For the hypercommercial Indian film industries, the musical romance film still reigns supreme, yet alternative visions continue to challenge their dominance. Whereas the musicals were surefire box office propositions, more marginal Indian movies relied on private financing and government grants to defray production costs. We have already traced the career of director Ritwik Ghatak, one of the more adventurous Indian filmmakers; in the late 1960s, Mrinal Sen, another excellent contemporary director, began what many consider the Indian New Wave with Bhuvan Shome (Mr. Shome, 1969), the tale of an officious older man whose interaction with a young peasant girl completely alters his life.
The film marked a break from Sen’s earlier, more traditional style (he made his first film, The Dawn, a k a Raat Bhore, in 1956). Sen pressed on with this new direction in his film work with Interview and Calcutta 71 (both 1971), and he later created the self-reflexive Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine, 1980) in which a film crew making a historical drama about the 1943 famine in Bengal runs afoul of the local citizens, who do not wish to be reminded of the past. Other active Indian directors include Aparna Sen, who directed the romantic drama 36 Chow-ringhee Lane (1981), which deals with the end of the British empire in India, and Satyajit Ray’s son, Sandip Ray, who scored with Uttoran (The Broken Journey, 1994), based on a script by his father, in which a wealthy doctor is forced to come to terms with his ethical standards when confronted with the poverty of rural India.
Deepa Mehta began her career as a director working for her father, an Indian film distributor, then honed her craft working on documentary films in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After a sojourn in Canada, where she directed television programs, Mehta made her first feature, Sam Me, in 1991, before embarking on her ambitious trilogy Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005), which explore the rapidly changing roles of women in contemporary Indian society. Fire centers on two women, Sita and Radha, who are both stuck in loveless marriages and eventually find some measure of solace in a lesbian relationship. Earth, set in 1947, deals with a family’s troubles against the backdrop of civil war, and the long-delayed Water, another period piece, details the plight of a young girl who is married and then widowed by the age of eight and forced to live a life of privation as a result. Set in 1938, as the British grip on India was faltering, the film is unrelenting in its exposé of the brutal conditions that marginalized women in India during
this period, and Mehta received death threats as she struggled to complete the project, one of the most uncompromising visions of Indian life ever filmed. In a similar vein, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994) details the life of the bandit renegade Phoolan Devi, a real-life female outlaw who survived grinding poverty and brutal sexism to become a notorious criminal, implicated in a string of kidnappings, robberies, and other crimes, yet emerged as a triumphant feminist heroine for daring to defy the patriarchal power system.
But without a doubt the most influential contemporary Indian director is Mira Nair, whose early films have blossomed into a career that is already rich in accomplishment and promises much for the future. Born in Bhu-baneswar, India, in 1957, Nair worked as an actress in the theater community in New Delhi for three years before coming to the United States to study at Harvard. Jama Masjid Street Journal (1979), a documentary on cultural life in India, was her student thesis film, later screened at New York’s Film Forum in 1986. In 1982, Nair directed So Far from India, an hour-long documentary about a subway newsstand salesman in New York whose wife waits for his return to India.
Nair’s third film, India Cabaret (1985), reveals the marginalized existence of strippers, a unique presentation of the lives of those who work in an industry that most people never discuss; it won several international awards. Salaam Bombay! (1988), a drama centering on Bombay’s street people, won numerous awards and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1989.
Nair’s next film, Mississippi Masala (1991), is an interracial love story in which Demetrius, an African American man (Denzel Washington), falls in love with Meena (Sarita Choudhury), the daughter of an Indian motel owner who strenuously objects to their match. Set in the cultural melting pot of the southern United States, the film is a refreshingly frank look at the politics of racism in America. Nair then made a more conventional Hollywood film, The Perez Family (1995), but returned to India to make the lavish historical spectacle Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996) and the equally colorful Monsoon Wedding (2001), both of which were substantial successes. This was followed by Nair’s adaptation of Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (2004), and then the “culture clash” family drama The Namesake (2006), starring Kal Penn, which was also a commercial success.
Nair was also one of many filmmakers who contributed to 11’09″01— September 11 (2002), an omnibus film about the world’s response to the events of 9/11. Her segment, “India,” joined contributions by Ken Loach (“United Kingdom”), Shohei Imamura (“Japan”), Iran’s Samira Makhmalbaf Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991), with Den-zel Washington and Sarita Choudhury, about love, racism, and ethnic pride among immi-(“God, Construction and Destruction”), Sean Penn grants from India and African Americans.(“USA”), Claude Lelouch (“France”), Amos Gitai (“Israel”), Youssef Chahine (“Egypt”), Idrissa Ouedraogo (“Burkina Faso”), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Mexico”). The remarkable result has never had broad theatrical release in the United States because it is, in part, critical of American foreign policy. Yet as a window into what the rest of the world thinks about the issues of international terrorism, 11’09″ 01—September 11 is an invaluable document for anyone interested in twenty-first-century global politics. In homage to the events of 9/11, each segment is precisely 11 minutes, 9 seconds, and 1 frame long; taken as a whole, the film is sad, angry, and deeply moving.