The Journey Of Mira Nair: From ‘Salaam Bombay’ To ‘Queen Of Katwe’
On Mira Nair’s 59th birthday, we look at why her storytelling has always held up a mirror to our society.
Just a hint of make-up, eyeliner and an ethnic outfit, and Mira Nair was ready to go for a photo-shoot for click maestro Suresh Natarajan at his studio. He has a thorough distaste for ‘say cheese’ shots. The photograph he selected for publication in a magazine I was editing, showed Nair’s face covered with strands of tumbling hair. She was thrilled with it. It’s one of Suresh’s favourites too.
Now I’ve known Mira Nair ever since her pre-Salaam Bombay fame days. She can be a pal and she can be as remote as Mumbai is from New York, where she’s anchored with her husband Mahmood Mamdani and son Zohraan, in a commodious Manhattan apartment. Her other homes are in New Delhi and Uganda. A globetrotter, she still oozes jet-lag though, zipping between continents and on one evening ruing, “I can’t remember where I was yesterday.”
Endowed with an elephantine memory, albeit selective, she’s in touch with most of her girl pals and definitely with Anil Tejani, the congenial filmmaker and a graduate from the Pune Film Institute, who elected to quit the scene but served as a selfless consultant to Mira on her first feature film Salaam Bombay in 1988 (at first tentatively titled Chal Bombay Chal).
It was at Anil’s home in the high-rise Mount Unique off Peddar Road, that her prime-collaborator-in-arms scriptwriter-filmmaker Sooni Taraporevala, would discuss the groundbreaking film on street kids, shot with a minimal budget, largely in the bustling alleys and on pavements of the Maximum City.
Whenever Mira was assailed by anxieties, she’d threaten to fling herself before a speeding car on the Peddar Road highway. By comparison, Anil and Sooni were the cool cucumbers, calming her to a state of Zen. Moreover, Mira is into yoga.
The film was universally lauded, topped with a nomination for the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in ’89. It lost out to Denmark’s Pelle the Conqueror. At the ceremony, Jodie Foster had called out to Mira and Sooni, “Hey guys, you should have won.”
Mira and Sooni, who had met at Harvard University during their student days, went on to become a class act, especially with Mississippi Masala (1991) and The Namesake (2006). They had worked on a script looking at a mother’s resolve to make her daughter into a Bollywood star. Tabu had been auditioned for the could-be star. A detailed, observant take on the way-out ways of show town, alas it fell through the cracks.
From the gritty Salaam Bombay to the lately released Queen of Katwe, the feel-great biopic of Uganda’s underprivileged 10-year-girl Philona Matesi who mastered the art of chess, it’s been a jagged oeuvre. Speaking for myself I’m certainly no fan of her cheesy Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996), the exotica for exotica’s sake Vanity Fair (2004) an interpretation of William Thackeray’s novel, and definitely not of the clumsily argued The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), adapted from the impactful bestseller on terrorism by Mohsin Ahmed.
Nair’s themes concern the after-effects of diaspora (emotionally underscored in her rendition of the Jhumpa Lahiri story The Namesake), the amazing spirit and talent of underprivileged gifted children, woman Shakti, AIDS awareness, immigration blues. And societal quirks were narrated with tongue-in-chic candour in Monsoon Wedding (2001), a perceptive behind-the-scenes study of a Big Fat Dilli Wedding.
Yet, in my book it’s Salaam Bombay which towers above the rest of her films. Reminiscent of the quasi realism of the Raj Kapoor-produced Boot Polish, and the raw account of Mexico City’s slum kids in Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, here was a story about the resilience of street children, told with a personally experienced force. It was an original, venturing into the city’s hidden brothels, moonlit graveyards and a decrepit cinema screening Sridevi pouting to Hawa Hawaai. A barrel of fun and yet purposeful, it hasn’t dated with time.
She hasn’t attempted a foray into Bollywood cinema, but has occasionally approached actors from the mainstream enclave. There were talks with Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukerji for The Namesake, which went into knots. Just as well, Irrfan Khan and Tabu made for memorable casting. On and off, reports swirled that Mira was to helm a project on Gautam Buddha (which overlapped with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha).
And there was more than idle talk about helming a sequel for the Harry Potter franchise. Plus there was the announcement of the film adaptation of Gregory David Roberts’ blockbuster of a book Shantaram, located in the Mumbai underworld which was to top-line ahem Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan – a humongous project thwarted by the writer’s strike in Hollywood, when the project was in the throes of pre-production. Ah, but then practically every filmmaker in the world has suffered from a cul de sac and more. Let’s dispense with the negatives.
Far more importantly, Mira Nair has been a natural-born go-getter. She raised funds for her estimable collection of documentaries. She’s dealt with TV channel executives, corporate financiers and top studio honchos. She could tell you scores of insightful stories about the how the film financing grid works the world over, with a sense of bemusement.
So how can I talk about Mira with some authority? Actually I can’t. Not any longer. I cannot expect her to be the tentative young woman, who had pressed a brochure of her documentary So Far From India (1982) on me, about an Indian newspaper dealer living in the subways of New York, at the International Film Festival of India. Requested she shyly, “Do see it if you can find the time. Would appreciate your opinion.”
That was another time, another era. I’m sure she appreciates opinions, but not criticism. After a review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I didn’t find up to scratch and said so, followed pin-drop silence.
Friend or no friend, I still cherish her as the Mira Nair, confident and yet unsure enough to visualise flinging herself before a speeding car on Peddar Road. All said and thought, hers has been such a fantastic journey.
On her 59th birthday ( 15 October), here’s a super salaam Mira Nair.
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter.)
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