Nair, Mira: Director Profile–Early Career

Mira Nair belongs to a rising generation of women who are not necessarily making “women’s films,” but still reflect female sensibility in their work. Indian-born and Harvard-educated, Nair is attracted to outsiders living on the margins of society, yearning to establish a “home.” Her debut, Salaam Bombay, which won the 1988 Cannes Camera d’Or, is a powerful expose of homeless children. For her second film, Mississippi Masala, Nair chose a spicy interracial romance in the Deep South. The Perez Family chronicles the entangled lives of Cuban immigrants as they try to forge new existence in Miami.

Nair grew up in a small town in the Indian state of Orissa, where she later worked as an actress. In 1976, she went to Harvard as an undergraduate and discovered filmmaking, which led to a number of documentaries dealing with Indian society. Her short, India Cabaret (l985), a portrait of strippers in a Bombay nightclub, won international recognition.

Salaam Bombay!

Galvanizing critics, Salaam Bombay! was a harrowing account of one boy’s life among Bombay’s thieves, prostitutes and drug dealers. Inspired by a host of classic children pictures, including Vittorio De Sica’ Shoeshine, Hector Babenco’s Pixote, and the early work of her compatriot Satyajit Ray, the film drew its intensity and color from its locale, the slums of Bombay. Despite its documentary feel, Salaam Bombay! was a slicker and more poised film than Nair’s next effort, Mississippi Masala.

Mississippi Masala

Staying away from Hollywood, Nair travels the world to raise money for her films. Mississippi Masala was made for $7 million, financed by British TV’s Channel 4 and other sources. More original than Salaam Bombay!, the film introduced a new subject, the transplanted Indian population in the South, contributing to the relevant issue of what is home.

The story begins in Uganda, in 1972, when the monstrous Idi Amin expelled Indians from the country. Jay (Roshan Seth), a prominent lawyer in Uganda, his wife Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore) and daughter Mina (Sarita Choudhury)and are forced to leave. Jay is told by his black nationalist friend: “Africa is for Africans.” His loss is visually accentuated by the lushness of the African countryside and the vibrancy of its colors–a staple of Nair’s work.

Eighteen years later, Jay and his family are trapped in a deadend roadside motel business in the Deep South. The Indian enclave get along with their black neighbors, but from afar, looking down on them. The two communities are linked–both are dislocated, both cling to their past, both search for a future, both are mistreated by white America, and members in each group long to go back to Africa. Yet the two groups are unaware of their similarities, seeing only their differences.

A furor erupts when Mina falls in love with Demetrius (Denzel Washington), a black who runs a carpet-cleaning business. Their romance becomes the film’s Romeo and Juliet centerpiece, overshadowing the more interesting context. Indeed, Nair neglects broader issues–there’s no real sense of how the exiled Indians mix with each other or with the black community. Nair also lacks the skills to tell a hot-spiced romance (masala is an Indian word for a mix of hot spices), though despite awkward mise-en-scene, the film remains engaging due to its subject matter.

When the affair is disclosed, it challenges the biases and prejudices of both Indian and black communities; up until then, the Indians co-existed in superficial harmony with the blacks. Nair, however, doesn’t deal with an obvious irony: Many Indians grew up in Uganda and had no contact with India but they still identify themselves as Indian. In Mississippi, they are exiles twice removed–their exile from a homeland they never really knew should connect them to the black people. Yet a color-caste system is evident: Lighter-skinned than the blacks, the Indians abhor the notion of interracial romance. Jay’s resentment of Demetrius goes back to a painful split from his best friend in Uganda. It takes one more visit for Jay to finally release himself from inner exile.

Unlike Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, which also dealt with interracial romance, Nair’s treatment is non-judgmental, taking neither a moral ground nor faulting any group with racism. The soundtrack, a mixture of African, Indian and blues music, reinforces the film’s title and themes. Released at a time when national boundaries in Europe and other regions were falling apart and the definition of home changing, Mississippi Masala was a timely movie about displacement, distorted memories, and frail identities. Nair seems to imply that, despite separatism, the U.S. still remains one of the few societies where different races can really co-exist.

The Perez Family

Search for a new home also informs Nair’s The Perez Family (1995), a movie burdened with an unconvincing ensemble, unable to elevate a serio-comic exploration of Cuban immigrants. For two decades, Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina) has endured hard prison life, dreaming about reuniting in Miami with his wife Carmela (Anjelica Huston) and their daughter. When freedom materializes, Juan jumps on a boat, glancing rhapsodically across a glistening blue ocean that separates him from the promised land. On the boat, he meets Dottie Perez (Marisa Tomei), a spunky, free-spirited prostitute (“I’m like Cuba, used by many, conquered by no one”), who has already absorbed the icons of American pop culture: Rock ‘n roll, Elvis Presley, John Wayne.

The immigration authorities erroneously document Juan and Dottie as a married couple as they share the same surname. On the other side of town, Carmela’s anticipation to meet her husband turns to disappointment on her mistaken belief that he hasn’t made it. The sprawling tale depicts how Juan and Carmela deal with first abandonment, then adjustment to a new way of life. With half of the cast overacting and the other underacting, The Perez Family was a messy picture with no dramatic core. The tone changes from scene to scene, as does the quality of writing and acting. Casting a soft gaze, Nair tries to be poignant, but misses the mark: The individual stories don’t cohere into something larger and more meaningful. The movie also suffered from unfavorable comparisons with Gregory Nava’s similarly-themed but more enjoyable My Family, then in release.

Kama Sutra

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1997), demonstrates again her sharp eye for composition and color. On-location shooting, lushly lensed by Declan Quinn, gives the picture an exotic pull, but it also reaffirms Nair’s insensitivity to narrative credibility. Princess Tara and her servant Maya grow up together, but as adults, Tara (Sarita Choudhury) keeps Maya (Indira Varma) in her place. In revenge for her humiliation, Maya seduces local king Jai on the eve of his marriage to Tara. Branded a whore, Maya is forced to wander around until she is rescued by a sculptor. After a brief affair, he lets her go, and she decides to become an artist by studying the Kama Sutra with the court’s former courtesan.

The explicit sex was toned down by Trimark, which released the movie without an MPAA rating. With its spectacular locales, lavish costumes, lush score and beautiful stars, Kama Sutra is sensual rather than erotic. Nair and co-writer Helena Kriel overlay a feminist sensibility on what’s basically campy material. Disguised as a story of female empowerment, the film fails as softcore fantasy as well as melodrama about sexual politics in India of the 16th century. The modern notion of empowerment through sex, combined with contrived plotting, eroded the logic of the historic narrative.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, hardcover 2000; paperback 2001).