Salute Your Shorts: Mira Nair's Short Films

Movies Features Mira Nair
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Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

Criterion’s new DVD/Blu-Ray release of Monsoon Wedding offers not just a beautiful new print of one of the most successful foreign films ever released in America, but also a majority of its directors short films. Its seven shorts span the length of Mira Nair's career, from just out of school to last year. Perhaps moreso than her feature work, which has included some films that seem made more obviously for pay rather than personal reasons, Nair’s shorts show off a director determined to follow her own voice...even if that’s not always for the best.

Born in India, Nair left her homeland to attend Harvard and pursue a love of acting. But while Nair was trained in the sort of politically active theater scene that was focused on contemporary social commentary, what she found at Harvard was a stuffy reliance on classics by dead white men without an infusion of thought beyond the theater. Nair looked elsewhere for social commentary and soon found herself training in documentary film under the tutelage of the old cinema verite master Richard Leacock. This form appealed to her need to say something about the indignities of the world, which she obtained an especially broad view on after a lifetime of moving from place to place.

After completing her master’s thesis, “Jama Masjid Street Journal,” which focuses on the life of a mosque in Delhi, India and how the director’s thoughts on the subject have changed after living in the west, Nair found herself searching for new subjects to record. Several months of aimlessness later, she found Ashok Sheth, an Indian immigrant working at a subway newsstand nearby where she lived. Nair learned about his wife’s pregnancy and soon afterwards recorded his trip to meet her and the conflicts that naturally arose between him, his family and their future.

“So Far From India” still looks and feels like a student documentary and, while not especially bad, it is incredibly slow and a bit incoherent in its narrative. Nair also rips off Leacock’s style wholeheartedly, which isn’t a bad idea considering how young she was, but does strip much of her voice from the short. But while the documentary isn’t particularly well told, its story is typical of Nair, whose interest in immigration and international relationships can be seen early on, even if it isn’t very polished.

Nair’s follow-up to “So Far From India” feels in some ways like a continuation, at least from a stylistic standpoint. “India Cabaret,” which was her first film to gain any real notice, focuses on women working in a Bombay strip club and their treatment by a society that both condemns and forces them into their situation. “Cabaret” uses the same crew and Nair chooses to narrate the film in a similar manner, but the film is much quicker paced and more focused. Its story isn’t really news, as women are treated in a similar manner worldwide, but Nair’s intimate relationship with the women is present throughout the short.

More important was that with “India Cabaret,” Nair’s ability to tell a story was improving while conversely her patience with documentaries, in specific the verite ones she was trained in, was ending. Her fourth early documentary would be her last for over a decade while Nair moved over to feature films, as she’d learned that political messages could be just as important in fictional filmmaking as it is in documentaries.

After two successful features (Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala), Nair directed “The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat” about the events surrounding her time in South Africa. But while her political progressiveness was a boon to her documentaries and, at the very least, a fundamental part of what sets her features apart, as far as Nair’s fictional shorts go it’s more frequently a hindrance. Nair is another example of what critic Nathan Rabin refers to as “The Morning Paper Auteur."  The term is used to describe a filmmaker who picks up the morning paper, grows increasingly enraged with each article he or she reads, and finally decides to make a film that addresses each possible social ill in the known universe--a trait any Spike Lee fan should be sadly familiar with. My feeling that this is the case is in fact supported by Nair herself, who explains in her introduction to “The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat” that for the film that she did pretty much just that.

Addressing the assassination of South Africa’s Communist Party leader in the way only a truly earnest, well-trained and completely-oblivious director can, “The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat” is about a white family leaving South Africa in the midst of rioting and celebration. It’s way too big for 10 minutes, and while really pretty and containing an amusing reference to a Satyajit Ray short, it’s kind of/sort of a huge freaking mess. Three stories at once, none of which are completely told, it’s beautiful but ultimately so PC as to be irritating.

This is also the problem with Nair's 2002 film “11'09'’01 - September 11,” which is based upon the story of Salman hamdani, a Pakistani American accused of collaboration with Al Qaeda when he in fact died rescuing victims from the World Trade Center. It tries to be too much and tell too big a story, not to mention one that was fairly pat at the time of its release. This mixes with Nair’s other downfall, which is her love for Hollywood melodrama. Nair’s features can’t seem to escape it, and while she’s sometimes able to pull things off in spite of a need for crying families and dramatic monologues (see: Monsoon Wedding), just as often her works end up ham-fisted and almost campy.

“Migration,” her 2007 AIDS film, almost follows suit. Once again, Nair has a good cause that’s in the headlines and finds herself making an inherently melodramatic film over-the-top. This time it’s about AIDS in India and how unprotected sex can not just hurt yourself, but also damage families. What keeps the short from being a bad after-school special is its humorous interlude where a man on the street explains condoms. Since it’s only a minute or so, the segment far from redeems the short, but it does keep it from being a complete failure. Nair is a pretty funny director; it's just that she would prefer to make her characters cry, which is unfortunate for everyone involved.

But despite some not-just-bad-but-truly-irritating works, Nair is capable of greatness. When her instincts are actually firing off correctly, they can lead to quality works regardless of the genre, and her most recent documentary, “The Laughing Club of India,” helps illustrate how important humor is to her success. While driving down a road in India, Nair spotted a huge mass of people all laughing together for no particular reason in, as she says, a way that Fellini would have killed to see. “Laughing Club” records her discoveries about the movement and its place within India. Also: it features lots of old and young Indians from all classes laughing a lot at nothing. The film doesn’t try to say anything per se, but ends up oddly fascinating and as interesting a commentary on Bombay at the turn of the century as anything else out there.

Similarly, her “How Can It Be” takes the politically loaded subject of women’s rights internationally and succeeds by not forcing it into a TV-movie-of-the-week plot. Instead, it tells about a couple and their son who is broken up when his wife makes a decision to leave her life behind and leave with the man she loves. It’s a complicated work because the woman is clearly wrong in her choice, with a child being left behind in favor of a man who seems very unlikely to love her. But that’s not its point, which is that it’s her decision in any case. It’s a short that screams to be expanded into a full-length feature given the complexities of its characters and the beauty of its storytelling.

My reference to Lee earlier wasn’t just because of their tendency mash amalgams of headlines into plots, but because, like Lee, Nair works in both documentary and fiction and has works that run the whole spectrum from great to abysmal. Rabin writes that the qualities that make Lee such an important filmmaker, “audacity, conviction, fearlessness, ambition, vision, a seeming indifference to commercial considerations, and a burning hunger to comment insightfully on the most pressing issues of our time,” are also the ones that frequently make his films truly terrible. I wouldn’t put Nair on the same level as Lee (or her countryman Salman Rushdie, whose fiction/non-fiction masterpiece/flop ratio is also oddly similar), but she’s definitely a voice worth being heard regardless of how far it sometimes goes off key. If only somebody could keep her away from melodrama for a while.

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