Mira Nair: Straddling the Culture Line


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."

But it was years before she brought such observations to the screen, choosing instead to make documentaries back in India, culminating in her 1988 breakout hit "Salaam Bombay," in which she used real street children as the actors.

"We paid for that movie by every scam in the book, frankly. Every night I would raise money for the next day of shooting basically."

"Salaam Bombay" won the coveted Camera d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and its success allowed Nair to focus on the themes for which she is now famous; to become a sort of poet of dislocation.

"Ihad a lot of attention, and a lot of agents after me, and a lot of offers. I turned it all down because I had an idea always about making a film about being a brown person between black and white. My own experience at the university, which eventually came to be 'Mississippi Masala,' my second film, which was about the Ugandan expulsion by Idi Amin. He threw out all the Ugandan Asians who had been there for generations in Uganda. And about how they come to Mississippi, which is really what happened, and took over these motels, and sort of an interracial romance between a Ugandan Asian woman who leaves Uganda to come to Mississippi and falls in love with an African-American man -- Denzel Washington's character -- who has never known Africa as his home. Just like she has never known India as hers… The commonalities are huge between the African-Americans and the Indians, but no possibility of connection."

Not every Nair film, however, is about the immigrant experience. She directed Reese Witherspoon in the 2004 adaptation of the classic English novel "Vanity Fair." And in 2001, her film "Monsoon Wedding" became an international hit in which she took on the taboo subject of incest, set against the colorful backdrop of an Indian couple's arranged marriage.

"It opened up a whole lid of silence that is in our society, about pedophilia, about family abuse of any kind… Internal groups, debates, talk shows. Things like that happened after 'Monsoon Wedding.' It was amazing. I never expected that to happen."

But with "The Namesake," Nair returns to what she knows best -- bringing the modern Indian diaspora into sharp focus.

"I read 'The Namesake' completely by chance on a plane, six months after I had bought the book and not opened it. And I read it when I was in abject mourning for my mother-in-law, who had passed away so suddenly and so unexpectedly," Nair said.

"I just was shocked when I read 'The Namesake' that Jhumpa had understood exactly what I was feeling in the world at that moment -- that I had actually the solace and the comfort out there from someone who knew exactly what it felt like to bury a parent in a country that is not your home. And one week later I was back in Union Square in my office and talking to Jhumpa, and telling her just exactly how I saw the film. And she used one word -- she said she was in 'ecstasy.' She just gave me the book right then and there. And nine months or 10 months later from that moment, we were shooting this film."

Despite the obvious parallels to her own life, Nair sees "The Namesake" as a story about the universal relationships between parents and children, rather than assimilation.

"It's about the passage of life that everyone one of us has to lead. That we are linked to our parents who are linked to their parents. And we don't know sometimes what was their world. But their world begins to enter our world when we are wise enough to receive it."

In "The Namesake," Nair uses images of the family's native Calcutta crossed with those of their new home in New York to evoke the intensity of memory.

"Memory is such a powerful thing, especially for a person who has left a homeland. And it informs so much. It's what makes you who you are. It's the only way to communicate also to the children who will probably never see also where you came from."

Despite the pride many Indians feel for Nair as their artistic representative to the West, Nair bristles at such a description.

"My work is to make movies or to do my work, make things. It's other people's work to label it and to call me this or that, but I don't really pay attention to that… In fact I can't stand being a cultural ambassador of my country and proceeding to teach people about my place. Forget about it."

Ironically, she often ends up teaching Americans about their place.

"I am an observer, very much so. But I'm also at home in America, different levels of America. America looks -- has a superficial gloss of looking egalitarian but there are deep codes within America just like in Indian society."

Now as ever, Nair is a citizen of the world.

"I have the privilege of having three active breathing homes with clothes in the closet. In Kampala, Uganda, where I have my garden and my film school. But we live about seven, eight months a year here in Manhattan, where I've lived since '79 -- not all the time, but a fair amount of the time. And my home is also in New Delhi, India, where my parents live, my brothers and their families are. And I run around, keep the airlines in business."

It's an existence she doesn't plan to give up, even when she's gone.

"I want to be cremated and have ashes, and I want to return to the dust from where I came. And I would love ashes to be sprinkled in my garden in Kampala. Why not, the Ganges and Hudson River wouldn't be too bad. I'm talking three continents quite easily."

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