When she heard her movie Water had been named a contender in the Best Foreign Film category at the 2007 Oscars, Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta popped open the champagne and shed tears of joy. "I just felt thrilled," said the Toronto-based mum-of-one. "I can't believe that a film, which was ripped apart six years ago, has come so far." In landing the coveted Academy nod Deepa had finally secured recognition for the controversial last episode in her Hindi trilogy.
Born in Amritsar, India, on September 15, 1949, to a progressive film distributor and cinema owner father, Satwinder, and home-maker mother Vimla, Deepa like her younger brother Dilip was immersed in the film business early on in life. By the age of ten she'd seen Indian-produced drama Mamta 40 times, although Hollywood movies starring Clint Eastwood were her favourites. "I would look forward to Sunday, when theatres screened English movies," she recalled.
The self-described naughty child and prankster had less affection for Welham Girls, the boarding school to which her parents sent her as a pre-teen. "She cried buckets and kept running away and coming back," recalled her cousin Ritu Kumar, whom Deepa credits with helping shape her creativity. Though film figured large in her life, a future in the industry didn't initially appeal to her, however, and she chose to study philosophy at the University Of New Delhi.
After graduating Deepa set off across Europe in the hope of encountering a sense of direction in her career. Instead she found romance, falling in love with Canadian-born Paul Saltzman. The pair were married in a traditional ceremony in India in 1970, and set up home in Canada three years later. It was in Toronto that the young immigrant was introduced to filmmaking, after being asked by a friend to help produce a documentary. It proved a cathartic experience and inspired Deepa to pursue a career in the film industry, producing documentaries and writing scripts for children's movies.
In 1980 the couple welcomed daughter Devyani, but by the time the youngster was six Deepa and Paul had decided to call it a day on their marriage. In the wake of their separation, the fledgling film-maker chose to stay in Canada in order that Devyani could be close to her father.
Deepa's first feature film, 1991's Sam And Me, earned her an honorable mention at the Cannes film festival, and with a couple of guest-directing spots on children's TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles under her belt, it looked as though the young Indo-Canadian was making inroads. Her second big-screen picture Camilla, starring Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda, proved less successful, however, and after it flopped at the box office in 1995 Deepa looked to her Indian homeland for work on movies that had more meaning for her.
She is perhaps best known for the Hindi 'elements' trilogy Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and 2006's emotionally charged Water. All three challenged the traditional roles of Indian women, but Water proved to be particularly controversial. Shortly after filming began in the holy city of Varanasi in 2000, there were riots among traditionalists opposed to Deepa's critical look at the plight of widows in Thirties India.
Cancelling filming, Deepa returned to Toronto to plan her next move. "It took me about three months to decide what I wanted to do next," she explained. "I wanted to do something that was life-affirming fun." The result was 2002's upbeat musical Bollywood/Hollywood.
Her Varanasi experience didn't mean Deepa had given up on Water, however, and four years later she secretly completed shooting in Sri Lanka. Acting as third assistant cameraperson on the troubled project was Devyani, who was keen to reconnect with her mother after choosing to live with her father from the age of 11. The pair were reconciled and later went on to share a home together in Toronto.