On Mira Nair’s Films

Mira Nair’s films evoke the feeling of lush reds and yellows. That is such a prevalent visual theme in the four films I’ve seen by her:

Mississippi Masala (1992)

Kama Sutra (1997)

Monsoon Wedding (2002)

Vanity Fair (2004)

I saw Vanity Fair last night. It was better than expected, and better than the critics rated it. But then, I LOVED Kama Sutra. Of those I’ve seen, Kama Sutra is my favorite, mostly that’s due to the director’s commentary. On the one hand, Kama Sutra is somewhat inaccessible to American audiences. OTOH, I love this film because I do find it most accessible compared to some other Bollywood films. Perhaps Kama Sutra is accessible because it is orientalized. It fits my preconceived notions of what I think that romantic world should be about. This is awkward to admit, but as a white American, I’m too ignorant to sift among the film’s images to determine things such as Nair’s actual audience, intent, and..well..the authenticity of context. What is wishful thinking on her part, and what is designed to appeal to an orientalist eye? Perhaps I simply misconstrued her wishful thinking for Westernization. Perhaps, in the end, that’s the point of her Westernized romance anyway. It’s hard to tell. Maybe that is why she gets into so much trouble.

Kama Sutra certainly stands out against Nair’s other films, which are much more bitingly critical – a point made by Sunil P. Sreedharan in a film review for the India Star. Kama Sutra does have some fairly critical moments, but Sredharan suggests that Raise the Red Lantern does a better job of making the same critiques. That was an equally beautiful movie, but much less romantic.

In a UNESCO interview with Nair, she discusses the gendered differences in Kama Sutra‘s reception. This was genuinely a “chick flick” in India and, apparently, there were few of those at the time. It sort of reminds me of the way that the Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood gets some interesting feminist work done under the cover of the ultimate chick flick. From the UNESCO interview:

How did Indian women viewers respond to Kama Sutra?

When the movie was released in India last year I made contractual obligations with the distributors that there should be matinee screenings thrice a week for women only. In Indian cinemas, 90 per cent of the audience are men. I did not want my female audience to be harassed or intimidated by men’s presence, so I insisted on these all-women screenings. It made women feel safer and made it easier to see my message.

It is a myth that Indian women do not want to know about intimate love. In fact, the film was a great hit and women frequented the theatres all over the country. It was among the top three commercially successful movies in India last year.

In another newspaper article, Nair says for her next film (after Monsoon Wedding) she will make a film with a spare aesthetic. HA! Vanity Fair was certainly far from spare. From the News-India Times:

Talking about her inclination toward carnivalesque films with lots of people and color, Nair said in jest that she tells the people she works with that she will make a more spare film next time.

“I tell them that next time I will make a film with two people eating sushi in Paris, but they know it is not going to happen,” she said.

The themes in her films are all evident — about the hypocrisy of class-based morality, about gender and women’s sexuality, and about cross-cultural experiences (The Perez Family).

The following quote best captures the critical sentiment of Vanity Fair. From Rediff.com in India:

Part of her cinematic journey on Vanity Fair included sharpening the Indian elements. “I did not have to invent anything,” she says with an amused look, referring to the scenes shot in India and the slave dance choreographed by Farah Khan. “All these elements are clearly hinted at in the book.”

Vanity Fair screenplay writer Julian Fellowes (he won an Oscar for Gosford Park) says Nair was absolutely right in highlighting the colonial influence on England. Thackeray, who was also a renowned journalist in his times, found India to be mysterious and intriguing, Fellowes says. He adds that Thackeray feared the English were “taking on cultures and values that they did not understand.”

“This element of the book has been lost in past adaptations,” he says, remembering that Vanity Fair has had over half a dozen movie and television adaptations. “Mira caught it and used it to give the film glamour.”

Gabriel Byrne, who plays a somewhat mysterious but ultimately a troubling character, feels when directors from abroad tackle classic British subjects, they bring with them new sensibilities. Like Shekhar Kapur did, when directing Elizabeth and Ang Lee did, when recreating Sense And Sensibility.

“Mira’s background helps to illuminate Thackeray’s material in a highly original way,” Byrne adds. “She brings a different critical apparatus and sense of culture to it — and, at the same time, a reverence for what Thackeray actually wrote.”

Here is another useful link:

Culturebase.net — Quick background about Nair and the various films she has made and the controversies surrounding them.

In the end, Nair makes my head spin. Even the difficult films that lack glamour are lovely, and the glamorous films like Vanity Fair make you sick to your stomach with the gilt.

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