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Filmmaker Mira Nair Speaks At Emory

April 2006
Filmmaker Mira Nair Speaks At Emory

The Sheth Endowed Lecture in Indian Studies and the Asian Studies Program at Emory University presented a lecture, "Between Two Worlds," by Mira Nair.

A nominee for both, the Academy Award and the Golden Globe, Mira Nair enjoys a place amongst the best of Indian filmmakers in Hollywood. From documentaries to feature films, Nair discovered success through her earliest endeavors and established herself as one of Hollywood's most talented directors. Her reverence within the community in Atlanta was manifested with an overbooked auditorium requiring an additional live video feed at Emory's White Hall. She revealed more about her journey into the world of filmmaking and how important the role of an artist is in the "creative world [where] borders need to be fluid."

A Harvard scholar, Nair talked about the struggles she faced as an Indian-American as, at the time, there was only a limited awareness of the community. The element of personal touch in her speech comforted the audience that she was really "one of them" and not a celebrity. She recanted one of her first films about a Gujarati newsstand worker and his wife in Ahmedabad. Her socially-relevant films set her apart from her counterparts. Nair traveled to Mumbai to live with the characters in her film so that the essence was not lost in filmi jargon or eloquent sets.

Nair explained that, in the early days, it was often a "lonely business finding an audience" for many of her films. She promoted her films by visiting universities and presenting lectures on them. A "populist at heart," Mira says she was often shocked at the responses she received from the audience about her films. "Do you have running water in India? Do you live in tree houses?" are some of the questions she remembers being asked and she would often reply "Sorry, our elevator was broken in the tree house!"

This became her source of inspiration as she wanted her audience to witness the struggles and issues in her homeland. It became the turning point for Nair as she shifted from documentary films to feature films. She went to Mumbai and wanted to present the realities, the struggles faced by its inhabitants. She picked 24 street kids to play a role in her debut feature film, Salaam Bombay. Nair received rave reviews and generated enough profits to establish one of her dreams – a learning center for street kids. Salaam Balak was a haven for children and has grown to over 21 centers in India with Nair serving as a godmother figure to the institution.

Mira's playful banter with the audience was well-crafted as she added a sense of personal flavor. She recollected her mother mentioning Tony Blair visiting one of the learning centers. Nair's response to her "Am I supposed to be surprised?" generated laughter from the audience. Her mother retorted, "Besides your politics, Blair was very nice to the children!" Nair articulated that her mantra was to share her cultural experiences through the medium of cinema.

She later went on to describe one of her more recent Bollywood films, Monsoon Wedding, and how she wanted to portray child abuse against the backdrop of a typical Punjabi wedding. Though Nair tries to deviate from the conventional Bollywood blockbuster with a love-story, romantic songs and parental opposition, her works convey a significant and powerful message tapping into areas that other directors often shy away from.

Her brilliance was once again captured through a short documentary film on Sept. 11. The audience at Emory got a taste of her work through this 11 minute, 9 second, 1 frame show depicting the aftermath faced by a Pakistani family. Focusing on "Islamophobia," the story was simple yet powerful. It showcased the struggle by the Hamdani family whose son, Salman, went missing after the terrorist attacks and how he was dubbed as the probable 20 hijacker. In the dramatic climax, the mother laments over her son, a police cadet who had risked his life to help out the victims but was killed: "Perhaps if I had not raised him to be a good citizen, he would be alive today." Though banned in the United States for being "anti-American," the film was played at the Venice Film Festival and shown in over 17 countries.

This concluded her lecture-presentation of culminating the Indian-American cultures in many of her works. It was followed by questions by Matthew Bernstein (Emory Film Studies), Suchita Vadlamani (Fox 5 Good Day Atlanta) and interested members of the audience.

In a brief interview with Khabar, she came across as a very humble and caring motherly-figure: She pointed out that the "secret of success" that so many prominent Indian filmmakers outside of India—Deepa Mehta, Gurinder Chadha and herself—are all women "is dogmatism. If you really believe you can do it, then nothing can stop you and that is where we all stand today."

Nair was energetic and full of spirit when answering some of the other intriguing questions about her opinion on final cut, how important it was to her feel the characters in her films and so on. She is currently making Gangster MD with Chris Tucker in the lead, the English version of Sanjay Dutt's Munna Bhai MBBS, about a gangster who pretends to be a doctor. She laughs "my son is a sage and helped cast the actors in the film!" She is also working on Namesake, which assimilates New York City and Kolkatta "because of the similarities between the two cities in terms of architecture and the city spirit."

Following are some of the collective questions, from the hosts and the members of the audience, that she answered.

Which filmmaker was your inspiration?

I grew up with mythological theater and did not watch too many films in Orissa. Chris Marker really put fire in my belly. Others include Peter Brook, and The Talking Band.

Do you feel it is easier or harder to finance your films since you have been in the industry for so long?

After Salaam Bombay!, my next film was Mississippi Masala. I often went to the distributor to get funding. Sometimes it felt like I was a brown kid trapped between black and white.

How have the changes in technology assisted in your filmmaking?

Technologies did not really help me because I preferred the "old school" way of things. In fact, Monsoon Wedding was shot with a digital video camera.

Let's talk about Harry Potter – why did you turn it down?

I always ask myself "Can anyone else make this movie? If the answer is yes, let them make it!" I am often called paglee (crazy girl). And the another reason I was not willing to make this movie was because I was going through an emotional time in my life as I had lost someone close. The book also deals with the loss of a parent and also I did not want to spend another three years in "sexist" England. I am a homemaker, mother and I already spent a year in England for Vanity Fair. Although the money would have been terrific, I realized I may be poorer materialistically, but richer on the other end.

What is your view about Bollywood today and what are your favorite Bollywood hits?

I really enjoy watching them, but hope they do not change to be catered for international audiences only. I enjoy the movies from the 1970s. I like Guru Dutt (the Indian version of Orson Welles). Kabhie Kabhie, Anand, Ganga Jamuna, and anything with Meera Kumari are some of my favorites. Among recent movies, I enjoyed Rang De Basanti.

We have heard about Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair. Tell us about the erotic Kama Sutra?

I personally wanted to burn every print because by the time it was done the entire plot was so different from my original intentions. Although many people love it and gynecologists even recommend it. The movie required first-time actors because of the type of scenes. I am personally a champion of craft and rigor. It was a very challenging movie to make because of the genre of the film.

Would you like to comment about your peers? M. Night Shyamalan, Shekhar Kapoor, Gurinder Chadda, Deepa Mehta?

So you want gossip eh? (laughs). I like Gurinder's sassiness, and Deepa, I grew up with her because she was my elder sister's best friend. I always warned Shekhar about Hollywood.

What are the criteria you look for before making a film?

1. "Can someone else make it?"

2. Style is important – you have to live with the movie for as much as two years.

3. Political – [it must] question the world, make a statement,

I probably will not make a typical pleasant Sunday afternoon movie, and I am not a huge fan of chick-flicks.

- Archith Seshadri

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