Zsanett Varga is graduate student at the Department of American Studies, Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Her research interests include gender and film studies with special focus on experimental and independent American cinema. Email:
Abstract: The article analyses the ways in which Nair first focuses on the notions of authenticity, tradition and nostalgia that shift from her initial films into Nair’s feature length films. Nostalgia together with the aspect of the displaced home is pivotal for the director’s diasporic cinema. The article focuses on The Namesake (2006) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), as well as on earlier Nair movies such as the Mississippi Masala (1991) and Salaam Bombay! (1989).
Keywords: Mira Nair, diaspora, identity, film, woman director, displacement, masala, nostalgia, the Other, Indian and Western filmic traditions
1. Cinematic Text(s) and Context(s) of Mira Nair’s Works
Mira Nair’s films create a variety of stories that focus on identity changes while simultaneously revealing “the complexity of South Asian Diasporic cultural production.” Even though her films depict different contexts, there is a common theme that is in the focus in her works, which gravitates around issues concerning “authenticity, tradition, nostalgia, and home” (Chakraborty 2014, 610). These issues, looked at from the perspective of various characters and the implications of each aspect, will be investigated in the following through the respective journeys of various characters. Firstly, I will discuss the concept of diasporic and exilic cinema by focusing on the South Asian diaspora. Then, I will focus on Nair’s early documentary films to provide context for my main focus, which are the director’s four major feature films. My aim is to show how the diasporic representation in Nair’s movies differs from that of those found in the Western mainstream cinema(s). On one hand, the focus of the discussion will be on the manifestation of the experiences brought from the Indian cinematic tradition; on the other hand, I will elaborate on how these appear as an amalgamation of the director’s experiences gained in the United States.
The focus of Nair’s films is placed upon diasporic displaced people who end up in a marginal position after having had to relocate either because of better chances improving their lives or because of political reasons. I am going to show a case of the former through the examples of The Namesake (2006) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), and the latter, through Mississippi Masala (1991). I will also analyze Salaam Bombay! (1989) which is important in Nair’s oeuvre not only because of the critical acclaim it received but also because it was her first feature length movie signaling her breakaway from documentaries. The examination of cinematic and narrative elements applied in her films about the so-called ‘Other’ cultures—which are not necessarily known to most of the Western part of the world—show a certain “Western lack of sets of ideals and knowledge, and yet are so specific and local” that they become universal because “the message is clear regardless of where the person is from” (Walters, 2006).
There are certain departures from reality in Nair’s works, which are evident on screen through the plasticity of the cinematic visualization different from the forms of documentary realism. This comes from the fact that Nair majored in visual studies and started her filmic carrier with several documentaries. Some of these, for instance in the case of India Cabaret (1985), were made so that Nair would just set the camera down, “make sure that there was a trust established” between her subjects and herself and rather “leaving the narrative to come alive in the editing room rather than in the process of shooting it” (Gopinath 2007). This is where the authenticity of stories comes from as it was neither a presupposed nor an expected outcome that had to be attained by the time the filming process ended. This creative approach of formulating narratives remained with Nair after breaking away from the documentary tradition when she started working on feature length films.
This break was mainly influenced by the question of audience. As Nair explains, her films have started out to be shown in a variety of different national contexts, and since her very first premiere, these films only widened their audiences. In Nair’s visual narratives there is always a cultural specificity presented in such a way that it “becomes universal through the individual truths” it unveils (Manjapra 2016). As a South-Asian born, American diasporic filmmaker, Nair’s visual portrayal of her subjects was, in large part, in her early works that were characterized by her lack of experience with the Indian cinematic tradition but which only helped her filmic aspirations in the United States, as “the great burden of having to overcome previous influences was never there” (Manjapra 2016). Consequently, the influence of Indian cinema protruded in later in Nair’s works while she was studying at Harvard. Even though Nair commented on the element of universality in her films, the terms “universal” and “global” are present interchangeably in her works. In this sense, Watson quotes Nair by saying that “you have to be terribly local to be global” (Watson 2011, 242). And this approach is what makes Nair’s exilic cinema stand out.
In her visual narratives there is a focused attention on the specific individual which stands unapologetically against any dominant, mainstream representations of marginalized peoples. Ethirajan Anbarasan and Amy Otchet’s interview with Nair entitled “Mira Nair: An eye for paradox” (1998) provides an interesting insight into the director’s artistic aim, with “films [that] seem fired by a strong sense of social justice.” Here Nair elaborates her objective by stating that her “agenda” is “to resist the cultural imperialism of Hollywood by putting people like ourselves on screen.” Furthermore, this discussion notes the importance of Nair’s “eye for a paradox,” unveiling not what her films are about but what there are not about, by focusing on the importance of “cultural specificity” behind the stories she tells (Anbarasan and Otchet 1998, 46).
Elaborating on the culturally specific approach applied in Nair’s films, Deepika Bahri depicts the ways in which Nair’s narratives steer away from stereotyped versions that are overflowing representations seen in mainstream cinema. Bahri analyzes Nair’s The Namesake, and states that the director’s “capacity to imbue […] clichéd staples with the depth and ambiguity they deserve but rarely command” produce films that are “a somberly meditative trilogy on the tussle between the noise and music of globalization, and the losses and gains of migration” (Bahri 2007, 10). Adrian M. Athique, who offers a well-rounded argument on the positioning of various cinemas on a global scale where the case of Nair’s films is exceptionally pivotal with the amalgamation of various cinematic traditions, says that
[f]or much of the twentieth century, there was a widespread, and quite remarkable, consensus concerning the practice of positioning the cinemas of the world as primarily national, indigenous institutions neatly arranged in a hub-and-spoke relationship with an ‘international’ Hollywood industry. (Athique 2013, 107)
Furthering this argument, Athique states that “national monopolies over cultural authenticity have been effectively challenged by the various phenomena associated with globalization” which, regarding the very nature of diasporic cinema affects both its production and distribution simultaneously, as it is being positioned based on these factors (Athique 2013, 108). With films as global cultural productions, “imports make up the bulk of media content and where media systems interface with a wide range of transnational territories,” which is inevitable in the case of diasporic or exilic films. Athique here separates two distinctive contexts: the “resident” and “nonresident” categories are used to refer to the “different readings in different places” and to emphasize that these “could not be reduced to the nationality of their audience” while “it is nonresident experiences of media consumption that are the most common.” However, these do not refer to mutually exclusive audiences because “nonresident media inevitably cohabit with resident” media formations in our everyday experience (Athique 2013, 118).
For a more specific look at the context of Nair’s films, Hamish Trivedi’s “From Bollywood to Hollywood: The Globalization of Hindi Cinema” (2008) whittles down the global scale of postcolonial diasporic cinema and the issues regarding audience and reception. In doing so, Trivedi provides a somewhat misguided but to some extent adequate insight into the state of globalized cinematic experience by noting that “there was always […] a great gap between the lives that the viewers themselves led and the lives of the characters they saw depicted on the cinema screen,” and emphasizes that when it comes to Hindi films they have “always had an element of glamour and fantasy unlike the realism of Hollywood films” (Trivedi 2008, 205). I will argue in this paper that such statements—that have been proven to be rather problematic—are the ones that neglect to realize the impact of filmmakers as Nair, who focus on the individual while striving for authenticity to create specific worlds in their films. These worlds, though permanently affected by changing political and geographical boundaries, are not nationality specific and hence the element of universality in them. Furthermore, it is not the “realism of Hollywood” that Nair disregards and works against with her approach but, on the contrary, her aim is to deconstruct stereotyped representations of non-white people. The resulting production’s “cultural effect,” which “is an inextricable blend of the cultural and the economic” produces the novelty of Nair’s films as only a “[f]ew cultural phenomena could illustrate th[e] nexus between the cultural and the economic, the postcolonial and the global, better than some recent developments in Hindi Cinema” (Trivedi 2008, 200).
Madhurima Chakraborty in the “Adaptation and the Shifting Allegiances of the Indian Diaspora” (2014) notes that in recent diaspora studies the issue of paying attention to differences that exist “between and within diasporas” has resurfaced reorienting the ways in which these issues are currently regarded. The shift in conceptual understanding led scholars to now “emphasize the importance of examining how diaspora is inflected by race, class, gender, ethnicity, cause, and nature of migration” (Chakraborty 2014, 611). This is reflected also in Nair’s films through multi layered, displaced characters with a “focus on the relief and comfort to be found in rootedness” that simultaneously reveals “the complexity of South Asian diasporic cultural production.” However, Chakraborty also adds that “discussions regarding authenticity, tradition, nostalgia, and home persist but are unresolved in the diasporic imagination” which provides the basis for Nair’s characters never-ending quest not only for their rootedness but also for a state-of-mind where the various aspects would make up a harmonious whole which is void of the dualities that come with the displaced identity (Chakraborty 2014, 610).
Along with the previous works, Hamid Naficy’s An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (2001), provides a detailed overview of the filmmaking of displaced people and of their experiences in the West manifested in their works and argues for stylistic similarities in films that depict such experiences. His term, that of the “accented cinema,” refers to diasporic films and points toward a cinematic tradition that is “not monolithic, cohesive, centralized, or hierarchized.” It shows a simultaneously global and local concept that depicts a cinema that exists in “chaotic semiautonomous pockets in symbiosis with the dominant and other alternative cinemas.” Naficy also takes into consideration the theoretical issue that arises when the task of categorization arises and notes that “[b]y forcing accented films into one of the established categories, the very cultural and political foundations that constitute them are bracketed, misread, or effaced altogether” (Naficy 2001, 19). In this context, Nair’s works “have made the move with varying degrees of success out of ethnic or Third World filmmaking and into mainstream cinema by telling their ethnic and national stories in more recognizable narrative forms” proves essential to my thesis (Naficy 2001, 20). Similar to Naficy, Subeshini Moodley, referring to the idea of the accented cinema argues that “diasporic and exilic filmmakers seem to exhibit specific similarities—at levels of technique, style, aesthetics and ideology—in the production of their films.” This is a striking feature of Nair’s films. Furthermore, Moodley positions accented cinema in opposition to mainstream movies by arguing that “if dominant cinema (read: Hollywood) is considered to be universal (and thereby lacking accent), diasporic and exilic films are accented” which comes from the filmmakers themselves being displaced (Moodley 2003, 66). Moodley also notes that the displaced status of the filmmakers creates a “political space” that represents “people sharing their ethnicity.” Moreover, the idea that “accented filmmakers speak on behalf of the people in or from their countries, as directors, through the depiction of these people” is ferociously rejected also by Nair (Moodley 2003, 72) in her works.
In the panel discussion facilitated by Tufts University titled "’Between Two Worlds’, A Conversation with Mira Nair,” conducted by Kris Manjapra and Kamran Rastegar (2016), Nair observed that South Asian arts are “very distinctive in ways such as having multiple sensibilities, tastes, and forms that are meant to play together.” And in many ways, as Nair explains, that play is what is in the center, and that becomes the pivotal point of reference providing a distinctive point that ultimately differentiates that film from its Western counterparts because “somehow in these art works something more happens through the combination and variation of these elements and themes.” And so, this is how her cinematic vision becomes a fusion, an amalgamation of the Western and Indian traditions.
2. Accented Forerunners: Nair’s Documentaries
After having won a scholarship to Harvard, Nair started her career in the United States as a Drama major in Cambridge, MA. Finishing her freshman year, Lahr (2002) notes, she “headed to New York to explore the theatrical avant-garde.” There, she worked in the Living Theater only to soon realize that the stage was not meant for her. Upon her return to Cambridge, she got accepted to the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies based on her “impressive” portfolio of photographs she had submitted. Nair’s time spent on photography intrigued her as she found that an “image holds a kind of symbolic possibility.” The realization of this possibility, together with the understanding of “how, in framing the environment, you would artfully talk to the audience about how to see that picture, how to see the world” as Nair explains, lead her to leave photography behind and take on film instead. Nair started out her filmic career in the genre of “cinema-vérité documentary” which was “almost unknown in India at the time” but it was the time when she “learned the art of narrative and of creating a kind of drama through editing” (Lahr 2002).
Nair’s documentaries, Jama Masjid Street Journal (1979), So Far from India (1983), India Cabaret (1985), Children of a Desired Sex (1987) present an India that is “virtually absent in commercial films” by investigating the “interior lives of her subjects” the lives of whom “resonate contemporary, often universal, and always difficult, immediate concerns” (Shah 1987, 22). The visual and narrative solutions employed in these films not only set out her approach in conveying her view on film but it also prevailed and is a fundamental element in her more contemporary work, as well. A common characteristic theme in all of her films can be seen in “Nair’s refusal to make a film that is a didactic treatise, a lecture on attitudes, ironing out the complexities of human personalities,” and her focus “on people who are disenfranchised, anonymous, voiceless—people who are frequently appear on film as anthropological specimens, pawns of filmmaker’s attitudes, reinforcing predetermined perceptions” (Shah 1987, 23). Dixon (2008) refers to Nair as “the most influential Indian” director and notes that the early documentaries of Nair’s were already made with a culturally self-conscious specificity. Jama Masjid Street Journal (1979) documents the cultural life of India, and So Far from India (1983) takes on, at an early stage in Nair’s career, the diasporic displaced experience. Her depiction of an Indian man working in New York to be able to support his pregnant wife back in India, who anxiously awaits his return, earned Nair the “Best Documentary” prize at the “American Film Festival and New York’s Global Village Film Festival” (Trivedi 2008, 208). In India Cabaret (1985), with the depiction of the lives of female dancers in an Indian nightclub, Nair focuses on gender inequality and turns to the issue of societal exile instead of a diasporic one. She explores the stereotypes women face in India, the way in which they are viewed in society and also reflects on the double standard of respectability which adds a layer of universality to this project as well, despite it not being a feature film. Another factor that makes this particular documentary stand out, is that it introduces one of the central themes in Nair’s films, which, as Shah puts it, is the exploration of the “underlying hypocrisy of values toward women.” By doing so, what appears in Nair’s film(s) is the direct opposite of presupposed and prescribed images circulating in society, and particularly in her documentaries she gives some of the social “struggles a structure, an awareness and a voice (Shah 1987, 23).
As Lahr notes, the “nonprofit-documentary life” made Nair reconsider both financial and ideological aspects of filmmaking. On the one hand, given the differences between the production and distribution of documentaries and feature films, Nair found herself in “a constant battle to find money, followed by a constant battle to find an audience.” On the other hand, the question regarding the kind of representation Nair had envisioned arose, and she made the decision that “instead of waiting for the truth in hit-and-run documentary fashion” she would rather “organize it in a fictional way,” which eventually turned her toward making feature length films (Lahr, 2002).
2.1. From Documentary to Feature Length
Adrian Athique (2013) argues that “feature films have long been assumed to have a transformative impact on the cultural identity, behaviors, and beliefs of their ‘domestic’ viewers.” In transnational filmmaking the emphasis on what these cultural products have to “offer to ‘nondomestic’ viewers” has been questioned and, as Athique notes, it indeed “has tended to be positioned negatively as a mechanism of counter indoctrination or cultural imperialism” (Athique 2013, 107).
In Nair’s films, where Indian and Western traditions are fused, the end product is “multiculturalism” which is not merely “a rhetorical project, however, since it also constructs and naturalizes a market with both internal and external aspects” (Athique 2013, 111). Moreover, Athique also points out how scholarly interests in regards to national cinema had the “tendency to assert various ‘reflective’ and ‘effective’ attributes of feature films as social objects.” Consequently, it is argued that
the “reflective” component of the national cinema paradigm rested on the claim that a film can represent the producing nation. In this light, films were seen as naturalistically indicative of a nationally specific aesthetic and, by extension, as presenting a literal framing of the cultural identity, behaviors, and beliefs of the producing society. The parallel claim of an “effective” component of national cinema related instead to the identification of the cinema as a socializing force with a degree of persuasive power. Here, the film medium was granted a role as a nation builder, with this claim resting specifically on the purported community-building effects they exerted on citizens watching “national” films. (Athique 2013, 107)
Resident audiences, inevitably, are groups shaped by geographic and political territories, while the term “nonresident” refers more to the various “conditions of reception that fall outside of [the] viewing position.” Moreover, Athique’s “resident/nonresident distinction” adequately “emphasize[s] that films engender different readings in different places, and that these differences could not be reduced to the nationality of their audiences” (Athique 2013, 118).
Nair’s work, starting with her early documentaries, and the tendency starching on to her more recent feature films, shows a direct interest in populism which has persisted throughout her carrier. The main aim behind breaking away from documentary film making was to have a bigger audience and with that, being able to influence social change that much widely, as Nair noted, with an “intention” that “has to be clear and everything has to propel the plot forward” (Manjapra, 2016). Nair’s career started with the aim of pushing boundaries with early documentaries, as she did, for instance in India Cabaret (1985), which was an intimate portrayal of Indian strippers which certainly shook things up in India at the time.
Turning to feature films Nair was able to use her artistry with her “strong sense of social injustice” in the focus (Anbarasan 1998, 46). This focus is turned toward the examination of relationships, which are shown in order to take a look at “different facets of the game” Nair says (Gopinath 2007). Nair describes her own approach as “slightly in a homemade Bollywood style but it is very alternative” to the way in which a commercial Indian film is made. There is also an “experimental element” to it when people from different cultures come together to play roles in the film, and in Nair’s case it is often a wide scale that ranges from acclaimed actors, to Nair’s family members (Manjapra, 2016). Furthermore, this experimental element comes through on screen by the fluidity of the films which is achieved by the application of “hand-held cameras that results in a feeling for the audience” as if they were right there, in the story on screen (Lahr 2002). The end product is a synthesis of the new and modern, and the old, and traditional India. Novelty lays in the fact that Indian life in its complexity with elements of modernity are rarely if ever are shown in mainstream productions. Except for in Nair’s films.
3. Mira Nair’s Diasporic Cinema
3.1. Salaam Bombay! (1988)
In Nair’s first feature film about street children in Bombay, that “illustrates the problematic of the collective identity and the politics of location of an insider who makes films about the insider’s own native culture from a position of exile,” street life itself poses as a multilayered symbol (Naficy 2001, 68). On the one hand, it serves as a metaphor for the authority of the state, on the other hand, the film provides a sort of glimpse, an introduction into diaspora life. Salaam Bombay!, in a sense, frames Nair’s later works, as this first feature serves as a prequel to the various depictions of displacement; the issue of which is investigated in her later works through the characters’ journeys.
Aldama (2009) argues that the ways in which Nair’s stories are shaped is such that a “rich texture” is added to the “particularities of place and time as well as appeal to audiences of all sorts” (Aldama 2009, 91). This particular particularity can be seen in how Nair’s attitude toward filmmaking changed with the shift from documentary to feature films. The focus is turned to the amalgam of “the extraordinariness of ordinary life” (Manjapra, 2016). Salaam Bombay!, Nair’s Academy Award nominated debut feature, that made its world premiere at the closing gala at Cannes (Lahr 2002), was inspired by the lack of self-pity, the resilience and flamboyance of the street children in the area that Nair had previously lived nearby. The aim, as Nair explains, was not to make a “hit and run movie which is what a life of a street kid is like” but to make a film with “finesse” and having more control over the “lights, the gestures, the tale itself.” Elaborating further on her intent, “my idea,” Nair says, for Salaam Bombay! was to “amalgamate” the “inexplicability of everyday life that we have in documentary” with "gesture, drama, and the controlled situation that we have in fiction” (Manjapra, 2016). This was the first film after Nair’s documentary period, so in this early feature the forms are mixed. The film was researched and considered as a documentary in the preparatory phase but then, after the material that was gained from research having “lived for four months with the street kids” the screenplay was written, and production began with “two months of workshop” with the children. And this is where the break from the documentary tradition occurred because even though the film was shot on real location and children from the streets were selected to play roles in the film it was set up, scenes were broken down. This is how the story “became fiction” but one with the “foressence of the street, using the great locations […] where things really happened” (Manjapra, 2016).
Her films express political and social commentary which functions as a premise in many of them, like in the case of Salaam Bombay!. Made as not a documentary, as Nair broke away with that tradition and got into making feature-length, fiction movies. The aim, here, was to generate awareness, give voice to those members of society who are pushed to margins and are looked over, and to have an impact on the lives of street children and bringing about social change. As Lahr notes, even though Nair does not “make political films, […] she does make her films politically” (Lahr 2002). Cardullo (1989) notes that the shift from documentary to feature is most visible in Salaam, not only because of the obvious (this one being Nair’s first feature) but also, considering what is visible here in this film. It is a technically similar goal to that of a documentary with a relative difference in execution. This aim is to “improve the lives of the poor and especially of poor children” through the added “fictional impulses” (Cardullo 1989, 290). With this combination of social critique and commentary, Nair makes “use of popular film as a unit of comparison” in order to make use of the possibilities offered by the “medium to create and disseminate cultural capital to vast audiences” (Epstein 1999, 375). Despite Nair being a diasporic filmmaker, her themes are noticeably put to screen in such a way that they end up resonating with diverse audiences because of their universality. In Salaam, this universality comes less from the characters and more from the topic itself. Social injustice is inarguably present in all parts of the world, and “the existence of street children as an international phenomenon is symbolic of our postmodern age” (Epstein 1999, 377). By this, I do not mean that the characters are neglected over the topic. On the contrary, as “cinematographic decisions” employed by Nair regarding the ways in which the characters’ bodies move are executed in such a way that they “help guide the filmgoer to grasp the narrative in certain ways.” However, when such topic is approached from a filmic perspective, especially as a first attempt at breaking away from a genre, Salaam could have easily ended up being an over-stylized, sentimental piece of cinema. As Aldama notes, there is a clear “presence of Nair’s will to style” which allows for all the elements of the film being integrated into “a non-sentimentalist aesthetic whole.” The way in which this appears on screen is through a “sequence of differently timed shots, lens length, angles and postproduction editing” with a particular focus on the characters’ movement within the frame (Aldama 2009, 93).
Even as a debut feature film, Salaam is teeming with symbolism in order to produce a multilayered narrative. Firstly, the setting, the streets of Bombay where the neglected children live, serves as, predominantly, a “metaphor for the way in which state expresses its authority” (Epstein 1999, 375). Furthermore, as Epstein notes, the street is used not only as a metaphor for state authority but it also works on multiple levels, for
the absent state, countenancing hedonism and social nihilism; the overtly coercive and repressive state, where domination and exploitation through the use of violence is accepted part of regular daily existence; and the postcolonial state, where vestiges of colonialism interact with traditional values to create destitution and suffering that is predestined and inexorable. (Epstein 1999, 383-384)
Then, the main character, the ten years old boy, whose life we follow throughout the film, is never called by his name, he is only referred to as “delivery boy,” which “serves to remind us of his anonymity and essential insignificance in the demimonde of Bombay” (Cardullo 1989, 291). He is in Bombay because he had to leave his home as a result of an argument with his older brother, to whom he owes money. Now he is trying to earn what he owes in order for him to be able to return. In this sense, his displacement is not one, that would be considered typical in diaspora cinema, nevertheless, his being away from home provides him a purpose, which is to get back to his mother. Finally, as Cardullo notes, colors play an important role in Salaam as they “make the mise en scène suggest the suffocating, closed-off quality of [Nair’s] characters’ world.” He also suggests that it does not matter what particular color dominates the screen at any given moment of the film—whether it is yellow, which supplies a sort of sickly undertone to the narrative, or red during the brothel scenes which eerily symbolizes loss and death—all of them seem to “open up the world, to unleash its multiplicity and infinite capacity” (Cardullo 1989, 294).
Perhaps the nature of the issues depicted in the film called for Nair’s technical approach in shooting the film. As Lahr notes, “Nair works with a handheld AatonSuperI6,” and Nair herself explains that working with a “handheld camera means you have to be alive to the moment” (Lahr 2002). As the majority of the scenes were shot on location, on the crowded streets of Bombay, Nair and her crew had a ninety-day workshop with the children who were not professional actors (Manjapra 2016). Between the scenes, lighting is done in such a way that it is likely to evoke reactions in audiences. As Epstein notes, the various play on lighting between the indoors and outdoors, where the former is relatively dark, and the latter is more colorful and exuberant, provides the audience an example of “Western affluence juxtaposed with nativist poverty” (Epstein 1999, 385). In the midst of a gloomy undertone, that lingers throughout the film, and is being set at the beginning of the film, “medium close and close-up shots [are used] to show an occasional glimmer of childhood joyfulness” (Aldama 2009, 94). Together with the contrast of light, close-ups are used in order to have an emotional impact on the audience.
Lahr notes that in Salaam, Nair manages to “capture the pathos and bravery amid India’s chaos, the realities of its low life and its low talk” which is the result of the plot having been developed based on interviews that had been conducted with street children (Lahr 2002). With this approach, Nair is able to provide a “haute bourgeoisie lens” through which her audience can witness the “rich texturing of a site […] out-of-time-and-space violent oppression and exploitation of children” (Aldama 2009, 101). Moreover, Epstein argues that this depiction is not void of a gendered view of childhood in poverty and “childhood innocence” which assigns a “political subtext” to the narrative. The social criticism of the film gets more complex with the “use of corrupted sexuality as a metaphor for the destruction of childhood (and social) innocence” (Epstein 1999, 385). The filmic devices, the setting, and characters are employed in such a way in Salaam, that the film provides a “microscopic view” about the characters’ lives, in the limited space which makes the end product of a globalized political and economic world very localized, without investigating the historicity of it, and focuses on the journeys of the characters (Epstein 1999, 386).
3.2. Mississippi Masala (1991)
The winner of the 1991 Ciak Award for Most Popular Film at the Venice Film Festival, Mississippi Masala combats in its depiction the issues surrounding race, class and gender in the United States with a “new visual language for globalization” (Seshagiri 2003, 177). The novelty in Nair’s approach here lays in “her controversial treatment of history, race, and miscegenation” in the American context. Her investigation of racial tensions goes against the usual formula of Hollywood films where such issues are typically depicted as one between blacks and whites. Through the depiction of a South Asian diasporic family, Nair points out the issue of “internalized racialism [that] assumes the internalization of […] stereotypes associated with the identified group” (Leong et.al. 2011, 104), while applying “forms of rationality that […] remain inaccessible and unseen within the historical record of colonial and postcolonial governance” (Reddy 2015, 234).
Seshagiri (2003) attributes the significance of Mississippi Masala to the fact that by depicting a diasporic family—who are exiled from Uganda, then move to the United States where the Indian parents’ daughter falls in love with an African American man—it “enabled for the first time a joint interrogation of British imperialism, American slavery, and class mobility.” The film not only brings forward the marginalized South Asian minority in the United Sates but it also sets out to explore the “travails of minority existence” which subtly envisions a somewhat idealistic future that is multicultural with the “celebration of difference” (Seshagiri 2003, 178). In Mississippi Masala, the central issue explored is inter-cultural racism through diasporic exile which, as a postcolonial trait, is present in both, geographically distant settings: Uganda and the United States. The first installment of this can be seen at the very beginning of the film, which is set in Uganda, at a time (early 1970s) when political leadership makes the decision to expel all Asians from the country. This results in the displacement of the Loha family, who set out to settle down in Mississippi. Jay Loha (Roshan Seth), a born and raised Ugandan lawyer tries everything in his power in order to stop the expulsion of his family from Africa, which to him, is home. To this declaration of his, his life-long friend, ‘black Ugandan’ Okelo (Konga Mbandu) has one thing to say: “Not anymore, Jay. Africa is for Africans.” Then he adds, “Black Africans.” As the family prepares to leave Uganda, Jay’s young daughter keeps on asking him about the journey: where is it that they are going, and why is it that they have to leave their home. Seshagiri points out that the fact that these questions remain unanswered, “foreshadows the film’s refusal to find destination points for its characters” which results in its “dwell[ing] on unresolved journeys, ambivalence about ‘home’, and the obscurity of geographical origins” (Seshagiri 2003, 184-185).
Upon arrival in Mississippi, they settle in an area of Greenwood where there is a dominant diasporic Indian population. However, as Reddy notes, despite Jay and his family being “ethnically Indian, [their] diasporic trajectory […] and their exilic status marks them as economically distinct from their other Indian counterparts in Mississippi” (Reddy 2015, 236-237). In the case of the Loha family, the “politics of race and exile are variously constructed” by such techniques applied by Nair, as “scene sequencing and flashbacks” that are used to “disclose how economic relations structure affective and sexual relations between blacks and Asians in postcolonial Uganda and the U.S. South” (Reddy 2015, 240). After having followed the family’s trip on an animated map on the screen (that shows their brief stay in the United Kingdom) they are seen in Greenwood, Mississippi, after a big jump in time, more than a decade later. The daughter, Meena (Sarita Choudhury) is all grown up and works at the same motel as her father. While Jay, who, back in Uganda used to worked as a lawyer, now in the United States tirelessly keeps on trying to sue the Ugandan government without any luck, his daughter ends up meeting the man, Demetrius (Denzel Washington), to whom her relationship provides the source of conflict in the film because of him being African American.
Mississippi Masala is teeming with “cultural and racial crossovers” in order to reinforce the notion of ‘colored people’ sticking together even though the “whites who have engendered these displacements remain largely invisible” and this results in “the geographical and racial alterity” that had been “created by their authority” which “remains a powerful force” throughout the film (Seshagiri 2003, 185-186). The aesthetics of the film “reveal racialized class structures” which point to a “political betrayal of shared racial struggle” (Reddy 2015, 240). However, when Meena and Demetrius’s relationship becomes physical, meaning that their characters “assert sexual desire outside of their communities, the mutual support system built on shared racial oppression” immediately fades away (Seshagiri 2003, 186). Through Nair’s exploration of the trajectories of the existence of minority groups in the Unites States, what becomes clear is that the “cultural self-fashioning” of Indians in Greenwood “rests on the community’s powerful need to separate itself from other dark-skinned minorities.” These characters’ way of achieving “social and economic mobility” is by the means of “emulating the capitalist values of the white ruling class and, as corollary, denigrating black people” (Seshagiri 2003, 188). These sets of values are frowned upon racial boundaries not being crossed and when that happens it threatens “economic power structures” (Seshagiri 2003, 189). Moreover, what Meena and Demetrius propose, a partnership that is based on egalitarian ideals, is unfathomable “within the cyclical history of colonialism and capitalism that traps Indians and blacks” in the film (Seshagiri 2003, 192).
In the case of the Indian community, when they start unconsciously internalizing the preset difference between various sets of (racial) categories, they do so, with the aim of distancing – that is, they are pointing out the differences between themselves and the ‘Others’ as something distinctly not of their own set of attributes. With the utterance, “as long you’re not white, means you’re colored, correct?,” Napkin’s (Mohan Agashe) character (the employer of Demetrius) points out the double standard within the “racialized market structure.” By allowing taking on the role of doing the pointing out, a specific power relation is automatically assumed. The one doing the differentiating assumes the position of being able to point out various elements exactly because it is done based on the assumption that the ‘Other’, the distinctively not me, the one outside the border, is categorized essentially inferior. And so, the “racialized class structures emerge as central to this negotiation” (Reddy 2015, 241).
Meena’s several times displaced identity bares multiple meanings. The title, “masala” refers to this several times displaced identity, as she uses this word, when she describes herself to Demetrius, explaining how it means “mixture,” and that is how she identifies. When she is talking to Demetrius’s family and friends, she is asked about her ancestry. Her response, “I’ve never been to India” evokes a “shared sense of displacement” (Seshagiri 2003, 185) as one of Demetrius’s African American friend replies, “well, you’re just like us. We’re from Africa but we’ve never been there either.” However, the color of her skin adds to her “hybrid identity” (Seshagiri 2003) as she is deemed ‘too dark’ to be accepted in her own community and may even “exclude her from the Indian marriage market that values light skin,” but in the African American community she is seen as ‘too white’. Therefore, as Seshagiri notes, Meena’s identity’s multiple meanings revolve around the color of her skin which is conceptualized in regards to its “erotic value, its literal darkness, [and] its symbolic whiteness,” all in favor of dismantling “essentialist conceptions of race and nationality” which is how Nair’s hybrid character comes about (Seshagiri 2003, 187).
The tension that has been escalating in both communities since Meena and Demetrius started seeing each other, reaches its peak in the scene where Demetrius confronts Meena’s father, Jay. This is also the scene where the “inscription of cultural power” as something that derives from the “complex geographical framework in which blacks and Indians have defined themselves against each other” is revealed. Demetrius comes to the motel where the Loha family lives, to speak to Jay. Standing in the door to Jay’s room, Demetrius points out, how “Indian people have mediated between a white ruling class and a black underclass” (Seshagiri 2003, 187) when he says: “I know you and your folks can come down here from God knows where, and be as black as the Ace of spades, and as soon as you get here you start acting white, treating us like we’re your doormats. You and your daughter ain’t but a few shades away from this right here” and he lifts his hand to point to his face. As Nair noted, this highlights “history repeating itself, with the Asians coming between black and white people” (quoted in Seshagiri 2003, 187).
As Leong et.al. note, “stereotypes only become problematic when they influence how individuals treat other groups or other individuals based on these group based stereotypes” which factors in because these stereotypes “become deeply entrenched in the internal consciousness” which will leave its mark on the way how that group or individual behaves toward others (Leong et.al. 2011, 102). In Mississippi Masala, Nair depicts “the racial management of gender and sexuality” which are based on these prescribed notions about stereotypes and this results in the “the racial stratifications of capital,” which as Reddy notes, “allow us to view diasporic investments in capitalist hegemony” (Reddy 2015, 238). After the rather heated scene where Demetrius confronts Jay, it is Meena who is reprimanded by her parents for the relationship. To her parents’ disapproval, Meena’s response is, “this is America, no one cares” which, on the one hand, shows her defying not only her parents but also their cultural heritage in the form of the “Indian arranged-marriage tradition that ensures communal hegemony” (Seshagiri 2003, 190). On the other hand, it illustrates the hopelessness and helplessness of her displaced character’s identity, as her statement does not hold true because of the generational gap manifested in her parent’s response which is: “we care.”
After this fight between Meena and her parents, follows a montage sequence made up of jump cuts of phone conversations. This starts with two Indian women (Nair making a cameo appearance as an of them) gossiping about people in their community and Meena is the hot topic of the day as she had “dumped” a parent-approved Indian suitor “for a black.” Then we see Demetrius trying to contact Meena and being harshly brushed off by the aforementioned suitor who answers the phone at the motel. Then, in the next cut we have an old, Southern man, condescendingly asking from the person on the other end of the line whether they were “having nigger troubles” and the shot fades out with his heavy, smoker-lounges laughter. Then, the one but last cut is to Demetrius’s ex-girlfriend, Alicia (Natalie Oliver) who is on the phone with Demetrius now, closing the circle of conversations. She appears to be the most outraged, voicing her disappointment by saying to Demetrius that “you let down your family, your community, your entire race. And I don’t see no shortage of black women around Greenwood.” Demetrius slams the receiver back onto its place after having heard the bank clerk inform him that in order to qualify for a loan they would need responsible people and he is “just not that.” From this sequence it becomes evident how Demetrius finds himself in a “cultural no-man’s land” as he is seen as a “race-traitor” by his community, “a sexual predator” by the Indian community, and an “irresponsible upstart” by the white ruling class (Seshagiri 2003, 191).
Because of their relationship both Meena and Demetrius become outsiders in their own communities suggesting, as Seshagiri adds, that in order to “be American in this film” means to “put one’s own well-being above family and community, and to value individual happiness above the continuance of group identity.” In Mississippi Masala for a member of a minority group, to be able to “participate in the American dream, whether in personal relationships or in the capitalist business world” goes along with being shunned from their homes and communities (Seshagiri 2003, 190). By the end of the film, Meena and Demetrius have come up with a plan to elope after having found themselves in a situation that Demetrius sums up as, “racism, or as they say nowadays—tradition is passed down like recipes but the trick is, you got to know what to eat and what to leave on your plate.” So they choose to leave Greenwood in a van, and take their love on the road which symbolizes how their relationship has to stay “transient, and fugitive, bereft of destination or means of sustaining itself.” The ending scene of the film, as the couple is seen going on a stroll on a cotton field suggests that an “escape from conventional racial hierarchies” is not possible. Given the very strong symbolic meaning of a cotton field in an American context, the ending is anything but a happy one, as it quite effectively suggests that they are “trapped in the same exploitative geography that dispossessed their parents and grandparents.” Furthermore, Seshagiri notes that the fragmentation of Meena and Demetrius’s last scene in the film is suggestive of the fact that “there is neither a real geographical space nor an acceptable social space for this hybrid relationship” as there could just simply not be one fixed, “mappable home” for Nair’s displaced characters (Seshagiri 2003, 193).
In Mississippi Masala, similarly to The Namesake (another film of Nair’s, discussed next), there is a generational gap because of which the two generations experience their “hybridity” differently. What is for Jay, a stepping stone, a shelter, a place to stay until things get better at home, it is for Meena home, where she finds herself in between the cultural traditions of her parents and that of the place where she had spent all her life. In this film, Nair depicts “alternative possibilities for Afro-Asian political relationality” (Reddy 2015, 257) with an optimistic attitude toward mixed, and hybrid identity formations, through the lenses of “imperialism’s unhappy legacy” (Seshagiri 2003, 179).
3. 3. The Namesake (2006)
In this adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner author, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel with the same title from 2003, similarly to Mississippi Masala, there is a lingering sense of dislocation throughout the film, while, at the same time, Nair tries to create of the world of unfamiliar something resembling familiarity “fused with the melancholy of exile.” The Namesake in many ways is an “experiential film with melancholy and loss” being put on the forefront emphasized by “episodes” as Nair’s aim was, here too, to focus on the individual experience (Manjapra, 2016). The story of the film reads as a tale of various cultures which influence and affect one another. This relation is depicted through the focus on the characters’ identities as they go through the diverse changes, the visual representation of which, is grained with teeming symbolism throughout the film. The main theme is isolation, as represented by a piece of contemporary diasporic cinema. As Bahri adequately sums it up, the film version of The Namesake is “the story of the Other,” with the immigrant family’s life in the focus, after they have moved to the United States from India. The story is about a Bengali family who, after having been displaced as a result of their move, struggle with a strong “desire to belong” which resonates strongly among various immigrant groups who have gone through the same within the American context (Bahri 2007, 10).
The sense of loss, that both generations of characters’ experience, is reflected upon by the central theme of the film. This theme of mourning, as Bahri notes, is there in all aspects connected to their changing identities, for instance, in the mourning “for the loss of loved ones, for a home, a way of life, connection to parents or children, or even one’s own self over time.” In order to convey the emotional states of characters, colors that are being used in the film play a great role with the “effective use of colors and color palettes” in order to visually convey the shifts in individual characters, the differences in various places, and stages in their lives (Bahri 2007, 11). Gogol (Kal Penn), the son of the immigrant Bengali couple in New York, majors in architecture at a university—a storyline through which Nair creates a “visual architecture not only of the physical spaces […] but also of the emotional spaces inhabited by the characters” (Bahri 2007, 12). As second generation, son of immigrant parents, he constantly tries to build a bridge between the two cultures he lives in, and with it, cultivate a new space for himself, a home, where his identity would fit in with its duality, and the cultural conflicts that it comes with—where he would not be the displaced, and ‘Othered.’ Gogol’s character is constructed in such a complex way that his character in its entirety is a metaphor for the misplaced identity of his family and thus, himself. Chakraborty refers to him as a character that suggests a “sense of pluralistic identity” which is a form of representation that breaks away with mainstream immigrant representation “that require the immigrant to cast off the traditions of the home country in view of assimilation” (Chakraborty, 2014 612). Nair’s take on the representation of the displaced identity differs from ones that are not productions of the diasporic cinema, and this is contrasted mostly in Gogol’s character. He was named after his father’s favorite author, and together with his ‘good name’ (that his grandparents have to approve of, according to traditional Indian customs) provides him with numerous layers of possible identities. The way he changes his name signals shifts in his identity. As a child he refuses to change his given name, Gogol, to his ‘good name’ Nikhil, at the age of six, by which time his grandparents approved of a ‘good name’. That is, until he experiences his first “crisis of identity” in high school (Bahri 2007, 10). From that point on, taking on the name Nikhil which can easily be shortened to Nick by his peers and friends, is representative of the above mentioned shift in his identity. It creates for him a different persona in a way, behind which he can hide without being bothered by the gap which had lead previously to his feeling like an outsider. With this rather simple change, he has a chance to feel closer to his American identity which at that age, seems more dominant, more important to him.
This duality, consequently, affects his relationships as well. When he is in college, and he is dating an American girl, to her and to her family, he is simply Nick without them even knowing about his other name, and with it, his cultural heritage and identity. As Chakraborty notes, the character of Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) – the American girlfriend –, is used by Nair as a “visual symbol for the essential difference between America and India.” This stark difference is at its peak when Gogol’s family is hit by a devastating tragedy. His father suddenly passes away and even though the family has plans to take the ashes back to India, and have a proper, traditional funeral, they first have a service for him together with members of their community in the United States. The funeral service takes place in their home and the scene “creates a binary distinction between this community and the nation-state that the community occupies” (Chakraborty 2014, 616). Maxine’s character coming to the funeral wearing all black, when Indian tradition calls for wearing white during mourning periods highlights these differences effectively.
The tragedy in the family is a turning point for not only Gogol’s but her mother’s, Ashima’s (Tabu) character as well. In this film, it is the character’s loss, and subsequent grief that fuels the changes in her identity. As, Moodley notes, most of the female characters of Nair’s “undergo journeys of identity” and Ashima’s case is no different. Having lost her husband—to whom she got married in an arranged marriage at a very young age—, propels her character into this journey “from being obedient, dutiful, virtuous wom[a]n who honor[s] the family (and by implication the country) to [a] wom[a]n who step[s] outside of tradition to become an empowered, decision making being” (Moodley 2003, 69). This journey is symbolized subtly through Ashima’s singing which is also an important aspect in her character’s development. The film starts out in India where we get to know a little bit the parents (young Ashima and her husband-to-be) before they get married and emigrate to the United States, as newlyweds. This is the first time we see Ashima sing, in fact, the film is framed by her singing. In the opening sequence we see her sing professionally in a choir, which later turns out was done with the intent of building a career as an artist. After this sequence, the camera takes us immediately to Ashima’s home where her mother awaits her to introduce her to their guests whom are eager to meet her. This is when she meets her future husband and from this point on, Ashima’s character (as it often happens to women at the brink of marriage) is “told to just adjust,” her singing is adjusted as well. Her singing, similarly to her identity is confined to her newfound role of wife, and soon mother. She only hums, in her new, unfamiliar home, and croons lullabies to her children. Nair found it pertinent to have this person who sings and have her singing reduced to “these familiar things and, towards the end of the film have her come back to her own voice” (Gopinath, 2007). By the end of the film, after having her children brought up, after the loss of her husband, she gets a chance at claiming her agency back and the film ends with Ashima’s character sitting in the choir yet again, just like she did in the opening scene, so many years ago.
In essence, Ashima’s journey of identity is similar to Gogol’s in that they both have to overcome various stages of isolation. However, while Gogol’s is one of a more psychological nature, Ashima’s is highlighted by the added physical element, as to her, the United States does not feel like home, while Gogol was born there. As Moodley asserts, “the notion of place is expressed through spatial and temporal configurations” which provides it with a dual layer. It is not merely “something singularly physical” as it rather becomes a “concept characterized by the social relations attached to it.” Moreover, the fact that “place is also characterized by history, giving it a temporal dimension” is exactly what Ashima’s and Gogol’s journeys of identity symbolize (Moodley 2003, 71). From the novel, it is known that Ashima’s name means “she who is limitless, without borders” which further highlights the similarities and yet, huge differences between the journeys that mother and son take (Lahiri 2004, 38).
Ashima’s isolation can be seen through the fact that despite having to go through hardships, there is no one there to hear her screams of desperation when she finally breaks down. That is a pivotal scene in the film because it “doubles down on the paradox” of being an immigrant in the United States (Walters, 2016). The severity of this state of being isolated is most prominent in the Christmas sequence in The Namesake. At the beginning of the sequence the camera goes across the living room of Ashima’s home; she sits alone next to a decorated pine tree which is there only because she had realized early on that her children would feel distanced from their communities if they were not experiencing Christmas. Then the camera takes us outside, to see her front lawn and neighborhood so we get a glimpse into Christmas time in American suburbia with the “surreal and ridiculous tableau” of holiday season—which to Nair is the “embodiment of loneliness”—and emphasizes Ashima’s character’s outcast status (Manjapra, 2016).
Alienation and loneliness in her character reaches its peak after she loses her husband, the one link that connected her to the other half of her—now dominated by America—identity which is infused with India. Without him, without the only person who had known, at least to some extent, what displacement meant for her, her isolation becomes unbearable. To reflect on this, Nair, as she explains, uses the garage scene, as a “tongue and cheek reference” to other movies like “American Beauty, because it is just such an American thing.” At the beginning of the scene, the focus of the shot is on Ashima’s character, starting with her feet as the garage door goes up and as she runs out of the garage the shot stays on the garage, “not following her because it is her American life that is there” and at the same time, as she runs away, she leaves everything behind (Gopinath 2007). This scene is very packed not only symbolically but also emotionally as it suggests that it is one of the biggest tragedies in Ashima’s life, the loss of her husband that will put an end to her isolated, immigrant life.
As Chakraborty notes, “Nair creates […] an affinity for different set of roots.” In The Namesake, the “identity of diasporic subjects is determined by-and-large by nostalgia for an original and authentic homeland” which then becomes an unalienable part of the diasporic identity itself (Chakraborty 2014, 610). Chakraborty also notes, that in recent diaspora studies the issue of paying attention to differences that exist “between and within diasporas” has surfaced and shed a new light on how these issues are being regarded. The shift in conceptual understanding has led scholars to now “emphasize the importance of examining how diaspora is inflected by race, class, gender, ethnicity, cause, and nature of migration” which is precisely why Gogol’s and his parents’ identities are shaped by different factors which result in different experiences in both the United States, and in India (Chakraborty 2014, 611).
3.4. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)
This filmic adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel of the same title opened the 69th Venice Film Festival with an out-of-competition screening. The film “functions,” as Nair puts it, “as a mirror to the world in all its contradiction, and complexity.” Audiences are taken on a ride and shown a part of the world that they may had not seen before but “after having seen it they are transformed into it and see themselves a part of it” (Walters 2016). The film takes an alternative look at the hard-boiled political theories that “people are all bandied about with, and distills them into the human dimension,” Nair notes (Walters 2016). The film is framed by a conversation between a Pakistani and an American man in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. During the conversation, as Nair explains, they are trying to lift up the “mutual suspicion that we all have for each other.” The narrative of the film is structured in such a way as to pose the question of who is “us” and who is the “Other.” Therefore, the timing of the film (it was released in 2012) is emphasized by Nair when she says that there is a certain kind of maturity needed from both sides involving any project. With this film, the decade that has passed since 9/11 was needed in order for the film’s context and complexity to be understood (Walters 2016).
Nair’s aim with The Reluctant Fundamentalist was to offer an alternative to the way in which the United States, “or rather the Western world has been engaged in the sub-continental world for more than a decade but it has not been a conversation, it is a monologue and it is time to have a dialogue, to hear the other side.” With this, Nair explains, mundane things, like reading or hearing about the world through various media outlets, when “so many people are just reducing information to two categories: the good guys, the bad guys; the black, the white; into little compartments” get “re-complicated.” In other words, the film discusses how, despite relentless efforts, people cannot be bound to the category of ‘this’ or ‘that’. People are more than labels that majority groups delegate to them, through which the self gets divided in the era of globalization. The majority point of view becomes a point of reference by which the ‘Other’ is formed. In the case of this film, it is emphasized how “so often, we do not see the realm of mistakes we have made and this film just provides another point of view” (Walters 2016).
The plot of this film could be summed up as the ‘American Dream that had gone wrong’. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is framed by Lincoln’s (Liev Schreiber) interview with Changez (Riz Ahmed). The segmentation of this interview which turns into a long and heated conversation, plays an important role in the narrative of the film because it is through this discussion that we are introduced to that side of the story which sheds a light on the viewpoint of the ‘Other’ which has rarely been put on screen by mainstream cinema. For this to have been an approach that audiences can fathom, the fact that it was released a decade after the 9/11 attacks, is responsible. Through the segments that are inserted into the interview, we learn about the life of a young, bright man who was born in Pakistan and arrived in the United States on a scholarship. Soon after graduating, Changez is hired at a prestigious firm in New York City which provides his displaced self with a sense of calm, as if he were finally finding his place after having arrived to the United States years before. He finds his passion in his work, he is very good at it and he is well on his way to build his seemingly rather successful career-to-be in the corporate world of America. However, 9/11 happens and it “enhance[s] the potential for introspective solipsism, [and] it also introduces the potential violent backlash against the ‘Other’” (Bond 2011, 744). His identity changes immediately in the eyes of the people around him. As a result of the previously discussed framing of the events by the media, all of a sudden he is perceived by people around him as a source of threat. That facet of his identity that up until September 11 was compartmentalized as something that proved the universality of the American Dream, now ventured on an involuntarily transformation enforced by the media that was fueled by political agendas—which at that point was not realized by the majority of the Western or American public. As Bond notes, the conjectures “that the Bush administration manipulated the psychological impact of the attacks to facilitate its political and military agendas” were confirmed by national coordinator for security and counterterrorism (Bond 2011, 746).
As Changez’s perception by others changes, his own identity changes as well in such a way that he alters his own position in both of the cultures that he belongs to. By changing his physical appearance, most noticeably by growing his beard out, he performs a “silent, coded protest” against the one culture that he chose to live in, and his negligence to form alliances in the culture that he was born in, points to his wish to disentangle himself from those members of that culture that he, on an intellectual level, cannot belong to (Allen 2013, 368). As a result of this, the way that the meaning of borders changes for Changez is that they are not redefined but repositioned after 9/11. He becomes someone who does not come from anywhere, and does not belong anywhere. His diasporic identity gets doubly displaced.
The importance in the reception of The Reluctant Fundamentalist being released a decade after 9/11 has been emphasized by Nair. However, she had taken her camera on, prior to this film, in regards to the issues of how diasporic people, mainly Muslims, experienced their surreal United States following the attacks. In 2002, Nair got back to her roots of her filmmaking career, and accepted to direct a segment in the documentary, 11’09’01 September 11. In this montage of a documentary, eleven directors (Youssef Chahine – Egypt; Amos Gitai – Israel; Shohei Imamura – Japan; Alejandro González Iñárritu – Mexico; Claude Lelouch – France; Ken Loach – United Kingdom; Samira Makhmalbaf – Iran; Idrissa Ouedraogo – Burkina Faso; Danis Tanovic – Bosnia-Herzegovina; Sean Penn – United Sates; and Nair – India) were asked to produce their own eleven-minute segment on 9/11. In Nair’s segment in 11’09’01 titled India what we have is an overdramatized story of a Muslim-American family. Salman Hamdani is investigated and harassed by the FBI on the suspicion that he might either belonged to or had aided terrorist sells in the United States prior to his disappearance after the attacks had occurred. Despite the rather sentimental narrative of the segment India, Nair’s story emphasizes the ways in which the attacks were being framed by the media which served a very determined purpose, namely to “position them outside discourse” (Bond 2002, 734). Nevertheless, similarly to The Reluctant Fundamentalist the direction of the narrative provides a dual view on the ‘Other’ that had been formulated in the mindsets of consumers of various media outlets globally. On the one hand, viewers are introduced to the shift in perceptions by people around the characters in these stories, and on the other hand, they see having these shifted perceptions change the characters’ identities.
Changez’s dual identity becomes more and more visible not only in his professional life, but also in his personal one. The depiction of his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson), is very symbolic of the “real crux of the story, which is Changez’s dual identity and divided loyalties, the choices he must make” regarding his future and of the way his displaced identity morphs into a marginal one (Allen 2013, 370). Erica, an aspiring artist, uses Changez’s struggle of displacement and heavily Othered identity in a morally questionable attempt at seeking a name for herself in the New York City art world. She produces a show in her gallery that aims at, as a meta-narrative, reflecting on her possible own struggle with ‘sleeping with the enemy’. From the scene, where Changez is confronted with the piece that Erica had produced, it becomes painstakingly clear, that Erica herself is not sure about how she, herself feels about her partner in the midst of the “immediate reactions to the attacks across critical, political, and media cultures in the United States” (Bond 2002, 734). Even though Bond warns that it is “important not to make blanket assumptions about […] trauma, as to do so would risk homogenizing a remarkably diverse area,” in Erica’s character the culture of “collective victimhood” which result from “privileging of trauma” in the United States, is evident (Bond 2002, 739-741). Moreover, as Jajja (2013) notes, the character of Erica, “at the symbolic level stands for America.” This relationship stands for the differences in the two cultures Erica and Changez come from. Erica’s “charm, attraction and presence reflect the world status and power of America.” Her name noticeably symbolizes this, as it “not only rhymes with America, but is actually a part of the name of America.” In the political and military turmoil that surrounds them after 9/11, Changez, has lost his footing in the society that he thought previously knew, and now strives to be accepted, and for a short while, while he thinks his quest is plausible, he starts “hiding his Asian/Pakistani identity” by “introduce[ing] himself as a New Yorker and would behave and speak like an American.” This, in a way, “is the manifestation of mimicry on the part of Changez” (Jajja 2013, 85).
There is a subtle, yet still omnipresent sense that “American culture and society are not flawless and they are as intolerant towards the racial and cultural differences as any other culture or society” which eventually doubles down on Changez (Jajja 2013, 87). After having gone through many failed attempts at trying to be accepted into the culture he chose for himself, he admits defeat in a sense. He realizes that the way he looks predetermines his place within society and that is something, no matter how hard he tries (up to point where he is willing, that is), the situation cannot be changed. Therefore, he goes back to Pakistan, where, based on his physical features, he belongs but his diasporic displaced identity changes have left their mark on his mind, because of which, mentally he does not belong there either.
Accordingly, Haolai (2015) argues that Changez’s character’s “identity is in fact a recreation of the society which became hostile towards him after 9/11.” The experiences he had after the attacks “are responsible for the feeling of animosity” that he had gained in the process toward the United States, the place that he had chosen and once loved. Changez’s character declares his affections towards the United States, both in the film and the book versions by saying “I am a lover of America” (Hamid 2007, 9). However, Changez falls victim of the “re-interpretation of differences” and finds himself being subjugated to “social hostility by the Americans.” This is the point for him when he realizes that his American Dream is no longer valid, it will never be actualized “despite his admiration for America as a land of opportunity.” All the harassment that he had to endure ever since 9/11 results in “a reinforced identity thus the idea of him assimilating into an American society becomes a complete impossibility” (Haolai 2015, 305). And so, what Nair achieves in this adaptation is the representation of the complexity that arises from seeing the ‘Other’ side in the aftermath of such, globally “contextualize[ed] historicity” that displaced the event of 9/11 itself as “the focus of attention” and makes it a personal one (Bond 2002, 749).
4. Masalas Everywhere: “From New Zeeland to Hungary”
My aim in this paper was to show how Nair’s approach is unique in that her visual representation of her displaced characters goes not only against mainstream representation, but also, against such entrenched notions that she, as a diasporic, accented director intends to “speak on behalf of the people in or from [her] country” by creating a “political space” in her films through which she would “represent people sharing [her] ethnicity” (Moodley 2003, 72). Nair herself vehemently rejects this notion (Gopinath, 2007) (Manjapra, 2016) and so, as Athique notes, her juxtaposition of Indian and Western tradition remains “difficult to define in terms of a national media culture due to the extent of its regionalization.” Moreover, it is not “cultural diversity” where the novelty lays “in the Indian context,” but it is the “imperatives” that had entered its cultural productions into the arena (or rather theater) of transnational cinema. Nair’s and many diasporic filmmakers’ “way of embrac[ing] the transnational paradigm […] is primarily a response to economic liberalization during the late 1990s.” This “newfound awareness of the commercial potentials of export activity” was among the reasons why Nair had shifted from documentary to feature length filmmaking (Athique 2013, 109).
Nair’s position as an independent director from India and as Nair herself notes, “not a member of an Asian or other filmmaking collectives,” who uses her films in an attempt to bridge cultural gaps, and widen understandings of various identity positions, is reflected on both from inside and from the outside of various groups, which is done with the aim of opening up dialogues about issues that, for a long time, have been dealt with via “monologues” that leave absolutely no room for change. By these monologues, Nair refers to various representations of mainly South Asian diasporic people in mainstream cinema which she challenges in her films, hence opening up new paths for being able to have and simultaneously shape the view on the ‘Other.’ Nair challenges the market of cultural productions with her films, where Hollywood is conceived of as “very exciting and very skillful” but, as Nair point out, “more often than not it has been telling its own story which story is largely about white America” (Gopinath, 2007). This approach, makes her “an important contributor both to the collective Indian identity in diaspora and to the Indian cinema” (Naficy 2001, 68).
When Nair’s films are positioned as, against mainstream and consequently, stereotypical representations then obvious financial matters have to be considered as well. Not only because it was one of the reasons why she did away with documentary filmmaking early on in her career, but also because this unique way of vision can only appear on screen if “there are no financial attachments to big studios that would dictate the truths behind” Nair’s films and that is why her productions are made independently (Gopinath, 2007). This need for independence lead to the foundation of her production company back in 1989, called Mirabai Films through which all the fundraising is done for Nair’s projects. Moreover, Naficy notes that “whether this approach is “considered as an authentic autochthonous view or as an exoticizing outsider’s fantasy, the fact remains that the current globalization and deterritorialization have made Nair’s films part of the cultural identity of Indians everywhere.” In this sense, Nair’s films are “part of not only accented cinema but also Indian cinema because all accented films contribute to constructing both what is exilic and diasporic and what is national” (Naficy 2001, 70).
Nair’s attempts at taking down cultural barriers is carried out through the vantage point being shifted in her films to point out a great impact of how inequality is constantly being exploded onto the mainstream. To encourage the young generation of diasporic filmmakers Nair founded a film school called Mnisha (A Celebration of African Women in Film) in Uganda because she believes “that African stories should be told by Africans.” Furthermore, Nair emphasizes how there is a huge lack in “positive stories being told about people living around [the diaspora] and [her] aim is to change that without it being a lecture.” It is a journey that Nair’s films take her audience on by converging the two worlds her characters’ lives are framed and shaped by. Why Africa is important in her narratives, Nair notes, is because it is a “place of ancient story telling tradition but there is no bridge that would lift that story telling over to cinema and that is what Mnisha offers and does” (Manjapra, 2016). Seshagiri notes that the way in which Nair’s films “idealize cultural inclusiveness for the different communities and historical moments they portray” is done often through “optimistic and occasionally utopian picture” where various segments of society are depicted through diverse groups of people living together. With the “blurring of the once-clear ’here/there’ demarcations of immigration narratives, these films reflect substantial demographic shifts within late twentieth-century” (Seshagiri 2003, 183). All the four feature length films I analyzed here focus on the diasporic, marginalized, and hybrid identities through multiply displaced characters. In the American context, Nair’s view on the ‘Other’ takes on a unique way of investigation as her “characters register a constant awareness that they are minorities in America who are unable to identify with a majority group anywhere in the world” (Seshagiri 2003, 185). Therefore, “the global dispersal of media content inevitably prompts us to rethink the basic terms by which culture is positioned by the United Nations and by national media institutions” (Athique 2013, 115). As a diasporic filmmaker, Nair’s films have a specific approach when it comes to technique, style, aesthetics, and ideology. The representation of identity and gender is done in a unique way by focusing on authenticity, and creating personalized stories that resonate with various audiences because the way they are depicted makes them universal. Starting with documentaries that quickly turned into feature films, Nair’s movies depict and investigate the duality and complexity of identity in such displaced, and hybrid communities that harbor but never really houses the exilic individuals. The focus is on the characters’ journeys in Nair’s films which are not merely physical (in a geographical sense) but these are also journeys of identity which goes through various changes in the process.
Salaam Bombay! (1988) which was Nair’s first film after her documentary period, juxtaposes in this early feature film the two forms. With a strong influence of documentaries, in this film Nair investigates the “problematic of the collective identity” from the insider position of one’s culture of exile (Naficy 2001, 68). This is achieved through the depiction of street children, and the multiple symbolic meaning the setting of the film offers. Similar to her later works, in the first installment of Nair’s diasporic cinema, the characters’ various displacements are in the focus, the particularities of which can be seen in the “rich texture” of the film (Aldama 2009, 91). Her rather successful execution of “amalgamating” the documentation of everyday life with fiction resulted in both critical acclaim and in the foundation of the Salaam Baalak Trust that now has twenty-one centers for street children in three different cities in India with more than “five thousand children coming to these centers” and the Trust, since its foundation 28 years ago has “directly impacted and affected government policies” on street children (Anbarasan 1998), (Manjapra, 2016).
Mississippi Masala (1991), winner of the Ciak Award at the Venice Film Festival in the year of its release provides a unique view on race, class, and gender and the issues that derive from them in the United States. Nair’s treatment of such issues has been labeled “controversial” as it not only creates a “new visual language for globalization” but the very way in which she tackles “history, race, and miscegenation” in the context of the United States goes against the forms applied in mainstream representations (Seshagiri 2003, 177). Through the depiction of a diasporic family’s journey, Nair, for the first time, investigates the remnants of “British imperialism, American slavery, and class mobility” (Seshagiri 2003, 178). As a result, what is explored, is the inter-cultural racism through diasporic exile, as a postcolonial trait.
The Namesake (2006), which is the adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, took on the diasporic representation is such a way that it depicts dislocation in a relational manner. That is, the various cultures (Indian, and North American) are represented through the characters and through the ways in which they influence each other. Nair deals with issues surrounding such issues as what it means to be an Indian in the United States and vice versa, what it means to be an American in India. The dualities of this displaced experience are depicted in a refreshing immigrant tale, as we see how both generations’ identities go through the various stages. Therefore, the central theme of the film is a sense of loss, that lingers throughout and manifests itself symbolically through colors in the film. The sense of loss results in a sort of “nostalgia” (Chakraborty 2014, 610) in the characters, for a land they could call home, but as Nair’s film seem to conclude, that is an unattainable goal for a once displaced person.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), which is the adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel, and opened the 69th Venice Film Festival. Nair’s aim with this story about a young, aspiring Pakistani man whose life turns upside down living in New York City, after the 9/11 attacks, was mainly that within this largely framed narrative, to pose the question of who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. Subsequently, the further goal was to offer an alternative view on the way in which the United States and the Western world has been presenting the sub-continental world in various media outlets without having members of said areas as a part of those representations. The structure of the film, through the application of segmentation, allows for an introduction into the side of the story of the aftermath of 9/11 that sheds a light on the viewpoint of the ‘Other’ which has rarely been put on screen by mainstream cinema.
Nair’s films have received both commercial and critical acclaim. She was an honoree at the 2016 Athena Film Festival, recipient of the Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award. Her first feature film, Salaam Bombay! received an Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Film category, and was also recognized at the Cannes Film Festival (Epstein 1999). In 1991, Nair had won the Ciak Award for Most Popular Film and at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, “Mira Nair became the first woman director to win the Golden Lion, the Festival’s highest honor on the film world’s most coveted awards” (Seshagiri 2003, 177). In order to be able to freely and independently make films with which she could stick to her interest of investigating hybrid and displaced identities, Nair had turned down offers for directing such productions as the Harry Potter movies, backed out of doing Tony Kushner’s play, Homebody/Kabul, and she was also offered Devil Wears Prada which she refused so that she could steer clear from the influence of studios (Manjapra, 2016). Nair’s works offer a unique approach in depicting the displaced identities of the ‘Other’ through the juxtaposition of the Indian and Western cinematic traditions and “the clash of modernity and tradition” (Sharpe 2005, 59). Nair’s diasporic cinema, through its depiction of a hybridized, and multiply displaced characters and the application of often teeming symbolism offers to present a point of view of people whom in mainstream representations are rarely given a voice. All of this is put on screen in such a way that audiences all around the world could see the individual stories from the characters’ point of view. This is what Nair calls the universal factor in her movies when she explains that people watching her films globally, anywhere from “New Zeeland to Hungary” they would all see the characters’ journeys and understand them on the individual level (Gopinath, 2007), (Manjapra, 2016).
- Aldama, Frederick Luis. 2009. “Body Movements and Audience Emotion in Mira Nair’s Filmic Bombay.” Projections 3.2, 91-104. Available: http://search.proquest.com/docview/208173678?accountid=2837. Access: 11 April 2016.
- Allen, Brooke. 2013. “Terror, Terror Everywhere.” The Hudson Review. Vol. 66. No..2. 366-372. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43488730. Access: 12 January 2017.
- Anbarasan, Ethirajan and Amy Otchet. 1998. “Mira Nair: An eye for paradox.” UNESCO Courier. Vol. 51, Issue 11, 46-52. Available: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=buh&AN=1317943&site=ehost-live. Access: 11 April 2016.
- Athique, Adrian M. 2013. “Leaping the Demographic Barrier: Theoretical Challenges for the Crossover Audience.” In Khorana Sukhmani, ed. Crossover Cinema Cross-Cultural Film from Production to Reception. Routledge: New York. 107-122.
- Bahri, Deepika. 2007. “The Namesake: Deepika Bahri is Touched by Mira Nair’s Vivid, Sonorous Account of Immigrant Life in an Adopted Home City.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 61, No. 1, 10-15. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.1525/fq.2007.61.1.10.pdf. Access: 22 April 2016.
- Bond, Lucy. 2011. “Compromised Critique: A Meta-Critical Analysis of American Studies after 9/11.” In Journal of American Studies. Vol. 45, No. 4. 733-756. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41427297. Access: 12 January 2017.
- Cardullo, Bert. 1989. “Boys’ Life.” The Hudson Review. Vol. 42. No. 2. 290-298. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3851533. Access: 12 January 2017.
- Chakraborty, Madhurima. 2014. “Adaptation and the Shifting Allegiances of the Indian Diaspora: Jhumpa Lahiri’s and Mira Nair’s The Namesakes(s).” Literature Film Quarterly. Vol. 42 Issue 4, 609-621. Available: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=99263211&site=ehost-live. Access: 11 April 2016.
- Dixon, Wheeler Winston and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. 2008. A Short History of Film. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
- Epstein, Irving. 1999. “Street Children in Film.” Curriculum Inquiry. Vol. 29. No. 3. Available: : http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3185916. Access: 12 January 2017.
- Gopinath, Gayatri and Julie Wyman. “Cinema Diaspora: A Panel Discussion with Mira Nair.” Mondavi Center, Sept 17, 2007. Available: http://www.uctv.tv/shows/Cinema-Diaspora-A-Panel-Discussion-with-Mira-Nair-and-UC-Davis-Faculty-11981. Access: 30 January 2017.
- Hamid, Mohsin. 2007. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. New York: Harvest Books.
- Haolai, Hoineikip. 2015. “Post 9/11 Islamic Identity in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” International Journal of Humanities & Social Science Studies. Vol. 2. Issue 3. 300-305. Available: https://www.ijhsss.com/files/Hoineikip-Haolai_6agf0c9e.pdf. Access: 30 January 2017.
- Jajja, Mohammad Ayub. 2013. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist: A Quest for Identity.” Journal of Research (Humanities). Vol. 53. 81-96. Available: http://www.academia.edu/6948140/The_Reluctant_Fundamentalist_A_Quest_for_Identity. Access: 30 January 2017.
- Manjapra, Kris and Kamran Rastegar. "’Between Two Worlds’, A Conversation with Mira Nair.” Tufts University, April 20, 2016. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wy2-bsuF6FQ. Access: 30 January 2017.
- Moodley, Subeshini. 2003. “Postcolonial Feminisms Speaking through an ‘Accented’ Cinema: The Construction of Indian Women in the Films of Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta.” In Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity. No. 58, African Feminisms Three, 66-75. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/4548098.pdf. Access: 22 April 2016.
- Naficy, Hamid. 2001. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
- Nair, Mira dir. Salaam Bombay!. Written by Hriday Lani and Mira Nair, 1988. Cadrage, Channel Four Films.
- —. Mississippi Masala. Written by Sooni Taraporevala, 1991. Black River Productions, The Mirabai Films.
- —. The Namesake. Written by Sooni Taraporevala (screenplay), 2006. Fox Searchlight Pictures.
- —. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Written by Ami Boghani (screenplay), 2012. Doha Film Institute, The Mirabai Films.
- Lahiri, Jhumpa. 2004. The Namesake. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Lahr, John. 2002. “Whirlwind: How the Filmmaker Mira Nair Makes People See the World Her Way.” In The New Yorker, Profiles, Dec 9, 2002. Available: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2000/08/07/the-whirlwind. Access: Jan 2, 2017.
- Leong, Frederick T.L. et.al. 2011. “The ‘Model Minority Myth.’” Asian American Journal of Psychology. Vol. 2, No. 2. 101–114. Available: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Frederick_Leong/publication/232588731/links/0f31752fd329ed6a55000000.pdf. Access: 31 January 2017.
- Reddy, Vanita. 2015. “Afro-Asian Intimacies and the Politics and Aesthetics of Cross-Racial Struggle in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala.” Journal of Asian American Studies. Vol. 18, Issue 3, 233-263. Available: http://muse.jhu.edu/article/603700. Access: 11 April 2016.
- Seshagiri, Urmila. 2003. “At the Crossroads of Two Empires: Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala and the Limits of Hybridity.” Journal of Asian American Studies. Vol. 6, Issue 2, 177-198. Available: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/51673. Access: 11 April 2016
- Shah, Amit. 1987. “A Dweller in Two Lands: Mira Nair, Filmmaker.” Cinéaste. Vol. 15, No. 3, 22-23. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41687477.pdf. Access: 22 April 2016.
- Sharpe, Jenny. 2005. “Gender, Nation, and Globalization.” Meridians. Vol.6. No.1. 58-81. Available: www.jstor.org/stable/40338684. Access: Access: 12 January 2017.
- Trivedi, Harish. 2008. “From Bollywood to Hollywood: The Globalization of Hindi Cinema.” In Revathi Krishnaswamy and John C. Hawley, eds. The Postcolonial and the Global, 200-213. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.5749/j.ctttszqx.20.pdf. Access: 22 April 2016.
- Walters, Michael. “Mira Nair: Overcoming Cultural Barriers.” CGTN America, Nov 5, 2016. Available:http://america.cgtn.com/2016/11/05/mira-nair-overcoming-cultural-barriers. Access: 30 January 2017.
- Watson, Jay. 2011. “Mapping out a Postsouthern Cinema: Three Contemporary films.” In Deborah Barker and Kathryn McKee, eds. American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press. 219-253.