Mira Nair - Director





Nationality: Hindi and English. Born: Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, India, 15 October 1957. Education: Studied sociology and theater at the University of New Delhi, where she earned an undergraduate degree; earned a graduate degree in sociology from Harvard University, where she also studied film and directed the documentary Jama Masjid Street Journal for her Master's Degree thesis. Family: Married the cinematographer Mitch Epstein (divorced); married Mahmood Mamdani, son: Zohran. Career: Worked as a repertory actress in New Delhi theater, 1970s; began directing documentaries, working with Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker, 1980s; directed her first fiction feature, Salaam Bombay! , 1988. Awards: Global Village Film Festival Best Documentary, for India Cabaret , 1985; Cannes Film Festival Camera d'Or and Grand Prix du Publique, for Salaam Bombay! , 1988; Los Angeles Film Critics Association New Generation Award, 1988; Venice Film Festival Golden Osella, Sao Paolo International Film Festival Critics Special Award, Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Best Director-Foreign Film, for Mississippi Masala , 1991; Muse Award, New York Women in Film and Television, 1997; Boston Film/Video Association Vision Award, 1997. Address: Mirabai Films, 24 Belmont Avenue, Oranjezicht, Cape Town 8001, India.


Films as Director:

1979

Jama Masjid Street Journal (doc)

1982

So Far from India (doc)

1984

Women and Development (doc)

1985

India Cabaret (for TV) (doc)

1987

Children of a Desired Sex (for TV ) (doc)

1988

Salaam Bombay! (+ co-sc, story, pr)

1991

Mississippi Masala (+ co-sc, pr, ro as Gossip 1)

1993

The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat (short) (+ co-sc, pr)

1995

The Perez Family (+ ro as Woman Buying Flowers)

1996

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (+ co-sc, co-pr)

1998

My Own Country (for TV) (+ ro as Saryu Joshi)

Publications


By NAIR: books—

Nair, Mira, and Sooni Taraporevala, Salaam Bombay! , New Delhi, 1989.

By NAIR: articles—

"'Many Stories in India Are Just Crying out to Be Made'—Mira Nair," interview with M. Purohit and S. Parmar, in Cinema India-International (Bombay), no. 3, 1988.

"Star of India," interview with Brad Kessler and Mitch Epstein, in Interview (New York), September 1988.

Interview with L. Vincenzi, in Millimeter (New York), March 1992.

"Capturing the Rhythms of Life," interview in Film Journal (New York), October/November 1994.


On NAIR: book—

Arora, Poonam, "Production of Third World Subjects for First World Consumption: Salaam Bombay! and Parama," in Carson, Diane, Linda Dittmar, and Janice Welsch, editors, Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism , Minneapolis, 1994.


On NAIR: articles—

Shah, A., "Independents: A Dweller in Two Lands: Mira Nair, Filmmaker," in Cineaste (New York), no. 3, 1987.

Malcolm, Derek, "Lessons of the Street," in Cinema in India (Bombay), no. 3, 1988.

Purohit, M., "Mira Nair Scores a Unique Triumph," in Cinema India-International (Bombay), no. 3, 1988.

James, Caryn, "Mira Nair Combines Cultures to Create a Film," in New York Times , 17 October 1988.

Ochiva, D., "Mira Nair," in Millimeter (New York), January 1989.

"Life Is a Cabaret, the Camera Is a Veil: A File on Mira Nair," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), February 1989.

Van Gelder, L., "At the Movies," in New York Times , 10 March 1989.

Freedman, S. G., "One People in Two Worlds," in New York Times , 2 February 1992.

Outlaw, M., "The Mira Stage," in Village Voice (New York), 18 February 1992.

Simpson, Janice C., "Focusing on the Margins," in Time (New York), 2 March 1992.

Current Biography (New York), 1993.

Anderson, Erika Surat, " Mississippi Masala ," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1993.

Negi, M., "Mira Nair," in Cinemaya (New Delhi), Autumn/Winter 1994/1995.

Vahtera, H., "Mira Nair," in Filmihullu (Helsinki), no. 5, 1995.

Chatterjee, V., "Mira Nair's Better Films," in Deep Focus (Banglagore, India), no. 1, 1996.

Thompson, A. O., "The Look of Love," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1997.

Major, W., "' Kama ' Karma," in Box Office (Chicago), February 1997.

Mira Nair on the set of Mississippi Masala
Mira Nair on the set of Mississippi Masala

Calderale, M., "Filmografie," in Segnocinema (Vicenza, Italy), May/June 1997.

Patel, Vibhuti, "Making a Woman's ' Kama Sutra '," in Ms. (New York), May/June 1997.

Nechak, P., "Mira Nair," in Moviemaker (Los Angeles), May/June/July 1997.

* * *


At their core, the films of Mira Nair are humanist in nature. They spotlight the inequities of traditional, patriarchal Indian society, the manner in which individuals are trapped and victimized because of economic status and gender, and the problems Indians face as they assimilate into foreign cultures.

Prior to directing her first narrative feature, Salaam Bombay! , Nair made several documentaries whose subjects reflect her sociological concerns. Jama Masjid Street Journal explores a Muslim community in Old Delhi; So Far from India portrays an Indian immigrant in New York, and examines his emotions as he is separated from his wife and child back home; Children of a Desired Sex spotlights the problems of pregnant Indian women whose offspring will be girls. Her most acclaimed documentary, India Cabaret , records the lives of female Bombay nightclub performers. Here, Nair investigates the distinction between the traditional Indian woman, who is expected to remain in the home, and her more modern, free-thinking counterpart, who yearns for personal and economic emancipation.

Salaam Bombay! , a drama of the corruption of childhood, won Nair international acclaim. It is a story of lost young souls who, because of poverty and parental abuse, have no control of their lives, and their fates. At the same time, these children somehow manage to grasp onto their innocence. Nair's hero is Krishna (Shafiq Syed), a naive, illiterate ten-year-old country boy grappling for survival amid the mean streets of Bombay, which is a garish metropolis of filth, crime, and superficial glitter. Krishna starts off as a chaipau —a deliverer of tea and bread—and quickly finds himself involved with a prostitute, her sadistic pimp-lover (who doubles as a drug kingpin), a teenager sold by her father as a virgin hooker, and a pathetic, illfated drug dealer.

The scenario is structured as a novel, with all the characters colorfully and three-dimensionally etched. And Nair has crammed the film with memorable images and striking vignettes. Prominent among the latter is the characterization of Manju (Hansa Vithal), daughter of the pimp and whore. Manju is a sweet little girl who is regularly ignored, then smothered with insincere kisses by her mother, and finally cast out into the street. Clearly, she too will be destined for a life of prostitution.

Nair's documentary background impacted on the manner in which she enlisted her actors. Seventeen children are cast in Salaam Bombay! and all are non-professionals, recruited directly off the city's streets. "I knew from the beginning that I had to work with real homeless children," she explained after completing the film. "It was their spirit of survival, plus their inimitable qualities, that I think inspired me to make the film." Indeed, Nair dedicated Salaam Bombay! to "the children of the streets of Bombay."

In Mississippi Masala , her follow-up feature, Nair further explores the issues she examined in India Cabaret. Only here, even though the main female character no longer resides in India, she still must deal with societal and cultural pressures to conform. The film, set in the sleepy Bible-belt town of Greenwood, Mississippi, is a tale of forbidden romance; the lovers are a self-made African-American businessman (Denzel Washington) and a spirited young Indian-American woman (Sarita Choudhury). Mississippi Masala is a chronicle of clashing cultures that is not unlike Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. The point of each, simply put, is that people are people, and are united (or divided) in ways that transcend skin color.

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love may be linked to India Cabaret and Mississippi Masala (as well as Deepa Mehta's Fire ) as a film that explores a subject rarely seen on Western movie screens: sexuality and Indian women. Kama Sutra is the story of two women: Tara (Sarita Choudhury), a 16th-century princess; and the seductive, independent-minded Maya (Indira Varma), her servant. Tara is set to wed a king, but Maya slips into his chamber and seduces him just before the nuptials. So as Tara and her new husband consummate their marriage, he only can think of one woman: Maya. Granted that, plot-wise, Kama Sutra is analogous to a daytime soap opera. But what makes it so compelling is the manner in which Nair portrays a period in history when women were trained to be either courtesans or wives, and her depiction of how, within the framework of that time, one woman manages to take power over her destiny.

Neither Mississippi Masala nor Kama Sutra —or, for that matter, any of her subsequent films—earned Nair the acclaim accorded Salaam Bombay! Yet she remains consistently committed to humanist-oriented scenarios featuring characters who struggle against ignorance and oppression. For example, My Own Country , a made-for-TV movie, is the based-on-fact account of an East Indian doctor who settles in Tennessee and becomes fabled for his compassionate treatment of AIDS patients.

—Rob Edelman

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