Tag: mira nair

Mississippi Masala

Mississippi Masala (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although Jay (Roshan Seth) was born and raised in Uganda, he and his family were forced to pack up their lives and emigrate when Idi Amin, the president in 1972, gave Asians ninety days to leave the country. The ethnic cleansing in Uganda was an event that Jay never chose to move on from, consistently sending letters, despite having established a life in Greenwood, Mississippi, to the Ugandan government. He wishes to sue for the property he had left behind.

Directed by Mira Nair, “Mississippi Masala” is a movie actually about something—and although it was released more than twenty years ago, it remains all the more resonant today. The picture is about race, yes, but it is also more than that. It is about identity and the film explores this subject on three fronts: Jay who considers himself Ugandan first and Indian second; Meena (Sarita Choudhury), Jay’s daughter, who gets romantically involved with a black man, Demetrius (Denzel Washington), despite knowing that her Indian community will disapprove of the relationship; and Demetrius, a carpet cleaner who has his own business, who must deal with the aftermath once everybody in town learns of his private life. Because the lives of the characters have so much depth, it is wise to end the film with some closure but not with a neat little bow.

The romantic and love scenes between Demetrius and Meena stand out. In the movies, seeing two people of color from different ethnic background remains uncommon in the first place, but treating their thoughts and feelings with complexity is rare. They are not reduced to stereotypes. I relished the scenes where the two characters are just talking and getting to know each other. There is always build-up. We learn about their key similarities and differences. We come up with good reasons why they should be together. Yet we acknowledge some of the challenges they might face. Will they hold hands? Kiss? Go to bed? Whatever happens, the chemistry between Washington and Choudhury is undeniable.

Perceptive is a good word to describe the film. A lower level of writing would have made the father a one-dimensional racist who does not want his daughter dating a black man. Deep down, we know Jay is not a racist even though some of his actions suggest he might be. Seth is a performer who fascinates the longer his face remains on a shot. He has a way of always wearing and thereby communicating his character’s painful final experiences in Uganda. Trauma becomes a part of his later choices.

Nair executes the scenes with confidence and flavor. I admired how she takes the time to show little things like how a specific family celebrates a birthday party, how a person sizes up the competition when it comes to winning over a man, how the central couple make love for the first time. Because almost each scene offers something special, combined with a story arc that is not a facsimile of Screenplay 101, what results is a work with a defined perspective, one that challenges, engages, and satiates the viewer.

Some might argue that perhaps it is too ambitious in scope. A valid criticism is that because it must spend time painting a complex picture of Jay’s trauma, Demetrius is not given a more definite or dramatic arc. At times I felt as though he comes across as too much of a nice guy. There is evidence that he grew up in poverty—or at least close to it. We expect to feel a bit of roughness from the character but we never do. Perhaps the writer and director considered that to be a predictable route and simply decided to go against it.

Salaam Bombay!

Salaam Bombay! (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is always a breath of fresh air when one comes across a movie with an attitude that rejects what is typically expected from the plot. This approach benefits the film immensely because the director, Mira Nair, hopes to capture and tell about real lives in Bombay—lives of the prostitutes, drug dealers, pimps, and street children—without the glamour and polish of Hollywood. To tell this story any other way would have been a lie.

Krishna (Shafiq Syed) works in a circus whose owner orders him to run to the nearest store and purchase three cans of Ganesh paan masala. The boy dutifully follows his boss’ order but when he returns, his crew is no longer there. He has an idea: He will use the change from his purchase, go to a ticket booth, and ask the person who works there to book him a ticket to the nearest city.

“Salaam Bombay!,” based on the screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, is like watching a most marvelous dance: so full of vitality, rhythm, and each movement of the subplot demands careful attention for one might miss relishing its subtleties. The picture is equipped with three perspectives: Krishna, who lives, eats, and sleeps on the streets; Chillum (Raghuvir Yadav), a dealer who gets addicted to drugs he is supposed to be selling; and Rekha (Anita Kanwar), a prostitute with a daughter who sits outside while she tends to clients. The director focuses on and balances each perspective with skill, patience, and precision. She makes very interesting choices.

One might wonder what the point is in telling the story of these people. Some might be repelled before even giving the material a chance because the nature of what the characters do is not “respectable”—or something of that sort. On one level, I admired that Nair takes on an approach that is neither offensive nor defensive. Instead, she offers an alternative: Why not tell the story of the marginalized, those we avoid when we see them walking toward our direction, those we may not necessarily think about on a daily basis?

On another level, I admired the writer and director for choosing not to place easy answers on our laps. In a way, the setup is a perfect feel-good story: A boy who does not have a family takes on the streets of Bombay. Surely he must have a happy ending, right? Otherwise, there would be no point of watching the film. Here, such expectations are turned on their heads repeatedly. There are a lot of sad and heartbreaking moments and yet there are glimpses of lightness and hope, too. Oftentimes they are sandwiched and twisted between and through one another that it becomes very difficult to understand our initial feelings from watching a scene. That is how we know we are watching something rich, something that is worth our time.

Given that some of the performers, especially the actual street children, have no acting experience, there is a rawness to how they look and present themselves. However, this is also a limitation because some of the emotions that require being communicated with a dash of complexity and clarity get lost in the process. I wished that some of the other street kids had played more important roles or given more chances to tell their own stories. It seems the director is also aware of this drawback and so the main group of kids that the lead protagonist interacts with is used only when absolutely necessary.

Great films have a handful of things in common. One of them is the background being alive. Shot in real locations rather than a studio, I cherished small details like how a man holds chicken to be sold by their feet, how passengers look absolutely bored or tired while waiting for the train to arrive, how vendors handle their carts and products. There is no detail too small. If only most pictures could have a fraction of the ambition of “Salaam Bombay!”, audiences would likely expect more from the movies.

New York, I Love You

New York, I Love You (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

I’ve been waiting for this movie to be released in theaters for more than a year so I was really excited to see it when it finally was. Unfortunately, out of the ten segments (presented in order of appearances on screen–directed by Jiang Wen, Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Fatih Akin and Joshua Marston) only about five worked for me–the second (starring Natalie Portman and Irrfan Khan), the third (Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci), the fourth (Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q), the fifth (Anton Yelchin, Olivia Thirlby, James Caan and Blake Lively), and the tenth (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman).

I really wanted to love this movie as much as “Paris, je t’aime.” What made the first one so great is the fact that even though we encounter so many different genres and tones throughout the picture, it felt cohesive because we truly get a sense of who the characters were in under five to seven minutes. In “New York, I Love You,” it all feels a little bit too commercial. I felt as though it wanted to impress all kinds of people so much to the point where it held back emotionally and avoided taking risks. I’m also astounded by the fact that there were no homosexual storylines, barely any segments consisting of African-American or Latino characters, and most of clips consisted of a person falling in love or lust with another person. There are many dimensions of love (love for the city, love for a pet, love for oneself…) but it didn’t quite think outside the box. Those missing qualities are crucial to me because New York is supposed to be a melting pot of ethnicities, sexualities and mindsets yet we got to see the same kinds of people time and again. With “Paris, je t’aime,” we get diversity and in more than half of them, there was not a happy ending, which I thought was closer to real life than the stories presented in this film.

The five segments that I thought were standouts had a certain passion in every single one of them, whether it’s about a woman who doesn’t quite feel comfortable about getting married; an artist struggling to read one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s books and whose curiosity of a woman he’s only met through the phone bothered him to the core; a man who thinks one way about a woman turning out to be someone completely different than we all expected; a teenager who goes to prom with a blind date unknowing of the fact that his date is unlike anyone he expected; and a couple celebrating their marriage that lasted for more than sixty years. Those are the kinds of stories I want to tune into and dissect because hidden layers are embedded in them. What I don’t want to see is someone supposedly falling in love unless he or she has something truly significant or different to contribute. The other five segments that I didn’t quite like should have been taken out and replaced by stories from other genres such as horror or science fiction, or they could have had a different mood or perception such as in a black-and-white reality or featuring a person so wasted in drugs–a way in which we could see the world through their eyes. That would have made more sense to me because we are essentially a drug culture. Or it could have featured at least one fashion model or a fashionista because New York is one of the biggest fashion capitals in the world. Instead of really embracing to tackle issues mentioned previously, the movie was way too safe with those other segments.

Having said all of that, I have to admit that I’m particularly hard on this picture. Since I don’t do half-star ratings, it must be said that I consider this a solid two-and-a-half star movie. When I came out of the theater, I was certain that I was going to give it three stars out of four but after thinking about it a little bit, it made me realize how much potential it didn’t use to create a truly magnificent project. For such a fascinating place like New York City, you just can’t play everything safe and get away with it. At least not with me because I’m big on seeing diversity and reality in certain kinds of films, especially in slice-of-life cinema. I’m not saying at all to not see this in theaters. By all means, please do to support a film released only on limited release. But what I want you to take away from this review is the awareness that what’s being presented on this film is not the gritty and dirty New York but the clean, nice New York we see on a prime time television shows.

Hopefully, the next project from this film series would not be as afraid to branch out.