A "masala" is a mixture of hot, colorful spices. Director Mira Nair '79 used it in the title of her last feature film, "Mississippi Masala," because it alludes to her favorite themes of cultural fusion and displacement. And a lot of people can pronounce it. "When I made my first film, 'Jama Masjid Street Journal,'" says Nair, "people couldn't say the name and I hated that." Content to make mouths hiss and burn with "Mississippi Masala"'s pungent melange of African, Indian, and American identities, she prefers to leave tongues untwisted.
Nair sees herself in the very clash of identities that her films represent. But rather than affect a Third World cosmopolitanism, she grounds herself in the particulars of exile, never abandoning her sense of origin. "If you don't know where you come from," she insists, "then you're just knocking about the world, you know." She grew up in Orissa, a region in eastern India. After a brief stint at Delhi University, she came to Harvard, where she discovered "this foolish confidence that you can do anything." She also discovered her interest in film. Arriving in Cambridge, she intended to study theater but found the local acting scene backward and banal: "It was before Brustein was at the Loeb, and Oklahoma! was playing, endlessly. I just quit it and took a course in photography--which I loved, but not for my personality. It was too isolating, and I just loved to work with people. And that...propelled me into the next related thing, which was documentary filmmaking." Harvard's Visual and Environmental Studies Department offered her a rigorous technical training in film, and college life expanded her aesthetic palette, shaping her own colorful and confrontational visual style. She saw her first Satyajit Ray film at the Science Center.
Althought she claims to cringe when people want to show her thesis film, during these years she developed a documentary technique that still informs the movies she makes. For Salaam Bombay, her portrait of street children in the Bombay underworld, she set up acting workshops for these children and led group discussions to learn more about their lives, their speech patterns and attitudes as well as to acquaint them with the filmmaking process.
For "Mississippi Masala," she drove throughout the South, interviewing hundreds of Indian motelowners, and she traveled to Uganda to interview Indians there. It was more difficult for her to research the community life of small-town Southern Blacks: "Knowing the Black life was not that easy for us [Nair and Sooni Taraporevala '79-80, her screenwriting partner for "Salaam Bombay" and "Mississippi Masala"], and we just entered that life in Mississippi. We were two Indian women, and it was unbelievable to us how common that life was to Indian life, how much there was an accent on religion and community and eating together and traditions and not marrying outside of your community."
At Harvard, Nair met and later married her photography teacher, Mitch Epstein; based in New York, the couple worked on each of her films together. She now lives in Uganda with her second husband and their two-years-old son. They bought the idyllic stone house in Kampala that Mina's family leaves behind at the outset of "Mississippi Masala." "I find myself wanting to put roots back into the homeland," she declares. "I just find myself going back there. That's why we've not had our child in America." Withdrawing from America, Nair dedicates herself to the flamboyance of the periphery, to the wisdom of the in-between. Recently in Soweto, she criticized a group of black students for dressing "like they were out of a Spike Lee movie." Nair explains, "They were all looking so American. I was just bemoaning that and telling them that this is not where it's at."
Nair's idea for the interracial love affair in "Mississippi Masala" grew out of her experiences as an undergraduate in Currier House. "At the time," she explains, "there were very few of us [people of color]--both Black or Asian. And I sensed, for instance, among the black men that I was a Third World sister, somebody they could take out on date or go around with." Nair sought to complicate the Black or white model of race relations in America with what she calls a "hierarchy of colors," an insertion of brown in between, When Mina (Sarita Choudhury), an Indian born in Uganda but forced to leave during Idi Amin's expulsion of Asians in 1972, falls in love with Demetrius (Denzel Washington), a African American who owns his own carpet cleaning business, they test the "Third World" kinship cultivated between the black and Indian communities of Greenwood, Mississippi. And it fails--no one supports the lovers' right to be together.
Not even Denzel Washington...at least at first. Nair reports, "The thing he had the worst trouble with in "Masala" is that he refused to be acting like a man in love. He just said. `My God, you know, I'm too cool for that.' And I said, `I can't have it. It's the cornerstone of my movie, and you have to be in stupor in love...I said, `And don't you think that just because I am a woman, I want this love mush stuff. I have to have it.' It was a real, tight war. And then I finally won the war by saying. `Your women audiences are just going to eat you up, Denzel.' I was right. I was right. They scream at him in this movie. More than any other movie."
Despite her success, Nair's interests in people on the margins and in exile often leave her short of cash. "If you make films that are about people of color you have much less money to make them," she explains. After the critical acclaim she received for "Salaam Bombay"--a standing ovation at the Cannes film festival and a nomination for an Academy Award--Nair was approached by Hollywood producers who offered her money, but not to make the movies she wanted to make. "They send you the next sort of Meg Ryan comedy, and you can easily get $20 million...So if you demonstrate that you're not interested and that you're interested in something else, that is a struggle, big struggle." For "Mississippi Masala," Nair lost the backing of several financiers who didn't think movie could succeed without a white protagonist.
Nair would be the first to admit, however, that she seeks a mass audience. "I find myself very much a commercial filmmaker. I really know that I want a big audience. I think in a quirky and funny and funky way, but I also know that I'm not thinking about that just for its own sake. I also think about it in a way that can be interpreted by a bigger audience. Because I want to reach them." In fact. Nair had a $30 million project lined up with Warner Brothers to make an epic movie about the life of Buddha. After a year of research and writing, Warner Brothers, nervous at the prospect of competition from Bertolucci's "Little Buddha" and fearful of the remoteness of the setting, pulled the plug. Nair simply shrugs it off, saying, "I'm too young and too wild." When asked what she thought of Keanu Reeves starring as Buddha in Bertilucci's film, she replies, "I Haven't seen it, so I don't know if it'll work or not. But up until now, it's like, I don't want him to be embarrassed. You know, it's like you don't want your friends to embarrass themselves...But I hope it will work." Pressed to comment on the issue of casting a white actor to play an Indian role, she replies, "I went all around the world looking for my Siddhartha, and I found one. And it wasn't Keanu Reeves. [laughs]"
With her research from the aborted Buddha project, Nair wrote her own film: "Kamasutra," an erotic comedy which takes place in a 15th-century fort out side of Delhi. She relates, "You know [the Kamasutra] is very popularly denigrated as a manual of how to make love. But it has a very deep philosophy attached to it. And the film is about that philosophy. Either you can approach love as...just the skill of making it. Or, if you approach it with a partner,...you have...the skill of making love--but with the spirit. If the spirit is correct and if the technique is with you, then it can approach the ecstasy of, like, the ecstasy of man touching God."
Currently, Nair is shooting a film called "The Perez Family," starring Angelica Huston, about a group of Cubans who were exiled by Castro in 1980. Although this time she didn't write the screenplay, the film promises to explore the familiar subject of people in cultural limbo, to find the universal in the specific--to be her "Miami Masala." There is no end in sight to Nair's criss-crossing the boundaries of identity. The world holds a limitless supply of stories on the fringes of Hollywood formulas, stories that satisfy Nair's outsider sensibility and popular focus.
The material for this article came from a personal interview with Mira Nair and from a taped informal discussion with Nair, sponsored by Education for Action.