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“Filmmaking Is A Political Act”: Director Mira Nair On Her Brand Of Movie Making And More

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By Kanika Katyal for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Indian director Mira Nair poses during a photo call at the Venice Lido September 5, 2004. Nair's movie 'Vanity Fair' is in competition at the Venice film festival. - RTXMX6R
Image source: Reuters

When art takes on the form of activism, it reaches out to even those territories between us that have been left abandoned or veiled for too long. It moves us so that sometimes even those unarticulated emotions within us find a voice.

With the aim to provide that creative space for resistance, the I View Film Festival by Engendered, a transnational arts and human rights organization, conceived and convened in New York for several years made its debut in India this year. It brought together powerful names from the world of cinema, media, and academia on a common platform to create uplifting conversations around gender, desire, culture, marginalities and human rights.

The festival which boasted of an illustrious list of artists also had Padma Bhushan Awardee, director, Mira Nair attending. With an array of phenomenal films to her credit such as ‘The Namesake‘, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist‘, the Golden Lion-winning ‘Monsoon Wedding’ and ‘Salaam Bombay!‘, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, she released the much-awaited first look of her upcoming film ‘The Queen Of Katwe’ at the festival. The film is based on the life of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy who becomes a Woman Candidate Master after her performances at World Chess Olympiads, and stars Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o.

In a quick chat off the red carpet, here’s what she told Youth Ki Awaaz about her upcoming film, filmmaking as a political act and the challenges she faces as a South Asian woman filmmaker.

Kanika Katyal (KK): When does filmmaking become a political act?

Mira Nair (MN): I think filmmaking is a political act, it doesn’t become it. It begins from the inception – What do you have to say about the world in your film? What is your point of view? Where are you looking at the world from? What are you choosing to say or show? I feel so firmly that if we don’t tell our own story, no one will tell them (for us).

Living in New York, America, Kampala, Uganda and, India, I am often offered to make films about a world that I could make films on but I choose not to because there are so many people who could make those stories, say, largely about the West. I feel very firmly that my camera, my soul, my film, my eyes, and my heart most of all, should be and is with the people who are mine and are often not heard or seen.

KK: With the diverse range of stories and characters that you pick, be it ‘Salaam Bombay!’ Or ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, it is very important that one does not end up creating an “us versus them” sort of picture in the mind of the audience. What is the dialogue that you seek to create through your films?

MN: I think an “us versus them” approach is a reductive approach because it implies that one is lesser than the other, and when one is lesser than the other then there’s almost no truth in it.

If you take the case of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist‘, I made that film not only to create a real dialogue between the two homes I have, between the East and the West, but also as a filmmaker to present both sides of the equation with as much nuance, complexity and unpredictability as life holds for many of us. I do that in all my films but in ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist‘ specifically, because in the world, so often, a Muslim man and what he comes from is presented in such a misunderstood, myopic, and one-dimensional fashion. Similarly, the American reality which is as such so complicated but is only shown in an “about them” kind of fashion. I felt uniquely equipped and charged with the idea that one has to represent both in equal complexity. Look at what the world is doing to add to that myopia and misunderstanding. Any misunderstanding of that nature is from ignorance and if we don’t illuminate it, we will continue to be ignorant.

KK: What is you motivation behind your upcoming film ‘The Queen Of Katwe’?

MN: At the heart of ‘The Queen Of Katwe‘ is the fact that genius is truly everywhere. It’s a question of knowing and looking for it and when you find it, to nourish it. That is what happened to Phiona Mutesi, a young ten-year-old corn seller who was taught to play chess and became a prodigy. She linked her life to chess, not through just strategic game playing but equating it with her own highly impoverished and uncertain life. Chess was viewed as a game of almost life and death, and that strategic thinking taught her how to play her life; not to get subsumed by the difficulties of her life but to find a way, like she does on the chess board, to triumph in her life.

I always take great heart when people who are considered outside of any society make themselves survive with a great amount of resilience and panache, right from ‘Salam Bombay!‘ to ‘The Queen Of Katwe‘.

Cast member Lupita Nyong'o poses at the premiere of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in Hollywood, California December 14, 2015.  REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni - RTX1YPQD
Lupita Nyong’o. Image source:  REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

And lastly, Kampala truly is my home, for the last 27 years and more. It was a fantastic thing to make a film that represents the dignity and beauty of everyday Kampala and everyday Ugandan people with the knowledge and love that I had from living there.

Again, Africa is rarely seen on screen, and Africa is rarely made by Africans. I have a film school there called Maisha for 11 years now. We have trained more than 600 filmmakers and making the ‘The Queen of Katwe‘ was an opportunity to work with my alumnus, to together make a film that represented our reality.

KK: Your film ‘Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love’ (1996) was banned in India, because it was said to have erotic scenes – homosexual and heterosexual. Today ‘Aligarh’ has received rave reviews all over. Love and desire as a human emotion is what connects them both. What is it about love that makes it so rebellious when it is portrayed on screen? Do you think that today our definitions of intimacy and love have evolved?

MN: It is heartening to see that the multiple facets of love are being received in a way that is not twisted or even coquettish. That is what I was trying to do also in ‘Kama Sutra‘. We were a country that had compiled the customs of love and living in a societal fashion about desire, so how had we become so twisted in the years to come? So it was an examination of that matter-of-fact situation of what we were taught in the Kama Sutra. It was not a manual of what it’s reduced to often – being considered as a pop up of all kinds of sexual positions. It was so far from that. It was an analysis of sexual and social mores.

I am heartened by what is happening to some extent and the openness. But it has come with a lot of struggle, discrimination and even day to day violence against those who are not seen as what society considers conventional. So it is a struggle that continues to be fought and needs to be fought.

KK: What is your favourite part about film making?

MN: It is to inhabit a world that I want to inhabit; to be successful in capturing its complexity, beauty and unpredictability, in all facets and be able to present it to millions of people in the immortal emulsion of cinema. The other part is that loving so many facets of art as I do, the medium lets me encompass them whether it is painting or music or performance on the screen. That porousness is extraordinary about cinema.

KK: As a South Asian Woman director, the intersection of which two social categories make it most challenging for you? From – religion/gender/class/caste/ethnicity/race.

MN: Class is at the heart of (what governs) the justice and injustice of the world and what requires people to struggle and sometimes want the mobility to transcend the situation they are in.

Race and society (in terms of) the place that you’re born in and the colour that you’re born in, are (also) vital. But it’s interesting, having just made a 100% African film, then you sit in America and hear the debates between say “Oscar So White”, and the African American (identity) being forgotten in a very conscious manner. It is viewed, especially in the Oscars as an “us and them” situation.

But it is very different in Kampala, Uganda and in the ‘Queen…‘ which is an entirely African world. In Phiona’s world, a kid in the slum has never been asked to play chess in an upper-class school. And yet the upper-class school has also not been seen by the world because you think of Africa as a place where child soldiers and genocide, war and dictatorship exists. You never see what we’re going to show you in ‘Queen…‘ about a young person who simply wants to exercise her mind in the stance of the world.

KK: How has your experience been of the I View World Festival having its debut in Delhi and opening up discussions on human rights, gender, desire and sensualities?

MN: I really welcome what Engendered and I View stand for because it forces you to think of the world in a much more open and holistic manner, and question what we have been handed down as a way to be, or not to be.

I always welcome anything that pushes the envelope with passion and responsibility and a sense of great craft. The films in the festival that I am happy to be a part of, have that. It is also a great of way of having conversations. I was at the Delhi University screening of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist‘ two days ago and I was incredibly impressed with the level of dialogue and discussion I had with students there. It was world level! It was fantastic to see that articulation and the curiosity. Without curiosity we are nothing! Therefore, it is a great pleasure and in fact, an honour for me to be here.

Youth Ki Awaaz is the media partner for I View World 2016. For more details, and the screening schedule, click here.

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