Mira Nair describes herself as “an Indian filmmaker at home in the world.” Odisha born, Harvard educated, and living in Uganda, she brings a vibrant multiculturalist sensibility to exuberant, humane, and honest tales of people trying to get along in a world where joy and struggle meet by the minute. Best known for her films Mississippi Masala (1991) and Monsoon Wedding (2001), she recently managed the extraordinary feat of setting a popular mainstream movie in Africa without resorting to the contrivance of adding a famous white actor or two to garner a bigger audience. Queen of Katwe (2016) also overcomes the tendency of sports movies to follow a manipulative path by rote. It’s a thoroughly original, wise, entertaining work, not least because it finds a compelling way to do what Mira Nair most wants us all to do: to look at life through the eyes of the other. She was interviewed by Gareth Higgins.
Image: I’m intrigued by the theory that the stories we tell either kill us or heal us, that they profoundly shape our lives, and that the purpose of art is to help us live better. I think your films are obviously resonant with that, but I want to ask you first, why do you make films rather than working in other mediums? What is it about film?
Mira Nair: I think the urge to make feature films comes because of their elasticity, their ability to encompass literally any artistic or creative tradition. In film, you can create a rigorously woven tapestry that allows you to say what you want about the world, using the music and aesthetics and electricity of everyday life. I can take, say, the documentary tradition, or the cinéma vérité tradition, and juice it any which way I wish to create the impact I want. Hopefully that will evoke something mysterious in you; if it does, that is fantastic. Too often we are fed packaged emotions. I can’t stand that sports music on ESPN channels. I can’t stand that overt dramatizing of life. Life is sweet enough. It doesn’t need this enhancement, this processed fun, this processed drama. I like to look at cinema that restores faith in everyday life, that allows me to try to recall the poetry of it.
Image: It seems to me that your films, especially Monsoon Wedding and Queen of Katwe, evoke almost utopian communities. I don’t mean that everything is perfect—people are struggling. But watching the films leaves me with a desire to be more in community, and I am guessing that your sets have that same community feel. True?
MN: Yes, and those communities often live on. It is beautiful. You get invested in friendships. And because many of my films involve non-actors, you have children of the street playing major roles opposite Hollywood stars. There is a coming together of all kinds of people. There is a real power to the relationships that form. For instance, working on Queen of Katwe, Madina Nalwanga, who played Phiona, actually showed Lupita Nyong’o how to cook in the shack in which she herself lived. How to portray what that family does was largely figured out by kids who lived that life, and that was an education for Lupita and David Oyelowo. It was also a rooting of the whole story in an authenticity that cannot be directed. How to bathe in half an inch of water and make it appear like ballet is just not something I would know how to direct, but Madina shampoos her hair like that in a public well, and it was amazing. The economy of gesture is so clear. That was told like it is. Even people here in Kampala have not seen that life in Katwe, which is fifteen minutes away.
Image: It points out one of the other benefits of cinema: if you are a writer or a photographer, you are doing it on your own, but film is collaborative.
MN: That’s why I am neither a photographer nor writer. I like to work with people, and my strength, if any, is that. Working with life.
Image: I understand you start the day with yoga for cast and crew. It seems to me that you are playing the role of a shepherd as well as a director. You have a pastoral concern for these people, and the desire to make community happen. Is that a conscious thing? Do you know where that came from in you?
MN: Well, I can’t say it is always like that. Some films I made in England or in parts of Hollywood are very shop-run, but Queen of Katwe is special. The community that came together to make it is the real kind, and I will be invested in it for a long time. It is not a fly-by-night thing.
It is impossible to create a sense of infectious fun on screen if you are having a miserable time off screen, although what we are doing to create fun on screen is rigorous. It’s a skill. It requires consciousness, coverage, hitting the points, all of those things that make a narrative work—but unless there is a sense of ease about the bodies of the people and a kind of camaraderie or alchemy in the case of lovers, it doesn’t work. You have to create that as a director, and you create it with a sense of fun, but knowing very clearly what you want to get out of it.
Image: Queen of Katwe ends with a sequence that tells us where each character is now by bringing the real people together with the actors who played them. I have never seen it done that way before, and I cried more tears of joy at that sequence than I have in a long time. To be frank, it made me want to love people more. It made me want to take life more seriously, to see its beauty more clearly. Where did that idea come from? Was that your idea?
MN: Yes. Unlike most films about real people, this is not a period film. Phiona is eighteen years old now. We are telling her stories from ages ten to fourteen, so these are all real people around us, who are still young, including Robert Katende, the coach. I wanted to make it clear that this is not something which you can regard in the safety of a period film. This is happening. Genius is in front of you. You just forgot to look. With that ending, I wanted to break the fourth wall, so that you see that these are real people. To face it for what it was, rather than create an artifice. So I used one frame, locked off, and then people present themselves. And then I chose a gesture of each character that I enjoyed.
Image: One of the effects of that choice is to avoid conventional catharsis. I think catharsis is often unhelpful because it leads to no action on the part of the audience. In Queen of Katwe there is catharsis with the resolution of the story, but then you bring us back into reality: life doesn’t end with the end of a chess competition. I think also about how the most painful part of Monsoon Wedding isn’t dealt with through vengeance or retribution, but through the uncle starting to show his niece that he will protect her. Most films can only have one note: they are either joyful films or struggle films. But yours are always both.
MN: Thank you. I really believe in both, and I believe life gives us both in equal measure if we are lucky. I think a harangue is hard to sit through, and life is difficult enough, and so I try to address prickly issues not by scolding but in a funny, mischievous way. That is what I like to create with actors and stories. When Robert’s wife begins to scold him about playing football after discovering his muddy shoes, the moment ends up in romance. The idea came from a story that Robert himself told me in a documentary that I made about him, about how he proposed to his wife. She asked for ten reasons why he loved her, and he just said I love you ten times, and that was what we used. I added layers to a scene that could have been just a scolding, so that it can be about a journey of a man and a woman.
Image: This way of thinking is countercultural, for the dominant culture of cinema is to spell it out, or harangue, or play one simple note. Who were some of your teachers?
MN: My teachers are firstly life itself—observation and nature. I grew up in small, close communities from childhood, and perhaps that led me to want to create them as I crossed the oceans. But Ricky Leacock was one of my first teachers, and D.A. Pennebaker, and Jean Rouch, who wrote Chronicle of a Summer, in which real life people in 1960s Paris spoke about the quality of happiness. That was a huge film for me—the idea that you could make a film about living issues, living people. That led me into drama and fiction, but even in fiction I always liked to create that sense of the unpredictability of life.
Now I am returning to the theater, where I started. In May, after nine years of development, we opened Monsoon Wedding as a stage musical. I am excited about that because it was a long endeavor to get here. It is always about never repeating myself, never stepping into safety, but also doing things that only I can do in a special way, not just joining the pack—because life is tremendously short, and you must conserve energy to put in the right places.
Image: One way in which you don’t follow the pack is that you don’t tend to have one point of view in your films. The filmmaker who comes to mind when I watch your films is John Sayles, who never has just one single protagonist. But isn’t that what life is like?
MN: It is like that. The word I used with Katwe is “prismatic.” I wanted the prismatic view not just because that’s what creates a community, but because these are real people with idiosyncratic issues, and that is what makes life interesting. To be humble about receiving that, to see that that’s what makes life richer, is the point.
Image: I have heard you describe yourself as an Indian filmmaker at home in the world. It seems like we are living in a moment when lots of people are retreating into their isolation, into what they consider their safe spaces, because they haven’t realized that the safest space is the mixed space, the safest space is going on a journey. With that in mind, what would you say to folk around the world who are scared?
MN: I think now more than ever is the time to transcend our boundaries with the other. That is what I like to do in my films, by going into prickly and specific worlds, which I hope in their truth, fun, or joy make you see yourself, so that you see that a person in Katwe is not removed from you. You are observing a suffering life, but it’s not only that. This person has real sass and style and dignity, and you are brought into her life or his life, not to feel sorry for them, but to relate first, and then to love more, and to be disarmed by that. That is important. That is what I think we need more than ever now, because walls are being rapidly cemented every day. It is a scary time, and more so because now to harass the other is legitimized, and this is dangerous.
Image: What are the frontiers of cinema, as you observe it? What is not being done that should be done, or what should we do less of?
MN: I think the world would be a much better place if there were a greater balance in popular cinema, between the violent tent-pole franchises that take you on a ride but don’t provoke you or let you see the mirror of real life, and the cinema from all over the world which shows you that my street is actually kind of like your street. We don’t see stories from the different countries in Africa. We don’t see stories from Thailand. We don’t see stories from even Hawaii. It should not be so rare for people to tell their own stories. We have to rage and rail against homogeneity.