RAVE: Chai With Mira Nair – 2

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TeenPeople: Celebrity Stress Chai with Mira

September 2004
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New Delhi to New York

It’s this patented, disarming combination of charm and attack, combined with a rare, polished grit that has propelled director
du jour Mira Nair to the top of the global media hierarchy. The youngest of three children raised by an emotionally unavailable civil servant and his fiery homemaker wife in Bhubaneswar, Orissa, Mira grew up a tomboy, back when there were no digital cameras for eight-year-old would-be filmmakers to experiment with. “I can’t give you that story,” she says with a smile.

“I stumbled into it really.” A politically-motivated but bored sociology major-cum-actress at Delhi University, ambitious Nair applied for and recieved a scholarship to Harvard at 18. “I found that the theater there was really not about changing the world in any way,” says Mira, who still managed to pulls leads like Eva Peron in a modern-day adaptation of Antigone. “So I took this course in still photography, which got me hooked visually. But I couldn’t take the isolated-ness of the medium. So I started exploring this cinema verite program they have…I’m only a B.A. pass,” she adds, laughing, “but my parents were okay with it.”

Living hand to mouth for the next seven years, Nair shuttled between New York and Delhi, making documentaries that spanned the globe yet remained close to home. “My second film, So Far From India, was about a subway worker on 116th Street, where I now live and still take that subway,” says Nair. “And I worked for four months as a waitress at the Indian Oven on Columbus Avenue. That’s where I worked and made the money for my first films. My parents would never tell anyone–they just couldn’t bear the thought of telling anyone I was a waitress.”

The Life of a Filmmaker

With each successful documentary, Mira’s scope (along with her funding) increased. India Cabaret explored the lives of prostitutes in Bombay, Children of a Desired Sex explored India’s obsession with gender selection. But she wanted more control. So Nair teamed up with Sooni Taraporevala, whom she befriended at Harvard and she decided to pour her energies into a project about the tattered youth of Bombay street urchins that had long incubated in her head. “I had never been on a film set before, never made a feature, didn’t have any funding,” she says. “But we were determined to do it.” Her debut film, 1988’s Salaam Bombay!, was a cinema verite masterpiece that earned both an Oscar nod and the Palm D’Ore at Cannes that year. It also cemented Mira’s status as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.

Her new reputation did not mean that she would make no mistakes–her first studio project, the Cuban family comedy The Perez Family, failed miserably. “I learned that I needed to focus on what’s close to me, what’s personal,” she says. “But I occupy the role of the outsider, a place between black and white that often goes unrecognized. It’s always a struggle to do your own work–but especially to do your own work in a medium that requires millions of dollars. It requires an army of people.”

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