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Known for following her own drumbeat, Film maker Mira Nair has stayed consistently feminist in her choice of subjects as well as the treatment of the subjects she chooses. More than 20 years after Salaam Bombay, here’s why she continues to be relevant.
Mira Nair is an Indian American Film maker, with her production company Mirabai Films known for engrossing international audiences with cross-cultural films that dwell on socio-cultural-economic issues, the art of love, conflicting ideologies, and identity crisis. She thinks out of the box and her films are honest, bold, liberal and blunt. Her movies cater to a niche audience and fall in the art film category. In this era, when most producers are more interested in making a quick buck, her films are known for their low budgets, crisp story-telling idealism.
A feminist film maker, let’s take a look at two of Mira Nair’s critical films.
(Some spoilers exist in these descriptions).
Salaam Bombay (1988) is a low budget movie based on the lives and harrowing experiences of street children, who are entrapped by drug addicts and red light area goons. The film also deals with the forced prostitution of teens, and on children who don’t know the love of a mother and survive on the leftovers of a marriage party. They beg for money from the infamous ‘Baba’, played by Nana Patekar, a drug peddler; when the junkie ‘Chillam’, played by Raghuveer Yadav dies, it is these children who carry the dead body for his last rites.
Nair deserves respect because she chose to cast street children in her film. The team conducted workshops with these children and listened to their heart-tugging narrations and groomed them for their roles. There are several embedded stories in this movie. A young boy Krishna, abandoned by his mother, lands in Bombay (now Mumbai) and loses his identity, only to be called ‘Chai Pav’, since he carries tea, eggs, biscuits and bread to the brothel. He falls for a young prostitute, known by the name of ‘Sola saal’, a virgin of high value to the brothel owner.
The film also features Baba’s legitimate wife Rekha played by Anita Kanwar, a prostitute by profession whom Baba promises a better life that never materialises. Her life revolves around her daughter Manju whom she loses forever in a shelter home. The little girl who observes her mother’s work in the brothel through transparent glass doors refuses to speak when the broken mother comes to visit her at the shelter. Chai Pav gets entangled with Chillum whom he thinks is his best friend and whose body he carries for the last rites, only to realize that it was Chillum who had stolen his hard earned money for his daily dose of drugs, a meager amount of Rs 500 which he had been saving for returning to his mother. The camera shoots at secret locations revealing the narrow lanes, the brothels, the streets, where these children dwell.
The movie ends with a heart wrenching scene with Chai pav crying out in desperation on the loss of his innocence after murdering Baba and with Rekha lost in the crowd of Ganapati immersion in search of her daughter Manju. The movie is rated an A for its bold language, and scenes that include sex and sadism. Salaam Bombay won the National film award for best feature film in Hindi.
Mississippi Masala (1991) is again a modest budget movie though it doesn’t fall directly in the art film category – it’s a romantic drama which targeted racism through the romance between an Indian American Mina played by Sarita Choudhury and the carpet cleaner, an African American Demetrius played by Denzel Washington. The movie has several other stories embedded in it, besides this romance.
Jay, played by Roshan Seth along with his wife Kinnu played by Sharmila Tagore and their young daughter Mina although third generation settlers in Uganda are sent into exile by General Idi Amin who orders the banishment of all the Asians settled in Africa. Jay settles in Mississippi and starts a chain of motels along with fellow exiles but cannot embrace the American culture. He calls Uganda his first home and India the second.
Focusing on the other facets is a typical Indian mother Kinnu who wants her daughter Mina to settle down with a good Indian husband. Mina who is portrayed as an undaunted woman chooses to ignore her mother and falls for Demetrius. Both Mina and Demetrius bear the brunt of racism when Demetrius’s family subtly indicate their dislike of Indians and Demetrius too faces the same barb when Jay, Mina’s father insults him for his African origins.
Mina and Demetrius land up in a cloak-and-dagger affair and get caught during their love making by some of Mina’s relatives who too were holidaying in Biloxi. They become the butt of ridicule, and land up misunderstanding each other but finally patch up and flee in Demetrius’ carpet cleaning van, ignoring their families.
The film ends with Jay visiting Kampala for the court proceedings on his seized property and is seen playing with an African baby while back at Mississippi Kinnu stares out of the window smiling at the sky. Mississippi Masala is yet another unconventional bold movie of Nair with an R rating since it included sex, nudity and explicit language. Denzel Washington won the NAACP Image award for outstanding Actor in Motion Picture.
There are several other movies which Nair and her production company featured and released for the mainstream audience which were either feminist or were indie movies.
Born to an IAS officer and a social worker, Nair always loved English literature but settled for a degree in Sociology from Miranda House, University of Delhi. She had a brief acting career which is when she realized that film making was her true calling. She is currently settled in New York City with her second husband Mahmood Mamdani and son Zohran. She is also an activist and on a political front she turned down the invitation as a Guest of honor for the Hafia International Film Festival as a mark of protest against Israel’s policies towards Palestine.
When asked by Kanika Katyal at Youth ki Awaaz about when film making becomes a political act she said that she thinks of filmmaking a political act, that it doesn’t ‘become’ one, “It begins from the inception – What do you have to say about the world in your film? What is your point of view? Where are you looking at the world from? What are you choosing to say or show? I feel so firmly that if we don’t tell our own story, no one will tell them (for us).”
When asked about her banned movie Kama Sutra in India she further says, “It is heartening to see that the multiple facets of love are being received in a way that is not twisted or even coquettish. That is what I was trying to do also in ‘Kama Sutra […]. It was not a manual of what it’s reduced to often – being considered as a pop up of all kinds of sexual positions. It was so far from that. It was an analysis of sexual and social mores. I am heartened by what is happening to some extent and the openness. But it has come with a lot of struggle, discrimination and even day to day violence against those who are not seen as what society considers conventional. So it is a struggle that continues to be fought and needs to be fought.”
Mirabai films ventures into controversial subjects that other directors tend to be cautious about, for example Reluctant Fundamentalist a political thriller that spoke about the aftermath of 9/11 on a Pakistani youth; Monsoon wedding discussed extramarital affairs, and child sexual abuse; Indian Cabaret the last documentary by Nair spoke from the point of view of two strip dancers who were unapologetic about their profession and refuse to settle for a man.
In Nair’s words, “Never treat anything you do as a stepping stone, do it fully and follow it completely”. That is what all we should be doing. We should dare to dream big, and take the road less travelled. On a lighter note she says that making feature films is about having absolute and foolish confidence. The challenge for all of us she says is to have a heart of a poet and the skin of an elephant. But it’s that foolish confidence and challenge which fetched Nair several awards and accolades, including the Lilian Gish Award, Critics special Award, Laterna Magica Prize, UNESCO award and last but not the least, the Padma Bhushan conferred by our erstwhile president Pratibha Patil.
We are all story tellers and artists in our own way. To conclude this essay, I say that let’s not follow the stereotypes imposed by our society, doing halfheartedly what we don’t like; instead let us all take inspiration from this feminist film maker Mira Nair. She has proved with her fearless films that all you need is courage and the passion to follow your true calling. There will be rejections, failures, but on the other side of thriving is not quitting – all you need to have is faith.
Being BOLD doesn’t mean you need to be rude or egoistic but all about having compassion, courage, taking the road less travelled and creating a niche for yourself. Let us be proud of the fact that we indeed have within us a compassionate and humble film maker, whose movies speak of struggles and scars and touch a billion hearts, movies that have ignited us both emotionally and visually.
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