Mira Nair

Mira Nair (born 15 October 1957) is an Indian-American filmmaker based in New York City.[1] Her production company, Mirabai Films, specializes in films for international audiences on Indian society, whether in the economic, social or cultural spheres. Among her best known films are Mississippi Masala, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, The Namesake, the Golden Lion winning Monsoon Wedding, and Salaam Bombay!, which received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language.

Mira Nair
Born (1957-10-15) 15 October 1957
ResidenceNew York City, New York, United States
EducationMiranda House, University of Delhi
Harvard University
OccupationFilm director, film producer
Years active1986–present
Spouse(s)Mitch Epstein (divorced)
Mahmood Mamdani (1991–present)
AwardsPadma Bhushan (2012)

Early life and education

Nair was born on 15 October 1957 in Rourkela, Odisha, and grew up with her two older brothers and parents in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.[2] Her father, Amrit Nair, is an Indian administrative officer, and her mother, Parveen Nayyar, is a social worker who often worked with children.[3] At the age of eleven, Nair and her family moved to Delhi due to her father transferring posts. By thirteen she left home to attend Loreto Convent Tara Hall, an Irish-Catholic missionary school located in Simla, where she developed an infatuation with English literature. Following Tara Hall, Nair went on to study at Miranda House at Delhi University, where she majored in sociology. In order to gain the best education available, Nair applied to Western schools and at nineteen she was offered a full scholarship to Cambridge University, but ultimately turned it down and instead accepted a full scholarship to Harvard University.[4]


Before she became a filmmaker, Nair was originally interested in acting, and at one point she performed plays written by Badal Sarkar, a Bengali performer. While she studied at Harvard University, Nair became involved in the theater program and won a Boylston Prize for her performance of Jocasta’s speech from Seneca’s Oedipus.[2]


At the start of her film-making career, Nair primarily made documentaries in which she explored Indian cultural tradition. For her film thesis at Harvard between 1978 and 1979, Nair produced a black-and-white film entitled Jama Masjid Street Journal. In the eighteen-minute film, Nair explores the streets of Old Delhi and has casual conversations with Indian locals.[4]

In 1982, she made her second documentary entitled So Far from India, which is a fifty-two-minute film that followed an Indian newspaper dealer living in the subways of New York, while his pregnant wife waited for him to return home.[3] This film was recognized as a Best Documentary winner at the American Film Festival and New York's Global Village Film Festival.[4]

Her third documentary, India Cabaret, released in 1984, her most controversial film, revealed the exploitation of female strippers in Mumbai, and followed a customer who regularly visits a local strip club while his wife stays at home.[4] Nair raising roughly $130,000 for the project, shooting the 59 minute film was over a span of two months, The film was criticized by Nair's loved ones.[2][3] Her fourth and last documentary, made for Canadian television, explored how amniocentesis was being used to determine the sex of fetuses. Released in 1987, Children of a Desired Sex exposed the aborting of female fetuses due to society's favoring male offspring.

In 2001, with The Laughing Club of India, she shows a new alternative trend that recognizes and embraces the healing powers of laughter based on yoga. Founder Dr. Madan Kararia talks of the club's history and the growth of laughing clubs across the country, now present in a good part of the world. Nair's documentary includes testimonials from members of the laughter clubs who describe how the practice has improved or changed their lives. Its featured segments include a group of workers in an electrical products factory in Bombay who take time off to laugh during their coffee break.[5]

Feature films

In 1983 with her friend, Sooni Taraporevala, Nair co-wrote Salaam Bombay! . Using her documentary film-making and acting experience, Nair sought out for real "street children" to more authentically portray the lives of children who survive in the streets and are deprived of a real childhood.[2] Though the film did not do well in the box office, it won 23 international awards, including the Camera D’or and Prix du Public at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988. Salaam Bombay! was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film in 1989.[6]

Nair and Taraporevala continued to challenge audiences with the 1991 film Mississippi Masala, which told the story of Ugandan-born Indians displaced in Mississippi.[3] The film, featuring Denzel Washington, Roshan Seth, and Sarita Choudhury, centers on a carpet-cleaner business owner (Washington) who falls in love with the daughter (Choudhury) of one of his Indian clients. The film reveals the evident prejudice in African-American and Indian communities. Like Salaam Bombay!, the film was well received by critics, earned a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992, and won three awards at the Venice Film Festival.[4]

Nair went on to direct four more films before she produced one of her most notable films, Monsoon Wedding. Released in 2001, the film told the story of a Punjabi Indian wedding, written by Sabrina Dhawan. Employing a small crew and casting some of Nair's acquaintances and relatives, the film grossed over $30 million worldwide. The film was awarded the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, making Nair the first female recipient of the award.[7]

Nair then directed the Golden Globe winning Hysterical Blindness (2002). After making William Makepeace Thackeray’s epic Vanity Fair (2004), she directed a film based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling novel The Namesake (2006). This was followed by the Amelia Earhart biopic Amelia (2009), starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere.

In 2007, Nair was asked to direct Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but turned it down to work on The Namesake.[3] Based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, Sooni Taraporevala’s screenplay follows the son of Indian immigrants who wants to fit in with New York society, but struggles to get away from his family’s traditional ways. The film was presented with the Dartmouth Film Award and was also honored with the Pride of India award at the Bollywood Movie Awards.[8][9]

In 2012 Nair directed The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a thriller based on the best-selling novel by Mohsin Hamid. It opened the 2012 Venice Film Festival to critical acclaim and was released worldwide in early 2013. For the academic reception of Nair's adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, see Lau and Mendes (2018), who question "how the ambivalence and provocativeness of the 'source' text translates into the film adaptation, and the extent to which the film format makes the narrative more palatable and appealing to wider audiences as compared to the novel’s target readership."[10]

Nair's 2016 Queen of Katwe, a Walt Disney Pictures production, starred Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo and was based on the story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi.

Nair's short films include A Fork, a Spoon and a Knight, inspired by the Nelson Mandela quote, ″Difficulties break some men but make others.″ She contributed to 11'09"01 September 11 (2002) in which 11 filmmakers reacted to the events of 11 September 2001. Other titles include How Can It Be? (2008), Migration (2008), New York, I Love You (2009) and her collaboration with, among others, Emir Kusturica and Guillermo Arriaga on the compilation feature Words with Gods.

Other work

A longtime activist, Nair set up an annual film-makers’ laboratory, Maisha Film Lab in Kampala, Uganda. Since 2005, young directors in East Africa have been trained at this non-profit facility with the belief that "If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will".[11] Maisha is currently building a school with Architect Raul Pantaleo, winner of Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and his company Studio Tamassociati.[12]

In 1998, she used the profits from Salaam Bombay! to create Salaam Baalak Trust which works with street children in India.[13]

A musical adaptation of Monsoon Wedding, directed by Nair, premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, running from May 5 to July 16, 2017.[14][15]

She currently lives in New York City, where she is an adjunct professor in the Film Division of the School of Arts for Columbia University. The university has a collaboration with Nair's Maisha Film Lab, and offers opportunities for international students to work together and share their interests in film-making.[16]

Personal life

In 1977, Nair met her first husband, Mitch Epstein, when taking photography classes at Harvard University.[2] They divorced by 1987, and in 1988 Nair met her second husband, the Indo-Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, while in Uganda doing research for the film Mississippi Masala. Their son, Zohran, was born in 1991. Like his wife, Mamdani also teaches at Columbia University.[3]

Nair has been an enthusiastic yoga practitioner for decades; when making a film, she has the cast and crew start the day with a yoga session.[17]

Political views

In July 2013, Nair declined an invitation to the Haifa International Film Festival as a "guest of honor" to protest Israel's policies toward Palestine. In postings on her Twitter account, Nair stated "I will go to Israel when the walls come down. I will go to Israel when occupation is gone...I will go to Israel when the state does not privilege one religion over another. I will go to Israel when Apartheid is over. I will go to Israel, soon. I stand w/ Palestine for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) & the larger Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Mov’t." Nair was subsequently praised by PACBI, which stated that her decision to boycott Israel "helps to highlight the struggle against colonialism and apartheid." She subsequently tweeted "I will go to Israel, soon."[18][19][20][21][22][23]


As A Director
Year Title Notes
1979 Jama Street Masjid Journal documentary
1982 So Far From India documentary
1985 India Cabaret TV Movie documentary
1987 Children of a Desired Sex documentary
1988 Salaam Bombay! Nominated - Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film

Nominated - BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language

Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film

1991 Mississippi Masala Nominated - Independent Spirit Award for Best Film
1993 The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat Short
1995 The Perez Family
1996 Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love
1998 My Own Country TV Movie for Showtime
2001 Monsoon Wedding Golden Lion

Nominated - BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language

Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film

2002 11'9"01 September 11 Segment - India
2002 Hysterical Blindness TV Movie
2004 Vanity Fair
2006 The Namesake
2007 Migration.. Short
2008 New York, I Love You Segment - "Kosher Vegetarian"
2008 8 Segment - "How can it be?"
2009 Amelia
2012 The Reluctant Fundamentalist
2014 Words With Gods Segment - "God Room"
2016 Queen of Katwe
2020 A Suitable Boy Director, BBC One Tv series. Filming[24]


She was awarded the India Abroad Person of the Year-2007.[25] In 2012 she was awarded India's third highest civilian award the Padma Bhushan by President of India, Pratibha Patil.[26]




  1. Spelling, Ian (1 September 2004). "Director likes to do her own thing". Waterloo Region Record. pp. C4.
  2. Muir, John Kenneth (1 June 2006). Mercy In Her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair. Applause Theater & Cinema Books. ISBN 1557836493.
  3. "Mira Nair". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  4. Blenski, Simon; Debreyne, Adrien Maurice; Hegewisch, Martha Eugina; Trivedi, Avani Anant. "Mira Nair". University of Minnesota. University of Minnesota. Retrieved 30 April 2015.
  5. Muir, John Kenneth (2006). Mercy in Her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair. Hal Leonard Corporation. pp. 156–158. ISBN 9781557836496.
  6. Crossette, Barabara (23 December 1990). "Homeless and Hungry Youths of India". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 October 2008.
  7. Whitney, Anna (10 September 2001). "Indian director is first woman to win Golden Lion". The Independent. London. Retrieved 8 December 2009.
  8. "Bollywood to honour Mira Nair with 'Pride of India' award". Hindustan Times. Press Trust of India (PTI). 23 April 2007. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007.
  9. "Mira Nair, Asha Parekh honoured at Bollywood awards in New York". Malaysia Sun. Indo-Asian News Service (IANS). 28 May 2007. Archived from the original on 7 February 2012. Retrieved 8 December 2009.
  10. Lau, Lisa; Mendes, Ana Cristina (2018). "Post-9/11 re-orientalism: Confrontation and conciliation in Mohsin Hamid's and Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist". The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 53 (1): 80. doi:10.1177/0021989416631791. ISSN 0021-9894.
  11. Bamzai, Kaveree (22 September 2016). "If we don't tell our stories no one else will: Mira Nair". DailyO. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  12. Sisson, Patrick (9 April 2015). "TAMassociati's Humanitarian Architecture". Autodesk. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  13. "mira Nair". Amakul International Film Festival. Retrieved 12 September 2017.
  14. ″Monsoon Wedding Kicks Off Developmental Lab Today″, playbill.com, 30 May 2016
  15. "Monsoon Wedding". berkeleyrep.org. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
  16. "Global Programs". Columbia University School of the Arts. Columbia University. Archived from the original on 24 June 2015. Retrieved 30 April 2015.
  17. Dupont, Joan (21 September 2001). "Mira Nair Peels Back Layers Of Punjabi Society". International Herald Tribune. Archived from the original on 28 December 2009.
  18. "Film director Mira Nair boycotting Haifa festival". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 21 July 2013.
  19. "Mira Nair turns down invite to Israel film festival". The Times of India. Press Trust of India (PTI). 23 July 2013.
  20. Sherwood, Harriet (21 July 2013). "Mira Nair boycotts Haifa film festival". The Guardian.
  21. Anderman, Nirit (21 July 2013). "Prominent filmmaker boycotts Haifa festival to protest Israeli 'apartheid'". Haaretz.
  22. "Mira Nair boycotts Israel Film Festival in Palestine's support". The Express Tribune. 20 July 2013.
  23. "Award-winning director boycotts Haifa Film Festival to protest 'Apartheid'". The Jerusalem Post. 21 July 2013.
  24. "BBC - Cast announced for BBC One's A Suitable Boy, the first screen adaptation of Vikram Seth's classic novel - Media Centre". www.bbc.co.uk.
  25. "Mira Nair is India Abroad Person of the Year 2007". Rediff.com. 29 March 2008.
  26. Jamkhandikar, Shilpa (25 January 2012). "Dharmendra, Shabana Azmi, Mira Nair to get Padma Bhushan". Reuters.
  27. Taraporevala, Sooni; Mira Nair (1989). Salaam Bombay!. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-012724-0.
  28. Sloan, Jane (2007). Reel women. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-5738-3.
  29. "History of the Harvard Arts Medal". Harvard University Office for the Arts. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  30. "Padma Awards Announced". Press Information Bureau. 27 January 2013. Retrieved 27 January 2013.

Further reading

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