• U.S.

Focusing on The Margins

5 minute read
Janice C. Simpson

Outsiders are Mira Nair’s specialty. She has always, the filmmaker says, “been drawn to stories of people who live on the margins of society; people who are on the edge, or outside, learning the language of being in between; dealing with the question, ‘What, and where, is home?’ “

At the relatively tender age of 34, India-born Nair has built a global reputation for her skill at portraying those lives. With unsentimental care, her camera has focused over the past 13 years on homeless children, homesick exiles and struggling immigrants. Her first feature film, Salaam Bombay!, won awards at Cannes in 1988 and an Academy Award nomination. Her second, Mississippi Masala, a piquant love story about an Indian immigrant and a black American in the Deep South, is garnering warm reviews and a growing following. A film about the life of Buddha is in preproduction, and its $30 million budget certifies her arrival in the major leagues of moviemaking.

Unlike the people who populate her frames, Nair has always enjoyed a strong sense of who she is and where she belongs. The daughter of a government administrator, she grew up comfortably in Bhubaneswar, a small city in eastern India. At boarding school she became a serious theater student and discovered the work of avant-garde British director Peter Brook.

Unhappy after a year at Delhi University, Nair applied to colleges in the U.S., ending up at Harvard because it offered the biggest scholarship. But Harvard’s theater program proved disappointing, far more orthodox than her experimental work at home. Nair looked around for a more challenging place to direct her creative energy. She found it in film. “Documentaries really grabbed me,” she says. “They were a way of entering people’s lives — if they should choose to let you enter — and embracing them.”

Shuttling between her native land and the U.S., Nair filmed a number of lives over the next few years. Among them: an Indian immigrant working in New York City while his wife and newborn son remained home in a world increasingly unfamiliar to him; and pregnant Indian women who contemplated abortion of female fetuses because their society prizes sons over daughters. India Cabaret, a hard-eyed look at a group of Bombay strippers, won the American Film Festival award for the best documentary of 1985.

But Nair grew restless. “I was tired of waiting for things to happen,” she says, referring to the serendipitous nature of the documentary film process. “I wanted to make them happen.” Working with an idea in 1983 for a documentary about Bombay street kids, she decided instead to turn their stories into a feature film. Salaam Bombay!, made on a $900,000 budget, was a commercial as well as a critical success; Nair used part of the profits to provide educational, medical and vocational services for street children.

The inspiration for Mississippi Masala, Nair’s first English-language film — her other work was in Hindi — came from a New Yorker magazine article about an Indian family forced to leave their native land of Uganda when dictator Idi Amin expelled Asians from the country in 1972. In her film, Nair relocates them to Mississippi, where Indian immigrants now dominate the motel business. The daughter in the family falls in love with an African American (Academy Award winner Denzel Washington) who owns a rug-cleaning service. Their romance sets off a clash of cultures between Indian Africans who have never seen India and African Americans who have never seen Africa. In the background are anxious white Americans who are equally dislocated as the country changes around them.

Determined to capture contemporary America with accuracy, Nair spent a month moving from motel to motel, interviewing the Indian families who owned them. In Greenwood, Miss., she also spent time in the black community, attending church, going to barbecues and hanging out in the local barbershop. “I think it would have been different if I had been white,” she says. “But I was allowed in. I was seen as one of them.”

Uganda proved even more congenial. During her weeks there, Nair fell in love with Mahmood Mamdani, a political scientist who was born in India but grew up in Uganda and returned there after earning his Ph.D. from Harvard, just three months before Amin’s expulsion edict was announced. Mamdani moved to Tanzania, then went home in 1979 when the restrictions against Asians were lifted. He is, says Nair proudly, “a true son of Africa.” The couple, now married, have bought the beautiful house in Kampala that the Indian family is forced to abandon in Mississippi Masala; they live there with their four-month-old son Zohran.

Ahead is the challenge of the Buddha project, with its intimidating budget, multiple locations in India and all the risks that accumulate for an auteur who has never experienced big-league success — or failure. But Nair isn’t worried. “Knowing where you come from gives one an incredible amount of self- confidence,” she says. Besides, anywhere she aims her camera is now her home.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com