This article is part of the argument set out in Diaspora Cinema and globalisation.
Mira Nair was born in India, but had studied documentary in the USA. She made several short documentaries, which dealt both with India and with the diaspora in the USA. Her first feature, Salaam Bombay! (1988), was jointly funded by the National Film Development Corporation of India in conjunction with Doordarshan (the State-owner Indian Television Network), Channel 4, and supported by grants from the Pinewood and
and Rockefeller Foundations. Mira Nair started the film’s Production Company, Mirabai, Films Inc. Since its inception, Mirabai Films Inc. has produced the following of Nair’s films, Mississippi Masala, The Prez family, Kama Sutra, My Own Country, The laughing Club of India and Monsoon Wedding. Salaam Bombay won the prestigious Camera D’Or and Prix du Publique at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.
Salaam Bombay! tells a fictional story, the experiences of a young boy, Krishna, in the slums of Bombay. Parts of the film are quite melodramatic in a manner not that distant from mainstream Hindi cinema. Thus, the narrative involves Krishna in the fate of women caught up in prostitution. One is Rekha, mistress to a district drug baron, Baba. Her daughter Manju is one of Krishna’s earliest slum playmates. The other child/woman is Solasaal known as ‘Sweet Sixteen’, a Nepalese virgin being groomed for sale. Their dramatic situations and fate are important in the narrative.
Other parts of the film are much closer to western docu-drama, as the audience is invited to follow an observational camera. This is especially true of Krishna’s involvement with a group of street boys, who sell, barter, and occasionally steal to survive in the slums. The theft leads to Krishna being placed in a children’s remand centre. The Remand Centre, like the brothel used in the film, was an actual one in Bombay. And in a similar fashion most of the street boys were actual street children from the city. Mira Nair used a workshop approach to develop the children’s performances in the film. Scenes, such as the occasion when the boys act as waiters and helpers at a sumptuous wedding reception, emphasise the poverty, hardship and the social chasm of their situation. The final credits carry a dedication to the street children of Bombay. These aspects of the film stress the sense of presenting and commenting on an actual world of deprivation and exploitation.
The film’s climax is more dramatic, using conventional scenes familiar from mainstream film stories. Krishna escapes from the remand centre and returns to find Sweet Sixteen, now fully trained, being despatched to a customer. Rekha has lost her daughter, who has been placed in a female remand centre. She decides to leave Baba, and when he attempts to stop her, Krishna knifes him. Rekha and Krishna are parted and she is lost in a surging street crowd. The film ends on a close-up of Krishna, alone and presumably fated, a shot that echoes The 400 Blows.
Mira Nair’s film, Monsoon Wedding, won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. It has been a crossover hit in India, in Europe and the US in both Art House Theatres and in Multiplexes. The script was written by a student Mira Nair met on a Columbia University Masterclass in Film Direction that she taught. The cast mixed established film actors, pop stars and non-professionals, and Nair once again used workshop methods to develop their acting.
If the railway is a central motif in Salaam Bombay! then Monsoon Wedding is very much set on the other side of the track. The celebration is that of an upper middle class Delhi family. The wedding and its preparations take up the whole of the narrative. Nair and her production team created a world of vivid colour for this ritual. They use some conventions of Hindi
popular film music to good effect, whilst avoiding the mere recreation of masala musical numbers. And the complex web of characters and relations in the film is filled out with vivid detail.
The Vermas are preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter, Aditi. The bridegroom to be is Hemant, a young engineer from Huston. Aditi, who has already enjoyed an affair at the TV studio where she works, is uneasy about this arranged marriage. The celebrations are truly global, including relatives from the USA, Gulf and Australia. Among these is an affluent brother-in-law, Tej, who helps Lalit financially, and who is contributing to the costs of the forthcoming wedding. In the past he made abusive advances to Lalit’s nice Ria. Now adult, Ria’s lack of involvement in men would appear to result from this early trauma and the more recent death of her own father. She observes what appears to be a repetition of her own experience in Tej’s interest in the 10 year old Aliya.
These tensions and contradictions are resolved when Aditi confesses her affair to her fiancé. Initially angry, Hemant accepts her regrets and an arranged marriage becomes a love match. Ria exposes Tej’s paedophile proclivities and Lalit, despite the financial consequences this will involve, orders him to leave the ceremony. The wedding proceeds as the Monsoon breaks. The final reception shows the Verma family celebrating as the rains fall.
Unlike Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding offers little sight or sound of the poor and dispossessed of the great city. The plot does include a romantic interest between the maid Alice and Dubey, the contractor organising the wedding preparations. Dubey lives in the slum area of the city. But his appearances in the film are mostly restricted to his official and unofficial activities at the Verma house. The one sequence in his own house follows a setback in his wooing of Alice. While he is disconsolate, his mother discusses whether or not to sell their shares. He and Alice form a second wedding couple at the film’s end. But their future would seem to be on the Verma’s side of the track.
Even when the family go shopping in the central urban area, they (and we) glide past the rich mix of classes, urban bustle and slum poverty in a series of tracks and pans. Our focus is firmly on the upper side of the track. And whilst Lalit has to make a difficult decision regarding his wealthier but more corrupt brother-in-law, it no way matches the stark choices faced by Krishna and Rekha in Salaam Bombay!
The feminist perspective is stronger in this later film than in Bend It Like Beckham, As with Salaam Bombay! The narrative centres on the sexual exploitation of women. Young Aliya is saved from a fate parallel to that of Solasaal. In some ways, Ria’s actions in facing up to Tej’s oppressive behaviour play a narrative role similar to Rekha’s. But this safely constrained with a world that remains patriarchal. The film parallels Bend It Like Beckham in the actions of the father. He is crucial in overcoming the central problem, in this case faced by Ria. A key moment is when Lalit embraces Ria, acting as substitute father, with that familiar phrase, ‘let’s go home.’ And in similar fashion this film manages to combine the tradition of arranging marriages with the more western notion of a love match.
Monsoon Wedding does offer something for its women characters. There are a number of important scenes for female bonding and female support. More so than in the UK film. Monsoon Wedding’s complex narrative is closer to that of Art Cinema and offers space for multiple strands. Bend it Like Beckham clearly follows that familiar to multiplex audiences, clearly linear and tightly focused on the actions of the heroine. But Monsoon Wedding still creates a world of the family that is to a great degree divorced from the social network and the city. In some ways the characters and their actions are more influenced by the impact of the relatives from abroad, especially the USA, than by local forces. Indeed, Hemant and Aditi intend to make their new life in the USA.
In terms of her career Mira Nair has been more successful than Gurinder Chadha has been. She has made a number of mainstream films involving Hollywood money and stars. She has also more films to her credit. More recently she has directed several literary adaptations. There was Vanity Fair (2004), a major production with stars like Reese Witherspoon and Gabriel Byrne. Then there was The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013), a film I thought fairly reactionary in its treatment of the neo-colonial situation in Afghanistan. All these films are resolutely mainstream offerings: they still offer some strands reminiscent of the films and cultures of Asia, but their values are resolutely Western. The exception is 11’ 09’ 01 / September 11 (2002), Alain Brigand’s portmanteau film which offers a response to the general run of media coverage of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Like the other films in this compilation Nair’s contribution critiques the chauvinist and at time xenophobic focus of mainstream films However, this is an independent which offers a different approach both in style and content. It also has a different sense of the Diaspora from dominant cinema