Over the past 20 years, the internationally acclaimed director, screenwriter and producer has shot to fame as one of the modern cinema’s greatest success stories. Originally a documentary film-maker, 46-year-old Nair is well known for her visually dense films that pulsate with life. “Film is a marriage of my interests in the visual arts, theatre and life as it is lived,” she says.
A passion for theatre
As the daughter of a civil servant in the remote town of Bhubaneswar in eastern India, Nair took up amateur dramatics as a teenager and later participated in experimental theatre in Calcutta and at Delhi University. In 1976, at age 18, she received a full scholarship to study theatre and sociology at Harvard University. It was while at Harvard that she abandoned her dream of becoming an actress and “fell into film”. “I discovered that I wanted to be the one in control – telling the story, controlling the light, the gesture, and the frame,“ Nair asserts.
Nair’s cinéma-vérité documentaries, such as the award-winning India Cabaret (1985), a controversial portrait of Bombay strippers, reflect her sociology studies as well as advice from mentors Richard (Ricky) Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. She credits these two pioneering documentary film-makers with inspiring her to make films that realistically portray the human condition.
To achieve the extraordinary realism of her debut feature film Salaam Bombay! (1988), a heart-wrenching chronicle of Bombay street children, Nair set up improvisational theatre workshops for the children and selected the best of the trainees as her young cast. The film earned her more than 25 international awards, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988, as well as the Caméra d’Or Award for best first feature and the Prix du Public at the Cannes Film Festival for the most popular entry.
This success was followed by Mississippi Masala (1991), an interracial love story set in the American South and Uganda, where Nair resides with her husband, scholar Mahmood Mamdani, for part of the year. The film, which won three awards at the Venice Film Festival, was followed by The Perez Family (1993), Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996), My Own Country (1998), The Laughing Club of India (1999), Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Hysterical Blindness (2002).
In 2002 she contributed to 11.09.01, in which 11 renowned film-makers reacted to the tragic events of September 11. A year later, Nair directed a feature film of the William Thackeray classic, Vanity Fair, a provocative period tale that she filmed in Great Britain and India.
Monsoon Wedding, a joyful account of a Punjabi wedding, won the Golden Lion at the 2001 Venice Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film. This enormously popular movie has become one of the highest-grossing foreign films of all time in the United States.
Nair has recently adapted Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling novel, The Namesake which she has filmed in both Calcutta and New York. Her upcoming projects include Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul for HBO, and Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist. There are also plans to take Monsoon Wedding to Broadway.
In addition to her film projects, Mira Nair and her production company Mirabai Films have set up an annual film-makers’ laboratory for young directors in East Africa and South Asia. Passing on her craft is important to Nair, who says that the advice she gives young film-makers and a rule she abides by is: “Trust your instinct”.
The Namesake (2006)
Vanity Fair (2004)
Hysterical Blindness (HBO)
Monsoon Wedding (2000)
My Own Country (1998)
Kama Sutra (1997)
The Perez Family (1995)
The Day the Mercedes became a Hat (1993)
Mississippi Masala (1990)
Salaam Bombay! (1988)
The Laughing Club of India (with Adam Bartos) (1999)
Children of a Desired Sex (1987)
India Cabaret (1985)
So Far From India (1982)
Jama Masjid Street Journal (1979)