Mira Nair is a filmmaker, music lover, pioneer, and overall force of nature. She just finished the final mix on her latest project, A Suitable Boy for BBC One, a BBC One miniseries that she considers “long-form cinema.” Mira was two months into the edit when she flew to New York to visit her son and the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She stayed. From her NYC home, she’s been mixing, grading, orchestrating music with a team in Budapest, and speaking to painters in Vietnam for the opening. “I’m all over the world at this moment, but fortunately in my home,” she said over Zoom in a conversation with a group of Academy members. “And in the middle of all this, I cook two meals a day.” In September, she will be honored as part of the 2020 TIFF Tribute Awards.
Here are a few things we learned from our conversation with Mira:
On casting legends alongside unknown actors
I was an actor long, long ago in my teens. At the age of 17, I was part of a dramatic repertory company in Delhi called Theater Action Group and I performed on stage for about three years straight. I feel at home on the stage in a sense. Then, in college, I became a cinema verité documentary filmmaker and studied with D.A. Pennebaker.
I enjoyed deeply the idea of capturing some form of truth through the camera. It was always the real people and the electricity of the real that kept me interested.
When I began to make fiction films with Salaam Bombay in 1988, it was an amalgam of the two. It was working with real people and with actors who disappeared into the reality of the truth in a way.
Street kids played the street kids and were mixed in with the late, great Irrfan Khan. His debut was in Salaam Bombay; I picked him out from a basement of the National School of Drama. He was 18 years old and he had this beautiful craggy hooded-eyed face and he listened so acutely. I hoped he could have been one of my street kids. He was just too tall and too well-nourished to actually be one, but he plays a small role.
Not everyone that I’m looking at has a headshot even. I really believe in meeting people and in trying to gauge their spirit in the audition by creating an atmosphere where people can be themselves, rather than be terrified.
Perhaps because I know how to talk with actors and be with actors and am an actor, it doesn’t daunt me to cast a legendary screen actor like Denzel [Washington] or Naseeruddin Shah opposite an unknown. I think the truth and the lack of artifice of the person who has never faced a camera elicits something from the person who knows all the tricks of the camera. It is my job as the director to create an environment in which we can make fools of ourselves and take risks and make each other bloom. That’s what I love, that type of electricity.
In Queen of Katwe, Lupita [Nyong’o] was mixed in with kids from Katwe, who admired her, but did not really know what world she came from. On the first day of rehearsal, Lupita, as the mom, had to make lunch for the kids. So the kids took her to Katwe, bought smoked fish, sat her on her haunches, and she had to start cooking. They were not like, “Oh, you’re so cute”—nothing. They were like, “All right mom, what’s for dinner? And it better be good.” So the ice was broken within moments.
On creating a story’s visual palette
With fiction, a story’s visual palette starts pretty much with the inception of the idea. It’s usually about a world I want to be in. A Suitable Boy is set in the ’50s, which is an era that I’ve always wanted to be born in because that was when India became independent. That was the year that my parents married; that was the year that everyone I knew strived to make the country find itself, find out what it was to be free.
I have my own library of books and paintings and visual anthropology of all kinds, not just the period. I even turn to color palettes from the painting of that time or later. I bring these things together with my production designer Stephanie Carroll. Then, I go to the real places, to the locations that inspired the story. Choosing locations is a huge part of the canvas. I usually don’t film in studios unless I have to. Inevitably, I make a visual book, which I share with all heads of department because my goal is to talk less and to show more because it’s exhausting.
Many times, because music is such an informing part of my cinema, I also include a collection of music that has informed that particular timber of story. When I’m pitching to film companies, I go with both my wares, the music and the visual, and I spin them through it. Usually, my subject matters are not worlds people know easily. If you take The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it’s Lahore, Malaysia, and New York City—a bunch of juxtapositions that many are not familiar with. So I bring that to life through these devices.
On making music an essential part of her cinema
I love the encompassing quality of cinema. If you love music, it really goes hand in hand. (So does silence.) I grew up with the the Qawwali form, which is the first eight minutes of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. My father came from Lahore and then made his way to India, but we grew up with that music, what we now generally know as Sufi music. I also grew up in a place that had extraordinary live encounters with mythological theater troops that came through the village. It was a great introduction and it’s always been a part of my life. Even today, I listen to the classical Indian music two hours a day. I have also been lucky to go to the great masters. I went to Ustad Vilayat Khan, the maestro of the sitar, who’s now gone. Today, his son, Shujaat Khan, is playing the sitar in A Suitable Boy and Anoushka Shankar is composing with Alex Heffes.
We did all the music of Reluctant in Pakistan. The talent is so enormous that to be able to literally call up the greatest maestro of the esraj, which is this old vintage instrument like a mini cello, and just ask him to play, is a great joy. I also have wonderful collaborators who understand that and who build on it and take it further, like [composer] Mychael Danna, who did Monsoon Wedding and Alex, who did Queen of Katwe and A Suitable Boy. Isn’t that what it’s about, finding the companions who share the sensibility so that you can be taken further?
Even all the Pan-African pop in the Queen of Katwe soundtrack is from the whole continent. It’s happy music, very good to listen to during COVID.
On the Black Lives Matter protests
We all feel the absolutely ephemeral quality of life, that it’s not going to be forever. And now, we have come to a place where it’s actually falling apart. In a way, I see COVID-19 as that watershed that reminds us of the ephemeral, and how we have to live life lighter and with care and with an interconnectedness.
Being in New York City and being surrounded by glorious civic protest, I see a very similar protest to what I witnessed in New Delhi last December and January, with people, mainly women, against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act that had been promoted. Both the Black Lives Matter protests here and civic protests in India had a very similar spirit of: enough. What I’m reading and what I’m feeling just outside my window is a sense that systemic reparations must be made. We have to understand the origin of why we are at this place.
We were speaking of it with #OscarsSoWhite as well. The people who are making the decisions think in a certain way, and they don’t look like you and me. They don’t represent the diversity of the world at all. Forget about diversity, even just gender. I was very, very heartened when, after the scandal of #OscarsSoWhite, I was asked by the Academy to be part of a group that looked towards the subcontinent and the African continent to bring those artists to the fore. It was remarkable, and I feel it. That’s what allowed Parasite to be a film that is considered as the Best Picture, as it should be.
This is what it means to be in the Academy—to be the sort of lodestar of cinema in all its glory, across borders, because creativity goes beyond borders and is also deeply porous. We all love and need each other and now, to be recognized on the same mantel, is very beautiful.