Many of Mira Nair’s films often portray characters who are split between two cultures—Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family, Monsoon Wedding, and The Namesake—and through these films, she’s been credited with bringing Indian film and culture to America.
Born in 1957 in Rourkela, India, Nair grew up with her parents and two older brothers. Nair’s family is Punjabi and is from one of the most prosperous, middle upper class regions in India. At 11, due to her father’s job, the family moved to Delhi. At 13 she left home to attend an Irish Catholic missionary school in Simla, but returned to study at Delhi University, where she majored in sociology. Nair applied to Western schools in order to receive the best education possible, a value that is common in India, and at 19, she was offered a full scholarship to Cambridge University, but turned it down to attend Harvard.
Nair was originally interested in acting and became involved in the theatre program at Harvard. At the start of her filmmaking career, Nair primarily made documentaries in which she explored Indian cultural traditions. Jama Masjid Street Journal was an 18-minute documentary film that Nair made for her thesis at Harvard. In it, Nair explores Old Delhi and has conversations with the locals. She made three more documentaries before switching to fictional filmmaking.
In 1983, she teamed up with her friend Sooni Taraporevala and the two began writing Salaam Bombay! The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1989. Nair and Taraporevala worked together again to write Mississippi Masala. Masala is about an Indian family who owns a hotel in Mississippi. The daughter (Sarita Choudhury) meets a young Denzel Washington who introduces her to Mississippi culture as she introduces him to her family’s Indian traditions.
Her 1996 film, Kama Sutra, is an epic tale of love set in 16th century India. Being familiar with Nair’s work about Indian families and culture, this seemed a bit of a departure and a disappointment. If one is looking to find a good introductory Nair film, I’d recommend Monsoon Wedding or Mississippi Masala.
Although Nair often directs films about people who are split between cultures and homelands and feel they have to choose one over the other, Nair herself splits her time between New York and Kampala, Uganda, where her husband heads a policy research institute. She says she doesn’t feel the need to choose like her films’ characters, though. “The beauty of living in two or three places is your worldview is forced to expand. When you live only here [the U.S.], it’s a one-sided conversations with the rest of the world.”
Nair said despite the recognition many of her films have received, she never aimed to be an A-list director. “I’ve done my own thing and my own thing has thankfully now brought me an audience. I was seen as an outsider in the beginning and then an object of great envy. National directors wanted to be international.”
Monsoon Wedding is often cited as the film that really launched Nair as an international director. She also helmed the adaptation of Vanity Fair with Reese Witherspoon, Amelia, and most recently The Reluctant Fundamentalist. She also continues to direct shorts and documentaries. Nair directed a segment in New York, I Love You which featured Chris Cooper and Robin Wright, as well as the Showtime special, My Own Country.
Nair is lined up to direct Queen of Katwe which will star Lupita N’yongo (12 Years A Slave) and David Oyelowo (Selma).
Despite being a part of the industry for over 30 years, Nair says she still receives ignorant questions about her films’ material. “They ask me questions that they would never ask another film director and they’re not even aware of it. The typical ‘arranged marriage’ question. Like, ‘Ooh, you flew in from another planet. Describe it for us.’” Nair cites that Americans are often not able to put themselves in someone else’s place or able to see things larger than themselves. Despite this, Nair’s films seemed to have connected with American audiences, as well as international audiences. There are no male directors of Indian descent who can claim the same.