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Finding Home at the Movies

Internationally acclaimed filmmaker Nair has an 'appetite for life'

By Ella A. Hoffman, Crimson Staff Writer

It seems fitting that Mira Nair, the renowned film director and producer who achieved international acclaim with her hit film Monsoon Wedding, would have come to Harvard because she saw the campus in a movie.

Love Story, the film inflicted upon thousands of first-years each fall during freshman week, presented Nair with her first picture of Harvard. Dissatisfied with her first year at the University of Delhi and on the lookout for a big American University that could give her a scholarship, Nair saw the film and figured that Harvard was a contender, she says.

At Harvard, Nair discovered a burgeoning passion for filmmaking that ripened into a lifelong pursuit.

“I felt blessed that I had found film as a vocation so young...that’s what Harvard really gave me—the ability to find a medium I feel I was meant for,” she says. “I always say it’s is an affliction; I got sick very quickly.”

Her first green attempts at making movies occurred when she was a sophomore at the College in a musty room in the basement of Sever Hall for the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES). Since then, Nair has built an international reputation as a gifted independent filmmaker who declines to conform to the mainstream film industries of either Hollywood or Bollywood, the booming South Asian commercial film industry that produces as many as 800 motion pictures a year.

“It’s just that I’m different,” she says. “I suppose I could work in both mainstreams if I so chose. But it is true also that I am sort of independent by nature and I have a healthy irreverence for authority, so I like to do my own work.”

Nair rejects formulas in favor of spinning unvarnished, starkly honest stories of believable people. Her films resonate with audiences because of their fierce insistence on the truth. Her track record, which includes an Oscar nomination and a host of other accolades, testifies to the success of her efforts.

ROAD TO THE SILVER SCREEN

Nair seems to have always yearned to tell the stories of real people. As a young woman growing up in India in the ’60s and ’70s, Nair was entranced by theater.

“I love to hold a mirror to the world,” she says.

She was captivated by all kinds of progressive theater in India. Nair was at first inspired by “jatra,” a form of traditional traveling mythological theater, before later getting caught up in political protest theater in Calcutta. Eventually, avant-garde and guerilla theater captured her interest.

It was this interest, Nair says, she hoped to pursue when she came to Harvard in the fall of 1976.

Her father let her come half way across the world to college in the United States because Harvard is where the Kennedys went to school, she says.

At the outset, Nair did pursue her passion for theater, starring in a Puerto Rican adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone. In her first semester at Harvard, she won the Boylston Prize for her delivery of one of Jocasta’s speeches from Oedipus Rex.

But she rapidly discovered that Harvard theater was too staid and conventional for her experimental taste. “It was like Oklahoma! played forever, and I had no relationship to hoopskirts,” Nair says of the Harvard theater scene.

As for academics, she turned to sociology, in which she earned her A.B. degree. But a portfolio of landscape photographs, which she had taken as a summer school student, also gained Nair entrance into the expanding VES department, then capped at 10 students per year.

She says she found photography, however, too distant and impersonal a medium. Nair then experimented in making films under the tutelage of the Hooker Professor of Visual Arts Alfred Guzzetti and MIT’s Richard Leacock, who are considered among the founders of Cinema Verite, in their documentary film classes.

It was in their film classes that Nair found her niche, she says. And her professors quickly recognized her talent.

“It was clear how brilliant she was,” Guzzetti says.

The makings of the producer and director she would later become were sown early on in some of her first film classes. “Other people looked to her to set the tone of things or to summarize ideas,” Guzzetti says. “She was the point around which things tended to coalesce.”

However, he says that despite her obvious talent, Nair’s true strong suit lay in her “appetite for life,” to which he credits her success.

“I think that’s what I respond to and that’s what you see in the films,” he says.

“It showed through even in college, he adds. “[You would think] she would have been the prima donna in the class, she just pulled her oar.”

While Guzzetti says Nair felt uncomfortable with “technical stuff,” he says Nair always had “an eye” for seeing a story from start to finish.

“She has an instinct for how something will be read by the viewers, how it will play to the audience. She had a sense of the image and the eloquence of the image,” he says.

For her thesis, Nair submitted the 18-minute “Jama Masjid Street Journal,” a documentary that observes a Muslim community in old Delhi and which Guzzetti praises as “wonderful.”

Nair continued making these kind of cinema verite documentary films for seven years after she graduated, but she eventually yearned for the freedom of fiction.

“I began to want larger audiences for my work and I began to want to have more control over telling the story,” she says. Nair says that her first foray into fictional filmmaking was driven by the desire to make a film of street kids in the style of a documentary.

A TALE OF SUCCESS

The resulting movie, Salaam Bombay!, was Nair’s 1988 debut feature film. It tells the story of the hand-to-mouth existence of a group of street kids in Bombay, bringing Nair to the fore of the public’s attention and earning her an Oscar nomination. Nair went on to prove with her subsequent films that her success was no mere beginner’s luck.

Mississippi Masala, an interracial love story set in the American South and Uganda and that starred Denzel Washington, won three awards at the Venice Film Festival, including Best Screenplay and the Audience Choice Award. Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, which she directed and co-wrote, is a sexually explicit and opulent film, which weaves the tale of two women in 16th century India who look to the ancient text of the Kama Sutra to guide them in their exploration of love.

In summer 2000, Nair shot Monsoon Wedding—the film that finally caught the American public’s attention and catapulted Nair to international stardom.

“Sixty-eight actors, 148 scenes, and one hot monsoon season later, using paintings, jewelry, saris, and furniture taken from relatives on the screen, with each member of my family acting in it, after shooting exactly 30 days, a film was born that then had a journey so different from any expectation (more correctly, non-expectation) that we might have had for it during its making,” Nair said in a lecture at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht on Sept. 29.

Monsoon Wedding met with tremendous critical acclaim, winning a Golden Lion at the 2001 Venice Film Festival—making Nair the first woman to do so—as well as a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It also saw commercial success, becoming the eighth-highest-grossing foreign film ever released in the United States.

The film, shot entirely with handheld cameras—a throwback to Nair’s years as a documentary filmmaker—follows five stories through the days leading up to an upper-class Punjabi wedding.

“I wanted to make an intimate family flick, something out of nothing, a love song to the city of Delhi where I come from, to return to my old habits of guerilla film-making,” she said in the lecture at the Netherlands Film Festival.

Nair’s film is a departure from the stock Bollywood wedding epic, which tends to revolve around dozens of highly choreographed dance ensembles, dazzling costumes and a simple plot culminating in a happy ending. Nair’s film, though fictional, tells an eminently believable story. But the movie was never created for a Western audience or with the view of changing perceptions of Indian culture, she says.

“The point of view in Monsoon Wedding is not designed for Western eyes; the point of view is to be true to the culture itself,” Nair says. “When you can capture the culture it becomes universal. That’s the difference and that’s the power...people really identify with it whether from Hungary or Iceland.”

Her movie is perhaps more powerful because of the chord it struck with its viewers from the South Asian diaspora.

“Parents [who emigrated from India] have come here and said thank you for making Indian culture something that my kids love,” Nair says. “They say, ‘you have made it not just like homework but like something they really enjoy.’”

In the past, Nair has resolutely refused suggestions that she plays the role of cultural ambassador, but she now expresses a sense of responsibility to her Indian audience.

“I find a new thing in myself,” she says. She believes she disappoints people in India when she is not working on a movie set in or about India, she says. “They ask, ‘nothing for us?’” Nair says.

“I always think that the presence of people who look like us on screen validates us,” she says. “Because of this yearning from an audience, I do feel a pull within myself to not stray too far for making things for this audience. I want to see brown people on screen.”

PREVIEW

Despite her commitment to India, Nair’s upcoming film, which opens this fall, is Vanity Fair, based William Makepeace Thackery’s bumpy story of an ambitious and manipulative girl who clambers up the social ladder in 19th century England.

And, for the first time since she performed on the Loeb mainstage, Nair is returning to her theater roots. She plans to take Monsoon Wedding to Broadway, producing and directing the stage version.

Although it has not yet been formally announced, she says she will also dramatize The Namesake: A Novel, by Jhumpa Lahiri. She also plans to do Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul for HBO, and Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist.

Nair has also recently received the go-ahead and secured much of the funding for a long standing dream of hers: establishing a nonprofit East African film laboratory called Maisha to be launched in July 2005. The project will bring together 12 young film makers—four of them South Asian, four East African students and four from the Asian and African diaspora—with established mentors to learn script writing and direction.

“It’s really great because in the entire continent of Africa there is nowhere a young person can dream of making images of his or her reality,” she says.

In addition, just a few months ago Nair founded a new production company in addition to Mirabai Films, which she started in 1989. Called the International Bhenji Brigade—which means ‘uncool sister’ in Hindi—this production company aims to discover and produce the films of South Asian talent.

While working on these various projects, Nair divides her time primarily between New York, where her son Zohran attends school and her husband Mahmood Mamdani is a government professor at Columbia University, and her home in Kampala, Uganda, where Nair is an avid gardener. Her family also spends time in a home in New Delhi.

—Staff writer Ella A. Hoffman can be reached at ehoffman@fas.harvard.edu

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