Filmmaker Mira Nair on the power of cinema and why Queen of Katwe is a good comeback to the Oscars being totally white
Text: Georgina Maddox
Centre of diversity
While we know the popular ones, like Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay, a recent retrospective of Nair’s films—held at the international film festival, I View World—gave many a peek into her more niche body of work, including India Cabaret (1985), Migration (2008) and Words With Gods (2014). Organised by Engendered, a trans-national arts and human rights organisation—based across New York and New Delhi, and founded by cultural producer Myna Mukherjee in 2004—it was hosted at various venues across Delhi, from the American Center and British Council to Alliance Francaise and the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The films explored various topics, including gender issues, sexuality rights, marginalisation, partition, class and caste oppression.
Mira Nair is on the threshold of releasing her next international film, Queen of Katwe, based on the true story of child prodigy chess champion Phiona Mutesi, a young African girl who ascends to become a chess state champion despite being marginalized and uneducated. Nair believes that this film, which is set in her second home Kampala, in Uganda, will be the answer to the ‘white’ Oscars that had no coloured nominees this year. The international filmmaker is known for championing the cause of Africans, given her strong ties with their culture. Her introduction to the country began in the 1990s when she was scripting and filming Mississippi Masala, featuring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury. The film spoke of interracial love and the dividing lines between Asian and African communities.
While in the capital recently, to attend her retrospective held at the international film festival, I View World, the Padmabhushan filmmaker caught up with our writer, to chat about her films that range from the Golden Lion award-winning Monsoon Wedding to the sensitive interpretation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, and the off-beat documentary The Laughing Club of India to iconic films like Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala and her current international project with Disney, Queen of Katwe.
How has the journey been from documentary films to crossover mainstream projects?
It has been a long and eventful journey. I started by thinking I was a writer, since I grew up with my parents in Odisha, Bhubhaneshwar, surrounded by temples, tall grass and the Jatra festivals that had enthralling performances of Indian mythological stories. I would sit on the steps of the temple and write furiously, trying to take in as much as I could. One could say those were my foundation years. Later on I found myself drawn towards theatre in school, (Loretto Convent Tara Hall, Shimla). And because of my height and bearing, I often found myself playing male characters in English plays like Daddy Long Legs and lots of Shakespeare. Then I was introduced to Badal Sirkar’s street theatre, which became my early founding ground where I acted in some of his plays and soaked up our culture.
How did you decide you wanted to study cinema?
I watched Love Story (1970) at the Odeon theatre in New Delhi when I was 18 years old and decided that Harvard University, where Ryan O’Neil studied, looked like a nice place that would have good funding, and I began thinking of studying abroad. I applied and got into Cambridge University with a full scholarship, but I turned it down and went to Harvard University eventually. I soon realised how much we are taught of the world is not proportionate to how much the world knows of India. I found it easy enough to settle in though, but I found ‘going Dutch’ odd, where one sat and calculated everything from the salad to the curry we ate per person. Back home we just paid for the meal and our friends picked up the tab the next time round. It was around the late ’70s and early ’80s that I got involved in making mobile camera Cinema Verite (pioneered by Dziga Vertov and Andre Bazin) documentaries in New York. It was a tough time in my life since we did not make any money out of these films and I felt quite acutely the line that divides people on the basis of gender, class and economics.
What have your struggles been? Any regrets?
I guess turning down an eight-million dollar film! This came on the heels of Kamasutra (a venture that was so different from the story we had in mind). Because of its erotic nature, we were limited by what we could and couldn’t do. It spiraled out of my control and I wished I could burn every print that existed. I was so put off that I could not take up the next project for which I had $8 million funding. To soothe myself, I made a documentary, The Laughing Club of India, an absurd film that is inspired by real life—by a group of people dressed in white that I saw gather every morning. God knows I needed laughter in my life at the time. After that I was able to approach Monsoon Wedding (2001), which was set in Delhi during the monsoon and, while Hum Ape Ke Hai Kaun was playing in theatres, that was fodder for the tongue-in-cheek approach to fat Indian weddings and the tribute to the robust Punjabi spirit. I worked with Sabrina Dhawan on a tight budget. Props, saris, etc, were all sourced from friends, and the actors would troop home to eat my mother’s cooking. Till date they say, “Working with you was great Mira, but your mum’s cooking was outstanding.”
You’ve managed to avoid being pigeon-holed as an Asian diaspora filmmaker.
Transnational cinema happened with Mississippi Masala (1991), a film about Indians having one foot in Uganda. I became aware of the racism and lines that divided Africans and Asians while living and interacting with the local population; although we are just a few shades lighter on the black-and-white race scale. It looked critically at privilege and marginalisation and kind of became an anthem for hybrid interracial love. (The film won three international awards.) I was attacked by my own community; Indian fathers would come up to me in the subway and say, ‘You want us to marry our daughters to Africans? Not all men are Denzel Washington’ (laughs). But it was an important departure for the films that were mostly set in India and symbolised a coming-together of these different worlds. It also set the ground for me to approach William Makepeace Thackery’s epic Vanity Fair (2004), and Amelia (2009), a biopic on Amelia Earhart made with Hilary Swank, and has finally led me to work with Disney on Queen of Katwe.
Tell us more about your upcoming project with Disney.
I am most happy when I am doing my own cinema, based on my own rhythm, but I do like collaborating as well. It is about striking a balance. It’s a dance that you have to live. While we ignored most of the notes that came from the studio, it was a good guide to what we didn’t want to do. With Amelia, it didn’t quite work but with Queen of Katwe, I feel more on home ground since the film was born in my garden, in Kampala. It is a film about Phiona Mutesi, a young African girl who is uneducated but goes on to win the National Chess championship and become a prodigy. I am working with Sooni again and (editor) Barry Brown. The film is all about occupying spaces of agency, a theme that resonates through most of my films—even in The Namesake when Ashima returns to Kolkata to pursue singing despite the grief of losing her husband; it is an ending that was not in the book. Similarly I want to send out a positive empowering message with my films.
Can cinema change the world?
I would like to think so. It has given us
the funding to take our work further, like opening the Salaam Balak Trust after Salaam Bombay or the Maisha Film Lab in Kampala that has trained over 640 students of cinema, of which 30 per cent of the alumna have been absorbed into mainstream Hollywood productions. When a young man in Zanzibar comes up to you and tells you Maisha changed his life, you realise it is all worth it.
Remembering Salaam Bombay
“It was the early 1980s and I was back in India, living in Ghatkopar with two burlesque performers, Rosie and Rekha. It was that time when your parents disown you and don’t want to know what you’re up to. I made Indian Cabaret (1984), one of my most controversial films at the time. However, I think it was the sheer loneliness of not having an audience for my documentary films that led me to fiction. I serendipitously began collaborating with my old friend, Sooni Taraporevala, who helped write the script for Salaam Bombay (1988). It was a five-year process since we wanted to have greater control and shape how the story is told, even though we worked with ‘real’ street children. It was also Nana Patekar and Raghubir Yadav’s first film. I was pairing actors with non-actors, which became a kind of signature style to have legendary actors perform with upcoming or non-actors that followed through in Monsoon Wedding as well.”
Because of the erotic nature of Kamasutra, we were limited by what we could and couldn’t do. It spiraled out of my control and I wished I could burn every print that existed