Born October 15, 1957, in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, India; daughter of Amrit (a civil servant) and Praveen (a social worker) Nair; married Mitch Epstein (a photographer), 1981 (divorced); married Mahmood Mamdani (a professor), 1991; children: Zohran (son, from second marriage). Education: Attended University of Delhi, 1975–76; Harvard University, B.A., 1979.
Addresses: Contact —Maisha Film Lab, P.O. Box 72156, Kampala, Uganda. Office —Mirabai Films, 5 E. 16th St., New York, NY 10003.
Director of films, including: Jama Masjid Street Journal , 1979; So Far From India , 1983; India Cabaret , 1985; Children of a Desired Sex , 1987; Salaam Bombay! (also producer and writer), 1988; Mississippi Masala (also producer), 1991; The Day Mercedes Became A Hat , 1993; The Perez Family , 1995; Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (also producer and writer), 1996; My Own Country , 1998; The Laughing Club of India , 1999; Monsoon Wedding (also producer), 2001; Hysterical Blindness , 2002; 11′09″01—September 11 ("India" segment), 2002; Vanity Fair , 2004; The Namesake (also producer), 2006. Producer of films, including: Still, the Children Are Here , 2004. Also a professor at Columbia University.
Member: Rolex Protege Arts Initiative; advisory board, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Awards: Camera d'Or, Prix du Public, Cannes Film Festival, for Salaam Bombay! , 1988; Jury Prize, Most Popular Film, Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, Montreal World Film Festival, for Salaam Bombay! , 1988; Golden Osella, Venice Film Festival, for Mississippi Masala , 1991; Golden Lion Award, 58th Venice International Film Festival, 2001; Special Mention, Biarritz International Festival of Audiovisual Programming, for The Laughing Club of India , 2000; Golden Lion, Laterna Magica, Venice Film Festival, for Monsoon Wedding , 2001; Woodstock Honorary Maverick Award, 2004.
Mira Nair (pronounced Mee-ra Ni-eer) is the writer, director, and producer of award-winning films such as Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala , and Monsoon Wedding . Her films are studies in cross-cultural identity as her characters negotiate the complexities of life while also honoring their heritage. Born in India, educated in the United States, and having lived in Africa since 1991, Nair is intimately aware of the conflicts and joys associated with nostalgia for home and outsider status. She explained to David Sterritt of the Chicago Tribune , "I'm interested in marginal people, or people who are considered marginal…. I'm interested in capturing the complexity of people and the complexity of life."
The youngest of three children, Nair was born on October 15, 1957, in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, India. The small village in eastern India was, as she described to Alex Perry in Time International , "Even in Indian terms, it's really remote." Her father, Amrit, was a civil servant and her mother, Praveen, was active in social welfare which included organizing a home for the children of lepers. Growing up she was noted for her interest in the people around her and her energy. The village elders nicknamed her "Pagli" which is Hindi for "mad." Her father described her role in the family to John Lahr of the New Yorker: "Even though the boys were older, she was the leader."
Highly motivated and dedicated to whatever she put her mind to, Nair taught herself to type and play sitar. She also painted, wrote poetry, and acted in the local street theater. An excellent student, Nair was determined to get into a better school than the local one she attended. The teachers there expected her to do so well that they never noticed when she started putting nonsense in the middle of her written reports. With the help of her former headmistress she was able to convince her father to send her to an exclusive boarding school similar to the ones her older brothers were attending.
Upon graduating from high school, Nair went to the University of Delhi but she felt a need to expand her horizons and began applying to schools in Europe and the United States. In 1976, she jumped at the full scholarship offered by Harvard even though she'd never even visited the campus. She started out in the theater department acting, but was bored with the staid productions of familiar musicals. She also found acting too restrictive to her need to have control over her creativity. Moving out of the theater department she turned to photography and eventually to documentary filmmaking.
She made four documentaries. Her first was Jama Masjid Street Journal , made in 1979. Nair took a camera to the streets around a mosque that is the center of life in the city of Delhi, India. The film contrasts traditional life and how it fits into the structure of a growing modern city. So Far From India , released four years later, shows the journey of a young Indian man as he travels to New York for work and his reluctance to return to India afterward. India Cabaret revealed the normal lives of strippers who work in a suburb of Bombay. Her final documentary, Children of a Desired Sex , exposed how the medical diagnostic tool of amniocentesis was being used to determine the sex of fetuses, and how those that were female were aborted.
Nair spent a great deal of time traveling on her own to show her documentaries. She eventually tired of answering irrelevant questions about her nationality as well as the lack of creative control that comes with documentary filmmaking. She still wanted more control. Discussing her primary frustration with documentary film, she told Ann Kolson of the Philadelphia Inquirer , "Life controlled the film."
Working from the inspiration she found in the street children she met making her earlier films, she decided to make her first fiction film, which was called Salaam Bombay! . Her experiences as an actor, as a documentary filmmaker, and her respect for the children all came together in the film which had no professional actors. The actors were all taken from the pool of children found in the streets. She explained to the Chicago Tribune 's Sterritt why she used non-professionals: "It couldn't be made with any other children … the inspiration that came from them was their spirit…. Also, their faces and bodies were a kind of map of the journey that they had traveled."
Making Salaam Bombay! called on Nair to pull together all her resources. There were logistical problems involved in trying to film the movie around the schedules of pimps and prostitutes. As producer of the film, Nair had to pull in finances from three continents in order to keep creative control. And finally, there was organizing and filming with a troupe of actors who had never acted before in their short lives. The final product was a film that received the following review from Desmond Ryan of the Philadelphia Inquirer , "Nair has contrived the extraordinary feat of treating this blameless degradation with compassion while never turning mawkish or milking the more appalling moments…. This detached, almost matter-of-fact approach to a way of life … is devastating in its cumulative force."
In 1988, Nair's first feature film went on to win the coveted Camera d'Or for Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival, the first Indian film to ever win the prize. Its premiere at Cannes was followed by a standing ovation from the audience. Other awards included the Prix du Public at Cannes, Jury Prize and Most Popular Film at the Montreal World Film Festival. Salaam Bombay! also received a nomination for Best Foreign Film from the Academy Awards.
Three years later she was challenging audiences again with the story of Ugandan-born Indians displaced to Mississippi in Mississippi Masala . Instead of working with amateurs she had the luxury of working with names and faces familiar to audiences in India and the United States. The cast included Roshan Seth, who had starred in feature films such as the epic Gandhi and My Beautiful Laundrette , as the father longing to return to Uganda. Sharmila Tagore, a famous actress in Hindi films as well as many films by the Indian director Satyajit Ray, was cast as the mother. American actor Denzel Washington had the role of Demetrius William, the love interest of Meena, played by Sarita Choudhury, in her debut acting role.
While making Mississippi Masala Nair met Mahmood Mamdani, who owned one of the locations in Uganda where they shot scenes for the film. Nair ended her marriage with Mitch Epstein whom she had met in 1977 and married in 1981, and moved to Uganda to be with Mamdani. Their son, Zohran, was born in 1991 and Nair began making adjustments to her life on three continents. She and her husband teach at Columbia University through the school year. The family spends holidays in India, and then the rest of the time in Kampala, Uganda. Nair told Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer , "My clothes hang in three places, but I have a garden only in Kampala…. Where you plant your garden is your true home."
From 1993 to 1999, Nair made several films but none of them really seemed to hold the energy of her first two films. She made her first all-star film with 1995's The Perez Family which included Anjelica Huston, Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, and Chazz Palminteri. Although the theme of displacement was one she had grappled with before, the film was not as well received as her others. In 1996, instead of dealing with negative critical reviews, Nair spent months fighting the censorship board of India to get them to release her film Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love , the story of two strong women celebrating their sexuality. When it was finally released in India, she insisted that movie theaters that showed it reserve three times a week for women-only viewings to encourage women to see it.
By the late 1990s, Nair was burned out on the films she was making. She wanted to return to her roots, and also prove a point to her students that a good film could be made without a huge amount of money. On her summer vacation she took off for India with a small crew and enlisted the help of many of her relatives and acquintances to take roles in the film. The result was Monsoon Wedding , which was made for one million dollars in the course of 30 days. Susan Stark of the Detroit News described the film about a Punjabi wedding and events surrounding it as "[s]wirling, loving, and brilliantly, sensuously colorful. [It] celebrates love, family, a culture that comfortably accommodates past and present." The film won numerous awards and went on to make $30 million worldwide—the most money ever made by an Indian film.
In 2002, she released Hysterical Blindness . The made-for-HBO film starred Juliette Lewis and Uma Thurman. The members of the cast of the film won three Emmys and a Golden Globe. In discussing her work with Time International 's Perry, Nair stated, "My feeling is that I do what I do, then I offer it to the world. I hope people will be affected by it, watch it and are impressed…. I don't think about the fruits of my actions. I just do the work."
In 2004, she was the creative force behind the remake of the classic novel of social aspiration Vanity Fair . The film starred Reese Witherspoon and took a different approach to the subject matter, casting humor and joy into situations that had previously been portrayed as dark and ugly. Nair also took liberties to add some Bollywood (popular Indian film) style to the film, introducing song and dance numbers to enliven the period piece.
Never one to slow down, Nair began working on her next project while finishing up Vanity Fair . She described the situation to Amaya Rivera of Mother Jones , "I'd shoot Vanity Fair during the day—elephants, carriage, Reese Witherspoon—and at 6 p.m. I would say, 'Goodbye, everyone, I'm going to my room.' And I read and reread The Namesake ." The film was conceived during those readings and within ten months she began shooting. Her cache with Hollywood had grown so much that she was asked to direct the 2007 installment of the series of films based on the Harry Potter books. She turned it down to continue work on The Namesake which was released the same year. Nair next planned to direct the film Shantaram and produce Gangsta M.D. , both of which were scheduled to be released in 2008.
Wherever she goes, Nair also lends whatever support she can. After the making of Salaam Bombay! she created the Salaam Baalak Trust, which is run by her mother, to help the children of Delhi who have been forced into prostitution and other horrible situations. In 2004 she launched the film lab called Maisha, based in Uganda. Set up similarly to the Sundance Institute, the lab is a home for East African and South Asian filmmakers to gather and learn new skills. In 2005, they hosted a screenwriting workshop and the following year a directors' workshop. In 2007, they collaborated with the Full Frame Institute, which focuses on documentary filmmaking.
Nair is passionate, driven, and creative. She travels the globe from New York, where she teaches at Columbia University, to Uganda, where she tends her garden. Despite all that she is well-grounded in her work. In discussing how she approaches her work she told Ethirajan Anbarasan and Amy Otchet of the UNESCO Courier , "You do extensive research about a theme, feel it and then create a story that could become universal…. I believe in intuition. I follow my intuition absolutely in finding and developing stories to tell…. But finding a subject is not enough. The trick is to create a work situation in which intuition is allowed to reign."
Chicago Tribune , November 3, 1988, p. 19E; November 15, 1990, p. 19G.
Detroit News , March 15, 2002, p. 3D.
Mother Jones , March 1, 2007, p. 82.
New Yorker , December 9, 2002, p. 100.
Philadelphia Inquirer , January 25, 1989, p. F1; February 19, 1992, p. C1; March 14, 2007, p. E1.
Time International , January 24, 2005, p. 60.
UNESCO Courier , November 1, 1998, p. 46.