In 1988, when Mira Nair’s debut film Salaam Bombay released, India was put on the global cinema map overnight. The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars that year. Only one other Indian filmmaker had had that honour till then: Satyajit Ray. Then came Nair’s Mississippi Masala in 1991, a unique love story about an African man and an Indian woman. And then there was Monsoon Wedding (2001), the perfect antidote to Bollywood’s big, fat Indian wedding. Vanity Fair (2004), Namesake (2006), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) and Queen of Katwe (2016) followed. Nair worked with the studios, but chose to retain her independence as a filmmaker. Today, three decades since her first documentary, Nair forays into an onscreen adaptation of Vikram Seth’s saga A Suitable Boy. The show—that has received criticism and applause—carries Nair’s signature style. Her characters seek out themselves and love within her sunset painted scenes woven together by threads of music. From her home in New York City, Nair talks about breaking into the world of streaming platforms and why every young filmmaker could take a lesson from her arduous yet fulfilling journey. Excerpts from the interview:
A Suitable Boy has umpteen stories in one. The emergence of post-independent India, the hold of family and love, the power of conflicts and politics. Which of these aspects of the show did you as a director relate to the most?
Well, I’ve loved the novel practically since the day it was written. I always got so much inspiration from Vikram [Seth]’s writing, because he had really captured us in our plurality, our distinctiveness, even the absurdness that people don’t know about us as Indians. That we can listen to Schubert and speak in rhyme at the same time as we fight for the freedom of our country from the British. All those contradictions he got so beautifully. For me the book itself was like a best friend. But the first thing besides the great abiding love that called out to me was actually the music. Its music was like my oxygen in many ways. The poems of [ Mirza] Ghalib, [Mir Taqi] Mir, [Daagh] Dehlvi are basically the courtesan Saeeda Bai’s world. The music that she emanates was the music I grew up with as a child with my father who spoke in Urdu only and recited shayari. In fact, Begum Akhtar who is the inspiration of Saeeda Bai was somebody we heard every day growing up. The music was the first, and then the amazing humanity of A Suitable Boy that got me all in. All my films are like a circus of life and India is like that too. We may live in a bungalow, but right next door is a shanty. Cheek by jowl, we live with class and we live with privilege and also we live having nothing. That’s one kind of plurality and I love that about A Suitable Boy. I grew up with that. That interweaving of the political and the personal was vital for me in the show where in my head, the protagonist Lata became modern India. As India found its way in the first election, she will find a way to discover who she is and what she wants, without making it too overt.
The definition of a ‘suitable boy’ has changed for the modern young women of today. Marriage may or may not be a priority as finding one’s voice and freedom. How did you intend to speak to them through the show that’s still old school because of the times it is set in?
I always have the young in my mind when I’m creating something. I want to speak to them. Francis Ford Coppola who I knew a little bit long ago offered me a film, and I said, “Why me?” and he said, “Because you speak to the young.” I was taken aback then, but I appreciated that, because it is important for me to speak to the ones who carry the future in their hands and their hearts. So similarly, Lata—she had to embody the ’50s in her decorum, in her propriety, in her deferential love of her family that they will come first before she does. But she had her beating heart like we all do. That’s what interested me. I cannot have a passive female character probably ever in my films. She’s today’s girl who has this kind of innocence where she hasn’t experienced life, but she eventually will find her own way of looking at life. Which is what the young of today, or the young of any day were and are. It’s that journey we are on. So, I hope it’ll speak to the young.
The theatrical quality of your cinema reflects in everything you make. Be it the way it’s shot or the characters. It’s also apparent in the recreation of the ’50s in this series. Was that difficult to achieve?
I don’t think of it as only theatre, it’s more actually like mise-en-scène. I love layers in literally every way. To pick locations that have that perspective and depth. So much of Suitable is in those great old bungalows that have rooms upon rooms. I grew up like that. It’s also very cinematic, the idea of going further and further. I grew up in a bungalow; my father was a civil servant and space was never a constraint. That exists in my visual way and it also exists when we shot by the Ganges, or the Narmada river in this case. It was not just about having the lovers on a boat in close-up in the foreground. It was about what was behind them, and further behind them. The house that passed the lovers behind them had certain red ochre sails that would go past, and then behind the sails would be the ghats themselves, and then pilgrims coming down. It’s life in motion and multiple stories blending within a single shot. All that had to be reconstructed, through spaces and costumes and the palette we chose. It was elaborate but wonderful.
Though you spent more than half your life away from India, you’ve always said that your childhood in Bhubaneswar informs your storytelling. Were the jatra theatre, the music and the dance of Odisha your foundations as a filmmaker?
The beauty of a childhood like we had in Bhubaneswar, in Orissa, in the early 1960s was that it was all about the imagination. I was the youngest of two older brothers who basically teased the daylights out of me, and taught me the first key of storytelling—I had to deserve my audience. Whenever I would speak, it had to be riveting and engaging in some way or the other. I was an industrious soul. I would go out running in the morning and instead of doing exercise I would return with the milkman, sit down and say, ‘Aapki kahani batao, na [Please tell me your story].’ The people always intrigued me. As a 12-year-old I would go to the Rajarani temple and watch Sanjukta Panigrahi, the great Odissi danseuse rehearsing on the steps of the temple. That’s like an image I can close my eyes and see. Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, the great exponent of Odissi taught right there in Cuttack in the middle of a paddy field, and I would get there, would befriend him and observe him and get completely filled in my heart and eyes with all of what he was teaching. The idea that we had this absolute ocean of beauty and this great tradition, was something that always stayed with me.
I discovered jatra—the traditional travelling mythological theatre—the idea that you could enthral 200 people with the written word was riveting. That was the childhood which I am so grateful for because there’s nothing that can fuel you besides your imagination, and your family life, which is kind of a small world but one with constant discovery.
When you experienced the politics of being a brown girl in a white country at Harvard University, was it rebellion that made you turn to filmmaking?
The interesting thing about India is that the way we are raised, we have a greater worldview about the rest of the world than they have about us. Especially before the internet, before the democratisation of it. So even in the late ’60s as a teenager I was already anti-Vietnam war. I knew the Beatles lyrics backwards. And I was also studying the Bhagavad Gita with a professor and my life was a mixed bag of [all] that. When I was nominated for that Oscar in 1988 for Salaam Bombay, they could not even pronounce the word ‘India’ properly on that stage. Even now they consistently ask me how I speak such good English and I tell them I’ll send my elephant to fetch them at Delhi airport and they believe it. So it wasn’t rebellion, but the films were more of a kind of bemused look at this world and its people.
I cannot have a passive female character probably ever in my films. Lata is today’s girl who has this kind of innocence where she hasn’t experienced life, but she eventually will find her own way of looking at life,” says Mira Nair, director
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What do you think is it about your debut Salaam Bombay that it is studied in cinema textbooks even today?
It was lifechanging and it was unbelievable what happened to that film. That kind of overwhelming embrace, where overnight you’re somebody, that happens very rarely. I think because India was very rarely seen in that phosphorescence, grabbing life in the gut kind of way. The street kids and their vitality for life, and being absolutely unapologetic for who they are, that kind of attitude was not something that was familiar at all. Even technically we put real art and craft on screen. We shot all on location, all on the streets, and it’s probably one of the earliest sync sound films coming out of our country. That kind of vibrancy, of the commonplace becoming deeply visual and poetic was rare. Like the street murals of Indian gods by the side of which the children would sleep. That in itself had a power that had not been seen. Mostly I think it was good filmmaking. The story and the spirit of our kids, and the humanity of having nothing, but wanting life, gives you courage. I had independent filmmakers like Ketan Mehta and Govind Nihalani come to me with international stories and they would want to cast the likes of Michael Caine. At that point I would be like, ‘You don’t need Michael Caine. Look outside your window. The story is around us.’
You were asked to direct a Harry Potter film, but you chose to make The Namesake. Despite big Hollywood studios vying for you, you choose to maintain your independence as a filmmaker and raise funds, sometimes for years. What would you say to young storytellers who often find their voices muffled by corporate agendas?
I think you have to decide what you’ve been placed on this earth to do. I decided ages ago that I’m not going to be on the A-list of Hollywood. That’s not my intention. After Salaam Bombay I entered the realm immediately. I had people clambering around me to represent me and I would ask them, ‘What will you represent me for?’ I was not looking for a job. If I sought to be like everyone else on the A-list of Hollywood, especially in the 1980s, I would be making rom-coms with white people and being a cookie-cutter filmmaker. When you choose the other way—the Mississippi Masala—following your own heart type of way, it’s a very lonely way. Still can be, I must tell you. But it’s a way that has surprising gifts even in its loneliness. I remember when I went to promote Mississippi in England in 1991, the lines around the block to the cinema were all hybrid interracial couples. I just looked at them, and I said to myself that I did not even know I had an audience then. We never had Black and brown skin colour together on screen at that time. So dream on, but stay true to what you want to say. It may take time, but you will have a body of work that’s yours alone and that’ll be your signature.
Your films are invested in their socio-political scenarios. What’s your take on the times we are living in today, especially with the pandemic?
It’s a remarkably dangerous time that we are living in. The tale of the migrant labour is just horrific, where the most basic need of a person to be regarded as a person has been stripped away. It’s like they are ants crawling across our enormous continent with nothing. It’s a stark tale of politics, and I have to say demagoguery has annihilated the individual. Like the individual does not matter. This pandemic has brought to the fore the deepest inequities, and how we are in the hands of the politics. And how our lives and our struggles are completely possessed by the people who rule us. Here too, in America, it’s like the individual has not mattered. We are still climbing the peaks of infection, and USA and India are the forerunners. It’s startling. My friend Basharat Peer wrote an extraordinary tale of two migrant labourers who were walking and how only one survived. This is the story that we must never forget. How the human being is at the receiving end of these grand avalanches of politics where the individual does not matter. In fact, I have been thinking of creating a three-chapter series on migrants across the world, and their stories—pandemic or not pandemic related. I’m hoping to bring it to fore soon.
Lastly, what is cinema for you today?
Cinema for me is and will always remain a reflection of the times we live in. Our struggles to find our place in the world, the pain, the discrimination, the palpable nature of our ever-changing human selves—cinema is all this and much more. It breaks my heart to know that with the advent of OTT we may have reduced cinema to viewing it in matchbox-sized screens, but it’s power to move and stir something within you will never change.