By Katie Padgett
Mira Nair, Indian-American filmmaker, owner of Maisha Film Lab, Salaam Balak Trust for Indian street children and professor of film at Colombia University, enlightened Florida Southern students and staff and Lakeland locals on Tuesday, March 14 in Annie Pfeiffer Chapel.
Nair was the second of three speakers in the 2017 Child of the Sun Distinguished Speaker Series. The theme of this year’s series is art and human experience. Each speaker communicates their thoughts on issues and events in this world and how art impacts it.
Nair asked the question, “can art change the world?” and encourages all that she speaks to, to think imaginatively rather than critically about art, to connect to the world outside of themselves. Mira grew up with the idea that “anything is possible.” She knows that sounds cliché, but that’s what she believed in, and look where she is now.
Nicknamed “pagaal”, Hindi for “crazy girl” when she was young, Mira Nair could be described as much more than “crazy girl.” Intelligent, humorous, creative, inspiring just scratch the surface.
Born in Rourkela, Odisha, Nair was expected to stay in her local all-girl school, but eventually made her escape at thirteen to attend Loreto Convent Tara Hall, an Irish-Catholic missionary school in Simla. This is where her infatuation with English literature began.
Around this age, Nair recalls lying ill in a hospital bed, listening to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” which she considered to be the music of peace. She then began reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” and watching films such as “Love Story” and quickly fell in love with America. When Nair thought of America she imagined a free and youthful country and it made her want to change the world.
Nair recollects searching for American colleges and Harvard catching her eye. Nair was actually offered several full scholarships, one from Cambridge University, but chose Harvard.
After college, Nair set out on her mission to change the world. She lived with Indian strippers to document their lives and create her boundary pushing documentary, “India Cabaret.” Nair produced several other documentaries, “Jama Masjid Street Journal,” “So Far from India” and “Children of a Desired Sex.” All of her documentaries explored Indian cultural traditions.
After departing from documentary film-making, Nair began work on her many feature films. Nair created a film in which she had real street children play themselves called “Salaam Bombay!” as well as a film that told the story of love between an Indian woman and an African-American man called “Mississippi Masala,” featuring Denzel Washington.
Nair then went on to produce several more films before producing one of her most notable films, “Monsoon Wedding,” which grossed over $30 million worldwide, the most money ever made by an Indian film. The film also was awarded the Golden Lion award, making Nair the first female recipient of the award. Nair is currently working on turning Monsoon Wedding into a Broadway musical.
Nair’s most recent film, “Queen of Katwe,” is a Disney film about a young girl living in Uganda who played chess and went to the Russian Olympics. Nair said this film was not sugar-coated, but was raw. She said the 10-year-old star of the film wished to be in a school uniform – it’s what kids her age dreamed of, even more than food. This film made her feel like her own unique Disney queen.
Nair says she is often asked if it’s difficult being a woman working in film-making. She typically responds with, “much easier now than when I was man.” Showing her humor and lightness toward the subject. “Talent knows no borders,” she says.
She enjoys making the films she does, because they are truthful, which she sees as much stronger and more powerful than fiction. She embraces life and rejection, saying that she seeks energy from it, which is why she is so open with her actors and actresses. She welcomes the idea that it’s okay to fail and make mistakes, and they feel protected enough by her to be human.
She set up a film school in Uganda, called Maisha Film Lab. Young students in east Africa can come here to learn about directing, acting and film-making. She feels as though the purity of their inexperience is what makes the students of this school so beautiful to her – many of them never saw themselves as actors, teachers or directors. She said she opened the school because she felt that there was a lack of resources, but never of originality or creativity. Nair reminds them that, “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will.”
Using profits from her movie, “Salaam Bombay!,” Nair created the Salaam Balak Trust for street children in India. Nair sees truth and beauty in children. She spent her time and money on this project because she says it is very important to her for money to go towards art and imagination, rather than war.
Despite having won 25 Academy Awards and Golden Globes, Nair was incredibly humble throughout the small presentation at FSC and continuously thanking everyone for being there and for having her be a part of the series.
“Mrs. Nair was so personable and welcoming,” said sophomore Communications major Kennedy Wilhite. “She embraced every question that was asked with intelligence and clarity. My favorite quote from the night was her charge to ensure that beauty and truth always be equal. This is something that has been skewed in today’s society, so it was a really great reminder.”
The next speaker in the series will be Art Historian and Curator, Sarah Lewis on Wed., April 12. The series is located in Annie Pfeifer Chapel and is open to the public.