Mira Nair

Every film is a political act

Mira Nair is a celebrated Indian-born filmmaker, known for her unique storytelling ability across global communities, addressing marginalised and underrepresented heroes in their enduring strength. L’Institut français has been pleased to confirm her as a 2019 patron to La Fabrique Cinema.

Updated on 29/05/2019

5 min

Mira Nair
Mira Nair
© Matt Doyle

La Fabrique Cinéma has lauded you as a socially conscious filmmaker. How do you see yourself ?

I am a student of life in all its inexplicabilities and injustice, and its delight and wonder, across subjects. As a result, I don’t think I only can make a pleasant Sunday afternoon movie. I make movies about things that get under my skin and do not let me go.

I make movies about things that get under my skin and do not let me go

What is the value of authenticity in your films, and how do you seek to include it ?

I think of my work as an accordion, like the human heart. I make films that are expansive, but then that can also be squeezed into abject emotion. Without laughter, the tears are not sweet. I like to have that yin and yang: between brightness and the darkness that is also within us. That is life. It is always a question of how to achieve the balance that can do both.

Coming from a country like India which had colonialism for more than 100 years, so often, we have had people speak for us, instead of us speak for ourselves. That happens all over the world. It's about time that we tell our own stories—our way. Otherwise people will speak for you, as it was for so many years.

Every film is a political act. You have to choose whose point of view, the language, the music, the poetry of it, because nothing is more powerful than making the world as authentic and truthful as from where the story comes. I take great joy in making it feel truthful to those who belong there—because if you make truly local films in that sense, they become universal. People smell the truth of it; the authenticity.  

Have any of your authentic efforts been seen as controversial ?

I made The Reluctant Fundamentalist about how Islamophobia had become part of American culture after 9/11. Mohsin Hamid’s amazing book (from which the film was adapted) told of a young, brown man growing up in Lahore, who rose to the heights of Wall Street. He absolutely embodied the American Dream. Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly he was a Muslim, no longer a golden boy. It is sort of our Jack Kerouac: How does a man begin to understand who he is? How do you come back to the resolution of your own identity in a world so interconnected and global?

It is a hot-button film that says the unsayable, yet I knew this was something I had to do. Otherwise, it would not be done. It holds a mirror to many who cross borders seeking other things and, in a sense, forget who we are. It was never meant to be a blockbuster, but I’m grateful to make documents of our time that take you on a ride and allow you to recognise your own self, wherever you may come from.

Each person should have a beating heart and a personality, because that is how we are. Keeping people both separate, but of a world together. Then people who have nothing to do with that reality will see themselves in it. Once you have that relationship with an audience, that is gold. 

How did you overcome some of the challenges in telling complicated stories ?

Indomitability. I always say, you have to have the heart of a poet and the skin of an elephant to subscribe to the stamina it takes to keep these things happening.

Apart from financing, the challenge is not to sink into didacticism or schematic views of the world: good and evil, or black and white. Really enjoy the inexplicable middle ground. I love the grey because it is full of mystery. People don’t behave one way. I love to capture that extraordinariness of ordinary life.

And when you know the world, you can really play with it. It is just a pool of richness, the sort of complicated and oldest cultures which we come from. Now, I am becoming increasingly at home in the Western universe as well, so I am at home in both places, but definitely still drawn to the stories of the unseen that have not been heard.

I love to capture that extraordinariness of ordinary life

Do you see yourself as an Indian filmmaker ?

I see myself as a filmmaker from India at home in the world. Because I have three homes in Delhi, [India], Kampala [Uganda] and in New York, I am very rooted in my East African world as well. So it is interesting to live in places that make you see the others differently. The view to America is very much from across the oceans for me.

How has the international film industry changed over time ?

The film industry in India is unbelievably invigorated. It has always been the biggest film industry in the world in terms of the volume films produced every year, but now it is exploding: the quality, the finesse, the muscularity of the storytelling, and also, of course, the different distribution that is available to us from the Netflixes of the world and all that, to our just enormous audience with its love for cinema has given us now a variety.

In East Africa where I live, we started Maisha – a Swahili word that means life –, to create a local film culture. It is such an ancient tradition of storytelling through theater, through oral history and so on, but never training in cinema. I asked all the mentors I know around the world—writers, directors—to come and work with us. The free film school is now 15 years old.

It is amazing: Maisha is leading the first delegation to Cannes this year. Local film culture is not yet at the level of the Indian contemporaries, but very much a source. Platforms like Netflix and Amazon are really stationing themselves in Africa for local content, so now there’s a home for these filmmakers. I feel optimistic.

If you could give one piece of advice to young filmmakers, what would it be and why ?

Never treat what you do as a stepping stone to something else. Do it fully and completely. Only at its fullest will it guide you to the next place—in terms of any storytelling, any film, anything that you are doing.

A lot of people today have their eyes on fame and fortune, because celebrityhood and success is always thrown at you on social media. One forgets how many years it has take to get these things. Because there is no such thing as the overnight success. You have to really devote yourself to getting there. Don’t think beyond.

Then I believe that you have to make yourself distinctive. What you know, I do not know. Preserve what no one else shares. Make your instinct flourish.

Preserve what no one else shares. Make your instinct flourish
The Institut français and the director

Mira Nair is the patron of the Institut français’ Fabrique Cinéma, which will be hosting 10 directors from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia at the Cannes Film Festival from 14th to 25th May 2019.


This programme supports young filmmakers from developing countries to help them enter the international film market.


Learn more about the Fabrique Cinéma




L'institut français, LAB