Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha came up in the comments when I announced this theme week, and then I remembered Deepa Mehta too, and I struggled with how to handle them. I hope this post works out.
Deepa Mehta was born in 1950, Mira Nair was born in 1957, Gurinder Chadha in 1960. All three women reached their peak success in the early 2000s. They had different paths to success, but what they have in common is that all of a sudden the face of film, in India and beyond, included brown female faces and brown female voices.
Deepa Mehta is the only one of the three women to come from any sort of Indian film background, her father was a distributor. But when she was 23, she married a white Canadian man and left home forever. She met him working on a documentary film crew, in Canada they started their own documentary company and began telling Canadian stories. Deepa didn’t make her first feature film until almost 20 years later, after 20 years of Canadian life, and it told a different kind of Canadian story, about the friendship between a young Indian boy and an older Jewish man in Toronto.
Mira Nair is a citizen of the world, Gurinder Chadha is a citizen of the country that raised her, but Deepa chose her own home and spent 20 years learning and loving it before she turned around, from her new place in the world, to look back at where she came from. The first film in her elements trilogy, Fire, came in 1996 after she had lived in Canada for 23 years and made 3 movies, 2 documentaries, and 2 TV series set in Canada. Fire, Earth, and Water are mirrors held up to India from across the sea, they are a tilted version of Indian films, staring the same actors, in the same places, even with the same music. But they tell stories with a clarity and honesty that is different from the way native Indian films show the world. There are no visual metaphors, no dramatic monologues to the camera, no exotic costumes. They are stories that could have been Indian movies, but different. They may be in Hindi, but they aren’t speaking the language of the Indian audience.
This is a choice Deepa made. She knows that language, she can use it if she wants. In Bollywood/Hollywood, she set a love story among the wealthy NRIs of Toronto and used the plot and framework of a traditional Hindi film, but with the skeleton revealed to us. There are songs, but each one is introduced with a chyron identifying it as “Just Now I Am Missing You Song” or “I’m Simply Sweet and Salty Song”. This isn’t an Indian romance, despite the songs and the stars, this is a Canadian looking back at Indian romances and creating an homage to them.
Mira Nair was born in Odisha. Her father was a civil servant, transferred to Delhi when she was a teenager. She went to excellent Indian schools and for college was accepted at Harvard University in America. From then on, she has been a citizen of the world, in the best possible way. She makes films with funding from America, Canada, all over. She pours her influence and her energies into a film school in Uganda, and a trust fund for street children in Bombay. She teaches and lives in New York City.
Her films are films of the whole world. As an artist, she has broken free of cultural identities and found the universal human stories. Her most recent movie was about an Ugandan chess champion. She directed a Canadian movie about Amelia Earhart, and a big Hollywood film version of a Victorian British novel. She doesn’t make Indian movies, she doesn’t make movies from any particular place, she just makes the movie in front of her.
Maybe it is because she came out of a documentary tradition. She learned how to make films around the story that was there, not the story she wanted it to be. For each fiction film now, she does the same thing, approaches it the same way. Tells the story the way it should be for the story it is. Whether it was her first fiction film Salaam Bombay! about street children in Bombay, or her story of a love story between an Indian American woman and an African American man Mississippi Masala, or her film festival pop hit about Indian weddings, Monsoon Wedding.
And then there is Gurinder Chadha. She is proudly and clearly English. She grew up in Southhall, England’s Indian enclave, daughter of a Sikh shopkeeper. While Mira Nair became a citizen of the world, Gurinder Chadha found her own identity in specificity. She started in broadcast journalism and moved through that to telling stories of the British Asian community, people who are two things at once. After a decade of telling those stories, gaining popularity within the British Asian community for her film Bhaji on the Beach, she came to international success with the film What’s Cooking? A movie which says that we are all two things, we are all something smaller within something greater. It’s a film that has no connection to either her South Asian or British heritage, telling the story of 4 American families celebrating the most American of holidays, Thanksgiving. But it is still telling the story of families struggling within a larger world, just acknowledging that all families have that struggle in some way, everyone is an immigrant.
It was after What’s Cooking? that Chadha found her greatest success with Bend it Like Beckham. Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding broke boundaries at film festivals, brought the world of Indian families and Indian weddings to the public, and showed a new audience how the songs and dances from Hindi films flow in and out of Indian weddings. But it was Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham that introduced the Indian diaspora audience to itself. It’s about finding a way to get around all the obstacles of immigration in order to succeed when no one thinks you can, to bend around and kick that winning goal.
That’s what Chadha did with this movie, she told the story she wanted to tell the way she wanted to tell it, about a Sikh British girl who loves playing soccer and has a sister getting married and a crush on her coach and all the rest of it. She got very very specific, about being Sikh and British, about playing soccer, about being a girl growing up. And somehow all those obstacles, all those specific things that should make the movie hard for the general audience to enjoy, ended up being strengths. Maybe you aren’t a British Asian girl who wants to play soccer, but if you have ever dreamed of anything that you never thought could come true, if you ever had people you love try to protect you from failure by protecting you from the world, if you ever made a friend you didn’t expect, got a crush on someone you shouldn’t have, tried to balance your life between what you need and what your family needs, you can relate to this movie.
I don’t consider Mira Nair or Gurinder Chadha or Deepa Mehta as Indian directors, although they are women of Indian heritage who direct movies. Indian film isn’t just “films made by people with brown skin about people with brown skin”. It’s a specific industry with its own rules, history, training programs, and everything else. Over the course of this week I will be talking about a lot of women who came up through that industry, who did the apprenticeships and struggled to be noticed and heard, who learned how to tell stories the Indian way, who learned how to see the world through the lens of an Indian camera. But Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha and Deepa Mehta matter too, just in a different way. They are Indian woman who chose to tell stories outside of India. And by their very presence, their existence on a world stage, they made things a little easier for the other women back home to be taken seriously. They let them know they had a choice, that they were making a choice. You can go to New York or London or Toronto and make movies for the BBC or Canadian television and win awards at film festivals and get an OBE from the British government. Or you can stay home, dig in, try harder, and decide it is worth it to try, worth it to fight for your place in your own country, in your own industry.