Acclaimed Indian filmmaker Mira Nair shares insights on life, craft of movie-making

Mira Nair speaks to attendee at event
Monday, September 23, 2013 - 9:28am
Sharon Aschaiek

“I tell stories where people can see themselves not just in some people but in all people, not just in some places but in all places.”

That’s what award-winning filmmaker Mira Nair told a packed room of students, staff, faculty and community members at the University of Toronto Mississauga Thursday evening—and her track record proves it. Thanks to her ability to explore issues of cultural identity, class and gender in thoughtful, funny and provocative ways, many of her films, which have included Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, Mississippi Masala and her latest, the Reluctant Fundamentalist, have resonated with movie-goers worldwide, enjoying both critical and commercial success.

The hows and whys of that success and the lessons learned along the way are what the India-born, New York-based director, actor and producer shared as part of U of T Mississauga’s annual Snider Lecture, where distinguished speakers give public talks that enrich intellectual and cultural life.

The event, held at the Instructional Centre, started with a brief video highlighting Nair’s films, which have included 21 fictional movies and documentaries. The clips showed a mix of scenes featuring culture clashes, tender romance, family tensions, joyful celebrations, and the vivid colours and soul-stirring music of India.

During her 30-minute lecture, Nair shared highlights of her creative life, which began with performing in a politically oriented street theatre group while attending Delhi University. She studied sociology at Harvard University on a full scholarship, but launched her film career after taking a course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in cinéma vérité, an approach to documentary filmmaking she used in her early films. Seeking a wider audience for her work than was available at the time for documentaries, she switched to narrative fiction. Her first production, the 1988 Salaam Bombay!, chronicled the daily lives of street children in Mumbai. It earned multiple awards at home and worldwide, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Nair discussed how limited budgets forced her to be extra resourceful and efficient. For example, Monsoon Wedding, a sensational Bollywood-style story about a Punjabi family throwing a last-minute wedding in New Delhi, featured 68 actors, 148 scenes and 40 locations¬—but was made in just 30 days, many of the actors being family members. “I’m not like Woody Allen, I can’t afford to keep reshooting. But I don’t want that money, because it gives rigour to the ‘then and now,’ ” says Nair about the film, which ended up earning $30 million at the box office, plus the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and a Golden Globe Award nomination. Currently, a musical based on the film is being developed for Broadway and will open next year.

In the question-and-answer session afterwards, attendees raised issues such as the state of regional cinema in India, the status of women in the world, and the prospects for Indian actors in Hollywood – slim, said Nair to the latter issue, but “we have to write and tell our own stories to do justice on screen.”

Following one question, Nair shared her wisdom on excelling as a filmmaker and individual, saying, among other things: “Never treat what you are doing as a stepping stone to something else. Do it fully and completely. Work purely, without thinking of rewards. Be brave, and be prepared to be lonely. Let the heart inform the brain, and allow inspiration to come from any quarter, whether a carpenter, a street child or the light of the moon.”