When Deepa Mehta begins shooting her next film, Water, on the banks of The Ganges in
Benares on November 1, 1999, it will have been seven years since her last visit to this
2000 year old holy city, the Hindu equivalent of Mecca. That last time was to direct the
Benares titled episode of George Lucas’ Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. It’s an
odd juxtaposition, you may think, but Mehta is not an average filmmaker. Or an average
person. She married (and later divorced) "a white Canadian Jew" and has an 18
year old daughter, Devyani (Little Goddess) proud of her cultural mix, who is studying in
Toronto, where Mehta has one of two homes ("I leave Canada in November," she
says, referring to the onset of winter there.) The other is near New Delhi, where she was
born and raised. More on that crucial subject a bit later.
"one of India’s contemporary filmmakers"
She pours me tea (we’re in the Executive Lounge of a Sydney hotel where she is
staying) careful with her crisp white dupata (shawl) which wraps around her blue kameez
(Indian shirt) adorned with a pink and flower pattern, over her cream salwar (traditional
Slight, bright and smart, Mehta, began her film career with children’s scripts but
established her directing credentials with her first feature, Sam & Me, winning the
first Honourable Mention at Cannes in 1991, where it was eligible for the Camera
Along with Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, Bandit Queen), she is one of India’s
contemporary filmmakers who works in the global marketplace, not within India’s
fabulous and busy domestic industry. Both enjoy high profiles and great respect. Fire, her
third feature, written, directed and produced by Mehta herself, has so far won 14
"These are the elements that nurture us, but also that
can destroy us"
Fire was the first of her planned trilogy, Fire, Earth, Water. Fire deals with the
politics of sexuality; Earth deals with the politics of land and nationalism; and Water
will deal with the politics of religion. "These are the elements that nurture us, but
also that can destroy us," she says.
Indeed, Earth is a shattering revelation for many, based on Cracking India, the semi-autobiographical account of the 1947 partition of India and creation of Pakistan, by
Bapsi Sidhwa, then an eight year old girl. "A lot of people," says Mehta,
"have no awareness of these events." But she refers only to people outside
India. For India and Pakistan, "it was our Holocaust; my father grew up in Lahore
(now in Pakistan) and the family had to leave in tragic circumstances. My father’s
family were some of the 11 million people that were uprooted from their homes during the
Partition. I grew up hearing stories about the carnage, the rapes and the mindless acts of
violence that people who had lived together in relative harmony for centuries, committed
against each other, in the name of nationalism and religion."
As the British were leaving India, this was their final legacy: an arbitrary line that
would give a piece of the land, Pakistan, to the Muslims, and the rest to the Hindus and
Sikhs. Lord Mountbatten oversaw the operation, but the actual line was drawn by Sir
Radcliffe, who knew nothing about India and had arrived just two weeks earlier. The line
cut through villages in some cases. "In my view," says Mehta, "the really
unforgivable thing was that nobody knew where the line was going to be until two days
prior (to it becoming effective on the day of independence on August 15, 1947). To this
day, the repercussions of that are felt throughout the country. For many, the first thing
that the year 1947 represents is the Partition – not Independence."
"over a million people were killed in sectarian
It is estimated that over a million people were killed in sectarian violence as six
million Muslims moved towards Pakistan and five million Hindus and Sikhs moved towards
India. The religious labels became badges of hate.
The curious thing is that Mehta had started writing a treatment of her planned film as
she neared the end of post production on Fire. Then one day in a bookshop, she noticed a
book" the title Cracking India was written in fine black print down the spine of a
paperback – but it could have been emblazoned in neon lights," she says.
"My attraction to it was immediate. I read the book and threw my treatment into the
garbage bin." It was to have been her father’s story.
After tracking down novelist Bapsi Sidhwa, producer David Hamilton’s tenacity
helped put the project together, despite several setbacks, and after a Hindu priest had
broken a coconut, garlanded the camera and blessed the cast and crew, shooting began in
"The love scene," says Mehta, "was the most difficult from the
actors’ point of view. It has to be very carefully choreographed so it doesn’t
become gratuitous. I wanted to make it sensual and erotic – without too much
flesh." The scene, between Ice Candy Man and Ayah, plays a crucial, heart-wrenching
role in the story.
Mehta’s intention with making this film was to "try and understand what
happened and why. What is the politics of nationalism. I even wrote a scene which is not
in the book, where Ice Candy Man (Aamir Khan), when he asks Ayah (Nandita Das) to marry
him… and he explains how it’s not about Muslims and Hindus, but something inside
all of us, something animal…and how civil war allows people to realise their worst
"I hope it will start a dialogue about the themes in
For Mehta, the film’s acute specificity speaks equally to the rest of the world:
"I am interested to see Western reaction to the film," she says, "and I
hope it will start a dialogue about the themes in the film, because of what continues to
happen all over the world." While this story puts the present conflict between India
and Pakistan in some sort of context, Mehta points to the film’s relevance in
Northern Ireland, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Rwanda . . . it has vile universal resonance.
She doesn’t have to wait long for Western response: at the Sydney Film Festival,
she was delighted with the enthusiasm and interest shown by the audience. And on September
10, Earth opens in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Italy – and India. (In Australia,
Earth opens September 16, 1999, in Melbourne, and October 21 in Sydney, with other states
Mehta considers herself a liberal, "perhaps left wing," and is a Hindu,
"but I don’t go to the temple every day – I’m not ritualistic."
She also confesses to be "a real sucker for irony and dark humour. I’d love to
do a comedy – not a broad farce, but something ironic."
Speaking of irony, Mehta and novelist Bapsi Sidwha are both well aware of the irony of
their situation. "Bapsi is from Pakistan and now a US citizen. I’m from India
living in Canada. If neither of us had moved from our respective homelands the film just
wouldn’t have been possible." Pakistan and India are sworn enemies – since
1947. They have fought three major wars and are wagging nuclear fingers at each other.
"the ultimate weakness in our species"
Mehta had wanted to shoot the film in Lahore itself, "but the Government
(Pakistan) never replied to our request." A symbolic silence, perhaps. But as Ice
Candy Man says, the blame is equally shared by all, from the British to the religious
sects – it’s a human failing, the ultimate weakness in our species. Is it,
perhaps, the real Original Sin, as Christians call the first but eternally echoing human
error by Adam and Eve?