I attended an inspiring conversation with filmmaker Mira Nair recently at Columbia College Chicago. Nair spoke about how she arranges her production schedule around her son’s vacation calendar. "Monsoon Wedding" was not scheduled for a 30-day summer shoot to align with the rainy season as much as with son Zohran’s vacation from school. Her talk was inspiring because within a short hour Nair demonstrated that she is forthright, humorous, determined and humble (a trait she identified with in Amelia Earhart’s story), as well as a committed wife and mom.
Nair was also inspiring because of her insistence for not compromising her values and searching for film funders who allow her to work accordingly. Her mistake with the poorly reviewed feature, “Amelia,” was that a studio acquired the rights to the film during production and insisted on writing a love story into it, which “ruined” Earhart’s story in Nair's opinion…
Nair was excited to speak with me about her son because he is preparing next fall to enter college -- a fruitful and life-changing event in her own life. It was while in college at Harvard that Nair made strong connections with the handful of other enrolled Indian students, one of whom -- Sooni Taraporevala — became her successful screenwriting collaborator.
Nair was open about how she and Sooni did not have a lot of experience for how to make feature films when they first started. Nair used her background in street theatre and experience with documentary films as well as Sooni’s writing instincts to drive them both into producing the award-winning film “Salaam Bombay!” Nair was the first internationally recognized Hindi filmmaker to take her camera into the streets — cinema verite style -- and to focus on the lives of children in poverty by training non-actors (street children) how to perform in the film.
But Nair is convincing as a happy, working mom, not simply because she has figured out how to work around her son’s school calendar, but because of the story content of her films and their commitment to social justice in the developing world. After “Salaam Bombay!” Nair founded the Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT), a foundation that helps to educate and house street children in New Delhi and Mumbai. The children are trained in arts and theatre and perform around the world.
Even more recently Nair established the Maisha Film Lab for East African filmmakers. (Nair’s husband is from Uganda.) Maisha’s home page contains a picture of Spike Lee — the young filmmaker with whom Nair split a low cost editing room in New York City in the 1980's (they each got 12 hours of machine time per day). The quote on the web page of Maisha Film Lab is “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will!”
Mira Nair demonstrates that telling stories about our own particular experiences is an endlessly rewarding activity… It just takes a little persistence.