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Women Director Spotlight: Mira Nair

Filmmaker Mira Nair
Filmmaker Mira Nair By Courtesy of Mirabai Films
By Harkirat Bhullar, Contributing Writer

Director Mira Nair '79, who divides her time between three countries — her birthplace India, Uganda, and the United States — is a world-renowned independent filmmaker. Her films, produced through her company Mirabai Films, are primarily known for their multi-layered, emotionally-moving, and aesthetically-charged stories that pulsate with life. Some of her best-known works include “Salaam Bombay!", “Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake,” “Mississippi Masala,” and “Queen of Katwe.”

Today, Nair is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, but she wasn’t always set on making films. In fact, Nair originally enrolled as a sociology major at Delhi University’s Miranda House, wanting to be an actor. However, when she transferred to Harvard College as a sophomore, she fell in love with the visual mediums of photography and, eventually, film, ultimately becoming a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator. As a student of cinéma verité, she began her career in documentary filmmaking. After a spate of critically acclaimed documentaries such as “India Cabaret,” which follows bar dancers in Mumbai to examine morality in Indian society, Nair transitioned into narrative filmmaking. Her debut “Salaam Bombay!", a crime drama about Mumbai’s street children, won the prestigious Caméra d'Or (Best First Film) at the Cannes Film Festival, and her diverse body of work has only continued to grow.

Although Nair’s films span geographies, cultures, and themes, a common thread is her commitment to infuse realism into the stories she tells. This realism is in large part an extension of Nair’s documentary experience. Her films, which are all broadly dramatic in nature, consistently use real locations. For example, “Queen of Katwe”, which depicts the life of chess-prodigy Phiona Mutesi who lived in Uganda’s Katwe slums, was filmed on-location in the exact same slums. Moreover, many of her actors are picked from a sea of ordinary people who have never before faced the camera. The street children in “Salaam Bombay!” were all selected from the streets of Mumbai, India to create a sense of authenticity. In fact, Nair’s eye for spotting non-actors has led to the discovery of many great talents, such as Sarita Choudhury, Tillotama Shome, and Kamini Khanna. This pursuit of filmmaking through a realistic lens further informs the use of local languages, folk music, and all the aesthetic elements in Nair’s films.

Enabled by this dose of realism, Nair’s art is also steeped in socio-political commentary. In the Golden Lion-winning film “Monsoon Wedding,” for instance, Nair and screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan use the setup of an upper-class Punjabi wedding to not just depict the mélange of modernity and tradition in 21st century India, but also to interrogate the darker issues of class divide, sexism, and the hushed-about sexual abuse inflicted by family members that quietly plague Indian society. However, the beauty of Nair’s work is that the commentary is never didactic. Instead, the inequities are woven in the film as subtly as they are practiced in real life. The exchange of hurt glances, or a throwaway comment are enough to convey the depth of the issue. On the contrary, when a character does seek to question these issues, Nair does not shy away from depicting the messiness of confrontation. For example, in “Monsoon Wedding,” when Ria finally breaks down and reveals her uncle as her molester, Nair follows the hard struggle a family faces in distancing from the uncle out of respect and dealing with society’s judgement.

Above all, however, Nair’s films stand out because of her aesthetic choices. Some of her projects, especially those produced by studios, end up with underwhelming narratives, where her authenticity seems to be compromised by the system she works within. This is definitely true for Nair’s recent BBC series “A Suitable Boy,” about India’s early years of independence, where the screenplay was severely criticized for mostly English dialogues written for Indian characters. Despite the aberrations in narrative, Nair has consistently succeeded with her transportive design. Most significantly, very much like the photographer Alex D. Webb ‘74, Nair constructs frames with an array of colours and multiple layers that capture the richness and energy of the environment, but also the emotional tension driving a scene. By extension, Nair’s choice of music, costume, and set design follow the same transportive template. While Nair is driven by many traditional and contemporary influences when making these artistic decisions, her vision would be incomplete without her long-term collaborators. This includes cinematographer Declan Quinn, production designer Stephanie Carroll, costume designer Arjun Bhasin, and producer Lydia Dean Pilcher.

In a career spanning more than 30 years, Nair has always been and continues to remain an important voice for South Asian stories on screen. And along the way, she has paved the path for many other artists like herself. Nair runs Maisha Film Lab, a non-profit film initiative for training emerging East African filmmakers in Uganda. Her achievements stand as a testament to her philosophy: “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.”

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