<img width=”240″ height=”320″ border=0 alt=”” align=”left” hspace=”10″ vspace=”10″ src=/directory/getdata.asp?about_id=2f914132262c2eff1deeedbf461e4d7e-1> Not many filmmakers have the kind of year that Mira Nair is currently riding. First, Monsoon Wedding, Nair’s highly acclaimed map of a dysfunctional Delhi family beat out heavy competition to walk away with the Best Film/Golden Lion Award at the prestigious 58th annual Venice Film Festival. As if that buzz-generating soirée wasn’t enough, the India-born filmmaker put finishing touches onHysterical Blindness, her new HBO special starring Uma Thurman, just in time for a screening at Sundance Film Festival, the most prestigious film fete in the U.S. Only a couple of days after the Sundance screening, the suddenly in-demand filmmaker was back in L.A. to preside overMonsoon Wedding contending as a finalist for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globe Awards. All this even before the granddaddy of all film fests, Cannes, comes along this spring. For the hardworking filmmaker, the road to L.A. has been eventfully tortuous and sometimes hysterically funny.
On the chosen few, fate occasionally deals an embarrassment of riches, and Mira Nair has certainly hit that streak right about now. From her birth in Bhuvaneshwar, Orissa to conquering globe-trotting film festivals in 2002, the 44-year-old Nair has tracked a wonderful journey of discovery. With her latest works, Nair is now placed in the company of notables Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Launderette) and Damien O’Donnel (East is East) in the international pantheon of names that have achieved respect for their films about the diaspora.
When Mira Nair was growing up in New Delhi, where her extended family still takes up a suburb or two, she was an astute observer of everyday life in the capital. The overlap between her own contemporary family’s existence woven into the fabric of a cosmopolitan melting pot that, like the rest of India, can still be notorious for living in several centuries at once had to be endlessly fascinating. Dissatisfied with the quality of the education she was pursuing in Delhi—a degree in sociology with interest in the stage—Nair decided to apply to colleges overseas. In 1976, at the age of 19, she received a scholarship to study sociology at Harvard.
At Harvard, Nair’s exposure to Western modernity sparked an interest in making a documentary. The result was Jama Masjid Street Journal, a chapter from the lives of a Muslim community in Delhi and, incidentally, an integral part of Mira’s thesis for a master’s degree at Harvard. What followed were a series of documentaries that trained a sharp eye on India’s myriad social dilemmas. India Cabaret traced aging dance-hall girls in Bombay; Children of a Desired Sexspotlighted the always-controversial subject of pre-birth gender selection in India, while the more recent Laughing Clubs of India zoomed in on a yoga-based urban movement centered on using laughter as a panacea for everything from stress relief to fighting certain cancers.
The interest drummed up by her early documentaries, especially India Cabaret, which was well received in the West, eventually gave the newcomer enough motivation to make her first feature film. When Nair’s first feature Salaam Bombay came out in 1988, it became an important and extremely well-received debut film that firmly landed her on the global film map.
Reflecting about working with Nana Patekar, Nair remarked that Patekar’s oratory in the role of Baba in
Salaam impressed her so much that she even briefly considered re-casting Patekar for the role of the king in Kama Sutra. Hollywood was highly impressed with Nair’s feature debut and nominatedSalaam Bombay for a Best Foreign Film Oscar that year.
Then came Mississippi Masala. Tracing a globe-spanning racially sensitive love story between Sarita Chowdhry’s Indian-Ugandan-American beauty and Denzel Washington’s African-American-Southern charmer was a continuation of Nair’s efforts to connect the geopolitical dimensions of race and geography in the diaspora.
“I wanted to explore,” Nair explained, “the idea of the hierarchy of (skin) color—of being brown within the context of black and white. The idea emerged from being an Indian student at an American university, of being considered a ‘third world sister’ by my black friends, and also accessible to my white friends. And yet there (were) invisible lines (existing) between the three communities. I wanted to integrate (this idea) with the notion of home and exile.”
“The Asian expulsion from Uganda,” she continued, “of African-Indians who lived in Uganda and yet thought of India as their mythical home, being expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, ostensibly because of the color of their skin, coming to Mississippi—the cradle of the civil rights movement in the U.S.—where they lived amidst African-Americans who had never known Africa and yet thought of Africa as their mythical home; what would happen with this collision of these two cultures?”
For the exiled Indian-Ugandan community, Mississippi Masala became a landmark film that succinctly summed up the many different roads the exiles took to places as far flung as Manchester, Vancouver, San Francisco, and Auckland. The film’s feisty female protagonist Mina, on the other hand, became one of two of her own archetypal screen models that Nair has come to readily identify with given the filmmaker’s own independent streak. The protagonist from Monsoon Wedding is her other favorite.
With The Perez Family, Nair attempted bridging a different kind of cultural chasm in American life—the Cuban-American experience. While the film did well in Europe, American audiences didn’t take to the story so readily. “Perez,” Nair mused, “was a terrible victim of bad marketing. Marisa (Tomei) was great for me—and for the Cubans, who loved the film. And the Cubanos, like us desis, are very opinionated people about their own heritage.”
The most tumultuous phase of Nair’s celebrated career accompanied the release of her next film,Kama Sutra. The fictionalized sweat-and-skin retelling of medieval court life intertwined with heavy-breathing palace intrigue was immediately castigated for everything from cheap sexploitation of the classic Indian text the film was based on, to accusations of subversion and nefarious intentions for the film’s suggested depictions of homosexuality.
Opposition to Kama Sutra was most vocal from Hindu fundamentalist groups, which exercised their growing power in Indian national politics and especially in Mumbai to allow only a delayed and edited version of the film to be released in India. Just as Mississippi Masala did for a different desi diasporic substrata,Kama Sutra briefly became rallying cry for the increasingly vocal South Asian gay/lesbian movement, especially outside of India.
For a trained sociologist turned filmmaker, the impact of the film on such divergent audiences had to be both nerve wrecking and energizing. The publicity that the controversy generated was priceless. Despite the slightly-better-than-average critical response to Kama Sutra, the film became Nair’s most famed work to date.
Meanwhile, Nair’s non-film ventures also received notice. The Salaam Baalak Trust, a non-profit group Nair helped establish from the profits from Salaam Bombay thrived in providing shelters to street children in Bombay and eventually grew to the starting of 15 more shelters. In her personal life, Nair, who was previously married to an American photographer, later married her current husband Mahmood, an African political specialist of East African-Gujarati origin at Columbia, where Nair also teaches filmmaking. Ever the globetrotting social observer, Nair even accompanied Mahmood back to Uganda while he was doing research on Rwanda.
On the film front following Kama Sutra, meanwhile, Hollywood buzz had Nair at one time all set to direct Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s novel and starring Oprah Winfrey. While Belovedeventually went to Jonathan Demme, the fact that Nair was shortlisted for the project was an ego-boosting seal of approval, especially in the wake of the controversial finish to Kama Sutra.
Fast forward to 2001. Soon after completing principal photography for Monsoon Wedding, Nair received news that threatened to derail the entire project. Disaster struck when extended raw footage from the film was damaged while being shipped from Delhi to the editing room in New York. “We didn’t just lose the film,” recalled Nair, “We lost the heat, we lost the monsoon, we lost the weather.”
The loss of one key sequence appeared insurmountable. A dance sequence filmed in an empty swimming pool had been painstakingly filmed using dozens of actors and nearly 200 extras. The location—a golden one-night opportunity to use the house of a wealthy Delhi industrialist friend of Nair’s family—had come and gone. Now, 300 minutes of precious raw footage was unceremoniously damaged by airport X-ray on the way to New York and nothing but dark clouds loomed over the horizon.
Not one to give up easily—and mercifully thankful for the film’s insurance contract (and settling the resulting claim that was reputedly worth more than Monsoon’s entire budget)—Nair pushed on. Of the four destroyed scenes, three scenes were re-shot and a fourth one was digitally enhanced to restore the pool sequence. “I could buy rain,” the not-so-amused director commented on the re-shoot. “I couldn’t afford the rain when we were shooting (the first time). We didn’t have enough money!”
Nair herself credits the success of “Monsoon,” among other things, to both a simple approach to Delhi’s multipronged ethnic pulse as well as a sharply written script by newcomer Sabrina Dhawan whose younger mindset has nicely tapped into contemporary upper-middle class social and sexual angst. The success of
Monsoon can also be attributed to the realistic gaze at families and the powerful undercurrents that rule the lives of modern Indian yuppies—a startling realization for many Westerners and Indians alike.
“When (one) character goes to sleep,” remarked one overpaid Hindi pop star about a scene fromMonsoon, “she is in a crumpled nightie!” For added doses of realism, Nair even ransacked through the homes of her mother, her sisters-in-law and her brothers to fish for props. The resulting cartload of borrowed housewares pretty much all ended up in the film—including the furniture, the jewelry, the paintings, the saris, and even the underwear!
In addition to winning the grand prize at Venice, the accolades for “Monsoon Wedding” included being nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film and being named one of five entries on India’s short list for Oscar submissions for 2002 (Lagaan finished as India’s official Oscar entry). Then there was Nair’s A-list seating at the Sundance Film Festival, where her newest film Hysterical Blindness was screened, and being named the jury president at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
This higher profile has inevitably raised expectations for Hysterical Blindness, starring Uma Thurman and Gena Rowlands. The film is made by HBO and is due out this spring. It’s screening at Sundance was another rarity for an Indian filmmaker. For now, the shy schoolgirl from Orissa is soaking in the glow of congratulatory telegrams and raspy-voiced interviews. And she deserves every minute of it.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.
has rewritten Nair’s filmography. As the crowning glory of Nair’s work so far, the unassuming neo-verity take on modern Delhi’s urban mosaic has been variously referred to as both “an Altman movie done Punjabi style,” and “orchestrated mayhem.” It has also taken the international film scene by storm, with pun very much intended. “The love song to my home city,” as Nair callsMonsoon, has also made Nair the first woman to win the respected Golden Lion at the Berlin Film Festival. vibrant yet monumentally bittersweet portrait of slum life in Mumbai touched a widespread nerve both in India and abroad. The film appeared to do more than just feed the seemingly insatiable craving in Western audiences to see India through a raw, muddied lens focused on the downtrodden. For added bonus, Nair was also commended for filming entirely on location in the slums using a cast of mostly unknowns.