Deepa Mehta Citation at U of T Convocation
by Professor Kay Armatage
Deepa Mehta is a filmmaker of enormous imaginative strength and political courage. Her career in Canada began in a period when women filmmakers were few and independent work was not only rare but also culturally, politically and economically risky. Mehta forged her entire career out of such challenges. The transcendence of cultural barriers and transnational reciprocity thematically dominate her work dealing with the Indo-Canadian diaspora, alongside issues of class, culture, identity and religious intolerance. Yet another important motif became increasingly prominent in the highly respected Elemental Trilogy of feature films: Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005). South Asian cultural practices concerning gender relations, always set against a complex political and historical background, were the principle subjects of these controversial films. These three films have won numerous critical accolades and awards, including Academy Award nominations for Earth and Water. A strong feminist critique of domestic violence also pervades her recent work. It is no exaggeration to say that her work has shaped the way we think about social and cultural issues in India and Canada.
From her earliest films, she has not only displayed a profound interest in social and political conditions, but she has always found a narrative structure that enlarged the specific event of her film towards a much larger embrace of other peoples and diverse cultures. Unlike many political filmmakers whose creative energy is exhausted by the message they seek to communicate, Deepa Mehta finds just the right image, metaphor or detail that carries issues of social justice deep into the realms of personal memory, emotion and wonder. This is why the dark and tragic subjects she deals with never fail to produce incidents and characters that have a vivid presence beyond the themes of the film.
She also has a remarkable ability to penetrate into the deep structure of historical moments and diverse social conditions. Each of her movies explores at once the present and the past. The films of her elemental trilogy, for which she is best known, deal with specific historical and social problems. Although they may refer to times or events surpassed, there is a way in which she turns them into the most telling witnesses to a contemporary perspective. There are few filmmakers who can take the long view of history and culture from the past and at the same time provide us with a commentary on the present. Her ability to span these different temporal registers is a sign of her profound understanding of the way images work. In film after film, she opens up new landscapes across time and space with nuance and elegance.
As a Canadian artist, Deepa Mehta is among the best. Scholars, critics and audiences alike cherish the aesthetic value of her films, which Mehta both writes and directs; the complexity and wisdom of the narratives that deal with vital political, cultural and gender themes; the sensitivity and depth of cross-cultural understanding that the works display; her courage and persistence in the cause of social critique; and her generosity in support of work towards justice, equality and freedom from violence. On this occasion we celebrate Deepa Mehta’s depth of vision, her gift for working with familiar images in ways that suddenly reveal a complex illumination, her dedication to her vocation, her courage when faced with adversity and danger and her artistic genius.