Mira Nair: Straddling the Culture Line

ByABC News
March 16, 2007, 10:55 AM

March 19, 2007 — -- Mira Nair, arguably the most famous Indian film director in the world, practices yoga at least eight hours a week.

"It teaches me to embrace the world literally upside down," she said. "To embrace disorientation, and to look at the problem or to look at the situation from the other way entirely, like when you do a headstand."

For Nair, embracing disorientation is nothing new.

She has made straddling the two cultures of India and America a hallmark of her work, most starkly in her new film "The Namesake," a box office hit that brings to life the best-selling Jhumpa Lahiri novel about an Indian family struggling to assimilate in the United States without giving up on their culture.

It's a struggle with which Nair is deeply familiar.

"I was born in a very small town a state even remote by Indian standards -- Indians don't know where this place was. It's an enchanting city of 2,000 temples where my father was a civil servant," she said. "A very pleasant place, but a place in which nothing happened But the big inspiration was when I was 13 years old, this traveling theater would come through town. So I was involved in theater and that's what I thought I was going to do."

But college, and America, beckoned.

"I also suffered the illusion that I was an academic. People don't believe when I say I saw 'Love Story' at Plaza Cinema in New Delhi, and I looked at Harvard and I said, 'That looks like a place that would have enough money for me.' I needed a full scholarship. And I applied instead to AmericaI had never been out of India."

Nair's time at Harvard during the 1970s, when self-indulgence proliferated, marked the beginning of her fascination with American culture.

"The whole people talking so easily about themselves. The 'I -- I was depressed all summer.' I would hear things like this and I thought that was really strange because we are raised very much to subsume one's self. I was really intrigued that people could think about themselves so much and for so long. As opposed to, you know, we were raised not ever to think about ourselves. The family was bigger than us. The community was bigger than that. It was not about the self at all. I mean, I'd never even heard a sentence like 'I was depressed all summer.' That was a dazzlingly American sentence."