“My point of view is realistic“
Mira Nair, India’s most successful Hollywood director, was born in 1957 in a small town in Orissa, studied sociology and theatre in New Delhi and Harvard, and has made films since 1979 – first documentary films, then the 1988 docudrama “Salaam Bombay”, which was awarded 23 prizes, followed by six more feature films addressing such issues as flight and expulsion, racism, disease, marriage and family, Eros and exploitation in entertaining, complex, skilfully-told stories.
Mira Nair was born on October 15, 1957 as the third daughter of a civil servant in Bhubaneshwar in the Indian state of Orissa, attending the Irish Catholic school in Simla and then the University of New Delhi, where she studied sociology and theatre. In 1976 she received a scholarship from Harvard, where she continued to study sociology, but – in contrast to her experiences with experimental theatre in India – found the theatre too conventional and static. This prompted her to go into film, which gave her control over the story, the lighting, the gestures and the framework: “Creative freedom is essential for me,” she said in 1998 in an interview with the UNESCO Courier, also noting that she feels drawn to ideas that provoke people, hoping to make them perceive the world differently through stories originating from her part of the world.
And when asked what aspect of her films challenges the normal expectations of an Indian audience, she replied: “Everything. My point of view, from the very first moment. My point of view is realistic, not operetta-like“ (cited in: Der Spiegel, 16. April 2002).
Mira Nair started by making documentaries. Her first film was part of her M. A. dissertation in sociology, encapsulating her observations of a Muslim community in Delhi. She collaborated with filmmakers such as Alfred Guzzeti, Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, investigating the influence of India’s culture and tradition on the lives of ordinary people. Such as the repercussions of the enormous burden of spatial separation on the marriage of an Indian newspaper newsstand owner in New York whose family remained in India. “India Cabaret”, a film about strippers in Bombay, was awarded the prize for best documentary at the 1985 American Film Festival. In her film “Children of Desired Sex“ (1987) Mira Nair examined the pangs of conscience felt by Indian mothers who learn that the child they are bearing is not of the “right” sex.
In 1988 she filmed “Saalam Bombay”, a documentary feature film about the hard but self-determined life of street children in Bombay. For three months before filming she worked with children and young people from the slums, and the resulting film won 23 prizes and awards worldwide, including an Oscar nomination. The story of Chaipau/Krishna, who earns his living delivering tea on the streets of Bombay, and that of his friends and enemies, touches the heart, and the authentic environment of the slums is shown with unvarnished realism. This was a new language of film, and around the world it was immediately understood and enthusiastically received. With the proceeds from the film and the prize money, Mira Nair started a foundation enabling street children in Bombay to receive an education.
In 1991 Mira Nair shot her film “Mississippi Masala” for Hollywood in Uganda and Mississippi. In it she tells the story of Indian immigrants in the American South who were expelled from Uganda in 1972 and must now struggle with the prejudices of experienced and reproduced racism. The daughter’s love affair with a black man brings to light all aspects of a conflict that is depicted ironically and treated seriously. Roger Ebert put it this way: “Of course it was racism that first took the Indians to Africa, where they built railroads, and racism was the reason they were thrown out again. And racism brought the Africans to America. But the fact of having been the victim of others’ racism does not make anyone immune to the prejudices fostered in their own hearts.”
Mira Nair sparked protest by casting her film about Cuban immigrants in Florida with Anjelica Huston, Chazz Palminteri, Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei - but “The Perez Family” won over audiences with its fast-paced, witty dialogue and its unexpected twists. The romantic comedy plays with the common occurrence of the last name and recounts individual fates sympathetically yet without sentimentality. Nair gleefully exposes the grotesque sides of American immigration law, ridiculing them rather than the dreams and hopes of her characters.
Mira Nair’s next film sparked a controversy as well: in “Kama Sutra - A Tale of Love” (1996) she returned to Indian sources to tell the story of Princess Tara and her servant Maya, who fight for the love of the king Raj Singh in 16th century India. Amidst the sumptuous costumes and colours and the ornate architecture of an India that has ceased to be, love and passion are discussed without prudery or self-censorship; the style leaves nothing to be desired in terms of explicitness, yet never slips into pornography. In his film review for the Chicago Sun, Roger Ebert praised the ravishing beauty and dignified gravity of the erotic scenes and found that the two lead actresses were convincing in figure and expression. However, he faulted the plot as unconvincing and the psychology as stale, finding that the aspect of truth had fallen victim to that of beauty. In India, after a number of cuts were made by the censors, the director managed to have the film shown three mornings a week to an exclusively female audience.
In “Monsoon Wedding” (2001) Mira Nair 2001 pulled off a turbulent comedy about a wedding arranged at the last minute for a wealthy Punjab family in Delhi; guests arrive from all over the world. The world of the rich, beautiful and vain is mirrored in the world of the office proletariat, the dependent and barely-noticed. The film won her the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. When asked by an interviewer how she finances her films, Mira Nair replied: “I’m glad that my films actually make money for those who invest in them. For me the most important thing is to have complete freedom when making the film. However, it is very difficult to finance my kind of work in India. That is why I depend on a mixture of financing from international distributors, mainly from Japan and Europe, with a few from India. I don’t want the entire costs to be covered by one person or one film company, since that would lead to many restrictions and dependencies. Then I would have to tailor the film to the needs and interests of the financer instead of making the film I want to make. I believe I have a lot more freedom with 56 million dollars I’ve raised on my own then with 50 million dollars from a single studio.”
In her new film, “Hysterical Blindness”, which is scheduled for release this year, Uma Thurman and Gena Rowlands appear in a story set in the American working class. In an interview with Geoffrey Macnab of The Guardian after “Monsoon Wedding”, Mira Nair admitted that her films always turn out to be quite complicated: “Every time I start a film I say I’ll keep it simple. And every time I end up in one of these circuses.”
Author: Beate-Ursula Endriss
Mira Nair was born on October 15, 1957 in Bhubaneshwar in the Indian state of Orissa, the third daughter of a civil servant. She studied sociology in New Delhi and was involved in theater. In 1976 she received a scholarship to Harvard, where she completed her degree in sociology in 1979 with a documentary film about a Muslim community in Old Delhi. Finding theatre work at Harvard University too dull, she had decided to take to the camera. Her first documentary film was followed by three more: about an Indian newsstand owner who lives in New York, separated from his family in India (“So Far from India”, 1982), about Indian striptease dancers in Bombay (“India Cabaret”, 1985) and about the conflicts for mothers-to-be in India when they learn that their child is to be a girl (“Children of a Desired Sex”, 1987).
Mira Nair achieved world fame with her documentary feature film “Salaam Bombay” (1988); using street children from Bombay, she tells the moving story of Chaipau/Krishna who fights for his form of survival in the slums of Bombay, surrounded by friends and enemies. This film won Nair 23 international awards, including the Golden Camera, the Audience Prize at Cannes, and an Oscar nomination.
In “Mississippi Masala” (1991) Mira Nair tells the story of Indian immigrants who came to the Southern United States in 1972 after being expelled from Uganda. On all its levels, the film reflects the issue of racism. The murder of the South African leader of the Communist Party, Chris Hani, inspired the 1993 video film “The Day the Mercedes became a Hat”. And “The Perez Family” (1995) tells a complex love story about Cuban refugees who end up in Florida at various times. In “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” (1996) Nair explores the erotic aspects of love as an art of living; in India she had to go before the Supreme Court to fight for the right to show the film.
In 1998 Nair examined the problem of identity and the background and hardships of AIDS in “My Own Country”, a film telling the story of an Indian doctor who was born in Ethiopia and practices in Tennessee. In Delhi she shot the 2001 film “Monsoon Wedding”, a turbulent tragicomedy about a family from the Punjab which returns to India from around the world for an arranged wedding and is unable to escape the shadow of its past. And in “Hysterical Blindness”, her latest film, to be released in 2002, Mira Nair will tell a story of the New Jersey working class.
In the year 2002 Mira Nair was the president of the International Jury of the 52nd Berlinale.
Mira Nair has three places of residence: New York, where she teaches at Columbia University, Uganda, where her husband grew up, and New Delhi, where her parents and siblings live. She lives with her second husband, the political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, and her son Zohran.
1985, the prize for Best Documentary at the American Film Festival and the Global Village Film Festival for “India Cabaret”
1988, the Golden Camera and the Audience Prize at Cannes; a nomination for den Academy Award; the Prize of the Film Critics Association in Los Angeles; the Jury Prize at the Montréal Film Festival; the BAFTA Film Prize and many more for “Saalam Bombay”
1991, the Critics’ Prize at the International Film Festival in São Paulo for “Mississippi Masala”
1993, Independent Spirit Award for “Mississippi Masala”
1996, the Golden Seashell at the International Film Festival in San Sebastiàn for “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love”
2001, the Golden Lion in Venice for “Monsoon Wedding”.