Pen Pictures of directors (1): India

Some directors who will feature on the course, who you may wish to investigate:

Deepa Mehta
This Canadian director was born in Amritsar in the Punjab and emigrated after getting her degree in philosophy from Delhi University. She started directing aged 40 in Canada and she is best known internationally for her trilogy of films set in India. This ‘elemental trilogy’ deals with issues relevant to women in Indian society. Fire (1996) looks at a marriage in which a young woman discovers that her husband has married her for convenience and she is drawn into a relationship with her sister-in-law.

Earth (1998) concerns the fate of families caught up in the struggles over Indian partition in 1947 in a story seen from the perspective of a young girl and Water (2005) focuses on the fate of a child bride who is widowed and forced to live in a house with other widows in 1930s Benares. An important aspect of Deepa Mehta’s work is her casting of Shabana Azmi, one of Indian Cinema’s leading female stars, who has herself undertaken several campaigns on feminist issues. Another star, Nandita Das appeared in the first two films of the trilogy and would have joined Shabana Azmi if production on Water had not been halted by the disruption caused by Hindu fundamentalist protestors. For more about Water, read the brief review on our associate blog.

Mira Nair
Born in Orissa, Mira Nair also went to North America to train as a documentary filmmaker, basing herself in the US. She began directing in her early twenties, but first came to international attention with Salaam Bombay in 1988, a documentary-drama about streetchildren in Bombay, funded by public and private investors in India, Channel 4 in the UK and a French production company. In 1991 she made Mississippi Masala, about an inter-racial affair between the daughter of East African Indian immigrants (played by Sarita Choudhury) and an African-American man in the Southern US (played by Denzil Washington). After some less successful films, she finally had a major hit with Monsoon Wedding in 2001, which married the conventions of very different forms of cinema – the loose visual style of European and American Independent Cinema with the intensity of Indian Parallel Cinema and the exuberance of Bollywood.

In 2004 Reese Witherspoon starred in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, which perhaps didn’t get the big audiences it deserved, and in 2006 she directed The Namesake which we will be screening on the course. Again, there is a a brief review of this film on our associate blog.

Although Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta have similar backgrounds and are both ‘diaspora filmmakers’ returning to India to make films, the films themselves look and feel quite different. Deepa Mehta’s films might seem to be more concerned with ‘issues’ and her Indian films have something of the qualities of Indian ‘Parallel Cinema’, the socially conscious ‘alternative cinema’ of the 1970s-80s. This makes Water, with its use of music by A. R. Rahman, the leading composer of Indian popular cinema, particularly interesting as a development. By contrast, Mira Nair seems less concerned with specific issues and more concerned with characters, often, but not always, women. If Mira Nair is a more ‘popular’ director, it is because she chooses to work in ways more associated with popular genre cinema — particularly genres associated with female audiences, such as romance, family saga, melodrama etc.

Both directors have consistently worked with women in prominent production roles. Not surprisingly, women are very often writers, editors and production designers — but none of the films mentioned above are photographed by women. Lydia Dean Pilcher has been Mira Nair’s producer on most of her films.

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