An internationally renowned filmmaker credited with bringing realism to Indian cinema, Mira Nair is truly the queen of powerful and realistic storytelling. Nair’s unique style of bringing stories to life is spectacular as she strips away the pomposity from filming by exploring real stories of immigrants and issues of displacement, identity crisis and poverty. From making documentaries as a part of her film thesis at Harvard University to producing big-budget Hollywood movies and becoming an Academy Award nominee, the celebrated director and documentary filmmaker’s diverse filmography is the envy of every filmmaker! Let us look at the journey of Mira Nair whose authentic films continue to impact the world!
“I want to open borders, bridge gaps through my films.”
Meet Mira Nair
“I grew up in a very small town which is remote even by Indian standards. I always dreamed of the world.”
Mira Nair was born to Amrit Lal Nair, an IAS officer and Parveen Nayyar, a social worker in 1957 and brought up in the state of Odisha. As a child, Nair took sitar lessons and developed a keen interest in performing arts. She studied at the Loreto Convent in Shimla and moved to Delhi to pursue sociology at Miranda College, Delhi University. During her college, Nair was involved in theatre and later, even pursued acting. Nair was an exceptional student and got a full scholarship to study at Harvard University. At Harvard, she studied filmmaking where she was trained in the art of cinema verité and got into the world of documentary production with her first work titled Jama Masjid Street Journal as a part of her film thesis. Before entering the world of feature films, Nair produced heartfelt documentaries like So Far from India, India Cabaret and Children of a Desired Sex.
While studying at Harvard in 1977, she met her first husband, Mitch Epstein who was pursuing photography at the same university. The couple separated in 1987 and later in 1988 met her second-husband, Mahmood Mamdani, a political scientist and professor at Columbia University. The two met when Nira was working and researching in Uganda on her second film: Mississippi Masala. In 1991, the two got married and had a son, Zohran Mamdani who is a politician and a member of the New York State Assembly. Nair lives across India, Uganda and the USA!
Mastering The Art of Cross-Cultural Filmmaking
“I try to tell stories in which people can see themselves. Not just some people, but all people, and not just in some places, but everywhere.”
Nair entered the world of filmmaking with a bang. Her first film, Salaam Bombay centred around the lives of street kids in Bombay, was immensely successful. The movie won a series of international awards and was nominated for the Oscars in 1989. Nair’s directorial style reflects her documentarian experience, her personal experience as a minority Asian in America, her cross-cultural marriage and her Indian roots.
Afterwards, she directed Mississipi Masala which made it to the Sundance Film Festival earning a grand standing ovation as well as three awards at Venice Film Festival. After directing a few more films, Nair produced Monsoon Wedding, one of her cinematic masterpieces and set in the context of a Punjabi Indian wedding.
She actually shot the movie in just 30 days, borrowing furniture from her own house and even using her own relatives as actors in the movie. The movie clocked in a whopping $30 million internationally and Nair won the Golden Lion award becoming the first person to win this accolade at Venice Film Festival.
Nair made Vanity Fair with Reese Witherspoon because she had read William Makepeace Thackeray during her college years. The Namesake touched a deep personal chord with Nair. She dedicated her film, A Reluctant Fundamentalist to her father who had recently passed away while the Monsoon Wedding happened because Nair felt the need to reconnect with her Indian roots. Each film is intertwined with the remarkable director life and emotions.
Mira Nair has directed some of the greatest cross-cultural movies like Mississippi Masala, Namesake and A Reluctant Fundamentalist; each exploring different themes like interracial romance, identity crisis and feeling of otherness. In 2001, after working on tremendous projects abroad, decided to come back to India and weave a story around her hometown, Delhi and created another masterpiece: The Monsoon Wedding. Nair made Monsoon Wedding in opposition to movies like Hum Aapke Hain Koun; a film everyone could relate it. Her latest mini-series on Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy is another cultural revelation that seamlessly transports you to 1950’s India.
Mira’s films have a universality to them and the emotional depth of the characters possess an international appeal that is tough to replicate and natural to Nair.
Achievements of Mira Nair
“I was seen as an outsider in the beginning and then an object of great envy. All the national directors wanted to be international.”
Nair has been an insider and outsider in the many worlds she inhabits. This is one of the reasons why she is able to transcend worlds in her stories and travel beyond the bounds of conventional films that Bollywood is used to. Her remarkable films are revered for their universal appeal and have won many hearts as well as international accolades.
- In 2012, Mira Nair was awarded the Padma Bhushan by Pratibha Patil, then-President of India.
- Nair’s ‘Salaam Bombay!’ won a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was honored with accolades the Camera d’Or and the Prix du Publique at the Cannes Film Festival.
- Mississippi Masala which was Mira Nair’s second feature film also won several awards at the Venice Film Festival.
- Monsoon Wedding won the Golden Lion at the 2001 Venice Film Festival and was one of the key nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes.
- Her movie, My Own Country won the awarded the NAACP award for best fiction feature.
- Nair has also directed the controversial movie Kama Sutra and the Perez family which explores the journey of Cuban Immigrants in the US.
Other than these awards, Nair has also penned down ‘The Wild Girl’ on her journey as a filmmaker. She is also the founder of the Salaam Balak Foundation as Nair worked with street kids during the shooting of Salaam Bombay and wanted to provide them with a better environment for education and living. Nair also got the offer to direct the fifth movie of the Harry Potter Series but as she was shooting The Namesake at the time, she turned it down. Nair has her own production house called Mirabai Films and runs Maisha, a film school to empower and trains budding screenwriters, actors and directors in East Africa.
Thus, Nair is one of the very few filmmakers in India who have truly transformed the face of filmmaking by focusing on a realistic form of cinematic storytelling! We hope that by reading about Mira Nair’s quest, you might have been inspired to chase your dreams and break the constructed cultural boundaries just as she did. For more exciting content, follow Leverage Edu on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Check out our latest series on Her Vision featuring some of the most awe-inspiring women and their journeys that impacted the world!