Mira: Pushing boundaries
Monsoon Wedding will remain Mira Nair's calling card for some time, says Saibal Chatterjee.
The organisers of the upcoming Woodstock Film Festival could not have chosen a better recipient for their Maverick Award. As an Indian woman director active on the international filmmaking scene for close to two decades, Mira Nair has defied heavy odds - and long-established norms - on many fronts. For many filmgoers in the West, Indian cinema and her name go together, especially since the runaway success of Monsoon Wedding (2000).
Until actor-turned-director Shekhar Kapur burst on the global arena with the critically acclaimed Elizabeth in the late 1990s, the onus of holding the Indian flag aloft on the international stage had rested principally on Mira Nair, who turns 47 on October 15. She handled the onus with great skill and distinction, earning for Indian cinema the sort of prestige that the purveyors of Brand Bollywood can only dream of.
Nair's career so far has had two high points - Salaam Bombay (1988) and Monsoon Wedding (2000). Both films not only rewrote the rules of filmmaking in the land of her origin but also redefined its boundaries. While the first was defiantly non-mainstream, with a clutch of real street children playing themselves, the second employed some of Bollywood's most prominent conventions without ever becoming a slave to their banalities.
After making a few award-winning documentaries, including So Far from India and India Cabaret, in the mid-1980s, Nair made a sensational feature film debut with Salaam Bombay. The stark depiction of the life of Mumbai's street children won the prestigious Camera d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988, besides being nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Nair hasn't looked back since. After the critical and commercial success of Monsoon Wedding, she represents a formidable presence in world cinema. Her latest film, the big budget screen adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's classic novel, Vanity Fair, was premiered this year at the Venice Film Festival, where Monsoon Wedding won the Golden Lion in 2000. The reviews have been rather mixed but the media attention attracted by Vanity Fair is clear evidence of Nair's growing clout as a filmmaker.
Now, even as she heads back to India to helm a film based on Pulitzer Prize-winning Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, Nair is being talked of as the likely director of the next Harry Potter installment. She has achieved much in an eventful career, but there is a feeling that her best is yet to come. We wait in anticipation of more breakthroughs.
Working with big Hollywood names will certainly not be a new experience for Nair, who has over the years directed such stars as Denzel Washington (Mississippi Masala), Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis (Hysterical Blindness), Anjelica Huston (The Perez Family), Marisa Tomei (The Perez Family and My Own Country) and, of course, Reese Witherspoon (Vanity Fair).
The Bhubaneswar-born Mira Nair studied at the University of New Delhi before earning a degree in Sociology from Harvard in 1976. Based in New York City, she worked on her own independent short films, winning the Best Documentary award at the American Film Festival for India Cabaret.
Nair's career has followed a curve that would do any maverick proud. The hallmark of her style is its constant process of evolution. Nair has never ever repeated herself. Despite the critical success of the grim Salaam Bombay, she chose to move away from the chaos and poverty of urban Indian streets and explore other narrative genres.
In 1991, she teamed up with Salaam Bombay writing partner Sooni Taraporevala and crafted Mississippi Masala, which revolved around an Indian business family that moves from Uganda to the US. Nair's next feature, The Perez Family, did build on the theme of immigration but this time around she addressed the predicament of a Cuban family relocating to the US.
In 1997, she faced her faced her first real critical and commercial failure in the form of Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. But for all the flak that the film received back home and elsewhere, there can be no denying that the historical epic set in 16th century India was visually striking and filled with moments that reflected Nair's grasp on the medium.
Since then, Nair has made My Own Country for television, the documentary short The Laughing Club of India, Hysterical Blindness for HBO and Vanity Fair. But it is Monsoon Wedding that is going to be her calling card for some time yet. Given her track record, a new high might well be round the corner.