Filmmaker Mira Nair Finds Freedom in Exile

Immigrant stories in film and literature often focus on what is lost in the process of migration: particularly the loss of one’s culture and identity. However, the immigrant experience can also be a positive and transformative one, creating a space for multiple cultural identities to interact with one another—cultural hybridity.

Filmmaker Mira Nair is interested in showing “all the possibilities that can come out of the immigrant experience,” says Amardeep Singh, associate professor of English.

Singh’s new book, The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité (University Press of Mississippi) is the first to offer an overview of the Indian-American film director’s body of work.

“When people move abroad, when they start new lives in other countries, Nair often portrays it in her films as a time to transform, to become something new out of the mixing and matching of different cultural norms and values,” says Singh.

Nair’s 40-year filmmaking career spans a variety of storytelling genres―from documentaries to independent film to mainstream Hollywood fare. She is still very much an active filmmaker, having recently helmed Disney’s feature film, Queen of Katwe (2016), about a Ugandan girl whose world transforms after being introduced to the game of chess.

Singh finds commonalities among her films in both theme and style. He coins the term “diaspora vérité” to describe Nair’s approach to storytelling, writing that “...the filmmaker uses documentary realism in order to show that the prospect of migration, dislocation and even exile offers her characters a potential path to freedom from social and cultural repression.”

“Diaspora vérité” refers to Nair’s storytelling sensibilities―influenced by cinéma vérité, the documentary filmmaking movement of the 1960s that sought to capture life as realistically as possible―and is also a nod toward what the author says is “...the filmmaker’s commitment to social justice, especially with respect to women and socially and economically marginalized groups.”

Throughout her career, says Singh, Nair has utilized cinéma vérité techniques to explore diverse experiences of diaspora.

In The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité, Singh also writes about Nair as a transnational filmmaker whose films are not defined by any singular national or linguistic tradition but instead reflect a wide range of cultural and geographical contexts.

“...Nair might be one of a handful of diasporic film directors whose work has helped transform the scope of contemporary world cinema,” writes Singh.

Documenting the Displaced and the Oppressed 

Nair was born and raised in the eastern Indian state of Orissa (sometimes spelled “Odisha”). Some of her best-known films are set in India, which underwent massive upheaval in 1947 when Britain ended two hundred years of rule over the “British Isles” by dividing it into two independent countries: India and Pakistan. 

Nair studied Theatre and acting at the University of Delhi before emigrating to the U.S. to attend Harvard University, where she began making documentary films. She currently lives in the U.S., and spends considerable time in Uganda.

“Part of what I’ve always admired about Nair is that she has this kind of geographic range and cultural range that very few people really have,” says Singh. “This is partly because she has a foothold in these different cultures where she can make films grounded in everyday life.”

In her first two feature-length documentary films, both set in India, Nair develops two “...thematic concerns to which she has repeatedly returned in her subsequent filmmaking career: the psychic and social consequences of migration (the diaspora experience) and gender relations in Indian society,” writes Singh.

The subjects of both films are defined by a profound sense of loss stemming from their displacement. In So Far From India (1983), Nair tells the story of a married couple in which the husband lives in New York City, while his wife through an arranged marriage lives in India. The subjects of Nair’s TV documentary India Cabaret (1985) are female nightclub dancers and sex workers in Bombay who, by virtue of their profession, are a population displaced within their own country, argues Singh.

The feature-length Salaam Bombay! (1988), her first foray into fiction, introduced Nair to the international filmmaking community. It won prizes at both the Cannes and Montreal film festivals and earned an Academy Award nomination for “Best Foreign-Language Film.”

The film follows a young boy living on the streets of Bombay and grew out of her documentary storytelling background, writes Singh. Salaam Bombay! features a largely amateur cast of actors who were trained in acting “boot camps” in the weeks leading up to filming. There is also kinship between the film and Nair’s documentaries in terms of subject matter, as it explores poverty and the sex trade in Bombay. Singh writes about the film as both growing out of India’s Bollywood film tradition and taking an anti-Bollywood stance, especially in its criticism of Bollywood’s fantasy depiction of poverty.

Migration ‘A Path to Freedom,’ Especially for Women

Nair first got to know Uganda while shooting her next movie, Mississippi Masala (1993). The film tells the story of Jay and Kinnu, a couple who are part of the Indian population forced out of Uganda when President Idi Amin expelled the country’s Asian population in 1972. Jay and Kinnu emigrate to the U.S. and settle in Mississippi where they run a hotel that caters to the substantial Indian expatriate population. Their daughter, Meena, is influenced by American sensibilities. She has a diverse group of friends and feels comfortable in settings outside the Indian-American community. She eventually falls in love and chooses to be with an African-American man, Demetrius (played by Denzel Washington), against her parents’ wishes. This causes upheaval in the family, but is portrayed by Nair as a positive turn of events for Meena.

“Demetrius also offers Meena the opportunity to transgressively rebuke the local Indian community, which is shown in the film to be faintly ridiculous, and which at any rate doesn’t value someone like herself (i.e., a young woman who is ‘both dark and has no money’) very highly,” writes Singh.

“Nair knows how to embrace how people can change culturally over time, especially women,” says Singh. “Women coming from conservative and traditional societies can find opportunities to live in a new way and to have freedoms they might not have had at home. They might still have to struggle for them, they might still have to fight for them, but there are a lot of possibilities for the women who migrate from one place to another in her films.”

Monsoon Wedding (2001), set in contemporary New Delhi, was one of Nair’s biggest crossover successes. In it, Nair turns her attention to India’s rising middle class and brings her brand of realism to the examination of family relationships. The story takes place over several days as an extended family gathers to celebrate the arranged marriage of the central family’s daughter, Aditi, to a software engineer living in the U.S.

Immigration is central to the film as is the “...influence of the Indian diaspora on the rapidly transforming ‘home’ culture of urban India,” writes Singh.

Singh continues: “...another sign of diasporic influence is in the interplay of ‘domestic’ and ‘Western’ values that are at play in connection with the debates about gender relations that are the real core of Monsoon Wedding.”

In a chapter titled “A Tale of Two Chunaris,” Singh diagrams the feminist perspective Nair brings to the filming of a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number and its intentional critique of Bollywood conventions.

Postcolonial Literature on Screen

Singh, who specializes in postcolonial literature, finds that students connect particularly well with Nair’s work when it’s included as part of his undergraduate literature classes focused on the immigrant experience.

He shows Nair’s film The Namesake (2006), which is closely adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the same name, while the students are also reading the book. The film dramatizes the story of an immigrant couple from India living in New York and raising their American-born children.
Showing the film sparks a discussion of the choices Nair has made in adapting the story to the screen, such as choosing to pay more attention to the lives of the parents than the novel does.

The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité is the first book to examine Nair’s work collectively, as opposed to essays about or reviews of individual films. An understanding of Nair’s body of work, says Singh, can provide a wider context for understanding individual films.

“Reviewers, for example, aren’t always getting what she’s up to,” says Singh. “They may not always see the full scope of what she’s trying to do and how it’s interesting and ambitious and provocative.”

Singh cites the reaction reviewers had to Nair’s film adaptation of Thackery’s 1847-48 novel Vanity Fair (2004), a Hollywood movie starring Reese Witherspoon.

“Nair’s adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is very much a postcolonial interpretation of this Victorian classic, emphasizing the importance of India to the financial and cultural landscape of English life in the first decades of the nineteenth century,” writes Singh. “Many of the India-themed scenes are drawn closely from Thackeray’s novel; others reflect a somewhat looser approach.”

“Reviewers would see her playing up the India-themed scenes and say she’s making too much of them, making it too much into a Bollywood movie,” says Singh. “But it’s all in the book. She’s just chosen to emphasize these moments more than other adaptations of the same book have.”

“When she shows that hybridity in Victorian England you can compare that hybridity to that of the Indian-American immigrants in the U.S.,” adds Singh. “I can look at that and say that that fits a line of thought that she’s been interested in throughout her career.”

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