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Director Mira Nair Shares the Art of Telling Complex Stories of Islam Through Film

Mira Nair image
Photo Courtesy of Kinjal Devang Vasavada (Stanford Class of 2017).
Nov 4 2015

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“When you are in America or pretty much anywhere, what you read about Pakistan is beheadings, terrorism, and this and that and the other,” Mira Nair recalled thinking before her first trip to Lahore, Pakistan. “Nothing prepared me for the extraordinary hospitality, but also the ancient and deeply modern culture that I was in front of, and that is what led me to make a film about Pakistan.”

Nair, a renowned Indian filmmaker, was speaking at an event hosted by Stanford University’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies on October 28, 2015. The film, which was shown earlier in the evening, is The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which follows the story of a young, successful Pakistani who is in love with America, but finds the American dream crumbling around him in the aftermath of 9/11.

As a New Yorker of South Asian descent, Nair felt compelled to tell the story of a place 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.”  

In the post 9/11 era, “an entire generation has come of age with sensationalized media images linking violence to Islam, and plots that dehumanize and simplify the lives of Muslims,” said Abbasi Program Director and Stanford Professor Robert Crews, who moderated the discussion—“Mira Nair's work presents a powerful alternative.”

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 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.”

Throughout the evening, audience members praised her work, and questioned her view of the representations of Islam in Western cinema today. “Sadly, a lot of the stuff I see, whether it is [Showtime’s] Homeland or [other shows], they are not about being complex,” she responded. “They look at Islam as this monolithic state of being, and no real consciousness of the fact that there is a billion people that practice this religion.”

As for what she is planning next, Nair’s fans were delighted to hear that she recently completed a project with Disney, called the Queen of Katwe, which takes on the story of a young African girl turned chess champion. She will also debut a musical version of Monsoon Wedding in the Bay Area next September.

The event was organized by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies in collaboration with Stanford Global Studies, the Center for South Asia, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Film and Media Studies Program, and the Stanford Initiative for Religious and Ethnic Understanding and Coexistence. It was also supported by the President’s Fund, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, the Department of Religious Studies, and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies.