In 2017, Mira Nair’s insurmountable figure towers in contemporary cinema as one of America’s most esteemed filmmakers. Her perspicuous socio-cultural explorations of Indian society in all its rich dimensions allows for the emergence of an astonishingly profound cinematic experience.
Born in India’s eastern state of Odisha and educated at both New Delhi University and Harvard, Nair began her career in film as an actress prior to her first directorial endeavours in the creation of a series of award-winning documentaries. She emerged onto the scene with her Harvard thesis black-and- white film, Jama Masjid Street Journal (1979), displaying her absorbing conversations with the locals of Old Delhi, followed by So Far from India (1983) which depicts an Indian émigré who deals newspapers in New York while his pregnant wife waits for him back home. Nair’s audacious third documentary, India Cabaret (1985), explores the plight of female strippers in Bombay by following the particular tale of a married strip club patron, while her final documentary of this early period, Children of a Desired Sex (1987), examines the prevalence of Amniocentesis – used to determine the sex of foetuses – in order to expose society’s proclivity to male offspring at the expense of aborted female foetuses.
Nair’s academy-award nominated inaugural feature film, Salaam Bombay! (1988), portraying the lives of deprived children who are forced to make ends meet on the streets of Bombay, proved to be an immense critical success that provided a springboard for the rest of Nair’s career, winning the Camera D'Or and the Prix du Publique at the Cannes Film Festival as well another staggering 25 international awards. Nair’s follow-up film, Mississippi Masala (1991), a romantic drama revolving around an interracial couple (played by Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury) that is set in both America’s deep south and Uganda earned the director a Golden Lion nomination at the Venice Film Festival. In 1995, Nair released the romantic comedy, The Perez Family (1995), chronicling the tumultuous experiences of an exiled Cuban family residing in Miami, before directing the TV Movie, My Own Country (1998), based on esteemed Ethiopia- born physician Dr. Abraham Verghese’s namesake best-selling novel, depicting the experiences of a young immigrant doctor who attempts to deal with an escalating AIDS epidemic.
At the turn-of- the-century, the helmer returned to the documentary form with the release of The Laughing Club of India (2001), a tale of a unique doctor’s efforts to heal through the medicine of laughter, illustrating Dr. Madan Kgraria’s gradual expansion of the unconventional club through the membership of a cross-section of Indian society – from a stockbroker, to a musician and a widow. Hair’s second release that year, the Golden Globe-nominated, Monsoon Wedding (2001), a tale of a Punjabi wedding starring a leading figure in Indian parallel cinema, Naseeruddin Shah, gained momentous critical and commercial success despite the fact that it was shot in only 30 days. Soon after, the auteur released the HBO original film, Hysterical Blindness (2002), following two women living in a working- class neighbourhood of 1980s New Jersey who are desperately trying to find love. Featuring a slate of Hollywood stars – Uma Thurman, Juliette Lewis, Gena Rowland – the film garnered HBO stratospheric ratings (an overall audience of 15 million), 3 Primetime Emmy awards and a Golden Globe for Thurman.
The same year, Nair directed a segmented in the anthology film, September 11, in which herself and 11 other filmmakers each directed a short that was 11 minutes, 9 seconds and one frame long, each one dedicated to the tragic events of 9/11. Nair’s segment “India” recounts the real-life events of Queens’ Hamden family – whose eldest son was accused of being a terrorist in the media after his disappearance – depicts the mother’s pains as she engages on a heart-breaking search for her absent son. Subsequently, Nair adapted the film version of William Makepeace Thackeray’s masterpiece, Vanity Fair (2004), retelling the tale of impoverished Becky Sharp (played by Reese Witherspoon) who strives to break free of her social constraints and gain esteem in high society along with her best friend Amelia – earning Nair a Golden Lion nomination at the Venice Film Festival.
Two years later, Nair released The Namesake, a socially-perceptive drama examining the trials in the life of American-born Nikhil a.k.a. Gogol, who experiences a deep cultural conflict in his attempts to gain a sense of belonging amongst other New Yorkers, while also receiving pressure from his immigrant family to adhere to their traditional ways. The shrewd drama earned Nair a nomination for an EDA Female Focus Award at the 2007 Alliance of Women Film Journalists. In 2012, the auteur further explored this psychological ambivalence in the dramatic thriller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), recounting the tale of a young Pakistani man who is caught between two conflicting worlds: he dreams of corporate success on Wall Street yet is haunted by the cries of his family homeland – the drama won the Bernhard Wicki Film Award at the 2013 Munich Film Festival.
Nair’s latest feature, the biographical drama, Queen of Katwe (2016), chronicling the turbulent and inspirational real-life experiences of Ugandan chess player Phiona Mutesi whose life undergoes stark changes after she is introduced to the game, demonstrates Nair’s unwavering commitment to the portrayal of frequently overlooked yet significant narratives. Certainly, the auteur boasts a technically dexterous, penetratingly intelligent and movingly impassioned filmic oeuvre that has ardently captured the attention of cinema audiences and the established international film festival circuit since the late 1970s up to the present day.