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Mira Nair: Create the world you know

Helmer reflects on filmmaking

This is a transcript of the Variety Cinema Militans Lecture delivered by director Mira Nair at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht on September 29.

I make images in my work. I don’t pen words, especially not words to be delivered from church pulpits. So I experienced great agony writing this essay, particularly since it was also meant for publication, until I began to see it as an opportunity to think aloud with you on what has been possessing my mind of late, in this tumultuous past year since the watershed date of 9/11/01.

I have been reflecting on the torrent of ceaseless images flooding our lives: in print media, TV and of course, in our popular cinema, ultimately asking myself the age-old questions Ter Braak raises in his still-radical essay: what is the role of an artist in any society? What is the place and future of cinema in the world today?

In the new “global village” of incessant images, increasingly I see the failure of mass media to impart actual understanding. This overactive pluralism gives one the illusion of knowing a lot about a lot when actually you know a smattering about nothing at all, leaving in its wake an audience so thoroughly bludgeoned by little bits of information that one is left confused and consequently apathetic politically. Perhaps that is its intention.

As was reported in the New York Times, the fact is that while images have become more and more international, people’s lives have remained astonishingly parochial. This ironic fact of contemporary life is especially troubling in today’s war-mongering times, when so much depends on understanding worlds so different, and consequently totally divided, from one’s own.

In this post 9/11 world, where the schisms of the world are being cemented into huge walls between one belief and way of life and another, now more than ever we need cinema to reveal our tiny local worlds in all their glorious particularity. In my limited experience, it’s when I’ve made a film that’s done full-blown justice to the truths and idiosyncracies of the specifically local, that it crosses over to become surprisingly universal.

Take “Monsoon Wedding,” for instance. I wanted to make an intimate family flick, something out of nothing, a love song to the city of Delhi where I come from, to return to my old habits of guerilla film-making. Except this time, fired by the recent empowering of the Dogme method, I wanted to make a film in just 30 days. That was the original premise: to prove to myself that I didn’t need the juggernaut of millions of dollars, studios, special effects and plenty of men in suits to make a good story in the most interesting visual way possible.

I wanted to capture, first and foremost, the spirit of masti (which means an intoxication with life) inherent in the full-bodied Punjabi community from where I come, and then, to capture the India that I know and love, an India which lives in several centuries at the same time. As Arundhati Roy put it, “as Indian citizens we subsist on a regular diet of caste massacres and nuclear tests, mosque breakings and fashion shows, church burnings and expanding cell phone networks, bonded labor and the digital revolution, female infanticide and the Nasdaq crash, husbands who continue to burn their wives for dowry and our delectable pile of Miss Worlds.”

It couldn’t be said better. Such were the fluid pillars of the India I wanted to put on film — 68 actors, 148 scenes, and one hot monsoon season later, using paintings, jewellery, saris, and furniture taken from relatives on the screen, with each member of my family acting in it, after shooting exactly 30 days, a film was born that then had a journey so different from any expectation (more correctly, non-expectation) that we might have had for it during its making. People from New Delhi to Iceland to Hungary to Brazil to America believed it was their wedding, their family, themselves on that screen — and if they didn’t have a family, they yearned to belong to one like the people they saw on screen.

I didn’t make the film to educate anybody about “my culture and my people” — I believe that to be simply a cultural ambassador of one’s country is boring — rather, if it was made for anybody beyond myself, it was for the people of Delhi to feel and laugh and cry at our own flawed Punjabi (also known as the Party Animals of India) selves.

Uniquely for me, “Monsoon Wedding” was the first of seven films I’d made that was completely embraced by the mainstream Bollywood film industry in India; producers, directors, movie stars, choreographers, musicians alike embraced the film, and for the first time in my 20-odd years as an independent filmmaker — independent really from both the Indian and the American mainstream — I felt the possibility of my work belonging somewhere.

Although the style and form of “Monsoon Wedding” was radical for the Indian public (the entire film was shot with a hand-held camera, reality-based, a host of completely unknown faces mixed in with legendary actors, live singing, no studio shooting, using a mixture of old Indian pop songs with new original music, dialogue that simultaneously used Hindi, English and Punjabi), it continues to play in India almost a year after its release. Perhaps this was because we took a familiar premise — that of an Indian wedding, and of the family drama that surrounds such an event anywhere — and made a “reality check” version of it so different from the normal Bollywood film.

Bollywood, a term for the enormous commercial film industry in Bombay, refers to those grand, epic and over-the-top extravaganzas replete with musical numbers and lavish production values, designed as escapist entertainment for the masses. It is what Ter Braak hilariously describes in his discussion of low cinema, “born among cigarette-chewing youths and giggling maid-servants, received with wild enthusiasm and the honest romanticism of a proletariat yearning for deliverance.”

Despite its inimitable, distinctive style and its current arty-exotic cachet, Bollywood is nothing like cinema of the art-house, New Wave variety, nothing like expressionism — it does not have pretensions of purity. It is defiantly popular, made for the masses and for profit.

Therefore, Bollywood as a cinematic form is necessarily adaptive and composite — a genre welcoming outside influences, not fearing them. In the first place, the filmmakers – always aiming for the broadest possible audience — have had to accommodate the multiple interests of an extremely regional and diverse country. Certain unifying elements – Mahabharata and Ramayana, the foundational epic texts from which many stories derive, and the emphasis in all films on family tradition and local setting – give Bollywood films a broad resonance within India. Furthermore, Bollywood was born under colonialism and brilliantly survives in a post-colonial world.

The Bollywood style is famously adaptive and absorbent, a sponge that had to respond to imperialist influences to survive pre-Independence, and willingly imitated them for profit in more recent years. A common phenomenon in Bombay are the so-called DVD directors who pitch their stories to moviestars using cued scenes from well known Hollywood movies — “it is basically a combination of “The Godfather” meets “Love Story” meets “When Harry Meets Sally”) Western stories from “Jane Eyre” to “Dead Poets’ Society” are retold with Indian characters and production design that very often — ingeniously — play into both Westerners’ and Indians’ idealization of India. This shows a border around India that is both porous and protective, flagrantly absorbing and copying all sorts of influences yet twisting them to make it finally seem inimitably Indian — or to put it more accurately, inimitably Bollywood.

There is much debate on the survival of local cinemas in a global age, and much consternation about the unstoppable wave of American culture, often accused of alternately dulling and diluting art and aesthetic sensibilities around the world. The French have been railing about cultural protectionism from Hollywood for years now. In this context of trying to preserve and cultivate local voices, it is fabulous to see the unflagging energy of Bollywood cinema. Bollywood’s vigor, its staying power and its improbable, flexible hybridity are all results of its huge internal market. Commercially and artistically Bollywood is supple and muscular — much like Indian culture itself.

The mass Indian audience for whom Bollywood films are made is ever-growing and makes the industry hugely profitable, even without taking into account the global reach it has attained. The first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra, was produced in 1913. Thirty thousand films have been made since. Today, 800 films per year are made throughout India, and 12 million people within the country’s borders go to see a Hindi film daily. The booming Bollywood market is self-sustaining and runs parallel to – and undisturbed by – American film exhibition in India. This is before taking into account Bollywood films’ huge market abroad, both as an export to other lands (such as Russia, the Middle East, Africa) and to the far-reaching Indian Diaspora.

Growing up in India in the 60s and 70s in the fairly remote state of Orissa, I was not an aficionado of Bollywood pictures. I did swoon over many of the popular love songs from the movies, but the films themselves did little for me. I was much more interested in stories of real people, the extraordinariness of ordinary life. Initially inspired by “jatra” which is the form of traditional travelling mythological theatre in the countryside, I later became involved with political protest theatre in Calcutta. Then, with eyes focused beyond my own country, I became preoccupied with the Beatles and the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Western avant-garde, guerilla theater, etc. It wasn’t until I went to America for college and began studying film that the “other” Indian movies first reached me: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Guru Dutt, whose emotionalism and visual stylization was actually pure independent film making, but made from within Bollywood. The immediacy and grandeur of these films is a pillar for me now — I rely on seeing one of Guru Dutt’s movies every six months before I make another one of my own.

However, I was the last person to ever imagine that the commercial cinema of the Indian mainstream would have anything whatsoever to do with my own work. Yet, the opportunity to give this lecture has given me a chance to reflect on my own trajectory and I am surprised to find that my home cinema has had a strong influence on my body of work indeed, regardless of my exploration of increasingly motley and disparate cultures.

And in reflecting, I’ve seen that the Indian films’ influence – specifically that unabashed emotional directness, the freewheeling use of music, that emphasis on elemental motivations and values – is a thread running consistently through every one of my films; even when exploring foreign worlds, I have taken the bones and flesh of those societies and tried to infuse them with the spirit of where I’m from. Much of post-imperial scholarship focuses on the Western gaze – and Bollywood itself, as I’ve said, had to adapt to and be constantly aware of the colonialist point of view. I find myself applying an Eastern gaze to Western contexts now, and enjoying the reversal.

Historically, Hollywood has always been open to foreign directors, so long as we have the competence, craft and flair needed to make money. From Erich von Stroheim to Billy Wilder to Ang Lee to Paul Verhoeven to Shekhar Kapur, the doors have opened for us, so long as we understand the bottom line.

In my most recent film, “Hysterical Blindness,” a working-class drama set in New Jersey in the 80s, I found that even in the drab and loveless confines of these bar-hopping girls’ world, the Bollywood approach was just as useful. Half-jokingly, I refer to the style of the film as “American Bleak, Bollywood Style.” Within the frame of “American bleak,” understatement and mundane circumstances notwithstanding, the full-blown emotion was there, waiting to be made overt. People are people, after all, and no matter if we’re trying to portray a loveless reality where desperate women comb neighbourhood bars looking for love, only to find heartbreak, audiences must feel their neuroses as if it is their own.

And now, looking at pre-Victorian London to adapt Thackeray’s gloriously entertaining saga, “Vanity Fair,” I find an enormous panorama of themes familiar to us steeped in Bollywood: a woman who defies her poverty-stricken background to clamber up the social ladder, unrequited love, seduction through song, a mother’s sacrifice for her child, a true gentleman in a corrupt world…..the catalog of human stories remains the same. Moreover, it is a story that comes down to basic human ambition, asking a spiritual, even yogic question: Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied? The bold strokes of Indian cinema are ideal for this canvas, too.

Culture-combining does not have to yield the soulless “Euro-gateau” lamented by Istvan Szabo in Zanussi’s 1993 lecture here. Because, as Zanussi explained, those are films without a center, stories that take place in nameless, unrecognizable cities with a host of European actors desperately attempting a neutral American/English accent, afraid of any eccentricities or distinctiveness that would distract from the mongrelization of the piece.

The Bollywood form, itself an ever-growing collage of cultural influences, is making its way around the world, but retaining its soul. In fact, my only fear as Bollywood seems to cross over into Western commercial screens is that it doesn’t water itself down to suit the Western palate. Lately, Western culture has taken Bollywood styles and incorporated them into the mainstream Hollywood vocabulary: smash-hit movies and plays imitate Bollywood’s musical form and ultra-theatrical style, adapting them to Western contexts (Moulin Rouge, Bombay Dreams). Think of Thora Birch in “Ghost World,” watching a 1950s Hindi dance number and dancing around her room gleefully. She sees a freshness and lustiness totally absent from her Anytown, USA existence. The crazy dance number is delightfully foreign to her, yet through it we also see her small world with new, sharp clarity.

Bollywood’s pure emotional thrust and distinctive vocabulary has authenticity in itself, however manufactured and molded the form has been over the years. In this era of international misunderstanding, as the threat of a global divide– culturally and politically — is more dire than ever, this distinctiveness is to be celebrated. I have always repeated to myself and to my students — “if we don’t tell our stories, no one else will.” The “we” and “our” in the best films is both local and universal. Cinema can mirror an individual’s tiny world, yet reveal infinite other worlds in all their particularity. Film should not behave. It cannot. Cinema is too democratic to be lobotomized into a single way or style.

I always say, There are no rules in making cinema – there is only good cinema or soulless cinema. And as long as there are films made like “In The Mood For Love,” “Angel At My Table,” “Pyaasa,” “Battle Of Algiers,” “Decalogue” and “Time Of The Gypsies,” we’re doing all right. What is happening to the world lies, at the moment, just outside the realm of common understanding. The only revenge is to work, to make cinema that illuminates this common understanding, that destabilizes the dull competence of most of what is produced, that infuses life with idiosyncracy, whimsy, brutality, and like life, that captures the rare but fabulous energy that sometimes emerges from the juxtaposition of tragic and comic.

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