Mehta's earlier films, particularly those in the Elemental Trilogy, would not have led one to expect the deep humanism, epic power, technical mastery, and sheer beauty of Water. In this film, Mehta has turned all of her previous weaknesses into strengths. The psychological themes that she has worked and reworked—as though she were settling a personal score—become an expansive portrayal of the human condition in this film. Her stock storytelling device—in which everything is seen through the eyes of an innocent—takes on narrative force through the rebellious 8-year-old who refuses to accept her fate.
Mehta's attempts to create epic scenes in earlier films lacked verisimilitude; in Water, the reenactment of Gandhi's visit to a thronged train station is totally convincing. And Mehta's own ironic and condescending attitudes toward Hindu traditions are mediated by characters struggling with their faith.
This is a film for psychiatrists who are concerned about women's issues and for anyone else who struggles to reconcile an enlightened humanism with the constraints of religious tradition.
Mehta was born into a wealthy Hindu family in India. Her widowed grandmother, she says, far from being an outcast, was a tyrannic matriarch. Mehta's father was a film distributor and theater owner, and Mehta spent many afternoons with her friends watching films. The family was ambitious: her older brother Dilip was an internationally renowned still photographer by the time he was 24, and Mehta set her sights on becoming a philosopher—a more common route to filmmaking these days than one might suppose. Like many graduate students, Mehta could not settle on a PhD thesis topic, and when someone at a dinner party offered her a job as a gofer in a documentary film studio, she jumped at the opportunity. She started honing her filmmaking skills and made her first documentary about the arranged marriage of a 15-year-old girl, an untouchable, who cleaned the floors in the Mehta family's home.
Mehta married Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman and emigrated to Toronto. There, the couple started making documentaries together, including one about her brother, who often worked with them.
In her first feature film, released in 1991, she explored psychological and cultural issues that were important in her life. The film Sam and Me was about a young Muslim Indian who emigrates to Toronto and gets a job taking care of an elderly Jewish man, Sam Cohen. Sam is no longer interested in life and wants only to be buried in Israel. His family does not really want to bother with him. But something unexpected happens: the young Muslim and elderly Jew discover that they enjoy each other's company. Their friendship upsets both families, who interfere, with unhappy consequences.
The success of Sam and Me brought Mehta to the attention of George Lucas, who hired her to make 2 episodes of the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, one of them set in Varanasi circa 1910. It was during the filming of this episode that she saw the unforgettable image of the old widow. And it was during production that she worked for the first time with Giles Nuttgens, the talented British cinematographer who would later film the entire Elemental Trilogy with her.
As Mehta's career was launched, her marriage disintegrated. During the months leading up to her divorce, she threw herself into writing Fire, set in modern-day India. Returning to India to film, she was not the prodigal child asking forgiveness and embracing the traditions that still require women's subservience. Instead, the Elemental Trilogy was to be a feminist challenge to the chauvinism of Hindu orthodoxy.