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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Mira Nair, 1996

WITH EDUARDO MACHADO
PHOTOGRAPHED BY WOLFGANG TILMANS


Mira Nair occupies a unique position within international cinema.  Having lived in India and the United States, and studied sociology, theater, and film, she brings to her films an understanding of two very different cultures. 
She has worked with non-professional child actors in Salaam Bombay! and with Hollywood stars like Denzel Washington in Mississippi Masala (1991) and with Angelica Huston last year in The Perez Family.
Her earliest films were documentaries, including the acclaimed and controversial India Cabaret (1985), a portrait of strippers in a Bombay night club.  Her next film, Kama Sutra, an erotic story of love and obsession in 16th Century India, is set for release in the fall.
Here, speaking with the playwright, Eduardo Machado, she talks about the filming of Kama Sutra, and the balance between her two worlds, and her two lives — building a family and making movies.



E.M.  Let me talk for a minute.
M.N.
  Okay.

E.M.  So, hi there.
M.N. 
Hello, darling.

E.M.  So, you're in the middle of making your fourth movie, what was today like?
M.N. 
Today was somewhat fragile.  We sort of finished the editing, which is its own kind of cocoon.  It's the only time you have control in the movie because you mold and shape what you have shot.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
And that stage has ended as of a week ago, and now we are moving from studio to studio mixing the music of the film, which is exciting, but it's an aural zone, a-u-r-a-l...

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
It's like, I hear every sound.  I go from an image stage to a sound stage where every sound is very heightened for me.  We're modulating the music, and then tomorrow we go to mix the sound tracks.  It's very interesting and plastic about film, how you go from one realm of personal performance with the actors, into the image, then the music, then to sound.  It's like painting in different colors each time.

E.M.  But you feel like this is the part where you're not as much in control...
M.N. 
No, no, no, I have to be extremely detailed in my reaction to things because, for instance, if I don't think the violin is as hot as I would like it in this cue, I better say it now.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
So you have to be extremely aware, but it's an awareness that has its own rhythm.  I mean, they have to do their thing and then I have to go in and hear it.  I don't have input at every moment, and neither do I want it.

E.M.  Where did you make this movie, and how did you make it, and why did you decide to make it that way?
M.N. 
This is called Kama Sutra, and it's set in 16th Century India.  I had this idea many years ago to make an erotic film in a very contemporary way, in a period of context in India.  Primarily, the inspiration was the kind of sickness and perversity as far as sexuality is concerned in India today, especially on our screen.

E.M.  Uh huh.
M.N. 
It's extremely hypocritical and very perverse, but in an effort to not have like, direct love-making or kissing, they have very twisted versions of sexuality — rape, violence, or just young men and women dressed in mini-skirted, weird western garb, what I call fucking the air in endless songs upon songs that are so vulgar, in terms of what they're doing, or how they're riding the air or screwing the air as they call it.  And I just lament this, besides the fact that it is extremely dire in terms of its effect on how women are represented in our society.  And I just lament that this is the country that created or thought about a whole philosophy of love, a whole skill, an art to love... you know, in the Kama Sutra, a first century book that we, in India, wrote. And so this film seeks to, in my own way, set the record straight in terms of bringing a spirituality back to love, and recalling its philosophy,  recalling the skills and the extremely matter-of-fact way, on one level, we were once in our society and civilization taught to handle love.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
And not to say that people didn't mishandle it then.  The film is a completely fictional dramatic story of a sexual chess game between two men and two women, set in the 16th Century, with kings, queens, courtesans.  It's as much about people who abuse love as it is about people who gain and seek and reach eternal love.

E.M.  So you wanted to find not a pornographic version of it.
M.N. 
Oh, no, it's deeply erotic, and finally, I would have succeeded if the film is spiritual.  I think it is.

E.M.  Because what you were describing before seems to me like the pornographic westernized...
M.N. 
Yes.

E.M.  ... version of sex.
M.N. 
Yes, but, I don't know about westernization.  In India, we've created our own pornography about it.  It is a kind of quasi-westernization, but it's very... it's coy.

E.M.  Right, right.
M.N. 
At least western pornographic stuff is direct.  In India, it's closed in, indirectness, but becomes more deadly, more pernicious as a result.

E.M.  Well, when we were talking about this a while back, you were thinking of making it more, I remember some of the people you thought of having...
M.N. 
... more international.

E.M.  But now you've made it...
M.N. 
I've chosen to make it internationally in a creative way rather than pretending that westerners, you know, should play Indians.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
Or that the only way to make a film about India is through a kind of Western protagonist, or anything of that sort.  I think the motivation came out of the fact that two films I was just about set to do didn't work out at the last minute, and I was just so hungry to make a film.  So it's changed, I mean, I've made the film with a whole bunch of international crafts people, people who really are the best of their professions in a technical way, but I think in its Indianism it will achieve its international level.

E.M.  Right, of course.  I mean, that's what your other movies are like.
M.N. 
Yeah.

E.M.  The other question that I wanted to ask is, do you think you can beat the system?  You know, there was an article on you when The Perez Family came out, and it pushed your sexuality.  I think that you're a very beautiful, sexual woman, but I also think you're an extremely smart woman, and I was taken aback by it because of the wanting to make you exotic. 
M.N. 
Ah ha.

E.M.  And I wonder how you feel about that, the wanting to make you exotic where, at the same time, you're not.
M.N. 
Well, I made The Perez Family just after I finished writing Kama Sutra.  And so I wanted to juice up a family in a very direct way of the Cubans being the most sexually effervescent people that I saw, I mean, that felt deeply comfortable with that part of their lives.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
And so I think that writer must have picked up on that because I kept juicing it.  But I just laugh when they try to do that.  When I was an undergraduate, I used to constantly be referred to as the "hot house flower".  And it was, it's just a joke to me, you know, because they should know better.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
It's not really something that I think about...

E.M.  I've been wondering about it because I see it in the theater also, and I see it in the selling of myself.  You know, it's just in this country, there is no room to be intellectual if you're from a place that people think is exotic.
M.N. 
Yes.

E.M.  It's just something that interests me, that's why I asked.
M.N. 
In truth, I know that as a writer, I was really juicing up everything I was seeing in The Perez Family because the Cubans lend themselves to that, and I was into it because of really being immersed in eroticism with this film.  But, in general, I have not been perceived that way in my work, in my films.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
I mean, many people thought that my first film had been made by a man, for instance.  That is another kind of problem... which I actually liked more than disliked because I really wanted to also show that I had my viewpoint, and it is tough, it is guttural, it is off the visceral, it is blood, you know.  It can be all those things.  Women's movies are not necessarily about being touchy-feely.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
You know those perceptions.  But let's see what they do with this one.  It's a pretty tough film.

E.M.  When did you come to the United States?  And how long were you here before you left?
M.N. 
I came at the end of 1956 as a transfer student, as a sophomore on a scholarship to Harvard from Delhi.  The first time living here.  And I had an interest in drama.  I used to be an actress in India, but I found drama, at Harvard at least, extremely retro.  They were doing musicals like Oklahoma.  And I really came from a much more radical theater in India, influenced more by Grotowski and Peter Brook and people like that.
     So I used to work a lot at La Mama, just hanging in the sidelines for the summer.  Joseph Chaikin worked with people like that. I was at Open Theater a little bit.  Anyway, I soon became a film maker at Harvard and moved to New York in '79, and spent about twelve years here, really just basing myself here but working in India, going back and forth.

E.M.  So you think India is home?
M.N. 
That's a perennial question.  In an ancestral way, yes.  And I now live there.  I have a home there.  But I must say, since I've met Mahmood, I also have a home in Africa and have lived in Uganda since '91.  I feel very rooted there in a certain way as well.  I'm just dying to feel like I can really base myself in one place, but I just don't think it's that easy any more for people like us.  I was telling Mahmood just yesterday that home is where the heart is, and my heart is with you.  My heart is really just with my family, my son and my husband.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
And we have made our home pretty much anywhere.  We've lived on linoleum floors in Durban, and now orange carpets in Princeton.  We've lived in all kinds of bizarre places.  And now we're going to go to Cape Town for about a year.

E.M.  Are you teaching there?
M.N. 
He's going to teach there, and then I think he might end up in New York a year or two from now because he's been offered this great job at Columbia.  In a funny way New York is the only city in the world where, democratically, we can go do our work, you know, equally.  Every other place in the world it's either his world or my world, or me having to run around somewhere.    

E.M.  It'll be nice to have you here.  And Columbia is a wonderful school.  I teach there.
M.N.
  Oh, you do?

E.M.  Playwriting, yeah.  But I wanted to know what made you do The Perez Family?
M.N. 
Just the desire really to make a movie.  And, as I said, at that time two films had just fallen apart, and I had spent two years writing, researching, developing, scouting, and casting them both, and they just did not happen.  And then I wrote my own script with Helena, and I got offered the script after that, and I liked it enough, and it was all set to go, and I liked Tommy Rothman, who offered it to me.  He was one of the main architects, the reason I did it, because I thought I would have a home in Hollywood, in some way.  And I had the possibility of working with tremendous actors, and Cuba was a place for me, like South Africa, a place that had really captured my imagination for a long time.

E.M.  Was it hard?
M.N. 
It was joyful — daunting at first because I was not Cuban, but I felt very close to the spirit of the community.  I must say I was completely embraced by Cubans both in Havana and in Miami, and I felt very much at home once I got involved.  It was absolutely joyful shooting the movie because I was working with amazing actors like Marisa Tomei, Anjelica Huston and Alfred Molina, and the whole community just embraced us completely.
What was absolutely terribly painful and most unnecessary was the whole Hollywood process after the shooting of the film.  The person for whom I had made this film left the studio and joined another, and I was left to the wolves who didn't understand fully the hotness with which I made the film, and who were both titillated, both sort of fascinated and scared by it.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
And then we entered into this four-month dark strategy, you know, of marketing an unfinished film, and watching the numbers and modulating the film.  And although I kept feeling I was winning all those battles, eventually you step back from the film and it isn't the film that you first made.

M.N.  Right.
M.N. 
It's close to it, but it's not the film.  I made the film as a kind of teetering between dream and reality, not quite sure where one ends and the other begins.  People seemed to really enjoy it very much, but it was more of a serious film when I worked on it.

E.M.  I saw an earlier version, and it was more serious.  And I can't even tell you what it was that you put in or took out.
M.N.
  It was minor, but it changed...

E.M.  Do you think you can ever work in Hollywood the Hollywood way?  Because I don't think I could ever do it.  I think you and I share a kind of idiosyncratic view of how to work within what you want to pursue.
M.N. 
I think I'm at my happiest this way, doing my own thing and doing it at a standard of excellence that is my own.  But I'm still not close to it. I just know that a lot of one's Hollywood experience is shaped by "the suit" that you chose to work with, or who chose to work with you.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
And I'm still open to the fact that there are definitely some intelligent people out there.  And given the right property and the right piece of work, it's possible it could happen again.  I just know that I'm a mom, and there's so much work and so many obsessions involved with making a film that it has to be worth it to take me away from my family.  If it's not my own organic project — even if it is my own — it's hard enough.  Just the hassle, the balancing act, you know.  So with Hollywood... it better be good.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
But I must say, that pull is still in me, that kind of tussle is ongoing.  It's not that I feel like it isn't for me at all, but I'm perfectly happy not being a director on a list.

E.M.  Because you create.
M.N. 
Yeah, and then, you know, we also just make movies in India.  All my friends here don't understand that.  We just finished this huge epic film, and they wonder, how can you do this?  And I say, we have no meetings, we just...

E.M.  Make a movie.
M.N. 
We didn't have all the meetings.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
We had four months of meetings on The Perez Family, four months of meetings.  It's just absurd.  And every time you question it, they say, oh, it's part of the process.  But it's just ridiculous.  It's not necessarily the way to do any work.

E.M.  Because it's not ultimately revolutionary.
M.N. 
Justifying their existence, and everybody else's existence.

E.M.  So you feel like it watered you down?
M.N. 
In that film?  Oh, yeah.  And also I was at the mercy of completely inane thinking about distribution and marketing.  They opened that film as widely as Four Weddings and a Funeral.  They opened the film at 960 theaters in one day.  But the advertising was equated to 300 theaters.  So while it was out there, there was no real build up in the publicity that is needed to support such a huge release.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
So we're at the mercy of, you know, waves of commerce.  I mean, the film was a huge victim of a studio's completely inane marketing.

E.M.  Yeah.
M.N. 
With this new film, I sold it all over the world, but I purposely didn't sell it in America until it was absolutely 100 percent finished.  So they're all hungry to see it.

E.M.  Right.
M.N. 
But I'm not letting them see it until next month when it's absolutely beautifully finished, and then they can see it, and then I can judge their real enthusiasm.

E.M.  Because then you have what you have.
M.N. 
Then I have what I want.

E.M.  Are you the producer?
M.N. 
I am.

E.M.  That's great.  I love it.
M.N. 
It's good.  But I think this is going to be needing a lot of care.  It's really a special film, and it needs shepherding.  It's a very charged, erotic film, and it can be misrepresented.  It needs to be carefully put out.

E.M.  What do you want to do next after this movie?
M.N. 
I'd like to just take a month to go all over the world to promote Kama Sutra.

E.M.  You're going to go everywhere?
M.N. 
Not everywhere, but the major places, and some of the minor places.  And I'm also thinking of maybe doing a gangster film set in Africa.

E.M.  Oh, great.  What else do you want to do?
M.N. 
Oh... make a baby.

E.M.  Another baby?  (laughter)  That's a good thing, you make such pretty ones.
M.N. 
It's a personal production.

 

 

 
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mira nair
Mira Nair by Wolfgang Tillmans, 1996
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