Mira Nair by Ameena Meer

BOMB 36 Summer 1991
036 Summer 1991
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Mira Nair. Photo © John Panikar, 1991.

Mira Nair has the biggest eyes you’ve ever seen. At once flirtatious and hypnotic, they flash as she laughs, “Why don’t you keep it as a hobby?” That’s what bright Indian girls are advised when they decide to make films rather than babies. Mira Nair’s hobby was already a vocation at 22—just out of Harvard and three years away from India—when her first film, Jama Masjid Street Journal, gained critical attention. Since then, she’s made five more films, including So Far from India (1982), India Cabaret (1985), Children of a Desired Sex (1987) and, of course, Salaam Bombay! which won the both the Camera D’Or and the Prix Publique (the most popular film in the festival) at Cannes in 1988.

Salaam Bombay! like most of Nair’s films, focuses on the fringe of society: prostitutes, street children, slum dwellers, drug dealers, most often ignored by the glamorous film industry. Salaam… is set in the red light district in Bombay. Nair’s actors were real prostitutes and the street kids of the city, creating an atmosphere of gritty authenticity rather than a soft-focus Orientalism.

Her latest film, Mississippi Masala, is a spicy love story which stirs up a displaced Indian girl, her exiled father and her black lover in the bubbling pot of the American Deep South.

Ameena Meer Where did you come up with the idea for Mississippi Masala?

Mira Nair I noticed the levels of difference between black people and Indians and other people of color, and the sort of solidarity between them when I first came here, for University. Growing up in India, it’s so apparent, the consciousness we have of degrees of color within our own communities. So coming from that and witnessing it in an American context—I was intrigued.

Then I happened upon Jane Kramer’s Unsettling Europe, a collection of nonfiction articles that she had written for the New Yorker. One was about an Indian Muslim family, expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda, who come to London. They epitomize Indians who have never known India and were expelled from Africa. Indians who thought of Africa as their home, but created a frozen India there and led a life quite separate from the local African society, had been turned upon by the Africans and asked to leave. What happens to them then? What is “home” for them? It seemed to me that that was one point in history where this kind of tension—between black and brown races—had crystallized. The original title of the film was “Twice Removed.”

I also knew of the Indians who own motels in the United States, especially in the deep South. Again, it was intriguing to me that that is where they would end up owning them, given the history of segregation in the South. Once again, just as in Uganda, Indians are in the middle of black and white. So I put the two realities together, almost mathematically: what would happen, if one person from the Indian community crossed the border of color into another, the black one? The story of the film is an interracial love which, when discovered, explodes. And the love story brings back memories of the exodus from Uganda.

I brought this idea to my old friend Sooni Tareporevala who wrote the screenplay for Salaam Bombay!She made it come alive; it’s very irreverent, a kind of comedy about exile. It’s a wicked film.

AM What was your impression of the three races living together in the South?

MN It is, on the surface, a very cordial coexistence. The Indians keep a professional and cordial distance between the whites and the blacks. The black people often called them brother, and it was reciprocated to some extent, but the lines are clearly drawn as to where this relationship ends. I met an Indian man who told me, “Oh, we’re just white people who stayed in the sun too long.” But there is no sense of real alignment with one or the other, the Indians have learned to play the game. And the motel culture so easily lends itself to an Indian ethos: it’s the family, working, living and earning together, an almost self-sufficient universe, but hilarious because this traditional Indian universe is butted against local trysts, whores and all kinds of action. The situation is unique and hybrid—therefore, the title.

AM Do the white people think of the Indians as white people?

MN No. They don’t really think of them at all. Except that they respect a rich Indian. Indians are the highway culture, nonculture. It’s nowhere land. But step out of the motel and you see where this really is, Greenwood, where Stokely Carmichael first coined the slogan, “Black Power.” Now it’s just a sleepy town where they call racism “tradition.” An interesting word. Where it’s difficult still for me to rent a private home because I’m not white, as it was for us to rent one for Denzel [Washington]. It’s a place where old attitudes continue to carry on, but carry on within a semblance of harmony that, for me, was never entirely convincing.

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Mira Nair on the set of Mississippi Masala. From left: Roshan Seth (Jay), Denzel Washington (Demetrius) and Mira Nair. Photo © Birney Imes/Cinecom, 1991.

AM Is a relationship like the one in the film, a young Indian girl and the black carpet cleaner, possible?

MN Well, Mina comes from an unusual family. They are from Uganda, and her father is a progressive small-time lawyer who grew up with an African brother. He is unusual in that he carries the hurt of having had to leave Uganda much deeper than most Indians because he had always thought of himself as a Ugandan first, and an Indian second. He feels deeply, personally betrayed by his country, Uganda, and his brother, who is African. So when his daughter brings it home again, through her love, by her example, he is forced to re-examine what he taught to her to believe and what he now cannot bring himself to practice. That’s the dilemma. It is real, she is a masala — a mixture — someone who is genuinely from everywhere, yet living within an Indian context. In the present, her father is obsessed with suing the government of Uganda for his violation as a Ugandan citizen, ten to eighteen years ago. Everybody in Mississippi thinks he’s got a screw loose.

AM And who plays his brother in Uganda?

MN A wonderful African actor, Konga Mbandu, an intense stage actor—actually, he also works as an assistant director on other films—in Africa, we do everything. I kept having to restrain him from moving furniture while he was performing. There’s a very vibrant theater tradition in Uganda and I went through about forty auditions before I met him.

AM You auditioned people in Uganda?

MN It’s all local actors and nonactors. Largely nonactors. And in Mississippi, the same. There are a lot of actors in the cast, but a lot of nonactors as well, because the cast is huge: there are 79 speaking parts.

AM I always find these transplanted Indian communities interesting, being part of one, I suppose. Like the West Indian Indians who have been transplanted for so long they have a totally different culture. Is that the case in Uganda?

MN No.The Indians were predominantly Gujarati, so they had one culture, one language. It’s not quite like Latin, but it’s an old fashioned, purer Gujarati. And Ugandan Indians are much more traditional. I was an oddity there, an Indian from India, the way I dressed and the way I behaved, it was very disorienting to East African Indians. There were also a lot of Muslims, Ismailis; Sikhs and Jains. So there still remain a lot of Mosques, Gurduwaras and beautiful Jain temples in Kampala, around which we shot.

AM Now that the film’s come to an end, do you think your ideas have changed or developed differently?

MN I can say, with some satisfaction—it’s very hard to put these ideas in some form that’s not cerebral—I’m really happy about Sooni’s script and how the whole thing came together. We share a world view and, relying as much on authenticity as I do, shooting it actually in Uganda and Greenwood, brought together the inexplicability of it all. It’s also very comic. Most people know nothing about Idi Amin or Uganda, such odd concepts for an insular American, but I’ve been testing the film in regular theaters, cineplexes around the city and people enjoy the movie.

There were two challenges, one was to make the black universe in the film—not being black but feeling a great sense of homeness there—as complicated and real as I know the Indian one to be. I was greatly assisted by the consummate skill of the fabulous black cast we have, Denzel (Washington) and Tico Wells, who’s in Five Heartbeats and Joe Seneca, who’s a grand actor from the old tradition, and Yvette Hawkins and Charles Dutton, from The Piano Lesson. And the locale of Greenwood, as well. The second challenge was blending the totally different acting traditions that all these actors come from. We have Indian soap opera stars, Indian screen legends like Sharmila Tagore, and we have Roshan Seth, an Indian actor classically trained in England, and Denzel from Hollywood and Santa Choudhury, who’s never acted before.

AM Santa is the young girl, Mina. Where is she from?

MN She’s a real masala, her parents are from Bangladesh. She grew up in Jamaica and in Rome, her parents work for Unicef. I met her in London. She’s a very attractive, intelligent, sensual person. She’s wild, just like Mina is in the movie. So the role was made for her. She’s actually a film student.

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Charles Dutton and Denzel Washington (D&T Budget Carpet Cleaners). Photo © Birney Imes/Cinecom, 1991.

AM How did people react to you in these different locations while you were filming? You’d said that you were an oddity for the Indians in Uganda.

MN I was saying that as an example of how the Indians of East Africa do not reflect the changes of contemporary India. There are only about 500 Indians in Uganda now and, for the most part, they’re very traditional. This was the first film shot in Uganda since “African Queen,” in 1951. So this generation has no consciousness of what a film shoot is like. And we were making a period film, where we had to change street names and lamps and put Amin everywhere.

AM So you had to make all those big Idi Amin cut-outs?

MN Of course. We got this guy who looks just like Amin to play him, an actor from Nairobi who also played Amin in another movie, The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin. When he came into the airport, a hush fell and people just fled. We had Amin’s costume flown in for him from London, and when he wore it, the cleaning woman in the office took one look at him and ran out of the building. The spectre of Amin is still alive.

The present government was very cooperative and very happy that I had insisted on shooting in Uganda despite the incredible pressure to shoot in Kenya, where all the infrastructure is, or Zimbabwe, where all of Hollywood goes now to create anything that they think is Africa.

But Uganda is inimitable in its physical lushness and beauty and the juxtaposition of extraordinary tropical abandon and decay. We had to learn very quickly the hierarchy of government structure, but it’s quite similar to India. It was really satisfying working there and I’m dying to do it again.

AM And what about in Greenwood?

MN God, it was a long time ago.

AM Ed Lachman, the director of photography, told me that the multicolored lot of you were going into bars and places that had never seen Indians before, let alone black people…

MN There’s still a grill where only white people go and God knows we had a very colorful crew. It was a bit shocking, but you know, when you’re a film crew, they accept you as these transient oddballs. But there was enormous curiosity in the beginning. They’d say, “So you’re in the film business?” and I’d say, “Yes.” So they’d say, “What’s this, a period film?” And then I realized, very quickly, that that meant, “Is this Mississippi Burning?” Is this really about the ghost of our past? “Past,” you know. But then I would say it’s a love story, trying to make it sound as insipid as possible. We kept as low a profile as we could to get our work done. Consequently, there wasn’t any interference. It was much like the movie: three weeks with the Indian community, three weeks with the black community. It was much like the universe of the film itself.

AM And neither community was hostile.

MN Well, we didn’t divulge much information. I’m sure the Indian community will be intrigued, to say the least, once they discover the nature of the love story. But I don’t think this film seeks to poke fun. I feel it compassionately reveals people who are not necessarily typical. Who is typical, after all? But it is something that will perhaps not sit easy with an Indian, or with a community that, being a minority, always seeks to present itself in the noblest possible light. You know how people are, we always seek to assuage ourselves with role models, and I’m not presenting role models.

AM Asians are always asking Hanif Kureishi why his films don’t present positive role models for South Asian kids growing up in Britain, why he doesn’t present positive images of our community. This being among the first films about Indians in America, what do you think about the way you present the Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi community here?

MN The strength of these films, this attempt, is precisely that, it does not present our community as an anthropological “other.” It presents them as human beings. Therefore, it breaks down this otherness. It still retains the particularity of that culture and hopefully, in doing that, it becomes universal. Any person, of any community, struggles with the notion of color. What’s happening in this film is the humanity of it, the human condition of it. That’s what I think will triumph. At the same time, we’re not making a travesty of one or the other culture. Irreverence on its own is empty, but irreverence with a certain kind of love is wonderful and that’s what life is. We’re not all straight-laced-follow-the-line. I’m not. People want to see what they are not. And we are presenting what we are, (laughter) so it’s tough.

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Denzel Washington (Demetrius) and Sarita Choudhury (Mina). Photo © Mitch Epstein/Cinecom, 1991.

AM Has your perspective changed in terms of your own identity with this film? Are you more of an immigrant?

MN No, I feel very Indian. But I’m masala, too, in the sense of my new world order, I’m party to this culture. I’m not entirely at home here, but I understand how it works and I have a small history with it, creatively and otherwise. But now, I live literally half the time here in New York and half the time in Uganda where my husband lives. And I’m very keen on the idea that in a few years, I would base myself more physically in India. Basically, my work involves taking me wherever I wish to go in my head. But I’d like to return to India as a base. I don’t think, in my situation, I can live 365 days a year in any one place. But I want our children very much to know an Indian way of life. I am disenchanted with the day-to-day stress of living in New York.

AM My theory is that we’re all exiles in a sense, part of this diaspora.

MN It’s natural and easier to absorb things but much more difficult to shake them off. I’m absorbing things, but the essence, in a way, will not change. I’m grateful for knowing one way of being until I was 19, until I left India.

AM People are always asking me where I feel most comfortable and I always say, wherever I am.

MN I used to say, “Between my ears.” Masala doesn’t just mean from India and here now. People from Indiana who come to New York are as un-New York, and then they become as un-Indiana. It’s the new situation, people unsettling and settling other places.

AM Do you know what you’ll do next?

MN I’m developing a feature film in New York which is a satire on money. I start that in the summer. I know the city and I’m inspired by it, it’s so unique and there is such an obsession with money. I’ve also been researching a film on the Kadogos — a Swahili word meaning “the young ones” — the children in Museveni’s guerrilla movement. Museveni is the current leader of Uganda. Between Amin and his successor, Obote, they had massacred hundreds of thousands of Africans, thereby creating a generation of orphans. These kids became a part of Musevini’s guerilla movement that worked in the bush since 1981, primarily because the kids had no other place to go. He discovered in them seeds of consummate soldiery, they were determined to bring down the regime that had killed their parents. The kids, the Kadogos, who ranged from about eight to fifteen, played a very important part in the successful 1985 coup. Now, the government is dealing with the dilemma of rehabilitating kids who only know the army as their mother and father. I’m also very interested in researching a film on Begum Akhtar, the Indian courtesan who became a great singer. My ideas are all over the place.

AM What should people get out of Mississippi Masala?

MN I hope, while being provoked and entertained, a way of looking beyond the wall of people as we think we know them. Because what is astonishing is that, while they are different, the similarity of how an Indian family lives and how a black family in the South lives, in terms of the community and the family and the religion, are similar. You’d never think that, I would never. And, as I said earlier, to see ourselves in that, not to just see it as the other. Because so many of our notions are born out of ignorance and not knowing and preconceptions which have nothing to do with the essence. So it’s like the Little Prince who said, “The essence is invisible to the eye.” It’s that.

Ameena Meer is Managing Editor of BOMB. She’s just finished a novel about a Bombay filmstar called, An Evening in Paris.

Ketan Mehta by Ameena Meer
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Originally published in

BOMB 36, Summer 1991

Featuring interviews with Vito Acconci, James Merrill, Mira Nair, John Leguizamo, John Wesley Harding, Jill Eisenstadt, Chuck Connelly, Jane Alexander, Amos Poe, Alan Uglow, Mary Shultz, Joachim Ernst Berendt, and Ann Hui.

Read the issue
036 Summer 1991