Mira Nair

Mira Nair

Of Punjabi ancestry, Nair was born and raised in a middle class home in the state of Orissa in Eastern India. Nair performed with a politically oriented street theater group while attending Delhi University, before moving to the U.S. at age 19 to continue her sociology studies at Harvard University. Nair soon found that documentary filmmaking combined her two passions, and of her first handful of non-fiction films examining Indian life, she earned a Best Documentary Prize at the American Film Festival for "India Cabaret" (1985), a controversial portrait of strippers in a Bombay nightclub. She teamed with screenwriter and Harvard colleague Sooni Taraporevala for her feature film directorial debut, "Salaam Bombay!" in 1988. The riveting and uncompromising tale of a young boy navigating the dangerous world of urban Mumbai street life featured amazing performances from non-professional child actors and won the filmmaker the Camera d'Or (for Best First Feature) and the Prix du Publique (for Most Popular Entry) at the Cannes Film Festival. Unanimous critical acclaim made the film an international art house success and earned Nair Academy and Golden Globe nominations (for Best Foreign Language Film), with the director immediately investing her good fortune back into the community she profiled by setting up an organization to help Mumbai street children.The writing and directing team scored again with "Mississippi Masala" (1992), an interracial romance starring Denzel Washington as a working class African-American and Sarita Choudhury as a recent Indian-Ugandan immigrant who meet and fall in love despite outcry from both families. The film proved to have a large commercial appeal and also earned Nair a Best Feature nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as acclaim from a number of international festivals. Nair's continued interest in "outsiders" struggling with cultural identity led to her helming the big screen adaptation of Christine Bell's novel, "The Perez Family" (1995), a more comedic tale of disparate Cubans adjusting in America. A decidedly non-Cuban cast including Anjelica Huston, Marissa Tomei and Alfred Molina made for a tough sell of Nair's lightest film yet, with neither audiences nor critics voicing much interest. Nair returned to India, circa the 16th Century, to work with an all Indian cast on the sensual feature "Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love" (1996), in which a pampered princess and a lowly servant engage in a struggle for the same man. The film was banned in India due to its sexual themes, and failed to find much distribution internationally. Nair was next courted by Showtime to direct "My Own Country" (1998), an adaptation of East Indian physician Abraham Verghese's autobiography chronicling his search for AIDS treatment in 1980s-era Tennessee.Nair returned to India again where she assembled an Altman-sized ensemble cast and again struck theatrical gold with "Monsoon Wedding" (2001), a colorful, quirky tale depicting an Indian family's preparations for a modern-day arranged marriage. Nair was honored with an Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe nomination, among numerous accolades. Not breaking stride, Nair collected more critical kudos for the HBO movie "Hysterical Blindness" (2002). An all-American story that dovetailed nicely with the filmmaker's penchant for marginalized characters, the film was a bittersweet look at the relationships of a working class New Jersey woman (Uma Thurman) with her best friend (Juliette Lewis), mother (Gena Rowlands) and the less-than-inspiring father of her child (Justin Chambers). After lensing the "India" segment of the multi-segment drama "11'09''01 - September 11" (2002), chronicling the aftermaths of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks from various international perspectives, Nair took the helm of a stylish adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's classic late 19th Century novel, "Vanity Fair" (2004), starring Reese Witherspoon as a more sympathetic than usual characterization of social climber Becky Sharp.A post as a professor adjunct of the Columbia University film department did not slow Nair's filmmaking output, and in 2006, she unveiled another powerful portrait of the Indian-American experience - an adaptation of the novel "Namesake" (2006) written for the screen by Taraporevala. Indian actors Tabu and Irrfan Khan joined Indian-American actor Kal Penn in this story of immigration and cultural identity that spanned two continents. Nair and her cast received multiple independent film nominations and the filmmaker next hit the big screen with a humorous segment entitled "Kosher Vegetarian" in the short film collection, "New York, I Love You" (2008). In 2009, she reached mainstream audiences with "Amelia" (2009), a biopic starring Hilary Swank as famed aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.