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One On 1: Mira Nair Sees Life Through Independent Eyes

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A unique filmmaker known for making movies that bridge the gap between her two homelands is taking flight with her latest big screen project. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Looking for the secret to creating a good scene in a movie? Director Mira Nair says part of the answer can be found right in her garden.

"How I move something around, how it flourishes here and not there. How you can't force something to bloom, how you have to find a circumstance in which it can bloom. Those are incredible lessons for cinema as well," says Nair.

Nair's career has certainly bloomed since she moved to New York City in the 1980's, cited by critics and film festivals around the world, thanks largely to the films dealing with her native India and Americans of Indian descent -- "Salaam Bombay," "Mississippi Masala," and "The Namesake and Monsoon Wedding."

But Nair's latest film is "Amelia," the story of pilot Amelia Earhart. It's a big studio, big budget affair.

"You have a lot more voices that you have to navigate and try to keep your own story at the same time. Your own voice at the same time," says Nair.

Nair says part of that navigation is enduring market questionnaires of audiences who watch rough cuts of the film. Which actor do you like? Which scene is your favorite? When are you bored? The director is then supposed to recut the film accordingly.

"That can be illuminating in terms of confusions of a film but can also be really irritating," says Nair. "It can be like chasing your own tail."


I asked her if she feels pressure in her independent films to get it just right for her Indian American audience and for those seeking a window into that community. She says that type of pressure is a type of censorship.

"I really hate the anthropologizating of a community. 'Oh, we wear the dot because it means this' kind of nonsense. I'm not there to educate people in a homework way," says Nair. "My task is to make flesh and blood characters who do things that are funny and you recognize yourself in them because they are truthful."

Nair's films are known for bridging the worlds of India and the United States. In "The Namesake and Monsoon Wedding," she went so far as to link Calcutta and New York by intercutting the bridges of the two cities.

"Those were visual ways that I could bridge two stories," says Nair. "I'm a visualist first and foremost. How do I find that hook, how do I tell this story rather than lecturing to you in a dull and didactic fashion?"

Nair says the notion of color blind casting is much more acceptable now than it was 20 years ago.

While making her 1991 film "Mississippi Masala," a love story with an African American man and an Indian American woman, Nair met with an Orion Pictures executive to get financing for the film.

"He heard the story and said 'Can't you make room for a white protagonist?' I smiled as I often do when I'm rejected and I said 'Well all of the waiters in this film will be white. Of that I can promise you,' recalls Nair. "And he laughed and I laughed and I was shown the door."

Nair made the film her way, a recurring theme throughout her career. She says as an independent filmmaker, you have to have the sensitive heart of a poet, but also "elephantine skin."

"I get a lot of energy from rejection," says Nair. "When someone says it's bad or you can't do this or it's impossible. I have this feeling in my stomach I'm going to show you. That's a very important feeling for an independent filmmaker who is trying to do things not many others have done before."

To call Mira Nair a woman of the world is no cliche. She lives with her husband and son near Columbia University, where she and her husband both teach.

But the family spends part of each year in Kampala, Uganda, where she's established a film school. Nair also has a home back in India where she grew up.

"There was only one theater and I was not a fan of the Indian Bollywood style movies, especially growing up," says Nair. "This theater showed Dr. Zhivago every Sunday for years."


Theater, not cinema, was her passion at university in Delhi. At the age of 19 she earned a scholarship to Harvard. Nair says she appreciated Americans' openness, but there were other lessons learned beyond the classroom.

"I worked 20 hours a week dishwashing in the dining hall, I was struck by the amount of waste and excess that Americans are used to. It is just gobsmacking," recalls Nair. "That continues to astound me in terms of what is taken for granted here and what is simply wasted."

Citing the actor's lack of control and a desire to tell stories her own way, Nair's passion shifted to documentary filmmaking. How did she get her first films seen? She got on the bus.

"I would go in the early years, making $300 a pop showing my films to women's groups, and unions or students and film societies. anyone who wanted me," recalls Nair.

One early documentary that played on public television involved strippers in nightclubs in India. But not everyone was thrilled.

"Indians would get outraged. 'Why are you showing this face of India. You should show doctors in Porsches like I am.' People would write to me and say that. I would say 'As soon as doctors in Porsches become interesting I am right there,'" says Nair.

Nair eventually moved on to feature films. For her first, "Salaam Bombay," she hired street kids as actors.

"I was surrounded by so many people who thought that I was nuts," says Nair. "You are constantly surrounded by rejection and constantly surrounded by a certain loneliness. Loneliness is important for an artist. You have to have the guts to be alone in whatever your endeavor is."

"Salaam Bombay" earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. Nair would never have to take the bus to show her films again.

New York has played a prominent role in several of Nair's most recent films, like the namesake. She contributed one of the short films to the romantic movie "New York I Love You."

After the September 11th attacks, which she described as a "tough time for people who looked like her," Nair made another short film, the true story of a young Indian American who was killed at the World Trade Center then was suspected of being a terrorist before finally being buried as a hero.

"I very much wanted to try capture in 11 minutes the complexity of someone who considers New York City home and someone like brown like me, what that tightrope was and felt like," says Nair.

Gone are the early career moments of what she calls "exquisite terror," sitting on a set with 80 people waiting for her to tell them what to do. The enigmatic nature of making movies -- finding out in the edit room that something she thought was bad is actually good and vice versa -- remains the same as it ever was.

"You learn not to trust euphoria fully until the whole matter is done and dusted," says Nair. "But yes it's a wonderful feeling when you have that sense of things are working. You see the unpredictability of life in the frame even though you are constructing it."

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