Mira Nair: Between Two Worlds

By Michael Fox

We're honoring director Mira Nair at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Join her for an onstage conversation and screening of Monsoon Wedding April 24 at the Castro, and, until then, enjoy this reflection from journalist Michael Fox:

It’s a safe bet that no Mira Nair film will ever include a CGI-generated crowd scene. Not because of the cost, mind you, nor even the artificiality. The truth is the Indian director won’t give up any opportunity to be in the street, in the thick of the fray, surrounded by people, color, noise and the organized chaos—of filmmaking, yes, but of life itself. She is the rare director for whom “movies are life” is neither a personal philosophy nor an abstract credo but a description of the pulsing force present in every frame of her films.

She won’t give up any opportunity to be in the street, in the thick of the fray, surrounded by people, color, noise and the organized chaos—of filmmaking, yes, but of life itself.

You could say that Mira Nair makes action movies, in the sense that all her characters are action figures. From the abandoned Indian boy in her 1988 breakthrough debut Salaam Bombay! to the ambitious Lahore-to-Wall Street vulture capitalist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist to the teenage Ugandan chess prodigy in the forthcoming Queen of Katwe, her subjects are always moving forward. Nair is attracted to the type of protagonist, and the kinds of stories, that mirror her own restless drive from an early age to see the world and grab life with both hands.

And if many of the characters in her rousing body of work must negotiate and navigate two cultures and two worlds, well, so much the better. Having spent spent many years in the United States before relocating to Uganda more than two decades ago, Nair is acutely sensitive to the borders, walls and bridges between peoples.

Her specific yet universal experiences as an outsider, infiltrator, pioneer and assimilator instilled an extraordinary level of empathy. At the same time, she came to appreciate the unrealistic expectations and perceptions of family and friends back home. Nair’s films, consequently, are informed by an exceptional humanism that is exceedingly rare among “action” directors and (tongue no longer pressed firmly in cheek) firmly establishes her as the heir to immortals Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray. Everyone has their reasons, Renoir famously said. To put it another way, there are no villains in a Mira Nair film.

Documentary filmmaking was a way to engage with the world. It was a way to hold a mirror to whatever concerns us as a people, as a society.

Mira Nair was born and raised in the remote village of Bhubaneshwar in the eastern Indian state of Orissa. She was involved in political street theater, particularly in Delhi, where she attended university. After a couple years, Nair pursued and received a scholarship to study acting at Harvard. But she quickly decided that traditional theater didn’t appeal to her and took up photography, which led to documentary filmmaking.

Nair returned to Delhi in 1979 to make her first observational doc, Jama Masjid Street Journal, which she literally shot on the street. Documentary filmmaking, she told an interviewer many years later, “was a way to engage with the world, it was a way to engage visually. I love to look at the frame. I love to look at the world. It was a way to hold a mirror to whatever concerns us as a people, as a society.”

In Far From India (1983), Nair’s initial exploration of evolving individual identity, she shadowed a young Indian embarking on a career in New York. A pair of social-issue docs followed in the mid-‘80s, by which time the young filmmaker had grown frustrated with the primary characteristic of cinema vérité: “Life controlled the film,” is how she described the limits on her expression.

Seeking more command by turning to fiction, but basing the story on the plight of children she’d witnessed, Nair wrote, directed and produced the moving coming-of-age saga Salaam Bombay!. Featuring a cast of nonprofessionals from the street, Nair’s narrative debut won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

All that international recognition enabled the director to use stars Sarita Choudhury, Sharmila Tagore, Denzel Washington and Roshan Seth in her follow-up. The story of an Indian family forced to relocate from Uganda to the American South, Mississippi Masala (1991) received a prize at the Venice Film Festival and did excellent box office at US art houses and the occasional multiplex.

Following the disappointing response to The Perez Family (1995), a Cuban-American immigrant story featuring the talented Marisa Tomei, Anjelica Huston and Alfred Molina, Nair jetted to India to helm a true passion project, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996). In celebrating the sexual freedom of women, the director ran afoul of Indian censors and devoted months fighting for her film’s release—including a clause requiring theaters to schedule women-only screenings.

Continuing to revel in the opportunity to alternate projects in India and North America, Nair directed My Own Country (1998), a TV movie about a real-life East Asian doctor with a focus on infectious diseases who arrived in Tennessee as the AIDS epidemic was peaking.

Nair hungered for the spontaneity and freedom of indie filmmaking, so she decamped to Delhi to make Monsoon Wedding in 30 days with a million bucks. The crowd-pleasing romantic comedy—screening as part of the SFIFF tribute—won the Golden Lion at the 2001 Venice Film Festival and sold more tickets internationally than any Indian film in history. The events of 9/11 cast a pall, needless to say, and Nair responded with one of the nine 11-minute segments (“India”) in the omnibus film 110901—September 11. Then it was back to New Jersey for Hysterical Blindness (2002), a wrenching HBO movie about the romantic travails of best friends that garnered plaudits for Uma Thurman, Juliette Lewis, Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara.

Fluent in financing and adept at dealing with studio executives and private investors alike, Nair is the rare filmmaker who thrives in any setting and on any set. She’s equally comfortable directing A-list actors and nonprofessionals, and flipping between Urdu and English. Multi-character, multilayered ensemble pieces? Nothing to it. Nair possesses yet another marvelous attribute, her impeccable taste in music whether working with a top-drawer composer like Mychael Danna or choosing traditional and contemporary Indian songs for a soundtrack.

Her protagonists don’t grapple with identity issues, or the urge to assimilate, but walk a path through everyone else’s preconceptions, condescension and racism.

Nair spends at least part of every year in Uganda where she met her husband and established residency. In 2004, she founded Maisha, a lab for East African and South Indian filmmakers.

The last decade, like the one before it, has been a globetrotting whirlwind. She helmed projects with iconic female protagonists and assertive stars (Reese Witherspoon in Vanity Fair and Hilary Swank in Amelia), as well as films that examined cross-cultural identity (The Namesake and The Reluctant Fundamentalist).

In every instance, Nair’s characters—often moving between cultures—reject the presumption that to live the life they choose they must conform to society or compromise their principles. Her protagonists don’t grapple with identity issues, or the urge to assimilate, but walk a path through everyone else’s preconceptions, condescension and racism. By championing uniqueness and acceptance, Mira Nair’s films offer a guide to thriving in the modern world.


Michael Fox is a film critic and journalist for KQED Arts, among other outlets, and the curator and host of the Friday night CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute in downtown San Francisco.