The Magic of Mira

By Sonya Rehman

Aspiring filmmakers in Pakistan can certainly learn a thing or two about the art of execution, and the implementation of depth in their productions after watching/studying the works of Mira Nair, an extremely diverse filmmaker.

Spinning her magic

After a total of four documentaries, Nair produced a work of pure brilliance in 1988 – a film by the name of ‘Salaam Bombay’.
Just as an artist paints fervently across a canvas when inspiration strikes – seated in her Director’s chair, Nair created a canvas of visuals which were bold, luminous, gentle and striking…all at once.
Like a palatable mix of a Caesar and Bocconcini salad (gone right).

Screen-written by both Sooni Taraporevala (and Mira Nair), ‘Salaam Bombay’ focuses on the lives of street children dwelling in the perilous slums of Bombay (now Mumbai). What sets the film apart is the fact that the children acting in the movie were actual street children! From the little Shafiq Syed who plays ‘Krishna’ (the film’s protagonist) to his circle of friends, each child underwent a training workshop before the film was finally shot. Infact it is important to note that each child was paid for their participation in the workshop, as well as the movie.

The result? A poignant feature film, peppered with tender humour. A film that gives the underprivileged a face (and a beautiful one at that), which is absent of all forms of pretension…breaking free from sickeningly pseudo depictions, common in films concerning social issues.

What followed simultaneously was the creation of the ‘Salaam Baalak Trust’ in the same year, which to this day, provides education, shelter and guidance to the abandoned street children of Mumbai, Delhi and Bhubhaneshwar.
Nominated for the Oscars (for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’), BAFTA, the Golden Globe and others, ‘Salaam Bombay’ bagged a ‘Golden Camera’ (in 1988) at the Cannes Film Festival, amongst a plethora of others.
And really, to this day, ‘Salaam Bombay’ seems to be Nair’s finest work. Of course, ‘Mississippi Masala’ (starring Denzel Washington), which explored inter-racial relationships and family values, was delightfully executed too.
After four additional feature films and a 35-minute documentary, ‘Monsoon Wedding’ (released in 2001) received raving reviews because it could be ‘identified with’ so intimately by the desi community in both Pakistan, India and overseas.
‘Hysterical Blindness’ starring Uma Thurman (in 2001), ‘Vanity Fair’ starring Reese Witherspoon (in 2004) and as of late, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer prize-winning, ‘The Namesake’ (in 2006), caused ripples as each individual production was churned out.

Whether or not they sky-rocketed at the box office or not, the fact still stands – Mira’s eye for detail, her gift of making her actors stand out, stand ‘defined’ and her ability to give each shot a mood, feel and ‘mini-story’, makes her one of the most observant, intuitive and visionary filmmaker’s of our times.


Method to her magic?

So what makes Mira’s productions a success each time? What is that one element which sets her films apart? See, once you follow the director’s work closely, you will realize, it is the type of scripts Nair chooses to work around that sets the (solid) base of, quite simply, a pretty darned good production.

But choosing a good script is not always easy. However, the answer to that would be, just as an author has to keep his/her audience in mind (whilst penning down a story), a director similarly needs to have a vision for what he/she would like to depict to his/her target audience. It is crucial.

A reason as to why the current preponderance of Star-Plus-ish-Saas-Bahu drama’s (produced by Pakistani production houses and channels), do not cut it with contemporary, ‘evolved’ audiences is pretty self-explanatory, wouldn’t you say? So there you go.

A script is like the type of paper/ canvas that an artist chooses to work with, a particular instrument that a musician feels comfortable to strum or beat.

Sure an artist may attempt to paint a field of daisies on paper meant for charcoal…but the effect wouldn’t be quite right – it would perhaps appear too grainy (as paper for charcoal is quite granular in touch and appearance).
Correspondingly, an electric-guitarist ‘could’ strum on a four-stringed ukulele (a Hawaiian guitar), but playing Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the water’ on it would perhaps wind up sounding too tinny-pop for comfort. The same goes for a script – if a director confuses his/her target audience with a particular ‘unidentifiable’ script; chances are the feature film/soap/short-film/documentary will do miserably once televised.
Take a look at Iranian cinema and you’ll understand what I mean by simple (low-budget) productions with profound scripts.

The way forward

Remember ‘Pehchaan’, the drama series shot in New York by Mehreen Jabbar? It was a series shot quite simply. Minus the glut of drama, it was almost ‘unfussy’ and moved at a very relaxed, albeit, absorbing pace. Recall the dialogues, the characters and their personal stories? Thank Azra Babar (the production’s script-writer) for that.
With light, syrupy jazz instrumentals interspersed here and there – as the actors walked down the streets of the Big Apple – Jabbar’s sensitive aestheticism gave ‘Pehchaan’ a cut above the rest.

It’s just those little things/moments caught in the simplest of shots, which make Jabbar’s work seem so very novel once broadcasted on Pakistani television. And we, the audiences, really hunger for productions like that.
Now with local colleges that include programs in the instruction of filmmaking, coupled with the surfeit of local channels (choc-a-block with air-headed shows/productions), the audience is anticipating better work.
You aspiring filmmakers out there; remain focused – please, enough of the half-baked drama serials and pseudo, bizarre short-films.

Studying the works of South Asian directors (one such being Mira Nair) and exposing oneself to different scripts and stories will give you the ‘edge’ that you may need.
Venture out into the field, speak with people – the masses – you’re creative juices will hit fifth gear. Oh and, while you’re at it, watch ‘Salaam Bombay’!

Instep, The News


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