By Andrea Plaid
Having watched several of Mira Nair’s films repeatedly, I swear her guiding directive is, “If you’re 1) brown, 2) grown, and 3) sexy, you need to be in my film.”
From Mississippi Masala and Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love to Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, Nair frames brown people in complicated and mostly saturated palettes of love, be it falling in love with and making love with a person, being bitterly ripped away from a beloved country or person, standing firm in love against someone who damaged a family member, and/or rekindling love for one’s legacy–in Nair’s films, several of these things tend to happen in one film. And she has cast some the sexiest actors of color in her flicks, including Denzel Washington, Naveen Andrews, Sarita Choundhury, Rekha, Indira Varma, Irrfan Khan, Zuleikha Robinson, and Ramon Tikaram. Honestly, I wouldn’t have looked around at Kal Penn if it wasn’t for The Namesake.
Even my own love for Nair’s aesthetics is a little complicated: watching her adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair I completely understand why she “browned up” the film with richly colored and detailed costumes and having the characters speak of and traveling to India; it was a visual reminder of Britain’s long colonialization of the nation. So often, such novels get the Masterpiece Theater/Downtown Abbey hermetic whiteness treatment, devoid of any context of Rule Brittania that existed due, in no small part, to the country’s deadly takeover of countries of color. But I had a hold-the-fuck-up pause at the “exotic dance” Becky Sharp and some of the other white gentried women do at a private party for Sharp’s benefactor when someone pointed out to me that the music used was an anachronism: 19th-century British Sharp and the other dancers wouldn’t have danced to Hakim’s “El Salam” because it’s an Egyptian pop song from the ’00s (as in the 2000s, not the 1900s or earlier decades). However, the other argument could be–considering that Britain also colonized Egypt while it colonized India–Nair wants to show the audience that, for the white British gentry, India and Egypt are all part of an Orientalist piece to their ways of thinking.
Nair was born and grew up in a middle-class Punjabi household in the Indian state of Orissa as the nation itself was a decade out from the British officially leaving there. She studied sociology at Delhi University as well as participated in political street theater and an amateur acting troupe. She moved to US when she was 19 due to winning a scholarship to Harvard University, where she met Sooni Taraporevala, her longtime screenwriter. She stayed with her sociology studies.
I think Nair brings her sociological training to her films. As intimate as they are–Nair rejected directing Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix because she said she was “better suited to emotions, human beings, and less interested in special effects“–they’re also stories of a group of people moving with, through, and against social structures and relationships and their attendant agreements, be that structure a deal-with-the-devil agreement with a rich benefactor in 19th-century England; marriage, polyamory, and polygamy in 16th-century and 20th-century India; immigration and assimilation in 21st century New York City; kyriarchy among people of color in late 20th-century Mississippi. And her style of intimate group studies have earned her all sorts of accolades and awards, including an Academy Award nod for the film-class standard Salaam Bombay! in 1989 and India’s third highest civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan, in 2012.
And Nair pays the wealth of her filmmaking experience forward: she not only instructs future filmmakers at Columbia University, she also founded Maisha Film Lab, where East Africans and South Asians learn how to make films–the lab’s headquarters is located in Nair’s adopted home of Kampala, Uganda, and has sites in Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Nair also took the earnings of Salaam Bombay! and started Salaam Baalak Trust, an organization for India’s homeless children.
I think Maisha Film Labs’ motto sums up Nair’s filmmaking ethos: “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will!” Including stories of sexy and grown brown folks just trying to make it in this world.