November 16, 2020
Her parents affectionately called her “pagli,” and years later, audiences would, too. Mira Nair — the iconic director of Monsoon Wedding (2001), Mississippi Masala (1991), Salaam Bombay! (1988), and The Namesake (2006), among others — is not content to represent, but relishes the chance to challenge perspectives, to see the world a little bit anew. “The Indian community could not take Mississippi Masala here when it opened,” Nair told me, referring to the plotline of the interracial love between a Black man (Denzel Washington) and a Brown woman (Sarita Choudhury). “I would have men challenge me on the subway, coming up to me and saying, ‘You think every Black man is Denzel Washington. You want our daughters to...what do you want? What do you want?’”
Nair’s voice is not angry, but warm, as if savoring the conflict. “But it's good, isn't it, to rile you up? To rile with some degree of responsibility, with some degree of love and irreverence.”
In an alternate universe, Nair might have become a sitar player. But, at age 10, the prospect of taking another nine years to learn how to play “Raag Ya Maan” seemed inconceivable. Nair was interested in too many other things — writing, theater, acting, painting — and it showed. Growing up as the youngest of three children and the only daughter, she “was an industrious sort of kid.” Her sitar teacher pointed out, “You know, you cannot pursue two things. You have to focus on one.”
That was Nair’s “aha moment.” “I didn’t necessarily obey,” she admitted in her warm voice that on any day — but especially a drab day — warms you to the core. “It is about focus, and it is about deciding what you want to do. But that deciding came very late for me.”
It would take at least another decade for Nair, now 63, to settle on making movies. But, no matter. Nair is considered a masterclass in her craft. Her first feature film earned her an Academy Award nomination in her 30s. She’s won the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award. Monsoon Wedding earned her a Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival.
As you speak to her, you can’t shake the feeling that it didn’t really matter what calling Nair had chosen — she would have just figured out how to be the best. Over four decades of moviemaking, Nair has captured memorable scenes; discovered and launched the careers of actors like Irrfan Khan, Randeep Hooda, and Choudhury; and created new Brown worlds global audiences had never seen before.