Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Mixing Magic and Alchemy in Mira Nair’s Films” in “News India Times” (5 March 2010).
“Mixing Magic and Alchemy in Mira Nair’s Films” by Kavita Ramdya in “News India Times” (5 March 2010)
Having recently published a book that describes the Bollywood film industry’s cultural relevance and influence in diasporic Indian communities and reading all the hub-bub around Shah Rukh Khan’s recent run-in with Bal Thackeray, writing a retrospective on Mira Nair’s film career is a welcome respite. Mrs. Nair’s films offer glimpses into a world that you don’t see represented on screen in a refreshingly un-stereotyped manner. Even Jason Solomons, who recently hosted “A Life in Pictures: Mira Nair”, describes the director as a formidable force in “world cinema”.
In an interview with Mr. Solomons, Mira Nair described how she found herself in film making: “I stumbled upon film making”. As a child, her driver took her to see “traveling theatre” where she witnessed actors perform the age-old story of good versus evil without the use of any props. While pursuing theatre in her Irish-Catholic school in India she often played men’s roles “because of my deep voice”. For years she thought of herself as an actress and enjoyed performing, even joining a professional theatre group in Delhi. To explain her unconventional choice of studying drama as a young woman in India, Mrs. Nair described how her parents, despite their views to the contrary, focused on her two older brothers which left Mira to act “footloose and fancy free”, exploring “whether theatre could change the world.”
After receiving a scholarship to attend Harvard University where she studied film and majored in Visual Studies, Mrs. Nair was quickly turned off by the limited range of roles offered to Indian women. However, she regularly visited New York where she attended performances at La Mama, a well-respected experimental theatre organization. It was her education at La Mama, she explained to Mr. Solomons, which influenced her in directing “Salaam Bombay!”
“Salaam Bombay!” (1988)
“Salaam Bombay!” won Mrs. Nair the “Golden Camera” award at Cannes Film Festival and international recognition as a director committed to cinéma vérité. Additionally, Mrs. Nair also emerged from the success of the film as an international ambassador for India. So not only did Mrs. Nair capture the influence photography has in her films and her devotion “to the frame” in filming a movie, but “Salaam Bombay!” also gave her the opportunity to influence national policy with regards to children’s welfare in India. Without any foundations for street children in India back in 1987, she and her screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala created the Salaam Baalak Trust, centers for helping street kids.
“Mississippi Masala” (1991)
In her subsequent film, Mrs. Nair transitioned from Mumbai’s urban jungle to Mississippi’s agrarian economy. Describing “Mississippi Masala” as a movie “about being brown between black and white”, the movie portrays the inter-racial romance of an African-American man played by Denzel Washington and a Ugandan Asian as performed by Sarita Choudhury. The film, which contains sociological elements, was a common reference point for the women and men I interviewed in writing my book. The immigrant-Indian community’s reaction to Mrs. Nair’s love story was instrumental in teaching the second-generation Indian Americans that marrying outside the community was still taboo.
“Monsoon Wedding” (2001)
Many of the couples in my book also reference another Nair movie, “Monsoon Wedding”, when describing what their non-Indian friends and family understood to be a “typical” Indian wedding. In her discussion with Mr. Salomons, Mrs. Nair described “Monsoon Wedding” (2001) as one which contains “jadoo”, or magic; scenes from “Monsoon Weddings” are “anti-depressants, magic, alchemy that comes out of the darkest sorrow, child abuse”.
Inspired by her film teaching in South Africa, Mrs. Nair described how she challenged herself to practice what she preached by “making something out of nothing” and experimenting with whether “an interesting movie can be made with one million dollars in thirty days”. She described the beauty of having “no expectations and you’re doing your own thing”.
“Hysterical Blindness” (2002)
Made-for-TV “Hysterical Blindness”, starring Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis, is a huge departure from Nair’s former movies. Shot over twenty-three days, the project gave her the opportunity to practice the craft of film making as well as continue to engage in the theme of female sexuality. What distinguishes “Hysterical Blindness” is its “female gaze”, or Mrs. Nair’s ability to “bring female identity to the camera”. Mrs. Nair discussed how male-dominated cinema lacks sensuality, suggesting that “Erotic is what you don’t see”.
“The Namesake” (2006)
Mrs. Nair described reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel “The Namesake” (2004) just two months after a losing her mother-in-law. Within a year of discussing the project with Mrs. Lahiri, the director began shooting the film which stars Kal Penn, America’s best-known actor of Indian origin who has since left Hollywood to serve as a White House official for President Barak Obama. Mrs. Nair described how she “made the movie because of loss and understanding loss” and how the movie, global in its scope, served as a “platform to connect Calcutta and the USA”.
For her most recent film, “Amelia” starring Richard Gere and Hillary Swank, Mrs. Nair describes how she agreed to direct the movie just days after plans to film “Shantaram” starring Johnny Depp fell apart. Having watched sixteen hours of original reel footage of Amelia Earhart, Mrs. Nair was intrigued by the pilot’s “odd sense of humility”.
Mira Nair’s fans will be happy to learn that she is currently taking “Monsoon Wedding” to Broadway where it will be staged as a musical while working to adapt Mohsin Hamid’s novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” into a movie. In response to why there are so few female directors, Mrs. Nair suggested that the dearth “has to do with confidence. It’s a con game, to be a director. Men can do it, have that kind of chutzpah”. And her final piece of advice for aspiring film makers? “Have the heart of a bird and the skin of an elephant”.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com