The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The critical thrust of Mira Nair’s “small” film

So Mira Nair is filming Vanity Fair next. This engagement with 19th-century Englishness is not as startling as it at first appears. It was implicit in her last film, the flawed but captivating Monsoon Wedding. For Monsoon Wedding is an Austenesque film; its existence would be near-impossible without the space Jane Austen opened up with her novels in the 19th century. That space was large with fictional possibility, but Austen never failed to emphasize its actual smallness; when Nair expressed surprise at the success of her film, because it was, after all, a “small film”, she was speaking in terms that echoed Austen’s quiet pride in her “little bit of ivory, two inches square”. “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on,” Austen wrote in a letter once; and, in the course of her film, Nair reveals how the atmosphere and hidden delights and suffocations of a country town pertain to her characters even though, or precisely because, they belong to the Indian diaspora.

The mid-Nineties saw an Austen revival, culminating in the great commercial success of another film, Sense and Sensibility, based on the first novel that Austen had, with a mixture of modesty and adroit reserve, published anonymously. Why was Emma Thompson’s film, actually based on an Austen novel, and laboriously devoted to recreating the physical details of the time, less Austenesque in temperament than Monsoon Wedding' W.H. Auden summarizes Austen’s achievement rather well in “Letter to Lord Byron”. Like many poets, and “poetic” novelists, including Nabokov, Auden is slightly afraid of Austen’s decorum and sanity. Nevertheless, in a stanza in which he registers his admiration for this “English spinster of the middle class”, he arrives at a pretty fair description of what she’s doing: Austen, he says, reveals “so frankly and with such sobriety/ The economic basis of society”.

Austen’s fascination with marriage, and the circumstances that lead to it, is related to her analysis of the “economic basis of society”; but this isn’t something that interests Emma Thompson. She is more interested in the “love story”, in the forces that separate the couples and bring them together. The “economic basis of society” plays a part in the film, certainly, but in the way that the horses and corsets do, as a piece of verisimilitude. In order to further her intention — to narrate a gentle romance in the style of the old Hollywood musicals, transplanted onto a landscape of English country-houses — Thompson takes liberties with the text: not, in itself, taboo to a filmmaker. In essence, though, she uses the text and banishes Austen — not through the changes wrought upon the story, but through her lack of interest in, and comprehension of, what’s characteristically Austenesque.

Although Monsoon Wedding wasn’t written by Austen, it could, or should, have been written by her. In spite of the charming (a little too charming) sub-plot about the relationship between the servant girl and the man contracted to erect the wedding podium, in spite of the highly-charged emotions of the main story, to do with incest and betrayal, Nair shares with Austen a basic disregard for both excessive charm and excessive emotion, and seems to have Austen’s conviction that, by studying in a dewdrop the reflections of a few families of a newly mercantalized class, she will discover a universe.

Austen’s social knowingness (“Beside her Joyce is as innocent as grass”: Auden again) was partly a reaction against Romanticism. There is a similar reaction, I think, in Monsoon Wedding, which constitutes a turn — comparable to Austen’s location of Englishness in bourgeois interrelationship rather than Romantic vision — towards “Punjabiness” as a synecdoche for the post-modern Indian identity. There’s a wonderful snatch of dialogue in the film, spoken as a couple of guests arrive at the wedding. One of them says, “You Punjabis are so ostentatious!”; to which someone replies, “You Bengalis are so pretentious!”

This smart exchange hints at the critical thrust of Nair’s “small” film; at its timeliness. What is Bengaliness' I think it was, and still is, almost exclusively a metaphor for Indian modernity; as much so in the domain of culture as the “Nehruvian” is in the domain of politics. Its temperament is liberal humanistic; its predilections “high” cultural. It abhors bad taste and the lowbrow; socially, it abhors commerce and trade. It inhabits seemingly uninhabitable contradictions, in the way that classical modernity does everywhere; that is, its provenance is deeply cosmopolitan, but its raison d’être is an authenticity of experience — it despises fakeness. Its relationship to the self is ambivalent; to the world, romantic. It is, while being deeply embedded in bourgeois society, oddly ill-at-ease in the world; it partly desires, echoing Tagore, to be “not here, but elsewhere”.

And what is Punjabiness' It is, in its most popular construction, all that modernity, and Bengaliness, once officially rejected. It is at home in the present; it is at ease with ostentation and what was once called “bad taste”; it has little time for nostalgia; it is driven by the energy of popular rather than “high” culture; it optimistically believes in upward mobility; it embraces, with a peculiar joie de vivre, the material benefits of the world. Bengaliness, and classical modernity, looked down upon Punjabiness; but, with post-modernity, and with India entering the age of global capital, the latter’s time has come. Post-modernity rehabilitates the popular and the materialistic; and Punjabiness, in Mira Nair’s film, becomes an integer of Indian post-modernity and its recent power.

By celebrating Punjabiness, by taking a dig at Bengaliness, Nair is making a break with the past. In order to discover her métier, she is decisively leaving behind the high cultural, modernist, Bengali impetus of Indian art-house cinema, embodied by the early films of Satyajit Ray, whose influence is palpable in Salaam Bombay. In identifying Punjabiness with the post-modern Indian zeitgeist, she is taking a risk, is going against the romantic modernism that must have formed her sensibility as it did that of other filmmakers of her generation. And we realize that Austen, whose realism we now think of as classical and timeless, must have been making a similarly radical break in rejecting Romanticism and arriving at her sane and worldly discourse.

Why was Auden afraid of Austen, and of the sort of novelist she represented' In “Letter to Lord Byron”, he remarks, tongue-in-cheek, “I don’t know whether/ You will agree, but novel writing is/ A higher art than poetry altogether/ In my opinion, and success implies/ Both finer character and faculties.” And the “average poet by comparison/ Is unobservant, immature, and lazy/ …His sense of other people’s very hazy…” I think it’s safe to say that it’s a quality of “grown-upness”, of citizenly responsibility that’s reflected not only in the subject but also in the craft of the 19th-century realist novelist, that intimidates Auden. I once had a conversation with the Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, during which I told him that I’d started out by writing poetry, then turned to prose. Muldoon, nine years older than me, said ruefully, “You grew up. I never grew up.”

To fully enjoy Austen and a certain kind of novel, one must be “grown up”, a participant in a society and even a nation-state: one must abjure the solitary, daydreaming, irresponsible child’s vision of the world. But there is a kind of novelist who, like Muldoon’s poet, never fully grew up, who engages with the social but compulsively transforms it into a private dreamscape, who is uncomfortable with Austenesque “maturity”. Nabokov was one of these — and he resisted reading Austen until Edmund Wilson exhorted him to do so, and never had anything but a grudging admiration for her; rather like an idler’s insincere respect for a pillar of society. Proust, whose subject-matter — bourgeois society — was ostensibly similar to Austen’s, was another who converted the social into regressive private fantasy; into — in other words — poetry.

Frank O’Connor, the great Irish critic and short story writer, once made a distinction between the novel and the short story: the former emerges, he said, from an entrenched mainstream culture, the latter from societies in which an underground sub-culture still exists. But I don’t think O’Connor is speaking so much of two genres here, as of two kinds of sensibility; one, addressing society and even allegorizing it, the other transforming it, almost like a child, within the circumference of its self-consciousness. Have underground sub-cultures ceased to exist in our globalized community' While one thinks of the answer to that question, one can be grateful for Nair’s apotheosis of our new-found maturity and adulthood.

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