Who's afraid of Mira Nair?

Publié le 7 Janvier 2008

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Those who have read this blog for some time know that I had loved Monsoon wedding, that little gem of a film, and well, I’ve recently watched Salaam Bombay and The Namesake, along with Mira Nair’s 1985 documentary on women strippers, Indian Cabaret: all this made me wonder: what sort of woman is Mira Nair? Looking though websites about her, one is rapidly confronted with a few that show her very much at ease in public, expressing herself with an intelligence and a strength that are a real treat. “So that’s where it all comes from”, I thought. “It” for me meant a combination of qualities rarely seen in Indian cinema (and rewarded by many international awards). First of course, an unrelenting realism, which sets her films apart from so many other conventional films (and for me conventions are not a bad thing, it all depends how they are used). This interest in reality, which means, if you are dealing with India, the overwhelmingly present middle or lower classes, and not the magnificent sons and daughters of the affluent high society, which Bollywood so often targets to sell its dreams.

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Films that aren’t fictionalised fantasies but social and moral weapons to fight against injustice, cruelty, hypocrisy, prejudice, and machismo: could such films meet with success? Well, they do, and perhaps their success is in part a sign of their quality, a sign that they have helped change things! So realism. Then, an interest for education. Mira Nair obviously thinks that education is essential. And not only the education of women, which is of course central, as one can see in Monsoon Wedding. Children, naturally (witness her foundation “Salaam Balak”, directed to the education of street children), but also adults. Salaam Bombay also says that adults (grown-up children…)  are locked up in prejudice and ignorance, and that from there poverty and violence flow. Drug addiction is a companion of under-development just as much as it’s a reality of our developed nations. The same can be said of prostitution. Only education can start freeing men and women from these scourges. And the fact that they still rage in civilised countries is an indication of how much education itself still needs to be educated.

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There is a talk (the Harvard talk with John Lithgrow, cf. the banner above) in which Mira Nair tells of how men flocked to see Indian Cabaret because they thought it was going to be voyeuristic. And she says it was essential for men to be confronted to this denunciation of their own voyeurism. She says she travelled by Greyhound Bus at one stage with Indian Cabaret under her arm, and talked with the public about this addiction to the conventional roles or the double standard which women undergo in the Indian society. Educating the public’s eyesight and knowledge about social roles is not an easy task. Certainly the fact that she’s a woman has helped (women suffer less from the seduction of appearances, I think) and an educated woman too. After studies at Delhi University and Harvard, where she has studied drama and sociology, she’s wanted to use her skills to forward her own interests and tackle the issues she feels about: the themes of culture, of language, of exile, of identity. Her perspective is one of a resourceful humanity, but which needs to be enlightened and encouraged towards a better life and a peaceful truth.

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Mira Nair doesn’t have only friends (check this review, of her 2005 Vanity Fair. Sorry, it’s in French). But it’s true that this critic considers Salaam Bombay a “Hollywoodian” film! Critics are always interesting, even if they go too far, because this makes me think that Mira Nair’s documentary style suffers here and there from a certain didactic tone, a certain difficulty at creating rhythm and power. For me, this was noticeable especially in The Namesake. Truly, that film didn’t create in me a very lasting impression. I can’t exactly pinpoint what is wrong: is it simply too lank? I appreciated Kal Penn’s character, and Tabu’s… Perhaps Mira Nair’s sociological approach means that she’s not first and foremost a story-teller. And she does sometimes sacrifice the fluidity of the story-line to the importance of the message. In the Harvard speech mentioned above, she says: 

"My idea" for Salaam Bombay! was to "amalgamate" the "inexplicability of everyday life that we have in documentary" with "gesture, drama, and the controlled situation that we have in fiction."

Well, I’m not sure that process is completely under control yet! (even if I realise that saying this I’m rather critical towards a film which I keenly appreciated). So in fact, the limited time (one month!) and budget with which Monsoon Wedding was made probably explains why it’s so satisfying artistically. Salaam Bombay suffers perhaps because it was experimented on a rather long period. This ambitious attitude does also do her credit: I learned that she declined the direction of the fifth instalment of Harry Potter, because the script wasn’t creative enough. This shows both that she was judged an able enough director internationally, and also that she can retain her independence and her ideals even when they are more worldly interests at stake.I want to finish by saying how much I appreciated watching the lady gliding effortlessly through her descriptions of her experience as a film-maker. She has that assurance and enthusiasm that pleases immediately, and an intelligence (I realise I’m repeating myself) which means she’ll understand her limitations, and will amend them. I cannot enough encourage Bollywood lovers to discover her work.

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Er, couldn't resist adding that one!!

A little addendum to let you know of my recent pleasure at watching Migration thanks to Jaman (note July 2012: they have cancelled the film there and so the link now directs you to YouTube - but there's no subtitles). This 2007 Short (12 min) can be watched there for free, and it’s another testimony to Mira Nair’s clever treatment of today’s social problems. Here’s the little review I posted there:

 “A very strong little movie, which functions on your intelligence the same way that AIDS spreads among people who aren't prudent enough: through slow realization of its power and presence. You don't see AIDS, but once you understand its effects, they are shattering. Likewise, the film's allusiveness, its clever intertwining of stories suddenly explodes at the end, and reveal its effectiveness.

For as a spectator, you can easily pity the lonely and lovelorn characters who fight against themselves, against their desires, and would like to hurt no one in so doing. But they forget that the virus knows no pity, no compassion, and strikes blindly. All we are left with is a sobering realization that truth often comes too late.”

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Bollywood Talk

Commenter cet article

Lÿ 16/01/2008 09:50

Bonjour Yves,What a nice blog! We can find a complete Bollywood library on your blog. That is very interesting. It is more like a real cinema critic blog.Nice!Lyne

yves 16/01/2008 21:42

Thanks Lÿ, I hope you enjoyed yourself, don't hesitate to come again, or if you want to be informed about what's happening here, to enter your mail address in the sign-up box on the top right!cheers,yves