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Professor Mira Nair Reflects on Her Film Career During Zora Neale Hurston Lecture

By Ayesha Hasan

Mira Nair

In the wake of the resounding success of "Monsoon Wedding" (2001), the Institute for Research in African-American Studies held a week long festival of films by internationally acclaimed director, producer and writer Mira Nair, adjunct assistant film professor at Columbia. The week culminated in an enchanting evening with the filmmaker herself at the Davis Auditorium in Schapiro Hall in the spring. Nair offered the 2002 Zora Neale Hurston Lecture, which is presented annually in recognition of the contributions of African-American women to history. The lecture was an informal Question and Answer session staged as a living room discussion.

Nair is a striking presence both in appearance and personality. Dressed in a deep red outfit draped in a shawl she proceeded to unpack her life and career pre and post "Monsoon Wedding," an independent film which has grossed more than $13 million since its release. The diversity of the audience highlighted the impact of the film across the social spectrum.

She charmed the audience with style and a beguiling sense of humor. This was often accompanied with gesticulations to illustrate the importance of certain statements and sound bites such as "I'm from a small town in Orissa even by Indian standards," "Nostalgia is a waste of time," and "I don't see myself as an ambassador of India and don't regard anything I do as a stepping stone."

Nair first came to attention with the movie "Salaam Bombay" (1988), the brutally realistic portrayal of the seedy under belly of life on the streets of Mumbai, which won her an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film, and award for best new director at the Cannes Film Festival. "Mississippi Masala" (1991) brought her further international acclaim. "Mississippi Masala" explored an inter-racial relationship between an African-American man and an Indian girl, two individuals from vastly different cultures separated by a highway in the heart of America's south.

Nair found that her being in love at that time manifested itself in the making of "Mississippi Masala." Nair had written the film with Denzel Washington in mind. Washington had won an Oscar a month earlier for "Glory," in which he plays a soldier in the American Civil War. He was shying away from playing his "Mississippi Masala" character as someone dazed in the stupor of love; he was not keen on going to "that vulnerable place" as Nair described it. Nair persuaded him that the multi-faceted aspect of his acting would fascinate the audience. Washington succumbed and the result was a powerful performance. Nair was quick to point out that she believes that an actor should not be pushed, he must feel truthful and perform in an atmosphere that gets him to a place he would like to explore within the character and the film.

Nair likes to make films that incite dialogue and debate. In "Monsoon Wedding," using humor, poignancy and raw emotion, Nair details the trials and tribulations of a family in the midst of celebrating their only daughter's wedding. Nair explained the story as a meditation on love, the film sought to explore the different aspects of love including child sexual abuse, which Nair called a "twisted aspect of love."

Sabrina Dhawan, a former student at Columbia's graduate film program, wrote the screenplay for "Monsoon Wedding," her first ever feature film. Both Nair and she were troubled by the prospect of the subject of child abuse being trivialized in the film. However, when they tried to configure the plot in various ways without the incest story, they found that the film felt incomplete. Both Nair and Dhawan persevered as the topic was very close to Dhawan's heart, particularly since the sexual abuse of children is very rarely talked about openly in social circles. Nair raved about Shefali Shetty, who plays the role of Ria, the older, unmarried cousin of the bride. Nair said that it was Shetty's sterling performance and the intensity that she brought to the scenes that convinced them to leave the element of incest in the film. Both Shetty and Naseeruddin Shah were cast before the script was even written, and Dhawan wrote the character of the father of the bride specifically with Shah in mind.

The most compelling image in "Monsoon Wedding" is that of the marigold flower. Invariably present at South Asian weddings, the marigold symbolized the magic and blinding love between Alice, the young maid at the family's home, and Dubey, the cunning, shrewd, abusive, hilarious event planner who is the bane of the father's existence. The eating of the marigold is portrayed as a beautiful sign of longing and commitment. Dubey eats the whole flower while pondering over his feelings about Alice, or 'Aae-lis' as he calls her, while she eats only the heart of the flower. The unabashed emotion of classic Hindi film love songs was also used along with marigolds to symbolize the various courtships in "Monsoon Wedding." On a lighter note, Nair informed the audience that Vijay Raaz, who plays Dubey, spat out the flower quite viciously each time Nair called "cut."

Nair emphasized that she makes films "for the classes and not the masses," which is why she shies away from making typical Bollywood-style commercial films. She wants the audience to enter the world of how Indians live, to embrace their lifestyles rather than just observe them. She attempts not to "explain" India to an international audience but to invite them to explore her world. Nair expressed surprise over how well-received "Monsoon Wedding" has been the world over, considering that it is not regarded as a mainstream Hindi film.

Nair consciously gave "Monsoon Wedding" the feel of a homemade production by shooting it on a miniscule budget, which was also to demonstrate that the truth of a film lay in a strong storyline and quality of the performances, not in the millions that could be spent on production. "Monsoon Wedding" was shot in 30 days using hand held cameras that required the presence of all the actors on the set at all times. Nair admitted that the casting process for the film had been a tough and ruthless process. Barring Shah and Shetty, the rest of the cast was auditioned, for which Nair scoured Hindi television and stage actors for an ensemble cast. The character of the "lively Rubinesque Auntie" was a lady from Nair's community and had originally come to audition for the very short role of the erotic voice-over actress. Nair felt she was better suited for the more substantial role of the 'Auntie' because her timing was superb. Following the success of the film, the lady is now a sought-after actress, and has a cell phone and a three-picture deal.

Choreographer Farah Khan, who typically works with Bollywood superstars, was roped in to choreograph the song sequences. Since Nair could not afford a film set, the 'Chunari Chunari' song sequence was shot in an empty Gaudiesque swimming pool at the ritzy home of a friend in Delhi. Farah Khan was told that instead of the usual five or six days to shoot a song sequence, she had only four hours. Neha Dubey, who plays the role of Ayesha, was not auditioned for her dancing abilities when she was cast for the role; Nair simply asked her if she could dance, and Dubey replied that she could.

The pivotal role of the bride went to Vasundhara Das, a relatively less known South Indian actress who also has a career as a pop singer. Nair had auditioned more than 200 girls for the role of the young bride and Das clinched it when she sang a song in a scene as part of the audition. Even though she was not Nair's idea of beauty, she certainly was the Punjabi ideal of a suitable bride and fit the role very well. As one of the characters in the movie says approvingly of the bride, "Gori, chitti, sundar" (fair, lovely, beautiful).

Nair is so involved in her craft and keen to capture the nuances of her subject that she has been told her investigation amounts to what could be called sociological or anthropological research. One of her documentaries, made early in her career, is "India Cabaret" (1985), in which she explored the lives of dance-hall girls in Mumbai. While making "India Cabaret," she lived with the dancers for four months, much to the chagrin of her parents.

Nair mentioned that in the future, she would like to set up a film lab like the Sundance Institute for aspiring young filmmakers in both Delhi and Kampala, Uganda. Nair is currently making a short film on September 11; she is one of 10 filmmakers selected worldwide to do so. "Hysterical Blindness" (2001), her most recent film, is an HBO special starring Uma Thurman and Gena Rowlands, which premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. The film is an evocative portrayal of the lives and loves of three blue-collar women in the all-white American world of 1980s New Jersey.

Ayesha Hasan is a recent graduate of the Liberal Studies program at Columbia, where she focused on Human Rights. This story originally appeared in the Southern Asian Institute's Spring 2002 Newsletter.

Published: Aug 01, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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