare depict widows in 1938, imprisoned to an ashram to toil away their lives as per ancient Hindu customs. The fundamentalist protests that burned down Mehta's original attempt to shoot Water hints at why the Indian film industry typically shies away from dealing with poverty and religion with a critical eye.

But Mehta persisted, regrouped, moved her production to Sri Lanka and crafted a lush and glowing romantic tragedy set during a time when India was growing divided by modernization; a division that's still evident today.

Tucked far away from the laws that might have protected them, the widows in Water are social pariahs forced to shave their heads and wear only white, toiling away in service and prayer because according to religion they are nothing without their husbands.

India, the country of my birth, gives me its inspiration for its stories. But Canada gives me the freedom to tell those stories.- Deepa Mehta at the Oscars

We enter their ashram with Chuyia (Sarala), a rebellious and inquisitive 8-year-old who doesn't even remember getting married. She befriends Lisa Ray's Kalyani, a young widow allowed to keep her hair long for an exploitative purpose. Through Chuyia's meddling, Kalyani gets cozy with Narayan, a young student of Gandhi, played by hunky Bollywood star John Abraham, who ignores all the religious rules that say he shouldn't even look in a widow's direction.

While an onscreen romance blooms, Water searches for the middle ground between the pageantry and melodrama typical in Bollywood cinema and a more pragmatic, critical storytelling indicative of Mehta's distance. Water is steeped in Indian culture but tempered by its director's Canadian (and feminist) perspective.

Nowhere is this hybrid cultural identity more obvious than in the way Mehta negotiates the Bollywood song-and-dance routines. Water has three musical numbers, composed by Canadian Mychael Danna and A.R. Rahman (a Bollywood legend whose work with Mehta preceded gigs in Hollywood and an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire). The musical numbers in Water don't feature characters breaking from reality to bust moves around trees. Mehta naturalizes these sequences into her story and characters.

Deepa Mehta on The Filmmakers. (CBC Arts)

The first, after Kalyani and Narayan meet, is a celebratory montage with the music heightening emotion in the background. The second is a melancholic lull incorporating a flute that Narayan can be seen playing, heard as the would-be couple longs to be together. The final number takes place during Holi, the "festival of colour", which is commonly used in Indian films during an optimistic high, right before tragedy strikes. Water stays true to that trope.

The tragedy, involving predatory sexual abuse facilitated by religious oppression, is exactly the kind of thing that gets Mehta tagged as provocative. I feel like that label is a disservice. In Water, Mehta is a sentimental humanitarian covering history and prevalent social issues. She's always been drawn to real stories and looking for emotionally honest ways to tell them. The documentarian in her never left.

Today, you can see a new generation of Canadian filmmakers negotiating a hybrid cultural identity like she did, tearing down borders in our national cinema. Igor Drjalca's Krivina and The Waiting Room explore a space caught between Toronto and Bosnia. Albert Shin's In Her Place tackled stigmas around child adoption in South Korea. Siddharth, by Richie Mehta (no relation), covered a harrowing story about child abduction in India.

"Deepa opened doors," said Richie Mehta, when I spoke to him a few years ago. "Whether or not she's even mindful of that, some of us walked through those doors."

Watch Deepa Mehta on The Filmmakers this Saturday at 10:00 p.m. (10:30 NT) on CBC Television, or stream it at cbc.ca/watch. After the episode, stick around to see this week's feature presentation, her 2005 film Water.

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