Telling immigrantsí tales
Ervell E. Menezes

Mira Nair is at her best dealing with stories of NRIs
Mira Nair is at her best dealing with stories of NRIs

WHEN Mira Nairís Vanity Fair released last month, it was her tenth feature film. Though she has covered a wide range of subjects she seems to be most at home with immigrant or Indian diaspora films because she is able to feel this uprooting and assimilation of other cultures. But even her first feature film Salaam Bombay highlighted one fact ó that she is an excellent marketing person.

The impact of the film which dealt with Bombayís (now Mumbaiís) street children and their instinct for survival was phenomenal. Especially in the West which was probably its target audience. A cousin of mine in Canada went gaga over it. "Even if it changes just one person it would have succeeded," she wrote to me. I showed the letter to Nair who was naturally impressed.

But she was not able to fulfil the Salaam Bombay promise and her later films lack consistency. Her debut film touched a chord in almost every heart and the developed nations had a good insight into how the other half of the world lived. It had an excellent screenplay by Sooni Taraporewala who has worked with Nair in many of her projects.

After Salaam Bombay her next venture was Mississippi Masala which clearly brought out the immigrant feeling through the story of an Indian family moving out from Uganda to the Deep South of the United States. Denzel Washington, then just about starting out, and Sarita Choudhury did a good job and portrayed that mixed feeling about their respective identities. Mississippi Masala was one of the first Indian Diaspora films and today such films have become a genre by themselves.

Her next film The Perez Family followed in the footsteps of Mississippi Masala, the only difference is it dealt with a Cuban family. It also had an impressive cast of Anjelica Huston, Marisa Tomei and Chazz Palminteri but I havenít seen it. May be it wasnít released in India at all.

But her next film Kamasutra : A Love Story was an absolute disaster. In the first place the title was a misnomer. Secondly, she tried in vain to market the Kamasutra factor. Then she made some very defensive statements when it ran into trouble with the censor board. Nair was simply quibbling with words. It was obvious that her marketing ploy failed and her bluff was called. The film, of course, does little justice either to that Indian classic sex manual or whatever love story she had in mind. It was two hours of absolute hogwash apparently meant to titillate. For me it undid the good impression I had formed of Mira Nair as a filmmaker.

The next film I saw of Nairís was My Own Country, a moving story of an immigrant doctor, Abraham Verghese, and his fight against AIDS in Africa. It was a sensitively made film which gave AIDS the importance it so deserves but it also delved into the immigrant issue which by now had become synonymous with Nair.

Then came Monsoon Wedding, and what a delightful entertainer it was. Maybe Nair was at her best in capturing the Delhi-Punjabi culture in all its exuberance. But she didnít hesitate to take a dig at non-resident Indians. It was rambustious, fun-filled, and its climax which blew the lid off the doings of that lecherous uncle had the viewers in shock, reminding one of that Horace Walpole quote, "life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel."