Season 2: Episode 13
Bonus Episode! Maori chats with the renowned filmmaker, activist, and this year’s Blackstar Film Festival Luminary Award Recipient, Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake). Mira talks about her childhood, how she made her way from India to the United States to attend Harvard, and her early artistic influences including theater, photography, and cinema vérité. The two explore the relationship between film and social change, the making of her 1991 film Mississippi Masala, her experiences directing while parenting, and more.
About Mira Nair
Mira Nair is an Academy-Award nominated director best known for her visually dense films that pulsate with life. Her debut feature, Salaam Bombay! (1988) won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, followed by the groundbreaking Mississippi Masala (1991), the Golden Globe & Emmy-winning Hysterical Blindness (2001), and the international hit Monsoon Wedding (2001), for which she was the first woman to win Venice Film Festival’s coveted Golden Lion. A fiercely independent filmmaker, she then made Vanity Fair (2004), The Namesake (2006), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), and Queen of Katwe (2016). In 2020, Nair directed an adaptation of Vikram Seth’s epic tale, A Suitable Boy, for BBC/Netflix, a sprawling tale of identity and love in a newly independent India. Mira has just completed the pilot of National Treasure for DisneyPlus. Future projects include The Jungle Prince of Delhi for Amazon and Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, the Musical, heading to Broadway. Her next feature film is an international musical with Pharrell Williams. An activist by nature, Nair founded Salaam Baalak Trust for street children in 1989, and the Maisha Film Lab in East Africa to train film makers on the continent in 2004. In 2012, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian honor.
Season 2 of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects, in partnership with RowHome Productions.
Host and Executive Producer: Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer: Dallas Taylor
Associate Producers: Irit Reinheimer, Farrah Rahaman,
Managing Producer: Alex Lewis
Executive Editor: John Myers
Music supervisor: David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams.
- Sounds Supreme
Mississippi Masala (directed by Mira Nair, 1991)
Love Story (directed by Arthur Hiller, Paramount, 1970)
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
Peter Brook (1925-2022)
Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003)
Eugène Atget (1857–1927)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)
Raghubir Singh (1942-1999)
Doctor Zhivago (directed by David Lean, MGM-British Studios, 1965)
Satyajit Ray (1921-1992)
D.A. Pennebaker (1925-2019)
Richard Leacock (1921-2011)
Monsoon Wedding (directed by Mira Nair, IFC Productions, 2001)
Salaam Bombay! (directed by Mira Nair, 1988)
The Namesake (directed by Mira Nair, Mirabai Films, 2006)
Monsoon Wedding The Musical (directed by Mira Nair, upcoming in 2023)
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941)
Expulsion of Asians from Uganda
Idi Amin (1925-2003)
For Queen and Country (directed by Martin Stellman, Zenith Productions, 1988)
Queen of Katwe (directed by Mira Nair, Walt Disney Pictures, 2016)
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (directed by Mira Nair, IFC Films, 2012)
A Suitable Boy (directed by Mira Nair, BBC Films and Netflix, 2020)
The Jungle Prince of Delhi (article written by Ellen Barry, NYTimes, 2019)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (directed by Mike Newell, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005)
Richard Nichols (1959-2014)
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens. You’re listening to Many Lumens where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change and popular culture. I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes.
For this episode, I’m joined by renowned filmmaker, activist and this year’s BlackStar Luminary Award recipient, Mira Nair. Nair has been a trailblazer for decades. Her first feature film, Salaam Bombay!, won 23 international awards, including the Caméra d’Or and Prix du Public at the Cannes Film Festival. She’s also the first woman to receive the Golden Lion Award at the 58th Venice Film Festival for Monsoon Wedding. In our conversation, we talk about Mira’s childhood and how she discovered her love for the arts. We also discuss how she made her way from India to the United States to attend Harvard, an experience which brought about new artistic influences, such as cinéma vérité. We explore the relationship between film and social change, the making of Mississippi Masala, her experiences directing while parenting and so much more. And now for my conversation with Mira Nair.
[00:01:19] Maori Karmael Holmes: So I just want to ask again about the three places that you live. How do you find a sense of home going in between the places? Do you have the same setup in each city? Are they different sort of sides of your personality?
[00:01:36] Mira Nair: For me it’s to do with engagement, the quality of feeling at home in each of these three continents, actually, and for me, the engagement is vital to give me a sense that I’m not just passing through. Because I don’t believe in nostalgia, I don’t believe that I’m in one place, I want to dream of the other place. You have that — in the beginning of this kind of a sojourn one has that — but then it’s pointless. So for me, it’s about engagement in each place. And New York is in very many ways — I’ve lived there since 1979 — it’s in many ways kind of my creative home, my creative community. People like myself from everywhere in the world live there and we’ve made our movies and many things together for the last 30 or 40 years. India is where my family is and where the culture and the politics and the engagement level for me is very, very strong, almost too strong so that I almost get eaten up by everyday life because I can’t almost reflect on it that easily. But my work, as you know, has so many roots in India, that a lot of times I’m working there, I’m shooting, I’m prepping, I’m casting, I’m building things there, but my family is there, which is very powerful, my mom and my brothers and so on. And we have our own home there as well, which gives me a great sense of roots myself. And Uganda, Kampala is where [I] came now 32, almost 33 years ago, to make Mississippi Masala, my second film. In fact, the house in the film is the house I’m sitting in right now. And this place also is the most, in a way, unlikely of places for me to feel so rooted. But I do, because many years ago, almost 20 years ago, we started a film school called Maisha right next door to my home, a free school, a garden, a campus of sorts. So that way the lives are full in each place, and New York is very much a place that all my family, my son is there, a 30 year old politician in New York and assemblyman out of Queens, and my husband is a professor at Columbia and I teach sometimes, but I mostly make movies, and mostly I’m doing this big stage musical that’s hopefully heading to Broadway. So I mean, it’s such a city of creative excellence. Wherever I need to get juiced and excited and inspired in a certain direction, I can always find it in New York. So I look to these spaces for different things, but most essential is that the homes themselves are cocoons in which I can work.
[00:04:34] Maori Karmael Holmes: Can you talk a little bit about your childhood? What were you into? I read that you didn’t play with dolls, but I’m curious what you were playing with.
[00:04:44] Mira Nair: My childhood, my father was a civil servant in a very remote part of India called Orissa, very beautiful east coast, on the sea. He was deputed with his colleagues to build the new capital in the ’50s in Orissa. So I was born there. When I was raised there, there were sometimes no roads. The first airport was put in when I was eight years old. It was a small town, seriously small town, but it had this extraordinary heritage of 2000 temples from the 15th, 16th, 17th century just dotted around the fields of where I grew up. So it was both enchanting as well as, one could say, people said, oh, nothing ever happens here, but I never felt that way because there was always some enchantment. And I had two older brothers and when they played cricket, I was the fielder. I got the ball. So it was a simple childhood, but it was a very interesting one because I was energized by traditional mythological theater that would come through the town. I was industrious by nature and I wanted to see if I was a writer or a painter, and I would put my mind to the task. If a classical dancer was rehearsing in front of an incredible temple, I would go there, I would sit there, I would write about her, I would try to think, am I a writer? Can I evoke this? I would sometimes — for a ridiculous period, I took [an] Indian master artist’s work and put it on the wall and copied it and thought, am I a painter? But very quickly, I studied music, I studied Indian classical music, but very quickly my teacher for the sitar said to me, you can’t pursue too many things. In order to excel, follow one path. And that was my first aha moment because I had never thought of it like that. But it was very good advice because everything you do, especially these ancient arts like classical music, it takes decades, if not a whole life, to master. And so slowly but surely my path came to actually the theater where I became an actor, amateur actor, but for several years through the end of school and college, and then joined a repertory company and wanted to know if I could even make — I did make political street theater — like theater to change the world. But that taught me that I had to go somewhere else. And that somewhere else was sort of unexpected…because no one at the age of 18 leaves the country to study undergraduate work somewhere else, but I did. I did. I got a scholarship, I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts. And when I was 18, first time I left my place, and first time I think I was on a plane. And that was an interesting new world being at university and really having the anonymity, firstly, no one knew who I was, no one cared. There’s a line in Mississippi Masala, “This is America, man. No one cares.”
[00:08:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: What emboldened you to leave and also to pursue the arts? So often people’s families want them to be something professional, something that will bring resources into their future. How did you know that you could pursue the arts as a real career? And how did you know you could leave home?
[00:08:38] Mira Nair: There’s an odd paradoxical beauty about being a woman and being the youngest in my family to two older brothers. My parents denied this––not accusation, but I used to say that your attention is always on my brothers and that’s why I’m left to do what I want. Because I was a decent student and didn’t bother anyone with failing or getting out of — because I was all those things, they left me alone and I found actually my own way and the way was the performance and the arts and writing and so on. But they didn’t really mind because I was a woman and I was probably, in their heart of hearts, designed for a good marriage somewhere down the line. I never submitted to the arranged marriage or this or that. I never did. And they didn’t even know that I was applying to schools outside the country. Somebody else in this big city in Delhi told me to go to the US American school where they had this little room full of catalogs of universities. And I went there and just learned on my own and applied to the biggest universities because I thought they’ll have money to bring me up because I was the government servant’s daughter. I was not somebody with money. I was well educated but had no money. And so I applied to Harvard, to Yale, to Wellesley, to things I didn’t really know, except I knew their aura. And I saw Love Story. I saw Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw cavorting about in the snow, and I thought, man, that place looked like it might have enough money to send a kid over. And it was just one of those things. I was good at what I did, I suppose, but it’s the luck of the draw. I got one full scholarship that was from Harvard and Yale lost my application and Wellesley gave me 50%. So I couldn’t afford the other 50. So that was that. And my parents were taken aback, but my father kind of gulped when I gave him the big fat letter of admission from Harvard and he said, the Kennedys went there. So thank you, Kennedys.
[00:11:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, it’s interesting. When I was reading about you attending Harvard and meeting both your first husband, Mitch [Epstein], who I know worked as a production designer and producer on some of your early films, and Sooni Taraporevala who has written so many of your films. I was like, I don’t think of Harvard as this artistic hotbed. And so it makes sense how you found it. I think it’s similar to how many of us found colleges before the internet, just sort of randomly. And what did you find when you arrived at Cambridge?
[00:11:31] Mira Nair: I found that Americans were more culture shocked about being at Harvard than I was, because they had grown up in Indiana and here and there and Oregon and wherever they were from, just like, oh my God, am I going to get in? It’s going to be the be all and the end all, the whole putting it on a pedestal of some sort, and I didn’t know about it. And anonymity, the fact that I was on my own and no one really was going to follow what I was doing there was very liberating because it really teaches you, even though the beginnings are tough and a little lonely sometimes, but it wasn’t much, it teaches you what you are and what you want to be, I suppose, and what you want to study. And the resources were so immense. But then I got involved, as I did in India, into theater and in performance and slowly but surely a year later I stumbled into filmmaking.
[00:12:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: Can you talk a little bit about your artistic influences? As you arrived at Harvard and when you were coming as a younger person, who were the filmmakers or photographers that you were influenced by?
[00:12:44] Mira Nair: Growing up in India, the influences were mostly through, for me, through literature and the reading of the classics, the reading of especially Russian literature because somehow India and Russia were always linked to the big fat tomes of war and peace and all of them, Dostoevsky, everything was available very, very cheaply. And then it was performance. And when I became a theater actor, some of my heroes were abroad, like Peter Brook, like Joseph Chaikin, like Andrei Șerban. These were people I was to later meet in New York City. But the engagement was, like everyone in the late ’60s, music and politics, the Vietnam, even though I was very young, those were the influences, but the artistic ones really came to me much later at Harvard where I was introduced to photography first and was really taught through the study of photography, whether it be [Eugène] Atget or whether it be [Henri] Cartier-Bresson or whether it be Raghubir Singh, great Indian photographers as well. It all came from there initially and films 100% started only when I was 20 years old or 19, 20 years old because we grew up in a town without even, well, there was one cinema and it only played Doctor Zhivago. So the films I really started seeing as an art form only came in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I was like 20 years old. Even the first great Indian director Satyajit Ray’s films I saw in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is shocking, because you’d never see it in India at that time. And then I was introduced to cinema by our great teachers and mostly through the cinéma vérité documentary, and my own teachers were [D.A.] Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock who pretty much invented the mobile camera. And it was an introduction to that whole world really, in the States, yeah.
[00:14:51] Maori Karmael Holmes: As you were pursuing film, I’m curious how much of your training as an actor shows up in your directing?
[00:15:00] Mira Nair: A lot of it. Because I was an actor, I love and understand actors. I don’t just demand actors do what I want. I have to find a way that will open them to what I may need. The other quality that really helps me in directing film was making cinéma vérité documentary film, where you just surrender to the world that you want to film, where you have to establish a respect with that world, that you have to have great humility for it. You have to be a great listener and you have to absorb and be receptive rather than impose on that world, right. And that is a very important ingredient of knowing how to direct because knowing how to direct is of course needing a vision, having something to say, you want to say it, but the process on finding how to say it has to be one that is a dialogue, that is to do with humility, that is to do with a real give and take between the humans that you’re collecting to take you on your journey. Knowing how to just sort of be a fly on the wall, knowing how to just enter a place and make people feel comfortable and don’t even sometimes regard you is a very important ingredient of learning about the world itself.
[00:16:33] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about how you prep for films? Are you assembling lookbooks, are they digital, are they on paper? How do you do that and how has it changed over the years?
[00:16:45] Mira Nair: I think the bottom line of making any art or film is to — film especially, because film is such a hugely collaborative task — that you have to be a great communicator. You have to know how to communicate and you have to learn how to make people bloom, but you also have to recognize what their best is so that you want that. There’s no point casting an actor with exquisite comic timing and giving him a tragic role to play off one note. It has to be max, my favorite word is maximize. You have to max it, you have to max the situation, max the intention of the scene, you have to max the performance. I prepare in any way that I can in order that my communication on any level of set, costume, color, emotion, intention is actually shared with my heads of the department, my team in the form of a lookbook, in the form of discussions or anything. It’s a motley thing, a bunch of stuff, fashion as well in there. So I prepare lookbooks quite systematically and then talk with all my team about it. Basically get as much artistic sharing then that can happen sometimes from scene to scene with my team so that as we get closer to the set and as we get closer to the shooting, I conduct literally in silence. All this has been said before. So it’s not about running around at the last minute and expending your energy because a lot of it, when you’re actually shooting, is like tabula rasa, a blank slate, emptiness that you now will receive everything that you’ve tried to put out. And the receiving is not from everybody being stock still and completely prepared. The receiving is actually from the universe of things that happened that day, the lighting, the moon perhaps, the street kid you might have seen on the train to come to work, you pull him along or whatever it is, you’ve got to be alive to life itself and also to the struggle of it. If somebody’s having a hard time doing something, you have to find another way for them to do it, that you want in another way. You can’t just say, you just got to do it, but better. You can’t. And that’ll happen only when you are fully prepared. I try to prepare like that. It is never a rushed job. I really do take it seriously so that you can speak softly and carry a big stick. I joke. I joke about it, but it’s true. It’s true.
[00:19:38] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, I love that you talk about it in this way, because one of the things I’ve been really interested in with talking to filmmakers throughout the years of the festival, I don’t know how much of this is in your world, but I feel like in my world, people are always talking about decolonizing X, Y and Z. And so we’ve talked about decolonizing film sets because they can be sites of such harm and they’re very militaristic and things like that. And so I was curious for you, I feel like women always get asked this question, how do you direct as a woman? But I really do think women lead differently just because of nurture, because of society, you’re leading differently. So I’m curious how your sets are different. What are the things that you’re doing to bring your crew and cast to be in this preparedness?
[00:20:28] Mira Nair: Well, one of the most obvious ways my sets are different is that we start in the morning with yoga for one hour. It’s on the call sheet, it’s before call. It’s voluntary, it’s not demanded of you, but it is an amazing, we always work with very senior Iyenga yoga instructors, not just fly by night anyone who knows the practices, but really I treat that position as seriously as a cinematographer would be or anything. So when I made Monsoon Wedding, I think I was 40 years old and I was tired by then of being wrecked after every movie. And I couldn’t take it. So this doing and making and practicing yoga really increases one’s strength and stamina and kind of, I think, has a training of keeping the ego at the door. It sort of is very democratizing to have the movie star and the carpenter and the sound recorders all with their bums up in the air and breathing. It equates us all, I think. So that’s one thing I do, but mostly it’s to do with being prepared, Maori. It’s to do with being prepared, communicating, and the leadership, the direction has to be porous. It’s not hierarchical. Although I say that I’m a very collaborative person so long as I have the last word, I always joke about that, but it is true.
[00:21:58] Maori Karmael Holmes: I totally relate.
[00:22:00] Mira Nair: In movies, directors have to lead the way and have to know what they want. In theater, which I am now doing, back to again, it’s not like that. It’s not so democratic. It’s a whole team that is equally authoritative and it’s like a navigation one has to have. Anyway, so that’s how I do it. It’s such a privilege to make cinema because cinema is such an encompassing of all the arts that one might love, like I do. Music or painting or color or emotion, that in order to really make every moment work and be rich, you have to bring everyone along with you and not just along with you, but to ask them to take you further. That’s very important, otherwise you’re just stepping in the same river twice and you can’t do that. I mean, otherwise it’s static water and that’s not, life is too short for stasis.
[00:23:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: I’m curious about how, you came of age, as you mentioned, in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and there are these politically charged cinematic movements, like Third Cinema, Cinema Engagé. I’m curious what your engagement is with this concept of camera as a weapon and other sort of global south arts movements were at that time, and how did they show up in your work?
[00:23:31] Mira Nair: To be candid, it was the idea of changing the world that even led me to make cinema or to… I felt that one would have the power much greater as a filmmaker than as an actor on a stage, precisely for that reason that you are not in the hands of other people, that you had your own vision and you could make a point. And also because the medium itself is so populist and reaches so many, it was always to see whether art could change anything really. And I was blessed really to be able to do this in my very first feature film, Salaam Bombay! which was about street kids in Bombay and very much an amalgam of my documentary life leading into my fiction life and me casting real kids from the streets opposite unknown but professional actors and filming in real streets and in real brothels and real places. But again, structuring it, setting it up, fiction, but fiction based on utter reality. And I really vowed at that time that we would use the profits of it to work with street children in our country. It’s an enormous situation in India where kids come from all over the country to Bombay, which is kind of like our Hollywood, and imagine that streets are paved with movies and gold and then find themselves in a community of poverty and dreamers. And not as lethal and not as dangerous as Brazil and other places which have guns and high octane drugs, it’s less violent in that sense, but it’s abject poverty and children with not a childhood insight. So it was their spirit of resilience and survival that gave me the courage and dream to make this film. But I wanted to make their lives different or better, or be honored for who they were. So anyway, so that was the vow is that if it were a success, we would make a foundation of trust that would create centers for street children in Bombay and Delhi. And I’m really happy to tell you that because it was a hit, I mean, we won everything at Cannes in 1988, we went up to the Oscars, we sold the whole country, the whole world. We established Salaam Baalak Trust, this foundation for street kids in 1989 in Delhi, and it is still now, what, 35 years old, and we have now 17 centers across Bombay and Delhi. We have about 5,000 kids coming through and living in our centers every year. And it’s just amazing and we emphasize in the Salaam Baalak Trust the arts. So kids are taught besides vocational training, they’re taught to draw, to sing, to puppetry and choreograph to dance, and every year it’s a big event in Delhi where they do an annual, they write their own plays, they perform them and they’re really astonishing. And now of course our kids are grown and are mentoring our own other kids, young ones. And it’s really been one of the great rewards. And it doesn’t happen again, Maori. It doesn’t happen that with every film you can do something like this. It was a remarkable privilege that in the first film one could do it. And since then I’ve done other ways, but mostly the galvanizing towards cinema was to do this, was to see if change could actually happen. But the other thing that I try to follow as a child of living between worlds, between east and west, between Brown and Black, between Brown and white, the whole gamut, is that the belief that we are who we are, and we should not pander to what they don’t know about us, we should just take you on our journey to know that actually the world is incredibly similar, and one. So the main emphasis for me is to do that, is to actually never be grateful, but to bring our stories, to bring our color, to bring our poetry to a place where it is felt as your own, because it’s not about teaching, it’s about actually expanding.
[00:28:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. A lot of your projects are considering place and migration and diaspora. And so you’ve done between The Namesake and Mississippi Masala and even in Monsoon Wedding, you’re contending with South Asians as they live across the globe. And I’m curious if you think you’ll continue to explore that, are you considering any sort of Caribbean stories or Europe, are there other stories that you’re sitting on?
[00:28:40] Mira Nair: Oh, plenty of stories, but I really believe that people should tell their own stories, that I’m not the one to tell the Caribbean story always or the European story always, just to say that. But sure, I’m sitting on a number of things, too many things.
[00:29:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:29:02] Mira Nair: Well, the biggest thing I’ve been doing for the last 12 years, and we’ve gone through the hiccups of COVID on that, is the adaptation of my hit film Monsoon Wedding as a Broadway-bound stage musical, which I’ve been directing. And now we are opening in November ’22 outside America and then May ’23 in New York. So that honors the tenets of the play, which, I mean of the film, sorry, it honors the tenets of the film, which is as much as it is about sort of India becoming global in a Punjabi family, it is also about secrets in the family. It’s also about the abuse that no one talks about. It’s also about light and darkness, basically, in the umbrella of love and so on. So that’s one thing. But another thing I’m just about, we are actually sending in the script today, is we’ve been developing almost like a bit of a modern day version in a sense of Mississippi Masala, an intercultural, another interracial romance between a young Black musician in Atlanta who has a relationship with a young Indian woman who then he discovers is a movie star and he follows her to India. And there’s this sort of Black/Brown, another love story that is actually linked in this case by music. It’s a musical feature film with the great Pharell Williams doing the music. And so I’ve been cooking it together with writers and will be directing it. My own feature film that I’m writing currently is called Amri, which is the nickname of Amrita Sher-Gil, our great modernist painter, sort of our Frida Kahlo in a sense in India, also the epitome of east and west. She was half Sikh and half Hungarian and studied in Paris but returned to India at 20 years of age and really started what is now called The Modernist Movement in painting. But it’s her work and her palette and her way of framing that has deeply taught me how to see and I’ve loved her work for forever, and now I want to make film on her life. But the world does not know Amrita Sher-Gil and I’m hoping that that’ll change after my film is done.
[00:31:46] Midroll: BlackStar Project celebrates and uplifts Black, brown and indigenous artists. We produce the annual BlackStar Film Festival, Many Lumens, Seen and other projects creating the spaces and resources artists need to thrive. Learn more and support our work at blackstarfest.org.
[00:32:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re listening to Many Lumens, and now back to my conversation with Mira Nair.
I first encountered your work with Mississippi Masala. I was in, I think, eighth grade and saw it with my mother, and I think the way I felt about it then and how I feel about it now are very different. But what I can see looking at other pieces of your career is that you have a real understanding and way with textile and with color and clearly your relationships to costume design and production design, but then you’re also really engaged with your actors and bringing out these incredible performances, identifying incredible actors, and then also you can feel the justice creeping through, right. And so to hear you talk about your background in documentary and this interest and experience in the theater and then bringing all of these into your cinema is really powerful, and there’s no question there, it’s just sort of an observation because it’s, I’ve been interested in those things as well and often been challenged between, am I a documentary filmmaker or am I making magical realism or am I going to work in social justice and finding a way to take all of who you are and bring it into the work, I think, is so incredible. But because Mississippi Masala was recently restored, I did want to ask you, how did you come to that story in particular? Did you spend time in the US south? What’s the origins of that?
[00:33:40] Mira Nair: Well, the origin of Mississippi Masala, which I call sometimes ‘the hierarchy of color’, of being brown between Black and white actually. Actually the seeds of it were formed in university when I went to Harvard and was indeed playing that game myself of being a brown kid between two communities that were accessible to me and yet headlines that I also sometimes felt. And that was an interesting thing that I pursued and I looked and studied as to where had this epitomized itself in the world. And just through reading, came across the Asian Expulsion by Idi Amin in Uganda in 1972, where Indians who had lived here for three generations were suddenly given 90 days to leave the country. I had never been to the continent of Africa. I had never, but I found it extraordinary that Indians who had never known India considered themselves still Indian but in Africa, suddenly had to be uprooted and go find a home for themselves. And through reading, I found also, oddly enough, that many of these Ugandan Asian exiles came to the dirt poor Mississippi at that time because it was dirt poor because they could buy for $14,000 an entire motel sometimes, and that they could just employ their own families and get done with it and make their way without even sometimes knowing English. So it was like, this is a trick of history to have Indian Ugandan Asians who had never known India, to come to the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, which is an African American community from ancient times almost of African Americans who had never known Africa. And so what happens if somebody falls in love with somebody else? And of course it’s much more complicated because the Indians from here identify themselves as African. So it’s a very interesting sort of layered complication. And so I kind of cerebrally cooked up this premise. What if there is that interracial love? Then with that kind of idea, Sooni and I, my writer and myself and others, we started embarking on almost a six month tour of the south as we lived in these motels. It was very much the cinéma vérité tradition, gathering the research over a year, meeting everyone, seeing how these motels run, hearing their dreams of where they had left. And everyone spoke of that. That green of Uganda, you throw two seeds over your shoulders, tomorrow you’re plucking papayas. They would all say the same kind of dreamy thing about Uganda. And finally I said, we’ve got to go and see where they came from. And that was our first trip to this continent, this great continent. And it was just finishing the Civil War, it was 1989, it was the most dangerous place I’d ever come to, soldiers and roadblocks and bombed out main streets, the whole nine yards. So that’s how we started gathering the research. And through these, literally this research and moving between continents, we cooked up a story and then Sooni writes beautifully and we then subjected our screenplay to people who lived in both sides of this world and to see whether it had resonance and truth, and hopefully humor and pain in it, too, everything. And that’s how I developed the story.
[00:37:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. You also cast two of the planet’s most gorgeous performers. How did you nab Denzel Washington at that time? And how did you find Sarita Choudhury?
[00:37:47] Mira Nair: Well, I nabbed Denzel Washington because we actually wrote it for him, with him in our minds.
[00:37:51] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh wow.
[00:37:51] Mira Nair: I had seen him in [For] Queen and Country, this sort of British indie film. And I just, like, that’s the guy I want. But then to get him was not so easy, but it wasn’t bad because he met with me immediately upon my asking because of Salaam Bombay!, my first feature film, which he just loved. So Salaam Bombay! made Denzel interested in meeting me. And then the story itself he was quite intrigued by. He said, no one would ever give him a story like that, an Asian African romance. No one. In fact, in hindsight now, it’s the only romantic role he’s ever played. It’s extraordinary. I can’t believe that’s true, but it’s true. So that’s how Denzel came in and he was very kind about consulting. I mean, I always let him know where I was going with the casting of Meena, and pretty much there was only one choice. I saw Sarita Choudhury, an image of her in a kind of alternate magazine in which she was this wild girl with this mane of hair on a bicycle. And I just loved her look, I loved her lack of vanity and I loved her intelligence actually that shone through, but she was extremely my version of beauty and attractive. And I pursued her. My casting director, Susie Figgis, in England, I said, find me this girl in this magazine. And she actually found her and then came in to meet me, and she was a film theory student. She was not even an actor. She didn’t think she was an actor. And I said, well, let’s just try, and we started working and she had great instincts and she understood this part. Anyway, and then I showed her pictures and stuff to Denzel and he was totally cool with it. And then we cast them both and had these, what I call my “talk is cheap” rehearsals where we’re just the three of us and we can just talk about everything and air any questions, anything. And that’s how we began. It was quite interesting. I had no idea that Denzel would be so actually scared of being in Mississippi. He said, we had a mansion for him, he said, oh no, no, no, in Greenwood. He said, I’ll stay at the Ramada Inn just with you guys, because I’m not staying nowhere in a mansion. Because it was still as it kind of is now, but then it was quite abjectly segregated.
[00:40:26] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. My grandmother, my maternal grandmother is from there and I always wanted to go with her and she would always be disinterested. There was nothing to go back to for her. So I can imagine how weighty that is for people. Can you talk about your approach to casting generally? How do you cast your projects? Is there a typical, do you have a practice or is it different for every film?
[00:40:54] Mira Nair: It’s different for every film dependent on the roles, but I’m perfectly aware about the commerciality of casting that you need to sometimes cast stars that, but I often veer towards casting people who simply have the spirit of the character that I’m looking for rather than only be a movie star. Of course, they are movie stars for a reason. I love the people I’ve worked with from Gena Rowlands to Uma Thurman to Reese Witherspoon to Denzel to Naseeruddin Shah. I mean they are movie stars, they’re so extraordinary in what they do. So it’s great if a role exists that needs a movie star that you know. But otherwise I cast a lot of unknown people, Maori. I look all the time, especially in the kind of films I make, like Queen of Katwe is full of kids from the streets of Kampala or young women who have never been asked to play their mothers because otherwise when you make films based in Africa from Hollywood, they just expect you’re going to cast people in Beverly Hills. But an African person from here is deeply different than an African American even from there, as we know, right. I mean, the beauty in Queen of Katwe was casting two movie stars, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, who were both African from the continent, Lupita from Kenya and David from Nigeria, and it makes a world of difference.
[00:42:28] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. You’ve had a lot of films in the Capital H Hollywood System, which is notoriously difficult for women, specifically for women of color and of the global south to find their footing. And oftentimes you get that one feature, never to be heard from again if it isn’t a terrific splashing success. And so with Salaam Bombay! it was a success so you got a second film and you got a third and a fourth and so on. And how did you manage to make multiple features on your own terms?
[00:43:00] Mira Nair: It’s that foolish confidence where I think it also comes from because my roots are strong, I can fly. It also comes from this earlier idea of being at home in your world, in your world. Still the Capital H Hollywood world is a very, very boy’s world and it’s a very ignorant world. It was even more so in terms of who we are and in terms of our stories and in terms of just a lack of knowledge of, somebody asked me, I speak in public places and some audience member asked me, what’s the one thing you would change about America? I said, I would teach geography in high schools.
[00:43:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yes.
[00:43:47] Mira Nair: I would tell you that you’re only one small part of the world. You’re not the center of the world. So it’s that tightrope where the Hollywood of it all is how do you find the way where you refuse to pander, where you’re not grateful, but you’re also making a story in which you are making who is the other in their mind become themselves. That is the point, right? Because we are human and that’s what I’ve tried to do. And that’s what I think, because it’s sometimes, or largely, thankfully worked, Hollywood only respects money and then to some extent, talent. So those, because people see The Namesake, because people saw Monsoon Wedding, people really saw it, they don’t feel so, oh, it’s foreign. They don’t feel it’s a foreign thing. But that’s been a real journey, how to even make a film in which we speak our own languages, but it’s not a subtitled experience for you because you should understand it like that. That’s its own film vocabulary that I really have now practiced for 30, 40 years. But I guess partly it’s that, but also it’s to do with finding independent ways to make cinema that are not dependent only on a studio system. When I made The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I did not want American money because I knew that they would just make it a whitewashed piece of fluff before I even would see the light of day, because it was political stuff, it was saying the unsayable, it was creating a dialogue with the part of the world that after 9/11, they only talk to us about themselves, they never talk to us about us. So we have to talk now. That was that film. So you can’t always get finance from the people who don’t want to listen. So it’s those ways actually, Maori, that I kept making films because I didn’t always depend on the one source.
[00:46:06] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oftentimes in Black film space, there have been these Black renaissances, in the ’70s, in the ’90s, in the 2010s. And now there seems to be kind of a South Asian, this explosion of South Asian participation in Capital H Hollywood. And at this year’s Oscars, there was a gathering of actors and producers and directors of the South Asian diaspora. And just, where is your role in that? I mean, some of these people are a generation or two younger than you, but what’s your perspective? Do you feel like this is going to be lasting? Do you think there will then be the cycles of Renaissance and not, or just, yeah, what’s your observation of this?
[00:46:48] Mira Nair: Whether it’s a Renaissance or people have these big events, those are the popcorn of our time. I think it’s all to do with excellence. You practice excellence, you create your world. Great if you’re South Asian, great if you’re Black, whatever. But it’s the excellence that we live on and not the flag that you wave at this moment in time. So when I look at this so-called South Asian Renaissance and all, I’m happy for it because when I began, it was a lonely bloody road. When Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen came up to announce our names for the Oscars, they had no idea how to say them. So I’m glad that people know where we come from and what it is. I’m really glad with the empowering of it and with the talent, man, it’s fantastic to see, although the talent, we’ve always had it from decades. It’s just that now they’re waking up to us, but I’ve always been doing this, what, 40 years now? So it’s just great that it’s not as lonely over there anymore, but I think it’s all about excellence. It’s all about us not just taking the Dole at the moment, but doing our work and doing our work in a surprising, ballsy, artistic and sometimes explosive manner, but to have company while doing it and to have it be understood easier and have people seeking us out is a beautiful change.
[00:48:34] Maori Karmael Holmes: Have you been making or been approached to make work in India now that the industry there has so much more of a global focus outside of Bollywood?
[00:48:43] Mira Nair: Yeah. I mean, I made Suitable Boy for Netflix, which is a six part series two years ago, which is still on now. And I am definitely, but more things from India are either originated by me, like the Amrita Sher-Gil Project or internationally, like I’m doing a series with Amazon now called The Jungle Prince of Delhi, which is a fantastic story written in the New York Times by Ellen Barry, about a woman who declared herself the last living descendant of The Mughal Empire, the last Empress, and how she was destitute on a railway station for 10 years and telling that family story. So yeah, I’m doing things like that and many things, but not necessarily… When the Bollywood offers come, they don’t come often, but when they do come, they are real, but they’re not really always my style. So my plate is really full and I’m still doing my own thing.
[00:49:47] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about how you’ve managed to balance your career as an artist with motherhood, which a lot of people find impossible, particularly, I mean, I guess I’m thinking about my mother and her friends in their generation. Can you talk about the challenges you faced doing this?
[00:50:11] Mira Nair: I would never have been able to raise our son as we have raised him without my extended family around me. So I had a real support, a caravan, I used to call them, of my mother- and father-in-law and my mom. And maybe because I was a director of the show or something or a film, I could take them all along as Zohran grew up. So Zohran, our son, was raised on movie sets all the time, but with a three band triumvirate of his grandparents always with him. So we would rent houses and we would have this entourage and he would grow up and I would come home to good Indian food after shooting in Miami or Uganda or wherever it was. And this system somehow really worked beautifully because it enabled me to keep working, it enabled me to give the security of real loved ones who were raising our boy and him the familial love and the comings and goings that this world entailed. In fact, it was… So until our son was six, seven, until he didn’t go to school, six, it was a very easy life making movies running around with this entourage. Not so easy, but we managed it. After he went to school, we lived in South Africa at that time, my husband’s a professor and was running the University of Cape Town, and that was difficult initially because I did not want to leave our boy. And then how much can you invent at your desk staring at Table Mountain? How much… It was tough. And I tried to get involved with The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I tried to get involved with the movements that were going on around me in South Africa and they were very vital, but they were not my story to tell, I felt very much. Yeah, so those were lonely times where it was not so simple, but I didn’t stop working. I always were either concocting screenplays or flying in writers or working with people to keep going. I don’t believe I’ve ever, I’ve had hiccups, but I’ve not, I’ve always just bulldozed on. I think women are very, very adept from pre-birth of the juggling act, how to keep it all going. But without that support system of equal hands and hearts with you, it’s impossible. It’s impossible to raise them right, marinaded in love and in the kind of security that I was raised with. So that’s what really made a big difference. But it’s also then a question of prioritizing what is important. And for me, the family really is the most important, even before work. I would be a pretty miserable person if I could not work through it, and I worked through it, thanks to them. But if you don’t get the family right the first time around, you kind of don’t get it right. And it’s very easy to get it wrong in our work because it’s so demanding and it’s so much about absences and going from home and going away and so on. So that balance was constantly something that was forefront in my mind. And it influenced, certainly it influenced sometimes, even the movies I made so that I could just be with family.
[00:53:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: What has your son, how has he taught you and informed your practice?
[00:53:57] Mira Nair: Being a daughter-in-law and a mother and a sister-in-law and all these relationships that we take very, very seriously, having this web of relationships is like having a harmonium, having a accordion that can expand and then contract. And it became actually the spirit of my own films. If I think of Monsoon Wedding, I shaped it like an accordion that would expand your heart and then squeeze it. And it’s only when you have the expansiveness of laughter can you really feel the acuteness of betrayal or despair. And how do we move that balance of light and darkness? How do we make sexual abuse and incest in a family juxtaposed with the largesse of a father’s heart? How? And that is life though, isn’t it? And that is what it’s like to be a woman and mom and everything else, everything else, all those roles. If you can get the rhythm of what we call the essence of that, then I think it does make for better art. But Zohran, firstly, the kids you were saying, how does he affect me? I mean, firstly, he is the best litmus test in reading scripts and reading anything, he sees through it. He’s like my brother’s were when I was a young one, just tells you what it is, tells you what works and what doesn’t. He also kind of in his, when he was growing up, he learned how to read reading Harry Potter. And when he was 13, 14, I was just about to commence shooting The Namesake, which was something that was deeply inspiring to me and et cetera. And three months before shooting The Namesake, I was offered Harry Potter 4 and it was after Vanity Fair came out and they’d also just done the third one with Alfonso Cuarón and it was such a big hit and they thought, oh, well we can take somebody of color and be interesting in this direction. And so we had many meetings and I was in a total quandary because I really was consumed by The Namesake and wanted to make it and did not really want to step into the shoes of an existing franchise that would take me away for one year, if not two. But I was taking the meetings. I thought, my God, for Zohran, he learned how to read on Harry Potter, it’s a big thing, I should really do this. And then I was in a mess about it in my head and I asked him and he was 14 and he said, “Mama, anyone good can make Harry Potter, but only you can make The Namesake.” So in that sense, that type of litmus test or that kind of bringing me down to those values or up to his values, it’s like a treasure. It’s a treasure.
[00:57:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: When you look back at the work that you’ve made at this point, what do you see as an organizing thread? What are the assumptions that you’ve made that have carried you through?
[00:57:22] Mira Nair: The assumptions that I’ve made are that we matter and that our story is absolutely as valuable as everyone else’s, to never hide behind that and want to be someone else, to take great courage in your distinctiveness. As I learned more, even about where I came from, wow, it’s like a treasure that is unfathomable. Just putting one scholarship or knowledge to any of it yields deep troves. So as you begin to even believe who you are, you discover that there are eons of layers that you also can embolden yourself with the knowledge of to make you a fuller person. That is something I’m constantly in pursuit of, that knowledge, I suppose, that makes one understand the journey of expressing oneselves, of making art, of reaching others. That is not generic or conformist or not necessarily what is familiar, but that is one’s own.
[00:58:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. My last question. I wanted to thank you also for accepting our award. We give out this Luminary Award, we’ve been doing it every year since 2014, the third festival. A great mentor to me, Richard Nichols, who was the manager for The Roots, and so many other people, he passed that year and it was like this immediate reaction, but it’s been this really beautiful way to think about people who inspire us and who are mentors to us even if it’s only in our head. And so again, I want to thank you so much for accepting this honor. And I wanted to ask you, in light of thinking about that as a luminary, what is the legacy that you want to leave?
[00:59:32] Mira Nair: Oh Maori, don’t kill me now. Honestly, I’m a creature of the present. I’m someone who studies so much the past in order to be fully present. So to be genuinely honest, I really don’t think of legacies or of myself in that reflective way. I honestly seek to just live fully in the now. Yeah, and engage in the way I’ve been telling you. Because nothing becomes easier with time actually in what we do, it keeps becoming what it is. You have to find it, and that’s the beautiful thing that keeps me alive and keeps me lively, they used to have in the New York subway, ‘Step lively now!’ And I’m stepping lively now. That’s all I want to do is step lively now.
[01:00:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s beautiful. Well, that’s it. Thank you so much.
[01:00:34] Mira Nair: Thank you my dear. Bye.
[01:00:37] Maori Karmael Holmes: Bye.
[01:00:48] Maori Karmael Holmes: To find out more about Mira’s work, you can follow her on Twitter at @MiraPagliNair or on Instagram at @pagliji.
This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The host and Executive Producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. This episode was produced by Dallas Taylor. Associate Producers are Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman. Managing Producer is Alex Lewis. Executive Editor is John Myers. Our Music Supervisor is David “Lil’ Dave” Adams, BlackStar’s Music and Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave. This episode features music by Sound Supreme.
If you liked what you heard so far this season, please leave us a review on Apple Podcast and let us know what you think of the show.
Sending you light and see you next season. For real this time.