Filmmaker Mira Nair shares the art of portraying the complexities of South Asia

Mira Nair (Photo credit: Kinjal Devang Vasavada)
Mira Nair (Photo credit: Kinjal Devang Vasavada)

“Nothing prepared me for the extraordinary hospitality, but also the ancient and deeply modern culture that I was in front of,” MIRA NAIR recalled thinking during her first trip to Lahore, Pakistan. “And that is what led me to make a film about Pakistan.”

Nair, a renowned Indian filmmaker, was speaking at a film screening and discussion on campus earlier this fall. Hosted by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, the event included the screening of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which follows the story of a young, successful Pakistani who is in love with the United States, but finds the American dream crumbling around him in the aftermath of 9/11.

As a South Asian living in New York, Nair herself felt marginalized after 9/11 and was compelled to tell the story of a place – Pakistan – that everyone else was demonizing. “It was that desire to hold a mirror to our own complexity and situation in the world, even though I knew it may not be popular, that people may not be ready to listen to it.”

Nair, who also directed Salaam Bombay!, The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala, is known for taking on such complex and political storylines that defy stereotypes. Heavily influenced by political street theater in Calcutta and documentary filmmaking, her approach, she explained, is to seek the truth of life, no matter how unpredictable. “To make films, you have to have something to say,” Nair said. “To have something to say, you have to be a student of life … you have to be feeding yourself with what life, politics, society, your family fuels you with. … If you don’t tell your own story, no one else will.”

Nair said that she finds some of the portrayals in mainstream media, such as Showtime’s Homeland, fail to explore such complexities. “They look at Islam as this monolithic state of being, and no real consciousness of the fact that there are a billion people that practice this religion.”

At its best, Nair said, American cinema can be incredibly inventive and risk taking, though lacking authenticity, and often shallow – “a dehumanization of what is really going on.” Yet she still has hope that filmmaking around the world can “hold a mirror to challenge the worst of us and the best of us.”

Nair shared that she recently completed the upcoming film The Queen of Katwe, which stars Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o in the biographical film about a Ugandan girl who becomes a chess champion.

Nair also will debut a musical theater version of Monsoon Wedding in the Bay Area next year.

A full version of this story is posted on the Stanford Global Studies website.