Quick hits: Mira Nair edition

Has it really been six months since the last update of the “Quick Hits” feature? Well, TypePad doesn’t lie. This edition focuses on filmmaker Mira Nair. Here we go.

The Namesake (2006), directed by Mira Nair, adapted from the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri’s novel lingers, sometimes dawdles, on details of life in Boston, and the pacing is sometimes so slack that we’re afraid the narrative thread will fall over. It’s never a boring novel, exactly, but she loves her surfaces too much, occasionally, to let them go. In most ways a straightforward American immigrant’s tale, the novel is redeemed by the depth of Lahiri’s characterization. Those nuances provide psychological realism but also, however, a curious flatness. Nair’s film adaptation loses the subtleties of Lahiri’s novel but gains some speed. Kal Penn (as Gogol, the “namesake” of the novel) is entirely too earnest for the role. It’s like he’s broadcasting, “Look, I’m an Americanized Indian, unlike my fresh-off-the-boat parents.” (Lahiri complicates that notion throughout the novel, to hilarious and heartbreaking effect.) Hardly any scenes last long enough to resonate—instead of Lahiri’s long pauses, Nair sprints. To this end, the characters—and characters are what should matter most in such a rote story—come across as abstractions. Tabu and Irrfan Khan, as Gogol’s parents, try to register a sense of displacement and cultural loss; their scenes are often sexy in their calm silences. But their individual lives, rather than their roles as iconic figures, don’t get enough attention. But the whole affair feels rushed, as if Nair’s ticking off marks on a ledger. (“Got the scene where Dad dies suddenly? Check. Got the scene where the immigrant meets the white girl who doesn’t “get” Indianness? Check.”) Although it’s paced more briskly than the novel, Nair’s Namesake feels just as wan in its propulsion. As a viewer, I felt winded but also like I hadn’t gone anywhere. To frustrate me further, for the first time that I can recall, Nair’s sense of color and lush detail has lost her. The Namesake is a decidedly grungy-looking film, with cold blues and browns. Perhaps Nair wanted a sort of emotional and visual de-saturation, as a way of not treating the source material too reverently, but the whole enterprise ends up looking by-the-numbers. C

Vanity Fair (2004), directed by Mira Nair, adapted from the novel by W.M. Thackeray. At first glance, it’s not clear why Nair would be interested but she resolves it gracefully by reminding us, tartly, that 19th-century England’s affairs are inextricably bound up in India’s. Mostly, it’s sly asides—social climber Becky Sharp (wondrous, smart Reese Witherspoon) dancing in a Hindu chamber piece for her benefactor; her true love’s India exhibition, on his family’s estate, at the movie’s beginning; continual references—often snide—about the situation “over there.” But, really, why does Nair need an excuse? Thackeray’s novel is a fascinating exchange about class striving and class struggle, with a heroine who’s interesting because we 1) identify with her climb to the top and slide to the bottom, and 2) because she’s not particularly likeable. Nair and Witherspoon don’t make Becky hateful—Nair reserves most of her scorn for high-toned of the “low born,” best represented by Jonathan Rhys-Myers (himself a merchant’s son) and the hypocritical family that Becky marries into. Still, Becky’s held accountable for her (many) missteps and emotional manipulation. Nair preserves Thackeray’s sharp-tongued dialogue and wry slapstick. She also occasionally tends to act as a cinematic preservationist, in the way that Merchant-Ivory often “recreated” the Victorian era. The pacing and camerawork is stately when it might have served the material better to have some of Becky’s brash verve and forthrightness, and without so much visual reverence for the times. Becky’s jaunty step and impropriety comes through, best, in Nair’s colors, which emphasizes how much India’s visual presence loomed in English culture. B+

Salaam Bombay! (1988), directed by Mira Nair. In Salaam Bombay!, Nair uses documentary tics here—handheld camera, use of non-acting kids (most of them actually lived on the streets at the time of filming), location shooting—but in the service of a thoroughly sentimental narrative that telegraphs its major points a mile away. Despite a roving camera that meanders to follow the people around its protagonist, we still know where it’s all headed from the first frame. And our protagonist isn’t engaging as a person but only as a cipher. Krishna (Shafiq Syed), a young boy, gets abandoned by the circus for which he works, and makes his way to Bombay (Mumbai). He ekes out a hardscrabble existence in a world of fellow street kids, prostitutes, drug dealers, and all-around malcontents. Nair calls up this world lovingly and bitterly at once. Krishna and the kids are the diamonds amidst this squalor but they get ground down, scene by scene, in ways that are utterly predictable. Krishna’s story is bleak, and he provides a lively counterpoint to it with his quick wit and dancing eyes, but his story is nevertheless not especially revealing. The most interesting thing, narrative-wise, about the movie is that Syed never projects the bleakness—it’s the only world he knows, so he doesn’t see it as depressing. To him, it’s just the order of things. B

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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