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Ethnic Diversity, Identity, and the Films of Mira Nair

The recent crowning of Indian-American Nina Davuluri as Miss America, some of the negative tweets about her—e.g., she was not “American” enough—and the comic treatment of the controversy by Jon Stewart and Aasif Mandvi reminded me of the films of Indian-American director Mira Nair.

mira nair

She grew up in India before furthering her education at Harvard and is presently married to Mahmood Mamdani. Although he is also of Indian origin, he was raised in Uganda before coming to the United States to study at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s, at which time he also joined other northern students who went south to participate in the civil rights movement. Nair’s latest film is The Reluctant Fundamentalist, many of her earlier films appear sporadically on cable channels, and even more are offered by various Netflix and Amazon services. The list includes Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family, Kama Sutra, My Own Country, Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair, The Namesake, and Amelia—see herefor a more complete list of her films, which also includes documentaries.

One of my favorite aspects—and there are many— of Ms. Nair’s films is her treatment of ethnic cultures and diversity, in the United States and elsewhere. In recent decades I have become increasingly convinced of the importance of ethnic identity and people’s culture or subculture in influencing their mindset and actions. The related issues of racism, nationalism, imperialism, globalization—often Westernization—and opposition to it seems also significant, and some of Nair’s films illuminate these subjects as well. (For more on these topics, see my An Age of Progess? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces. )

Two other individuals born in India, Nobel-Prize winning economist Amartya Sen and novelist Salman Rushdie, have written insightfully on ethnic identity. (Fareed Zakaria is still another prominent Indian-born commentator on such global issues.) This is not surprising in that before WWII, British-controlled India also included Pakistan and Bangladesh and even today contains a multitude of ethnic groups—more than 30 languages are spoken in India by 1 million or more people each, and there are almost as many Muslims in India as in neighboring Pakistan. In his Identity and Violence, Sen insists that a good deal of twentieth-century violence flowed from “the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity,” for example, that of nationality, race, or class. He added that “the art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations and in a conveniently bellicose form can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may normally have.” Rushdie, in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, captures well this phenomenon that so often troubled the land of his childhood, “In Punjab, Assam, Kashmir, Meerut—in Delhi, in Calcutta—from time to time they slit their neighbor’s throats. . . . They killed you for being circumcised and they killed you because your foreskins had been left on. Long hair got you murdered and haircuts too; light skin flayed dark skin and if you spoke the wrong language you could lose your twisted tongue.”

Nair’s first film that I saw, Mississippi Masala (1991), reflects U. S. ethnic diversity and Ms. Nair’s insight regarding it. The topic is especially relevant because at the end of last year the U.S. Census Bureau projectedthat by 2043 whites will no longer comprise a majority in the USA. Hispanics, blacks, and Asians have for years been increasing their share of the U.S. population, and that trend will continue. Many people in our country have celebrated our increased diversity; others, especially on the Right of the political spectrum, have become alarmed by it. (African-Americans politicians Herman Cain and Allen West, Hispanic senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and Indian-American governors Niki Haley and Bobby Jindal serve as a reminder, however, that the Republican Party is not completely devoid of ethnic diversity.)

Three years before Mississippi Masala appeared, (1991), Nair had directed her first major film, Salaam Bombay!, which dealt with a 10-year-old homeless street boy in Bombay (now Mumbai). That film earned an Academy Awards’ best-foreign film nomination, but I did not see it until after I enjoyed Mississippi Masala, and it did not focus as much on ethnic differences.

Her movie set in Greenwood, Mississippi is an interracial love story of Indian-American Mina (Sarita Choudhury) and African-American Demetrius (Denzel Washington). It begins with Mina’s family being expelled along with other Indians from Uganda in 1972, and reminds us that ethnic discrimination is a global phenomenon.

mira nair

In Greenwood Mina and Demetrius face pressures and stereotypical thinking from both of their ethnic communities. Although the white population is not dealt with as much, it too, of course, reflects prejudice. And attitudes are also affected by generational differences, with Mina and Demetrius having more flexible attitudes toward race and ethnicity than their parents’ generation. Nair’s characters, however, are believable individuals, and she tells their story with a fine sense of humor that will also often be apparent in many of her later films.

In fact, her Perez Family (1995) is a romantic comedy, and unlike most of her films deals with Hispanics, not Indians or Indian-Americans. The Hispanics are Cuban-Americans, two of them, played by Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei, meeting on a refugee boat coming to Miami from Cuba. As in many of her other films, Nair’s appreciation of the native culture of the immigrants and the challenges they face adjusting to U. S. life is palpable.

After directing Kama Sutra, an erotic tale set in 16th century India, Nair returned to an American setting in the made-for-TV movie, My Own Country (note the significance of the title). It tells the story of an Ethiopian-born Indian doctor, Dr. Abraham Verghese, treating AIDS and HIV patients in Johnson City, Tennessee in the 1980s. And it is based on the highly praised memoir of Verghese (now a professor at Stanford’s Medical School). Here again we witness Nair’s sympathy for the problems of immigrants—the U. S. government classifies him as a Resident Alien.

The beautiful Indian-American wife of Abe (as he is called) has an especially hard time adjusting to life in America, especially when she feels neglected by him, overloaded as he is with AIDS work. In an early tender scene of the couple in bed, with their baby between them, she tells Abe, “I envy you sometimes. My world is so small. All I have here in America is you and the baby. But you, anywhere you go, you’re at home. Your friends are your family.” As in Mississippi Masala, Nair portrays some interaction among the local Indian-American community. Abe also responds to a question from a woman who asks him if his patients don’t see him as “a foreigner.”

There is much more to the film, however, than just ethnic concerns. The insightful book Mercy in Her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair notes that “the ever-present Nair quality of mercy” is present in this film as in so many of her others. Abe’s sympathy for his AIDS patients, many of them, homosexuals, is deep, and the love that two of his male patients have for each other is such that one of Abe’s nurses says, “Lord, I’d die for a man to love me like that.”

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The acting is excellent, especially by Naveen Andrews as Abe—he earlier had a leading role in Kama Sutra—and Glenne Headly, who plays a poor woman who gets AIDS from her husband. And Marisa Tomei again appears in a Nair film, this time as the sister of a brother stricken with the disease.

Nair’s 2001 film, Monsoon Wedding, centers on the wedding preparations and ceremonies of a couple being married in Delhi, but also contains many subplots. The groom is an Indian computer engineer, who has been working in Houston, and he returns to India to marry a woman selected by his family. And he is not alone in coming to the wedding from abroad. Guests also arrive from other countries. The bride and her family are Punjabi—the Punjab area is today divided between India and Pakistan—and the Punjabi and Hindi languages mix with English as the families and guests interact with each other. These diversities, plus the mix of Hollywood and Bollywood (Hindi-language film industry) techniques, as well as that of traditional ceremonies and customs with constant reminders of modernity, such as cell phones and pop music, provide much material for reflection regarding ethnicity, culture, and globalization. Meanwhile, however, Nair’s use of color, dance, and song provide delight to our senses and add to the film’s joyful exuberance.

Vanity Fair (2004), based on William Thackeray’s nineteenth-century British novel, may at first seem to offer little regarding our themes, but there is much about India in the novel and even some added scenes concerning it in the film. Moreover, Nair was influenced by Edward Said’s views in his Culture and Imperialismregarding how India was depicted in British novels. In that an enlightening article on India as portrayed in the film is available, no more will be said here except to add that this film version of the story of the resourceful Becky Sharp (as depicted by Reese Witherspoon) also provides many of the other valued qualities found in other Nair movies.

The Namesake (2006) is adapted from the Indian-American, Pulitzer Prize–winning Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the same name. In Nair’s film, identity is a central issue. The “namesake” of the film, an Indian-American called Gogol (Kal Penn), is named after the famous Russian (actually born in Ukraine) writer Nikolai Gogol. In the film Gogol’s father, Ashoke, tells him that the writer Gogol like himself (Ashoke) also spent most of his life outside his country of birth.

But the writer’s main significance to Ashoke is connected to the circumstances of his reading Gogol’s “The Overcoat” (also translated as “The Cloak” in one free edition) when he was on a train as a young man still living in India. He tells his son (as Dostoevsky once said): “We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat.”

The film’s Gogol (Penn) often comments on his name and sometimes changes it, which reflects back on his sense of identity as an Indian-American. Both in the United States and in India—where his parents wed early in the film and where Gogol, his father, mother, and sister go for a few months many years later, identity remains a central issue. So too does the juxtaposition of Indian and mainstream American ways of life, including marriage and death customs. On one occasion, Gogol’s mother, Ashima, says that she doesn’t want to raise Gogol in the USA but wishes to return to India. But her more Americanized husband responds that America is the land of opportunity and that Gogol can become anything he wants.

As Gogol grows up we witness the central conflict that the sons and daughters of many immigrants must have felt between the old-country customs of their parents and the more dominant American ways. We feel this most acutely when Gogol (now calling himself Nicki) brings his rich, blonde girlfriend home to meet his parents, whom she cluelessly calls by their first names. But just as his identification with his Indian-American heritage seems in danger of ebbing further away, a family tragedy pulls him back and leads him to reidentify with it.

Since Amelia, Nair’s 2009 film about Amelia Earhart (staring Hilary Swank), has little to reveal about the themes of this essay, we finally come to her last film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013). Like The Namesake, it is also based on a novel, only this time by the Pakistani Moshim Hamid, educated like the novel’s hero at Princeton—Hamid also received a degree from Harvard Law School. The central figure in this film is a young man named Changez (British actor Riz Ahmed), who lectures at Lahore University—Lahore is part of the Punjab area that the 1947 partition of British India split into two parts, one going to India, the other (including Lahore) to Pakistan. And Nair’s father was educated in Lahore before the partition.

We learn much of Changez’s previous American experiences in flashbacks as he relates them to a U. S. journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), who works for the CIA. After graduating from Princeton, Changez had become a financial expert —under the tutelage of his boss, Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) — at a company similar to the firm most associated with Mitt Romney, Bain Capital. Like Bain, Cross’s company, Underwood Samson, has a global reach, and Changez sometimes traveled abroad. Like Gogol in The Namesake, he also had an American girlfriend, Erica (Kate Hudson), before a split caused, at least partially, by cultural differences.

After the events of 9/11, which Changez views while in Manila, he is subject to increased prejudice and suspicion, including one humiliating striped-down body search. On a trip with Cross to Istanbul, he quits his job rather than close down the business of a Turkish literary publisher that once published his own father’s poems. Not long after that, he returns to Pakistan and accepts his university position.

Globalization, terrorism, religion, and the CIA are all part of the film’s background. And as usual with Nair’s movies, this one provides excellent entertainment. The central focus, however, as in The Namesake, is again on identity. And again, the central character retreats from pursuing the American Dream of success and status to identify more with his ethnic roots. But in the end we feel that neither Changez nor Gogol retreat into some sort of narrow worldview, but achieve a broader global perspective. As Amartya Sen recognizes in Identity and Violence, our identity is determined by far more than just our ethnicity.

The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician. . . . The prospects of peace in the contemporary world may well lie in the recognition of the plurality of our affiliations and in the use of reasoning as common inhabitants of a wide world, rather than making us into inmates rigidly incarcerated in little containers.

walter moss

I do not think Mira Nair would disagree. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist and other films she simply challenges us to think about how we decide who we are, as well as our values. And about how we balance ethnic or national pride with tolerance, and old ways with new ones.

Walter G. Moss

Thursday, 3 October 2013