More than one horoscope had predicted that Mira Nair would live to be 61. The internationally acclaimed filmmaker of Indian origin – who turned 61 in 2018 - takes this information rather seriously.
Therefore, there may not be another film from Nair after “Queen of Katwe” – a story of female triumph, produced by Disney.
“Life is short and it is about making choices and engaging fully with them… The other day Zohran (her son) was asking me if I will make another film. I often say that I will not…” Mira Nair tells Nandita Dutta, in her book “F Rated: Being a Woman Filmmaker in India”.
In a chapter titled, “The Woman Director in Salwar Kameez: International Provocateur”, dedicated to Nair, Dutta recounts her meeting with Mira and writes she is content with her current engagements in life, topping that list is gardening in her Kampala home.
“…As you grow older, you seek things that replenish you rather than deplete you. I haven’t been depleted by cinema yet, but still I have to conserve energy,” Nair says.
Nair shot to fame with “Salaam Bombay!” (1988) - a poignant portrait of Mumbai’s underbelly. She made a stunning debut with the film in both the national and international arena, receiving a 15 minute-long standing ovation at a festival.
Satyajit Ray famously said about her film then, “I have never seen such a remarkable first film with complete control over every aspect over the medium.” But why just Ray, French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson invited Mira to join his 80th birthday celebrations in Paris, American filmmaker Billy Wilder took her out for lunch and Iranian director Jafar Panahi kissed her hands.
From thereon, studios and corporate honchos, who had earlier turned her down, wanted to produce her next film. Even so, the journey wasn’t exactly easy for Nair. But she managed to hold her own. When studio executives placed the condition of a white lead in “Mississippi Masala”, she told them: “All the waiters in this movie () will be white”.
Whether she is walking the red carpet at an international film festival or running a film set in any part of the world, she cuts a confident figure in her bright-coloured salwar kameezes, in a whole-hearted and unapologetic embrace of her South Asian origin, observes Dutta.
Nair got a bitter taste of a different kind of discrimination with “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2012). She calls it the toughest film of her life. American and British financiers either brazenly turned their backs on a political thriller with a Muslim protagonist or told her that a Muslim protagonist wasn’t worth the kind of money she was looking for. The funding eventually came from the Doha Film Institute in Qatar but the film had to be made for a fraction of the budget that was initially proposed.
Another turning point in her career was the shooting of “Fire and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” in Jaipur and its subsequent treatment by India’s Censor Board.
Although called “Tara and Maya”, to not draw any attention in India, word got around that she was shooting a pornographic film using the city’s historical monuments as backdrops. But Nair averted the “raid” by 21 MLAs by her sheer presence of mind. She quickly covered up her actors in canvas duster coats, otherwise used to protect costumes, and made them deliver spoof dialogues to resemble a Bollywood film.
She half won the battle with the MLAs buying into the sham, but the Censor Board dealt her a huge blow, making her believe that the attacks on her film were particularly vehement because she was a woman.
“While the censor board does not bat an eye while passing lewd sex comedies objectifying women and made by men, it takes a great deal of offence at films that focus on female sexuality and are directed by women. The censor board’s moralistic scissors seem to target only a particular kind of cinema…,” writes Dutta, endorsing the sentiment of the 11 women directors she has spoken to. Nair hit depression for the first time in her life at 40. “I had just learnt how to drive – I was forty years old – and I just didn’t want to stop sometimes. I wanted to have an accident. I took it seriously after three times of having this experience,” she confesses.
She struck back with “Monsoon Wedding” which recreated the magic of “Salaam Bombay!”. Her 12th and arguably “last” feature film “Queen of Katwe”, may not be the last, but, even if it is, Nair will live on as a unique filmmaker, whose films are neither conventional or easy to make, but embody a distinctive feminine sensibility.