Brief Encounters: An Interview with Mira Nair

Though known primarily for her wildly varied, continent-hopping features (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Vanity Fair, The Namesake), Indian director Mira Nair has for the past three decades also been forging a parallel career of short filmmaking. Both fiction (Migration, How Can It Be?, The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat) and documentary (So Far from India, India Cabaret, The Laughing Club of India), and made all over the globe (India, the United States, and Africa), these works form an impressive—if, for many, hidden—body of work. Now nearly all of them are available, as part of the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray special editions of Nair’s comic family drama Monsoon Wedding .

Nair is very busy these days: her latest feature, the Amelia Earhart biopic Amelia , premieres Friday, and her new short Kosher Vegetarian , starring Natalie Portman and Irrfan Khan, opened last week as part of the omnibus New York, I Love You . So we were thrilled to get a few moments of her time to talk about her dual creative life.—Michael Koresky


You toggle regularly between short and feature films—more, it seems, than most filmmakers of your stature. Is there something about the short-film format you find particularly appealing?

I really enjoy the challenge of telling a complicated story in very little time. It has a freewheeling aspect and yet a rigor to it. I love that. And many people I know do that for commercials and stuff, but I love to do that for a narrative. I’d rather make short films that mean something and that can be used forever than, say, a perfume commercial—which I’ve also done. So The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat [1993], for example, came out of wanting to tell something very complex but in a short period of time. I am attracted to that.

What is working with actors on a short like, as opposed to on a feature?

I think I work largely the same way, but short films provide a lovely excuse to work with actors I admire, as it’s not a big deal to get them. We all work together three days and we make a movie. It’s a lovely feeling, to crystallize something in such a short period of time. For example, for How Can It Be? [2008], I cast Konkona Sen Sharma, one of the greatest young actresses working in India today. We shot that film in two days. Kosher Vegetarian was also shot in two days. Natalie Portman and I are friends, and we always wanted to work together. In casting short films, especially, you need to speak in shorthand. It’s like Marilyn Monroe was shorthand for sex—you have to cast everyone in that shorthand. So Natalie was perfect for Kosher Vegetarian, because she had to be a jewel—a bald jewel from a Jewish Orthodox community. And she is a jewel.

Both of those films were featured in omnibus works. Many of your shorts end up in larger collections, such as 11'09"01—September 11 andNew York, I Love You, alongside films from other directors. Does participating grant you a sense of solidarity with other filmmakers?

It does. I have nothing to do with those directors while making my films, and I meet them at the opening, usually. But it’s just wonderful to be in the company of such people as Jane Campion and Wim Wenders. It’s just an honor, and we get to spend two or three days together somewhere in the world. They’re the ones who get me to say yes, basically. It’s that wanting to be in solidarity with people you admire and also with whom you share the same politics and a worldview.

That must have been especially true of the 9/11 film. There were so many heavy hitters in that collection, including Shohei Imamura, with his final film.

The producer of the film called me, and he told me who else he had, but I had to think of something that would represent the complexity of what I was experiencing—of being Indian in New York after 9/11—in just eleven minutes. I had never felt like a foreigner before that, and suddenly we were the other. So I told him that I would agree only if I found that story. And once we found that story, a true story in the newspapers [about a Pakistani woman searching for her missing son], I said yes.

You mention the restrictions placed upon you in making this film—it had to be eleven minutes, nine seconds, and one frame long. New York, I Love You also imposed restrictions. How do you feel you work within such limitations?

I like all that, because it energizes me. I could always use more time, but I’m very economical. With Kosher Vegetarian, there was so much delight in it that I could have gone on, but they were really firm on not giving me one extra minute. They told us literally seven minutes and not a frame more. And then I heard that other films were longer, and that pissed me off! But I like the rigor of the economy. Necessity is the mother of invention, in many ways.

Can you talk about what you learned from making your first short documentaries, So Far from India (1982) and India Cabaret (1985), after studying with Direct Cinema pioneer Richard Leacock?

I made So Far from India as my first professional film, leaving college, very much trying to speak to what it’s like being an Indian living on the margins of New York City. And this was exemplified by Ashok, the newsstand worker in the film. Then, as it happens with cinema verité, one thing leads to another: his wife gave birth, he went home to see her, and when I went with him I discovered that they were totally estranged and didn’t talk to each other—my camera became the intermediary. And slowly the film became about the dream of America through the eyes of those back home. That film was made under a lot of duress, no money. But it became quite successful in the festivals and won awards, and on the basis of that, I raised the money to make a second film, exploring the line separating “good” women from those considered outside respectability in India, and of course that always has to do with sexuality. I wanted to make it from the women’s point of view. I lived with a group of strippers and dancers for two or three months before I brought in the camera and sound, and then I followed them everywhere. And that’s when I found life can be much more interesting and powerful than fiction: at one point, a dancer named Rosie had to cross the country to give her mother money she had earned, for her sister’s wedding, but the mother never let her enter the village because she sold herself for a living. She wasn’t a prostitute, but what she did for a living “polluted” her. These aren’t things you can script or even imagine, but they happen, and here we were to film them. So again, one thing leads to another. But you have to have tremendous patience and conviction that you’re doing something interesting while life just unfolds.

Have you ever wanted to make a documentary feature?

Yes, a feature documentary on the Beatles in India. The Beatles wrote twenty-three songs when they went to the Maharishi’s ashram in 1968. And I think the impact of India on the Beatles and vice versa would make for a very cool film. I went to the ashram myself and photographed it—it’s all abandoned. I made a very evocative photo portrait of what is there now. So I mixed that with archival footage and made a twenty-minute piece, to let the producers preview it. The producers couldn’t get the rights to the songs, but we have to keep trying. One day I really hope to do it.

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