The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité, by Amardeep Singh

A pioneering female film auteur receives a long overdue close-up in a book that will appeal to general readers and specialists alike, says Ashvin Devasundaram

January 31, 2019
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In the pantheon of South Asian diasporic film-makers, uniformly slotted into the container category of “world cinema”, Mira Nair stands out as a boundary-breaking female auteur. Amardeep Singh’s rigorously researched and meticulously detailed exploration of her films is a much-needed first foray into chronicling and mapping the cinematic catalogue of this distinctive film voice.

The most conspicuous attribute of Singh’s book is its spectrum-spanning appraisal of Nair’s eclectic oeuvre. Due diligence is accorded to her formative early works. A bespoke chapter focuses on her esoteric documentary short films – the incubators of film form, style and content in whose precincts Nair honed her film-making skills.

Singh asks the self-reflexive question “Why a book on Mira Nair?” rather than a more egalitarian appraisal of other diasporic directors. His answer is that a singular documentary-style “through-line” runs from her inchoate short films to her more celebrated later fiction features – from Jama Masjid Street Journal (1979) to Salaam Bombay! (1988). This premise sets up Singh’s titular paradigm of “diaspora vérité” as a conceptual Rosetta Stone to decipher the riddles of Nair’s multifaceted modes of film-making. While the book endeavours to fashion these documentary realist continuities and consanguinities, its revelation of Nair’s own shape-shifting odyssey of filmic self-discovery from India to America provides deeper disclosures about her transition from fledgling documentarian to empowered female auteur.

Singh is appreciably candid in acknowledging that his self-coined concept’s dependence on documentary realism sits uneasily with several films such as Mississippi Masala (1991), which is punctuated with copious elements of domestic (melo)drama and emotional affect, as is Nair’s family-oriented magnum opus, Monsoon Wedding (2001). Also mentioned is Nair’s idiosyncratic and eyebrow-raising dalliance with Disney Pictures, the financial custodian of Queen of Katwe (2016). Singh’s chapters, therefore, paint a vivid portrait of a versatile and hybrid artist who is willing to operate within the orbits and interstitial spaces of mainstream and marginal film circuits. These sections lead one to ponder whether Nair’s innate protean fluidity may resist even compelling categorisations such as the “diaspora vérité” that Singh adopts as the lodestone of his book. There is scope to scrutinise this concept in more granular detail, and to address similar taxonomies such as Hamid Naficy’s notion of “accented”, “diasporic” and “exilic” cinema. Yet the notion of diaspora vérité will prove a useful springboard and transposable template to appraise the output of a diverse array of diasporic film-makers, specifically Nair’s Canadian and British compatriots Deepa Mehta and Gurinder Chadha.

Singh’s lucid and accessible prose is bound to appeal to general readers and aficionados of Nair’s portfolio, in addition to specialist researchers and scholars. Comprehensive case studies of seminal Nair films are facilitated through a persuasive thematic and cinematic matrix: transgressive feminism in Monsoon Wedding; transcontinental hybrid identities in The Namesake (2006); ghosts of the colonial past conjured in the post-colonial present in Mississippi Masala; post-9/11 “cross-cultural chaos” in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012); and censorship-related controversy aroused by Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996). Particularly compelling is Singh’s analysis of Nair’s aforementioned tour de force, Queen of Katwe, which bears the hallmarks of her previous meditations on marginalised individuals in erstwhile British colonies.

This book is a significant milestone in shining a spotlight on the cinematic canon of a pioneering female film auteur – one who has resided too long in the shadows of scholarly literature.

Ashvin Devasundaram is lecturer in world cinema at Queen Mary University of London.

The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité
By Amardeep Singh
University Press of Mississippi 240pp, £86.50 and £22.50
ISBN 9781496819116 and 21164
Published 15 October 2018

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