Canadian-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, a city on India's border with Pakistan, in 1949. Mehta attended Welham Girls High School and received a bachelors and masters degree in philosophy from the University of New Delhi, where she met her husband, Canadian filmmaker and producer Paul Saltzman. Shortly after getting married, she immigrated to Canada in 1973. However, the marriage was short lived, and they divorced. She has one daughter, Devyani. Because her father was a film distributor and theater owner, Mehta grew up on movies. After school she would go there with friends and watch movies for free, not realizing she had a serious interest in films until after finishing her education. She was about to do her dissertation for her PhD, when she met a friend who said they needed someone to work part time in a place called Cinematic Workshop, a small place that made documentary films in Delhi. She learned how to do sound first, and then learned camera work. She leaned to edit and then finally she made her own documentary.
In 1974, Mehta made her Canadian directorial debut with an acclaimed documentary, At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy. Mehta's debut feature film Sam and Me was released in 1991, a story of the relationship between a young Indian boy and an elderly Jewish gentleman in the Toronto neighborhood of Park dale. This film, like many of her later films, is both a deeply personal film and a film that has universal emotional content. With the success of Sam and Me, Mehta received offers to direct two episodes of George Lucas' television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the big budget feature Camilla (1994).
In 1995, Mehta, then divorced, began work on Fire, the first of a powerful and controversial planned trilogy of films set in India. With Fire, Mehta began her practice of taking on the dual role of writer and director. Fire (1996) was a film that tells the story of two middle-class Indian women trapped in arranged marriages. It was a highly controversial film among certain more conservative quarters in India due to its depictions of gender, marriage, and (homo) sexuality and particularly because of use of the names of Hindu goddesses with characters and portraying these characters as lesbians. Critics attributed Fire's widespread success, in part, to Mehta's ability to build empathy across cultural borders. The second film in Mehta's trilogy, Earth (1998), is about the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan as seen through the eyes of a young girl. Earth, described as an intimate epic, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 1998.
Mehta had originally intended to direct Water in February, 2000, with actors Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das and Akshay Kumar. Her earlier film, Fire, however, had previously attracted hostility from some people in the Hindu community (who objected to her subject matter and her stereotyping clichés of Hindu culture) and had organized attacks on cinemas that screened that film. Thus, the day before filming of Water was due to begin; the crew was informed that there were complications with gaining location permits. The following day, they learned that 2,000 protesters had stormed the Ghats, destroying the main film set, burning and throwing it into the Ganges in protest of the film's subject matter. The resulting tensions meant that Mehta struggled for many years to make Water and was eventually forced to make it in Sri Lanka rather than India. She eventually made the film, with a new cast, and a fake title used during filming (River Moon) in 2003. The struggle to make the film was detailed in a non-fiction book, Shooting Water: A Mother-Daughter Journey and the Making of the Film, written by Mehta's daughter, author Devyani Saltzman. After returning to Toronto facing the Water experience in India, it took Mehta about 3 months to decide what she wanted to do next. She realized what she wanted to do was something that was life-affirming, fun, and foot-tapping, that would make her feel glad to be alive, and she wrote Bollywood/Hollywood. In Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) Mehta used both genres as backdrop to a movie about the lives of Indian families in Toronto. Mehta's most recent film, Republic of Love, based on the Carol Shields novel by the same name, premiered at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival.
Deepa Mehta is currently preparing a film entitled Exclusion, which is rumored to star Amitabh Bachchan and John Abraham. The plot is based on the Komagata Maru incident that occurred in Canada.
Sam and Me won an honorable mention in the Caméra d'or category at the Cannes International Film Festival. Fire earned Mehta critical acclaim and awards including the International Jury Prize for the Best Film at the Verona International Film Festival in 1997. Earth was India's entry for the 1999 Academy Awards and has won numerous awards elsewhere. Water was nominated for the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, making it Canada's first non-French-language film to receive a nomination in that category.
Mehta has developed a well-earned reputation as innovative and courageous filmmaker whose movies often address the universal issue of identity and tradition. Mehta is best known for her Elements Trilogy, all of which were set in India. Some notable actors that have worked in Mehta’s films are Aamir Khan, Shabana Azmi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Lisa Ray, and Nandita Das. Bapsi Sidhwa's novel Cracking India, (1991, U.S 1992, India; originally published as Ice Candy Man, 1988, England), is the basis for Mehta's 1998 film, Earth. Mehta's film, Water, was later published by Sidhwa as the 2006 novel, Water: A Novel. She received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Western Ontario on June 13, 2006. She recently won an Indian International Film Academy Award for outstanding achievement by an Indian in international cinema.