I chose to watch the works of Mira Nair, an accomplished director born in India in the late 1950s. Many of her films’ main characters are Indian, and the themes of such are based on cultural situations and values. My evaluation of her works as a whole may be distorted, as I watched some of her more “English” films, such as Vanity Fair, which takes place in London, and New York I Love You, which as the title suggests, is set in the United States. While many of her films could be defined by her role as an “auteur”, I believe the defining characteristic is the constant incorporation of her heritage.
That being said, several of her films seem to illustrate the “strong, independent woman”, or at least focus on the role of women in society. Vanity Fair follows the progression of Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) as she overcomes poverty and enters a high-class society full of financial and romantic drama. Monsoon Wedding explores the experience of an Indian daughter’s arranged-marriage. Even Amelia, which is based on real-events and thus leaves little room for the director’s personal preference plot-wise, tells the story of the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic. Although not always the case, it seems that female directors often take the opportunity to illuminate the power of the woman and create from the female perspective. Browsing Nair’s filmography, however, one will also find The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a thriller featuring a Pakistani man and his search for the American Dream.
So what is the defining characteristic of Mira Nair’s collection? For any director, there will usually be exceptions when it comes to their entire filmography. In Nair’s films, though, her culture constantly shows through. It’s her rich background that influences her audio and visual artwork. Though she was born in India, she now resides in New York City where she teaches in Columbia University’s film department. She also spent time in Africa and is married to Mahmood Mamdani from Uganda. Whether the film features an Indian or African cast, or themes from either culture, she skillfully integrates her personal background throughout her work. New York, I Love You is a very peculiar film, as it is rather story-less. It’s simply a series of short segments that introduce brief relationships, conflicts, or quirky stories. The bright colors and music used especially in the opening segment are very powerful and reflect Indian culture. Such a distinct portrayal of culture provides an interesting take on any film, for it puts a spin on the typical feel of a movie set. Adding a “Bollywood” feel to a New York scene or an English cast generates an unfamiliar experience for the viewer and breaks from some of the stereotypes we typically see in genre.
When a director is so connected to such a strong cultural background and is able to incorporate it into their works without deviating from the script, it creates a fresh experience for the audience. Her influence on the actors themselves is interesting as well; before filming sessions, she has cast members engage in yoga, as she is also a dedicated yoga practitioner. Mira Nair’s filmography has some diversity, but I believe her strong focus on women and Indian culture is the core of her success.