Deepa Mahanti (www.DeepaMahanti.Weebly.com) is a human resource professional by day and a social activist and writer-director of short films and documentaries by night. Based in Mississauga, Canada, she creates visually stimulating art that addresses real people and social issues in hopes of inspiring change.
Born in Cuttack, a city in the eastern state of Orissa (or Odisha), in India, Deepa Mahanti has witnessed the highest luxury and lowest downfalls in life. Growing up in an affluent family, Mahanti frequented the Raj Bhavan (governor’s house), traveled abroad for summer vacations, and rode in her grandfather’s Mercedes-Benz. At the age of eight, her family immigrated to West Africa, where she received an elite education and had a comfortable lifestyle. In her autobiography – Pourquoi Myiesha (2017), Mahanti writes, “Life was good. We were expatriates having weekly parties and special cookery sessions at the club, held by various chefs in town. My family and I lived in a four-bedroom bungalow with a huge backyard with a sprawling lawn and vegetable garden. As a teenager, I shopped at malls, learned to drive a Volkswagen, and played tennis, badminton and chess.”
Mahanti earned two Bachelor degrees in Commerce and Law from Utkal University in India, and a Diploma in Human Resources from International Cambridge College in the United Kingdom. She worked for Fortune 500 companies in India, the Middle East and Canada, focusing on international recruitment and staffing solutions. Mahanti says that traveling across various countries gave her a wide exposure that enabled her to work with people of different ethnicities and cultures.
But as life is unpredictable, Mahanti’s personal life, health and career deteriorated soon after her move to Canada in 2006. She got divorced, developed extremely high blood pressure along with other conditions, and wasn’t able to function at work. As a single mother of a toddler, she had difficulties making ends meet. “There was a time when I did not have any family, friends or finances. I experienced hunger, lack of security, abandonment, emotional turmoil, and helplessness. When I was at my worst, the community came forward and paid my bills, offered childcare, and stood by me. Now, I am on the other side of the table, where I can give back,” Mahanti comments.
Mahanti has since re-established her life and is on a mission to help others. After sitting on boards, volunteering with the community, and serving in Safe City Mississauga as an ambassador, Mahanti started a nonprofit company – Myiesha Inc., through which she engages community members to learn about social causes and take effective action. “From my own experiences I have learned the importance of harnessing people’s power to make a community impact,” Mahanti adds. Some of the projects the organization has led include Let’s SNUG Together which raised 152 blanks for a shelter in Peel, and She’s ME and I am her, in which 55 social entrepreneurs and 7 speakers shared their lived experiences. In November 2021, she organized a fundraiser for the Canadian Mental Health Association featuring short films about life during COVID.
In her most recent initiative called Sol Stories, visual artists depict real stories lived during the COVID-19 pandemic on illustrated wearable art such as shawls, and scarves. This has helped create income for artists as well as become an outlet for them to express their feelings.
Perhaps what makes Mahanti’s approach most unique is the use of digital media to tell stories of people from her own backyard. Her media company, Nikisar Inc. produces documentaries and short films to bring positive change to the community. Focusing on real people and stories, the films highlight issues such as mental and physical health, parental alienation, domestic violence, and elderly abuse, among others. Mahanti also wants to raise awareness of issues related to South Asian widows, brides pressured for dowry, the unwanted girl child, and gender discrimination.
“I produced Mya inspired by someone I found in crisis. We made it as a “new media art”, which is an audiobook with music and voice that transitions into visual art (film). This kind of medium depicts the journey in absolute reality and enables the audience to think deeply about how to deal with the journey of mental health,” adds Mahanti. Her Documentary Kadupul tells the story of a BIPOC burn survivor and co-founder of the Sai Dham Food Bank, Subhra Mukherjee, who was honored with the Women of Worth Award by L’Oréal Paris Canada in 2018.
In May 2022, Deepa Mahanti was a finalist for The 27th Annual Mississauga Arts Awards (The MARTYS), hosted by the Mississauga Arts Council, in the emerging filmmakers category.
Her recent film titled Kya Aap Hame Dekh Sakte Ho (meaning “Do you see me?”) based on elderly abuse, has been chosen to be featured at the Creative Crazy Fest at Todmorden Mills museum in Toronto.
Mahanti has personally lived through many of the experiences she depicts in her films. She feels that by understanding other people’s feelings, she is better able to translate it into her art, engage with the local community, and create positive change in her adopted country and abroad. Though Mahanti is a full-time human resource professional by day, she feels it is equally important to give back. She adds, “Life experiences have taught me the importance of having a supportive community and now it’s my duty to return the favor.”
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Sucheta Rawal is an award-winning food and travel writer, contributing to national publications such as Travel+Leisure, HuffPost, TIME Magazine, CNN, AAA, Zagat and Fodors. Sucheta has authored 5 children’s books on travel – ‘Beato Goes To.’ She founded the Atlanta-based nonprofit ‘Go Eat Give,’ through which she encourages people to travel meaningfully.