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Thought Leader and Global Citizen, India’s Filmmaker Mira Nair

Chatting with Mira Nair at the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council (MIAAC) Film Festival in New York City. Photo: John Lee.

“I want my films to work in multi-cultures. To play in Calcutta and New York. I want it all – and I want my films to work in both India and the U.S.

New York, N.Y. I braved freezing weather recently to hear Mira Nair speak at the President’s Forum at the Upper East Side’s Asia Society (video).  It crossed my mind that I could write a story on her work.

I failed to grasp her work – as both a humanitarian and a filmmaker – was so vast it would become a three-part series, to run across my columns in the Huffington Post (her life), Daily Kos (film reviews), and the Stewardship Report (her film school in Uganda).

Mira Nair spoke at President Vishakha Desai’s Forum Asia Society in New York.

Her work in film is legendary, from early films such as Salaam Bombay! (1988), and Mississippi Masala (1991), to Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996).

Then, she made Monsoon Wedding (2001), and Vanity Fair (2004). Her latest movie is Amelia (2009).

In her spare time she directed a short film in New York, I Love You, a romantic-drama anthology of love stories set in New York, and a 12-minute movie on AIDS awareness titled Migration – and funded by the Gates Foundation.

She often works with longtime creative collaborator, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, whom she met at Harvard.

Vishakha Desai, the Asia Society’s president, asked Mira pointedly why her just-released biographical film on the iconic Amelia Earhart garnered such negative reviews.  Mira had made the movie with funding from Gateway founder Ted Wyatt.

Interestingly, when Mira produces “ethnic” films, she is usually acclaimed. However, when she steps into “non-Indian” films, she garners far less praise.  I will let readers judge that themselves.

Her work – as both a humanitarian and filmmaker – is so vast it I must write a series.

“There was a great degree of territorialism with Amelia. A non-American had taken on the movie of an American hero,” Mira reflected.

“The Bagvadhgita states that our work is to serve and then let go. As a filmmaker, this is what I must do,” Mira shared with the audience.  “I don’t read the reviews.”

Mira has several pending projects, including the big-budget Shantaram which is now owned by Johnny Depp.

Other films on the horizon include Impressionist, a coming-of-age story set in the Raj of the 1920’s, and Mohsin Hamid‘s 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an incredible tale. Truth is stranger than fiction,” Mira said.

Mira and Vishakha discussed the differences between studio films and independent films. “Everything changes,” Mira said, “when a studio enters the picture. They are the gatekeepers to commerce – they make major decisions which impact the movie.”

“With Indian films I have complete freedom, but with non-Indian films I must deal with other forces,” Mira said.  And yet, two of her films available in the U.S. are banned in India, which she sees as a travesty.

In her dialogue with Vishakha and the audience, Mira related.

“There is a dance between the film maker and the distributer.  I believe in a sacred frame.  The visual aspect is so important.

“The intimacy of my vision, the beauty of the film.  This all has to be negotiated with the distributor.

“I never want to repeat myself.  What is the point?  I want to be continuously challenging myself.  

“I want my films to work in multi-cultures. To play in Calcutta and New York. I want it all – and I want my films to work in both India and the U.S.

“But Mississippi Marsala was not made for an Indian audience. They just wouldn’t get it. I am fascinated to hear American audiences respond to this film.

As Idi Amin threw Asians out of Uganda in 1972, many went (believe it or not) to Mississippi – and opened hotels.  “Mississippi, the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement,” Mira explained to the Asia Society audience.

In Mississippi Marsala, an Indian woman from Uganda who knows Africa well falls in love with an Afro-American (Denzel Washington) who knows virtually nothing about his own roots. Thus, a comedy of cultural disconnections.

I was highly amused to hear Mira explain, “Afro-Americans laugh at some parts, Indo-Americans at others.  Sometime Caucasians are confused, wondering why either group is laughing.”

“In the 1980’s, when I arrived in the U.S., you had to spell out for Americans the word ‘India.’  No one here had any idea.  I had people say to me, ‘In your (Indian) film I saw running water – do they have that there?’”

Mira has won countless awards. The Golden Camera (Cannes Film Festival, 1988), The Golden Athena (Athens International Film Festival, 1988), The Golden Osella (Venice Film Festival, 1991), UNESCO Award (Venice Film Festival, 2002), and The Pride of India (Bollywood Film Awards, 2007).

She is close friends with the Asia Society’s president, Dr. Vishakha Desai, who I was privileged to interview last spring here. Her social circle also includes PepsiCo’s Chair and CEO, Indra Nooyi.

Mira was born in Orissa, on the east coast of India, by the Bay of Bengal. Her father was a civil servant and her mother a social worker and activist. Mira credits her mom’s influence for her own social conscience.

Film is such a populist medium,” Mira said. “It reaches millions. I have been constantly energized to find cinematic truths. The idea is making a difference. It is a super-idealistic question: Can art change the world?”

For her AIDS film, Mira said she wants to reach a very wide audience – specifically rural and marginalized audiences in India.

“I have enjoyed working without expectations, because when we let go the alchemy becomes bigger than ourselves.”

“I love Indian classical music. I love to capture what I have grown up with.” I wanted to ask her about Ustad Amjad Ali Khan played the, whose feet I sat at in absolute wonderment last fall and then wrote about here.

With proceeds from Salaam Bombay!, Mira founded an organization for street children, called the Salaam Baalak Trust in India.  

“We are now dealing with 5,000 street kids in 17 centers in Bombay and Delhi,” Mira said.  As founder of Orphans International Worldwide (OIW), I know that there is no harder population to reach than street children.

Last year I wrote an essay called Slumdog: Greater Insult ‘Slum,’ Not ‘Dog,’ where I discussed the pornography of poverty.  Mira does not glamorize poverty, she attacks it head on.

Mira was a visionary when she used proceeds from her film depicting social injustices to address their root causes.  Now she has taken on what may be her life’s greatest triumph.

She is building the film school – Maisha – to help build an entire film culture for the continent of Africa!  

“When I see Hollywood films about “Africa,” I often do not even recognize the continent. It is their idea of what Africa is. We need to train our own, African directors.”

To mentor a new generation of Afro-centric film makers. To create an oasis for artists and thinkers. To have a boot camp for the continent’s best and the brightest.  

My God, what incredible dreams.  Luckily, she is a strong enough woman to bring her dreams into reality.

India is a paradoxical place. But there are and have been women in great leadership positions. I always assumed I could do anything.”  Strikingly, there are far more female film makers in India than the U.S.

“One needs the skin of an elephant and the heart of a poet to deal with it all,” she confided.  

I will write a much larger story on Maisha for the Stewardship Report next month. The BBC and Aljazeera are already filming the progress of this amazing film school and its founder.

Mira wants to raise $1 million to finish building her film school in Uganda.

She lives much of the time in Uganda’s capital Kampala, where Maisha is located. But she has the same basic questions as other world citizens. Who am I? Where am I?

“I am happy and relieved to be from India. I am inspired when I am there. But I have lived in Kampala since 1989. And I teach at Columbia, where my son is in high school. Where is my home? Where will I grow old?”

“When I arrived in Uganda I felt like the daughter-in-law of that continent, Africa. But now I feel like a daughter. New York City has also been home to me.  There is an egalitarianism her I love.”

“I do need three homes – in India, in Uganda, and here in the U.S.,” she confided.

Today, her cinematic work, from low-budget documentaries to independent films and big-budget studio movies, stretch over several decades:

  • Salaam Bombay! (1988).
  • Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996). This controversial film made it in India by special Tuesday night “women-only” screenings.
  • Mississippi Masala (1991).  A profile of a family of displaced Ugandan-Indians living and working in Mississippi, starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury.
  • The Perez Family (1995).
  • Monsoon Wedding (2001). A chaotic Punjabi Indian wedding with screenplay by Sabrina Dhawan. This film may soon be produced on Broadway
  • Hysterical Blindness & September 11 (Segment – “India”) (both 2002).
  • Vanity Fair (2004). Her version of Thackeray’s novel, starring Reese Witherspoon.
  • The Namesake (2006).
  • Migration (2007).
  • New York, I Love You (Segment – “Kosher Vegetarian”) (2008).
  • Amelia (2009).  

Filmmaking is a disease and you have to be sick. To be possessed. You just have to do it, and be prepared to be rejected by the entire world. It is an obsession, a masochism.” I could relate.

“To achieve anything you must first invest 10,000 hours. Ten years of work to begin to make a difference. It’s really not normal. You need a slight madness.”

Mira lives near Columbia University in New York where she is an adjunct professor in the Film Division of the School of Arts, and where her husband, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, also teaches. They first met in 1988, when she went to Uganda for the first time to research for the film Mississippi Masala.

“He is such an amazing man,” Mira told the Asia Society president. What a wonderfully nourishing time we have at home. I believe I also seek his approval.”

Mira spoke enthusiastically about yoga. She has been a practitioner for decades. She told her audience that, when making a film, she has the cast and crew both start the day with a yoga session.

Mira has one son, Zohran Mamdani, now 18 years old and currently attending the Bronx High School of Science in New York.

Mira Nair is an outstanding Thought Leader and Global Citizen. The artistic and social impact she has had – and will continue to have – in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas is beyond compare.

Related Stories by Jim Luce

Thought Leader and Global Citizen, India’s Filmmaker Mira Nair. Originally published in Daily Kos, Dec. 25, 2009.

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© 2024 The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness – Towards Global Citizenship is published by The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation Supporting & Educating Young Global Leaders is affiliated with Orphans International Worldwide, Raising Global Citizens. If supporting youth is important to you, subscribe to J. Luce Foundation updates here.


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