Mira Nair speaks of being a child of the street, her need for a talisman film while she is shooting, and of the perversity of item numbers
Filmmaker Mira Nair meets us at The Taj Mahal Palace, Colaba, to talk about Salaam Bombay!, which re-released recently on the occasion of its silver jubilee anniversary. An enclave of the privileged, the Taj is an odd choice of place to discuss a film that so fervently speaks for the destitute. Shot on real locales with 24 street children and a handful of less-known professional actors, Salaam Bombay! remains a groundbreaking effort both for its social and filmic achievements. Twenty five years since, the film hasn’t lost its flavour. Even today if you stop at the city’s traffic signals, you will find characters from Salaam Bombay! leaping out at you. Nair, then in her thirties, jokes that she embarked on the film with a scalp full of jet-black hair that turned white by the time its shooting ended. “Now, I use expensive hair colour every few months,” she quips, obviously referring to the effort of getting a film made. Today, Mira Nair has a few greys and countless feathers on her head. Yet, the auteur of Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake still finds it difficult to raise funds. Her biggest challenge, she says, is to retain creative control in the face of studio pressures.
Q What was the first spark for Salaam Bombay!?
A One of the first images that made me make the film was when I was living with dancers in Antop Hill for my documentary India Cabaret, which was about the life of strippers in Mumbai. I was in a traffic jam and there was this gnarled hand that held on to my taxi window. When I looked down, I saw this kid with a torso and hands—nothing below. He was on a wooden platform. The signal turned green and he just came with the velocity of the car and let it go and then pirouetted in style as if there was an audience to salaam (salute) him. But there was none. Cars were just zipping past. I thought it amazing that this kid with no legs had such a burning desire to be a performer. That was what led me to believe that the spirit of these kids needs to be nurtured.
Q Many critics have pointed to the great humanism that pervades Salaam Bombay! But what strikes me is the humour. It seems to stem from natural situations.
A You know, Bombay has a unique dialect—yahan aaneka, wahan jaaneka, kya bola (Come here, go there, what are you saying). The way we speak here is so different from other parts of the country. And the movies, especially then [in the 1980s], didn’t have that street lingo. It was all dialogue baazi. As we all know, Bollywood has its own language. One of the things that happened was that I showed India Cabaret to a house full of people on the opening night of the India International Film Festival in Hyderabad in 1986. The humour, the bawdiness, the double meanings and so much of how the dancers spoke had the crowd in splits. People just laughed with these dancers because they were so funny and bawdy. I don’t know if you have seen that film.
Q No, I haven’t. It’s not available on DVD, is it?
A It is available in a Criterion collection but not in India yet. Anyhow, India Cabaret gave me the courage to make a film that would be in the voice of the people, in the voice of the street— because there is so much humour out there.
QIs Chaipau, the boy through whose eyes you tell the story of Salaam Bombay!, your favourite character?
A No, I am afraid I will have to say Manju (the prostitute’s daughter). I just loved the way Hansa (Vithal) performed it. I love her heartbreaking beauty, her sweetness and her fierceness. She is totally self-possessed. I love that she loves Chaipau and I love that she felt khunnas (retributive rage) about Sola Saal (the virgin Nepalese girl forced into prostitution). I love that she eats away the biscuits meant for Sola Saal—the whole fucking packet. She will get sick but she is not going to give it to her. I love the reality of her beauty. I also like Rekha’s character (Anita Kanwar).
Q Both are female characters and it sets the tone for my next question: are you happy with the way Bollywood depicts women?
A I am certainly happier these days than I once was. Oh my God, in earlier times, there were the sati savitris (chaste women), the vamps, the sluts and though you were not allowed to kiss on screen, you could show rape—I mean, that kind of twistedness. That’s what led me to make Kama Sutra, to say, ‘Look at our country. We were the people most matter-of-fact about how to love. And look at what has become of us, this twisted perversity, really.’ But still, I would say even though we have the occasional Kahaani and other interesting female-centric, powerful and complex characters, the vulgarity is pretty intense in terms of what it sets off in men’s minds. Look at item numbers, the whole glorification of it. It has never been about putting the woman on an equal footing. It has always been about the woman as a sexual object who will gyrate herself into your brain and into your loins. I have a problem with that.
Q Do you deal with male actors as passionately as with female ones?
A I deal with all kinds of actors, both sides of the equation. I hope I deal with them with nuance and with love. But I am not afraid of both the brutal and the tender. In fact, when Salaam Bombay! came out, no one knew who I was. A lot of people assumed that it was a man who had made it. Over the years, I may have resisted chick flicks and the so-called ‘domain of the girls’, but at my core, I am a deeply feminine person and very relieved to be so.
Q Salaam Bombay! has influenced a whole generation of filmmakers, like Zoya Akhtar for instance. You have often spoken of its social impact— on government policies and the setting up of the Salaam Baalak Trust with its proceeds—but have you ever thought of this other impact that has to do with its craft and style as a work of cinema?
A I am deeply moved by the way it has impacted filmmakers. For example, there is a scene where Chillum is dead and the kids carry his body. There is a similar scene in Satya. (Laughs) Ramu (Gopal Varma) and I used to have a little laugh about it. In fact, I am more thrilled to see that Hindi films got more real and went on the streets after Salaam Bombay! The map of life is on the faces of those who live on the streets. I remember, in 1995, Jafar Panahi, the great Iranian filmmaker, and I were on the jury of the African Film Festival in Milan. I knew of his work but I didn’t know him. He couldn’t speak English. He kissed my hands, got down and said, “For Salaam Bombay!” I have had the most extraordinary doors open because of the power of this film. And yet, it was my first feature film. Before that, for seven years, I had made documentaries. I had never studied fiction film. I had studied narrative structure through the editing of my documentaries. I always say that I am a student of life, truly. I learn from being open to the world. And because I live in three countries (Uganda, India and the US), it’s an interesting distance and clarity I have of certain things that stare at me—things that if you live around forever you won’t see the power of. That’s where the distance helps me. So, if I wasn’t a believer in the fact that life is more powerful than any fiction, then I wouldn’t have made Salaam Bombay! I still have great clarity about the lessons that life gives us, lessons that the children gave us. Also, who the marginal people are, how they live and what their place in the world is. That’s a question that continues to bother me. I think stories of the so-called marginalised and dispossessed are so inspiring.
Q Mississippi Masala is very much about the marginalised. There is a moment in it where you say that you can be dark and rich, fair and poor, but not dark and poor. That’s a dangerous combination for a girl with hopes of landing a prized catch, a good prospective husband. How did you think of bringing these two so-called disadvantaged groups—Browns and Blacks—together?
A That was me, saying that you can’t be dark and have no money and expect to get Harry Patel. I think we are such racists. Let’s face it. What do you think Fair & Lovely is? Why do you think being fair is synonymous with beauty? It is something that has plagued us forever. It’s the same with this Indian family in Mississippi Masala. They might have left India but they still live with that attitude. After that movie, I used to have indignant Indian men walking up to me in subways and saying, “What do you think of yourself? You want our daughters to marry Black people?”, “You think every guy is Denzel Washington?” They were taking out their khunnas on me. It was unimaginable and unacceptable for Brown Indians to be marrying Black Africans.
Q After staying abroad for many years, in what ways have your perceptions of India changed?
A I live more between Kampala, Delhi and Bombay and very little in New York now—only about four months in a year. I love India, kya karoon? (What can I do?). I am just so inspired here, my fondest films are set here, my dearest friends are here, and my family, of course, is here. But being in these countries gives you a very interesting worldview. You don’t buy one worldview fully. You always have many ways to look at the world.
Q What strikes you about today’s Hindi cinema?
A I find the films becoming much more muscular and refined. But they are still mostly here for commercial [purposes]. They don’t have that much courage in speaking of people who fall outside the mainstream—the dispossessed. That way, we still have a long way to go. We can afford to go wider on the net. But, of course, speaking of the good changes, the examination of politics is very interesting in current [Hindi] films. I loved, for instance, the integration of archival and historical footage in Gangs of Wasseypur, in terms of understanding the ethos of what created [those] gangs in [India’s] coal mining areas. So, I do appreciate that.
Q Growing up in Orissa, you had little exposure to cinema. In fact, in the local theatre back then, the only English film that used to play was Dr Zhivago.
A (Laughs) Yes, every Sunday.
Q Do you see more films now?
A Definitely. Usually, when I am shooting, I have a talisman film. I literally feed off it. With The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it was Carlos. With Monsoon Wedding, oddly, it was Fellini’s La Dolce Vita because I was working with a new crew, a cluster of young people, and I wanted to teach them about background action through that film. And I ended up seeing it many times over. With Salaam Bombay! it was Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, which was like an eye-opener, and then, of course, there was Pixote. Also, I vote for the Oscars, so I get to see all the films made that year. Much of my viewing happens that way.
Q What do you have to say about Bollywood’s obsession with Oscar awards?
A It’s all about what is sent, about what is chosen to go. We have to understand that it’s another world out there. You have to have an awareness that we lack here—of what works and what doesn’t. It’s called a ‘campaign’ for a reason, isn’t it? So, you have to have many items of luck on your plate. The Namesake was a decent biggish hit there and I think Tabu and Irrfan Khan should have definitely been nominated. But the studio did a 30 per cent campaign, they didn’t do a 100 per cent campaign because they bet on their other horses—whatever they were, I don’t even remember now. So, it’s the choice of what the country sends that is vital. Everyone tells me that if Monsoon Wedding had been sent to the Oscars, it would have won. It is such a beloved film. It ran for six-seven months in every theatre in every city in that country (the US). But who knows about an Oscar? You don’t think of winning an Oscar for every film you make.
Q Do you have any hopes of picking the statuette someday?
A If you start thinking on those lines, then you aren’t doing justice to your work. If an Oscar is playing on your mind, you start indulging yourself in a game of second-guessing—ki yeh chalega ki nahin, woh chalega ki nahin (Will this work, will that work). It’s false to think that way. It has never worked for anyone. Just do what you believe in. Give it your all. And hope that it will unlock some hearts.
Q Is there is a key to good filmmaking or good storytelling?
A The key is to be a student of life, to never believe that you have arrived. So many of my dear friends think that, ‘Chalo, pahunch gaye’ (We have made it). They believe that they are great. I have never believed that and neither have I ever believed in resting on past laurels. I have just made a film (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) that was as hard to make as Salaam Bombay! I kind of don’t trust comfort, even though I have had oodles of it with big-budget movies. But I like nothing more than getting back on the street, engaging people directly. After 30 years, money or fame doesn’t matter, really. I have made things happen. I resolved to shoot Monsoon Wedding in 30 days just to prove that you can make something out of nothing. With Mississippi Masala, there were suggestions that I should have a White protagonist instead of a Black one. But I stood my ground. I said, “Sure, all the waiters will be White.” Salaam Bombay! was what I call a ‘life and death’ film. We were shooting it by day and raising funds by night because of the time difference with Europe. (Laughs) You know, I started with jet-black hair and I ended with jet-white, and now I use expensive hair colour every few months. It’s true. It was just insanity. So it’s nothing new for me. In fact, I am best left a raaste ka baccha (child of the street). I am at my best when every kind of control, especially creative control, is with me.