Salaam Bombay! (Nair, 1988)

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Chaipau: “Chillum, the sky is spinning.

Chillum: “Let the fucker spin!”

– Two street kids discuss the psychological and spiritual ramifications of drugs.

Mira Nair’s worthy debut film walks a fine line between art house and mainstream, relishing a regional flavor and substance while cleverly hiding familiar character and story archetypes underneath. Nair’s slice of Indian street life isn’t all that original when you break down the elements; pimp/drug dealer, whore with a heart of gold, savvy urchins, social problems run amok. But Salaam Bombay has a charm and grace to offset the tragic subject matter and this can be attributed to Nair’s excellent work with the non-professional actors, especially the child protagonists. She’s a born director and Salaam Bombay has many moments that represent her skill. I just wish Nair would take some more risks with her material (The Namesake being the latest horrific example of her descent into mediocrity).

September 11 (11’09”01) (Various, 2002)

11 films made by 11 directors from 11 different countries working with “complete artistic freedom” tackling contrasting experiences concerning the tragic event. A mouth full, but an admirable goal considering the circumstances. Amazingly, most of the films are a success, especially the three standouts – Samira Makhmalbaf’s opening breath of desert air about an Afghan school teacher attempting to relay the massive scope of the disaster to her students, Idrissa Ouedraogo’s charismatic comedy concerning a group of school boys who think they see Bin Laden in Burkino-Faso, and finally Mira Nair’s heartbreaking story of a Muslim mother whose son goes missing after the towers fall, only to watch the media and the F.B.I. call him a terrorist. Other directors like Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, and Amos Gitai also make an impact with vastly different points of view, using genre as a springboard for emblematic tensions ripe with drama. But there’s a stunning theme of displacement connecting each film, a relentless similarity running parallel to the tragedy unfolding in New York City. It’s not surprising that the American entry, directed to the cinematic edge by Sean Penn, tells of an elderly man (the great Ernest Borgnine) entrenched in darkness, whose sad revelation of loneliness only comes as the towers fall. Have American’s always been this isolationist? Possibly, but September 11 goes to great lengths to jar the viewer (no matter the country) from misjudgment and fear and toward something resembling global compassion.

The Namesake (Nair, 2007)

Mira Nair makes a grave mistake in The Namesake. She centers her latest passion project around Kal Penn, a one note comedic actor who fails miserably at attempting dramatic heft. Penn’s spot on performance undermines each scene with an arrogance and uncertainty that doesn’t match, often leaving the other actors befuddled at his mere presence. On to the typical plot. Nair’s film concerns itself with one Indian family’s journey to America and their origins in the West, yet it adheres to every cliche known to immigrant stories. Every miscommunication, misunderstanding, and resentment between parents and children pops up, producing one painfully obvious scene after another. Nair pushes the melodrama straight down the jugular, painting the parental units as heroic martyrs and the spoiled children as heretics, only worthy of recognition when embracing the native perspective out of guilt. Movies like The Namesake make me angrier than pieces of trash like Transformers and Spider Man 3 because it tries so hard to be “independent” and “risky” by tackling supposed cultural boundaries and familial conflicts. The film treats these issues like fodder for easy consumption, just as a Hollywood film would mindless action, comedy, or horror. So really, The Namesake represents the simplest kind of independent spirit, one built out of lazy execution and tepid drama. Mira Nair has made good films in the past, but her latest dons the robes of mainstream cinema’s worst description – mediocrity incarnate.