Mira Nair: The Filmmaker
Updated: Jun 22
Given the reach and impact of cinema, it’s a powerful medium to tell stories and make a change. Commercial cinema is the most important popular form of cinema in India, but modern Indian cinema lacks reality. Though recently, a few movies have had a realistic narrative to it, but often they are deceptive; glazed with fiction to turn it into a commercial form. By infusing realism into the stories, a filmmaker tries to show the concept of life as closely and blatantly as possible and this is one common aspect you see in all of Mira Nair’s films - Realism.
Mira Nair is one of the female filmmakers who is redefining the Indian Cinema with a fresh perspective. Odisha born, Harvard educated and New York based; Mira Nair is a world- renowned independent filmmaker. She divides her times between different countries- India, Uganda and The United States. At the age of 16, she studied protest theatre in Calcutta and later entered the University of Delhi to study theater. However theatre didn’t appeal to her and, soon after enrolling in Harvard, she fell in love with the art of film and visual medium of photography.
“I was frustrated that I was at the mercy of someone else’s idea. And I didn’t care about the narcissism of it. I wanted to be able to interpret the world, rather than be a cog in the wheel of someone else’s vision. That led me to documentary.” - Mira Nair on films.
Image Source- New Yorker
As a student of cinéma-vérité (a style of film-making characterised by realistic, typically documentary films) she eventually developed an interest in documentary-style filmmaking and began her career. Before venturing into feature films, Nair made a number of critically acclaimed documentaries- her first being a black and white documentary film- Jama Masjid Street Journal (1979), a record of a traditional Muslim community, which she literally shot on the streets of Delhi.
Mira made other documentaries like Children of a Desired Sex (1987) which talks about the patriarchal society of India and its effect on the unborn female child, India Cabaret (1985) a film that explores the immoral stereotypes of women in Indian society from the perception of 2 strip-tease dancers in a cabaret house in Bombay and many more. Mira’s principle for filmmaking is rooted in individuality, she says “if we don't tell our own stories, no one else will.” - use your distinctiveness to your advantage.
Documentary filmmaking was a way to engage with the world. It was a way to hold a mirror to whatever concerns us as a people, as a society. - Mira Nair
She later transitioned into narrative filmmaking, wanting to have more control on the stories, dramas and gestures. She co-wrote, directed, produced her first full-feature film “Salaam Bombay!” (1988). This movie doesn’t feature any big movie stars nor musical numbers. This critically acclaimed film is a heartbreaking yet delightful story that shows the lives of Mumbai street children-giving a deep insight into the worlds of drugs, prostitution and how they are deprived of a real childhood. This character driven movie isn’t only about a young boy (Krishna) but together weaves stories of Baba (Nana Patekar), Manju, Sola Saal and several other characters.
Synthesising her cinéma-vérité techniques with her 7 years worth of documentary filmmaking experience, she shot on real locations in Mumbai, she cast real street kids to more authentically portray the lives of children who survive in the streets and are deprived of a real childhood and had them participate in workshops. Nair’s directorial debut received more than 25 international awards, including the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The international recognition and success of “Salam Bombay” made Mira Nair a world-renowned independent filmmaker in the cinema world.
Scene from Salaam Bombay
The filmmaker has an extensive filmography that includes documentaries, shorts, Tv series and feature films. The Academy Award-nominated filmmaker is well known for her feature films- “Salaam Bombay!", “Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake,” “Mississippi Masala,” and “Queen of Katwe.” and many others. Though the filmmaker draws inspiration from the streets to tell her stories, the filmmaker has also turned to literature to tell stories like she adapted classic novels like “Vanity Fair,” and some modern literature, such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” and many more. But what is so different about her filmmaking style that makes you connect with the stories on a deeper level and moves you emotionally!
Mira Nair on Cultural Representation
I have always taken courage in my distinctive community. I want to see our names, our voices, our dreams, our struggles—that is what I am devoted to. - Mira Nair
In her Masterclass, Mira says she approaches directing with the “heart of a poet and the skin of an elephant,” spurred by rejection and fighting to bring uncompromising stories to film (Source: Masterclass). In the video above, the filmmaker encourages you to discover your unique voice and tell a story that no one else can. Aspects like realism in her stories, exceptional humanism, culture, families and traditions, themes of socio-political inequality, multicultural approach, are some common attributes that make Nair storytelling and filmmaking unique from others. Through her work, she gives the audience an experience that either lifts you and gives you hope or sinks your heart and leaves you with an intense onslaught of emotions.However there are certain elements that can be seen in most of Mira Nair’s works. Let's further explore the themes and elements of Mira Nair’s filmmaking style which are quite noticeable in most of her works.
“The only way to find a story that possesses you is by engaging with life.” - Mira Nair
Mira Nair confides in preserving your own distinctiveness- from finding your own voice to telling stories about your people, your culture, your work and exploring one's roots in-depth and telling a story that no one else can. To make her first documentary, Nair returned back to India, to tell the story of Muslim community and throws light at the everyday atmosphere at the Jama Masjid Street. Further she went on to make more documentaries based on Indian social and cultural traditions-“Children Of Desired Sex” and “Indian Cabaret”.
With her debut feature film “Salam Bombay '' she told a story that no one ever did before. The film talks about the lives of Indian street kids and their struggles. Nair did not turn away from displaying the reality in the film. The film showed the western audience the horror and the reality of Mumbai slums that made the western audience sympathise with the plight that Mumbai street kids had to go through.
In her the Golden Lion-winning film “Monsoon Wedding’ ira tells the story of an Indian Punjabi family- their complexities between the character’s relationship, unresolved issue, the exuberant Punjabi culture of Delhi and the main aspect of the film- child abuse; brilliantly mixed with emotions.
The film subtly portrays darker issues like child abuse, sexism and more. Take, for example, during the climax of the movie, when Ria (Shefali Shah), finally breaks down and exposes her Uncle as the molester, and to this Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) says, “My family means everything to me." "I cannot break up my family. Please don't tell me to make that choice." This demonstrates how the elders in Indian families are not questioned for their behaviour and how such issues are often hushed to avoid dealing with society’s judgement.Mira didn’t shy away from showing the damage of the confrontation in this film. Woven with great colours, realistic narrative and outstanding soundtracks, the film won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, among many other awards.
A still from “Monsoon Wedding’
The streets have always interested Mira Nair. From telling a realistic narrative inspired from the street to constantly using real locations shows realism in a bigger picture. “Salam Bombay” was shot amidst the chaos of Bombay's red-light district, her first documentary was literally shot on the streets of Delhi and in “Queen of Katwe” the Katwe slums where the character Phiona Mutesi lived, was filmed on-location in the exact same slums. Nair will never give up an opportunity to be on the streets and to be surrounded by people amidst the organised chaos of filmmaking on the street- experiencing the reality of life.
Fun Fact: Did you know that while shooting for her documentary “India Cabaret”, Mira Nair actually moved in with the strippers for four months despite her family’s wishes.
A still from Mira Nair’s India Cabaret
Source- The Hindu
Apart from shooting on real locations, Mira Nair often casts unknowns besides acclaimed actors to give more of an authenticity aspect. Nair has a knack of picking people who have never faced the camera before. This can be seen in many of her films like in “Salam Bombay” the kids were actually street kids who were later trained in a workshop under Mira Nair’s Guru Barry John. Even for her movie “Queen Of Katwe” Mira didn’t cast any famous white western actors to attract the audience. Furthermore, Nair uses a vivid colour palette as a part of her storytelling. Strangely a Mira Nair film will not have a villain but have characters with both good and the bad traits. With beautiful lighting and close camera angles Nair remarkably draws attention to the character's mood and expressions. From humane stories, to authentic costumes and locations, to socio-cultural themes, to her different aesthetic choices, Mira Nair films are one of a kind. For her great achievement in cinema, Nair was awarded the Padma Bhushan—India’s second-highest civilian honour—by the president of India in 2012.
When it comes to choosing her work, Nair says she asks herself a simple question:
“Is this a film only I can make?”
Behind the scenes of “Monsoon Wedding”