I am neither a photographer or a writer - Mira Nair | Sunday Observer

I am neither a photographer or a writer - Mira Nair

25 July, 2021

Mira Nair (born 15 October, 1957) is an Indian-American filmmaker based in New York City. Her production company, Mirabai Films, specializes in films for international audiences on Indian society, whether in the economic, social or cultural spheres. Among her best known films are ’Mississippi Masala’, ’Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love’, ’The Namesake’, the Golden Lion winning ’Monsoon Wedding’, and ’Salaam Bombay!’, which received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language.


Before she became a filmmaker, Nair was interested in acting, and at one point she performed plays written by Badal Sarkar, a Bengali performer. While she studied at Harvard University, Nair became involved in the theatre program and won a Boylston Prize for her performance of Jocasta’s speech from Seneca’s ’Oedipus’.

Nair commented on film-making in a 2004 interview with ‘FF2 Media’s’ Jan Huttner:

It’s all in how I do it. Keeping the buns on the seats is very important to me. It requires that ineffable thing called rhythm and balance in movie-making. Foils have to be created, counter-weights. From the intimacy, let’s say, of a love scene to the visceral, jugular quality of war. That shift is something in the editing, how one cuts from the intimate to the epic that keeps you there waiting. The energy propels you.

Nair told ’Image Journal’ in 2017 that she chose directing over any other art form because it was collaborative. “That’s why I am neither a photographer nor writer,” she said. “I like to work with people, and my strength, if any, is that. Working with life.”


At the start of her film-making career, Nair primarily made documentaries in which she explored Indian cultural tradition. For her film thesis at Harvard between 1978 and 1979, Nair produced a black-and-white film titled Jama Masjid Street Journal. In the eighteen-minute film, Nair explored the streets of Old Delhi and had casual conversations with Indian locals.

In 1982, she made her second documentary titled ’So Far from India’, which is a fifty-two-minute film that followed an Indian newspaper dealer living in the subways of New York, while his pregnant wife waited for him to return home. This film was recognized as a Best Documentary winner at the American Film Festival and New York’s Global Village Film Festival.

Her third documentary, ’India Cabaret’, released in 1984, revealed the exploitation of female strippers in Bombay, and followed a customer who regularly visited a local strip club while his wife stayed at home. Nair raised roughly $130,000 for the project. The 59-minute film was shot over a span of two months. It was criticized by Nair’s family. Her fourth and last documentary, made for Canadian television, explored how amniocentesis was being used to determine the sex of fetuses. Released in 1987, ’Children of a Desired Sex’ exposed the aborting of female fetuses due to society’s favouring male offspring.

In 2001, with The Laughing Club of India, she explored laughter based on yoga. Founder Dr. Madan Kararia spoke of the club’s history and the growth of laughing clubs across the country, and subsequently the world. The documentary included testimonials from members of the laughter clubs who described how the practice had improved or changed their lives. Its featured segments included a group of workers in an electrical products factory in Bombay who took time off to laugh during their coffee break.

Feature films

In 1983 with her friend, Sooni Taraporevala, Nair co-wrote ’Salaam Bombay!’. Using her documentary film-making and acting experience, Nair sought out real “street children” to more authentically portray the lives of children who survived in the streets and were deprived of a real childhood. Though the film did not do well at the box office, it won 23 international awards, including the Camera D’or and Prix du Public at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988. The film was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film in 1989.

Nair and Taraporevala continued to challenge audiences with the 1991 film ’Mississippi Masala’, which told the story of Ugandan-born Indians displaced in Mississippi. The film, featuring Denzel Washington, Roshan Seth, and Sarita Choudhury, centers on a carpet-cleaner business owner (Washington) who falls in love with the daughter (Choudhury) of one of his Indian clients. The film revealed the evident prejudice in African-American and Indian communities. Like ’Salaam Bombay!’, the film was well received by critics, earned a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992, and won three awards at the Venice Film Festival.

Nair went on to direct four more films before she produced one of her most notable films, ’Monsoon Wedding’. Released in 2001, the film told the story of a Punjabi Indian wedding, written by Sabrina Dhawan. Employing a small crew and casting some of Nair’s acquaintances and relatives, the film grossed over $30 million worldwide. The film was awarded the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, making Nair the first female recipient of the award. f

Nair then directed the Golden Globe winning ’Hysterical Blindness’ (2002), followed by making William Makepeace Thackeray’s epic ’Vanity Fair’ (2004).

In 2007, Nair was asked to direct ’Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’, but turned it down to work on ’The Namesake’. Based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, Sooni Taraporevala’s screenplay follows the son of Indian immigrants who wants to fit in with New York society, but struggles to get away from his family’s traditional ways. The film was presented with the Dartmouth Film Award and was also honored with the Pride of India award at the Bollywood Movie Awards. This was followed by the Amelia Earhart biopic ’Amelia’ (2009), starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere.

In 2012, Nair directed ’The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, a thriller based on the best-selling novel by Mohsin Hamid. It opened the 2012 Venice Film Festival to critical acclaim and was released worldwide in early 2013. For the academic reception of Nair’s adaptation of ’The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, ’The Journal of Commonwealth Literature’ questions “how the ambivalence and provocativeness of the ‘source’ text translates into the film adaptation, and the extent to which the film format makes the narrative more palatable and appealing to wider audiences as compared to the novel’s target readership.”

Nair’s 2016 film ’Queen of Katwe’, a Walt Disney Pictures production, starred Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo and was based on the story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi.

Nair’s short films include ’A Fork, a Spoon and a Knight’, inspired by the Nelson Mandela quote, Difficulties break some men but make others.She contributed to ’11’09”01 September 11’ (2002) in which 11 filmmakers reacted to the events of 11 September 2001. Other titles include ’How Can It Be?’ (2008), ’Migration’ (2008), ’New York, I Love You’ (2009) and her collaboration with, among others, Emir Kusturica and Guillermo Arriaga on the compilation feature ’Words with Gods’.