Born with a natural curiosity, as a little girl she looked, unwittingly, for inspiration everywhere. Poetry, sitar, people – from friends and family to peons and ayas - plays, ‘jatra’ parties – she engaged with each. And as she best puts it, Mira Nair looked for her path without knowing she was looking for it. Her talent supplemented by her natural tendency for empathy have helped her create stories that reach straight for the heart – cutting across race, nationality, language and religion. With three homes across three continents, she confesses that it is only because her ‘roots are strong’, that she can ‘fly’.
GJ: When you’re working on a movie, where do you source your creative inspiration from?
MN: Creative inspiration is a privilege: it is different for each film. For Reluctant Fundamentalist, the inspiration came from being invited to Pakistan (Lahore) for the first time. In the media, Pakistan is always a horrific place. There are terrible misconceptions about Islam. Living in New York, things changed for people like me. The inspiration forMonsoon Wedding came from my own dining table: the beautiful chaos of a family life.While being so close, there is darkness and unspoken secrets in every family, and how do these co-exist.
GJ: It’s interesting that you’ve grown up in a small town and then, established yourself in the global field. How has your childhood helped shape you to be the person you’ve become today?
MN: Growing up in Bhubaneshwar, one had to rely on one’s own imagination. I was a fairly industrious sort and was deeply engaged with people and their lives. My mother has tales of when I was eleven,I would return with the milkman because I was fascinated with his story. Sometimes, I would even visit his family. That was my curiosity and you know how in India, especially in small places, we live cheek by jowl with those who serve us. The ayahs and the peons and their families were as much a part of my life as my own family, and I could see the distinction between the high and the low.That was deeply engaging to me, and that has actually formed what I do in my life.
My preoccupation with poetry was immense. I used to read poets from Keats to P. Lal, an interesting Bengali poet who used to write in English. I even wrote my own;I continued my explorations through many art mediums. I used to learn to play the sitar. I had a Bengali teacher who used to come on his bicycle in a dhoti to our bungalow. I’d go and see classical dancers like Sanjukta Panigrahi, a great Odissi dancer. She would be doing her dance practice in the temple nearby and I would study her and talk to her. I looked for my path without knowing that I was looking for it.
One day, my sitar teacher told me that I needed to choose one path; that I couldn’t excel at more than one field. It was an ‘Aha!’moment for me. It was very meaningful wisdom that he gave me. It unwittingly gave me focus.
GJ: Why did you choose films and film-making as your creative pursuit?
MN: I started as an actor in the Delhi University. When I came to America on a scholarship, I assumed I would be studying drama. But I couldn’t relate to the drama at the university. So, I started with a still photography course. I learnt how to capture the world within a frame. That course made me want more. I then found a course for cinema. I majored in documentary film-making and it got me hooked. I made my first film on my own in Delhi: Jama Masjid Street Journal. I then moved to New York and struggled for seven years.
GJ: How much has the Indian culture influenced you in your creative pursuits and in the person you’ve become today?
MN: I like to say that it’s because my roots are strong that I can fly. I’m relieved to be a woman. For me, the foundation of my culture is my family and where I come from. This is true of my husband’s family as well. He’s African-Asian, but our culture is common. Even though as a younger film-maker, I used to say that I refuse to be considered an ambassador for Indian culture, but over time, that is what I am regarded as. I’m happy about it. It seems that I have been the bridge between the subcontinent and the worldin the last twenty-thirty years. I have been deeply immersed with Monsoon Wedding taking off as a Broadway musical. Everything I am doing now is about retaining the authenticity of where we come from and making it something that becomes universal in its specificity.
GJ: Which movie has been the most enjoyable for you to work on?
MN: The films that I love most are the ones that no one tampered with:Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding and Reluctant Fundamentalist.
GJ: Please tell us about the Salaam Balak Trust and what inspired you?
MN: My mother has been a huge influence on me while I was growing up. She was a social worker; she set up the first health homewhen I was eight. She would help the children of lepers. Leprosy was a big problem. I would come home and see all these ladies making eatables and little knick-knacks for the jawans of the 1955 war. There was always action around me, action that went beyond our manicured walls. I was very inspired by that. I also didn’t feel comfortable with the quality of art around me. In my way of thinking, people had to look beyond their cocoons. I entered the arts to see if it was possible to change the world. When we started the movie Salaam Bombay,it was very clear that we were working with street children. It had to amount to more than a film; it was using real stories, real lives, real children. From the very beginning, it was conceived as a plan to create the kind of workshop we were having for these kids.If something permanent like that could be set up, it would honour them as street children, it would give them a childhood.
The idea was to give them vocational or educational training, introduce them to artistic pursuits that would eventually reunite them with their families.. After we finished the film, we immediately created the Salaam Balak Trust with the profits of the movie. Because my mother was a social worker all her life, we asked her to chair it. We started off with two staff members in 1988, and now we have 168 people as staff in Delhi alone;there is another chapter of the Trust in Mumbai. We have 5,000 street children coming to us. The trust was honoured by Michelle Obama at the White House.We won the National Youth Award for the twenty-seven years of work we’ve put in,which is not just providing a home for them,but introducing the arts into their lives.
GJ: You live in three homes: Uganda, India and New York. Where do you find yourself most comfortable?
MN: I’m very grateful to have not left India until I was nineteen years old.As a result, my foundation was very much the Delhi-Orissa world: Delhi University, the theatre group, friendships from childhood, which are thankfully still very much part of my life. I’m always coming and going from India, whether for family or my films. I would say India and the subcontinent is my inspiration.
The creative community that has given me a place in the world was in New York. In that sense, the city’s extraordinary artistry has been a vital reason in taking me further in life. For instance, I’ve takenMonsoon Wedding to Broadway. Any excellence that I have admired, I can have access to and be a part of. And it’s an unpretentious world: it’s not about fame or success, it’s simply about artistry. In that sense, New York has helped me find my voice as a film-maker, even though the inspiration came from India.
I went to Kampala twenty-five years ago to make Mississippi Masala, and I fell in love with my husband there. Uganda initially started as an idyllic garden. Family life, nature, living in that quiet space that allowed me to process the hurly-burly of the rest of my life. And then about ten years ago, I founded a school called Maisha. There were so many African stories around me, but they didn’t have the craft to take their stories to the most powerful medium in the world: films. That’s why we created Maisha, because I wanted African stories to be narrated by Africans. In the last fifteen years, Kampala has become more than just a paradise where I live with my family; it has also become a more public and engaging placewith the film school. Now, I’m actually building the physical school and a public garden next door to where we live, and that’s going to be the next stage of engagement.
My next film, Queen of Katwe, is a true story set in Katwe. It’s an extraordinary story about genius being everywhere…we just have to find it and nurture it. I do feel at home in all these three places. They matter to me in different yet similar ways. I’m fortunate enough to have three physical places as homes that serve their function.
GJ: What about the African culture appeals to you the most and has inspired your creative awakening?
MN: One of the great lessons I’ve learnt there is that nature plays a big role. I’m a restless soul; I was hardly the one to plant a sapling and watch it grow. But over the last twenty years, I’ve created my own garden; I live off the land in terms of food. I’ve created, what I call, guerrilla planting: mahogany trees down the highway, converting an old mosque into a beautiful garden. My own soul engages here with nature in a way it doesn’t in America or India. Nature has become an eternal teacher. It has influenced the rhythm of my own work, it has taught me to not force things or people who can’t grow the way you want them to.
Also, it is an inspiration to be living amongst dignified, gentle, unpretentious, people that Africans are.Education is emphasized over everything;there is a calm but also a stoicism about facing the hardships of life here.
GJ: You have your own a production house: Mirabai Films. Please tell us about your vision for the house for the next five years. Are there any projects you’re working on currently that you’re excited about?
MN: We’re producing Queen of Katwe. It has two major movie stars, the names of who I can’t disclose. I’m involved with bringing to India a movie called The Bengali Detective, written by a friend. I’ve asked Govinda to star in that. The major thing we’ve done is the Broadway musical of Monsoon Wedding.
GJ: Tell us about your initial meeting with your husband, Mr Mamdani, in Uganda,and the companionship that the two of you share?
MN: When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, there was a compulsory book that we had to read: Population Control, by Mahmood Mamdani. It was a remarkable book. It was written in the voices of Punjabi peasants. Years later, when I was working on Mississippi Masala, I remembered that the writer of the book was from Uganda. I asked my assistant to see if that same author had written any other book. Sure enough, he had written a book called Proximism to Refugee, which was his personal experience as an Asian in a refugee camp in England. When I read that book, it put in place a lot of what was going to later become our screenplay. It also felt that I knew this guy, and, so, I asked my assistant to set up a meeting with him. We had both assumed that we were going to be meeting older people, and were surprised by each other when we actually met. He looked like he was straight out of a Bob Dylan song, and I was in my early thirties. We got along instantly. If there is something as ‘love at first sight’, we were privileged to have witnessed that.