While International Women’s Day should be used as an opportunity to celebrate all women, our eyes naturally fall to those which dominate our popular culture. On such an occasion, I wanted to do my bit to the contrary, and to briefly highlight an inspirational figure; one whom is truly ‘international’.
Mira Nair is an Indian filmmaker, now based out of New York. She has been both director and producer, though her first interests were initially in acting and playwriting. Her first works were documentaries, in which she covered controversial and hard-hitting topics including the exploitation of female strippers in Bombay (India Cabaret), and the abortion of female fetuses (Children of a Desired Sex) due to the social favour for male children when the technology to detect the sex of babies in the womb – known as amniocentesis – became developed in the 1980s.
Departing from documentaries into the production of feature films, Nair has become renowned for her works which are produced for an international audience and are intended to showcase the rich cultural diversities and intricacies of Indian society, in a way which is not typically seen in western-made films, or seen by western audiences who do not stray into Bollywood or similar films. Salaam Bombay! was a film detailing the lives of street children, deprived of a real childhood; it did poorly at the box office, but won 23 international awards, including those from Cannes, and nominations from the Academy Awards. By contrast, her 2001 film Monsoon Wedding about a Punjabi Indian wedding grossed $30 million worldwide, making it among the most commercially successful Indian films ever.
Her films have included A-list names from Denzel Washington, Richard Gere and Hilary Swank, and she directed the 2002 HBO movie Hysterical Blindness for which Uma Thurman won a Golden Globe.
In 2007, Nair was invited to direct the screen adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but declined in favour of directing the adaptation of The Namesake, a best-selling novel by Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri. Following the child of Indian immigrants who wishes to immerse himself in his new society, by cannot escape the traditional ways of his family, it among Nair’s works is perhaps a testament to her strengths. She helped to create, or otherwise tell, colourful stories among that which would not be seen. Recent film and Academy Award nominee Brooklyn has been criticized, with remarks along the lines of ‘you can be an immigrant in America, as long as you’re conventionally attractive and white’, and ‘where is the love for stories of immigrants from elsewhere?’. Well; here.
Nair has helped bring to life stories on the big screen that would not have been otherwise seen. She has become a cultural figure, and a leading force in the industry for making positive films with a message. Currently, she is directing the Disney production Queen of Katwe, staring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, alongside work on a musical adaptation of Monsoon Wedding. Her works illustrate culture and heritage, and she has become a touchstone for the intersectionality of a powerful woman and a powerful spokeperson for India. She has always focussed on her voice, as a storyteller, and on the potential power and good that her films can do. Nair has said before that she is heartened to use films as a way of impacting people’s lives.
The world has much more to see from her, but already much we could learn.