Before Mira Nair became well-known for making her signature global films—from a 1982 documentary on the lives of Bombay prostitutes in Indian Cabaret to 1991’s intersectional love story Mississippi Masala with Denzel Washington to her recent feel-good Chess biopic Queen of Katwe—her first creative home was the theater. Starting at the age of 16, she acted in theater companies in Calcutta and Delhi, before coming to America to study at Harvard University. But at that time, the late 1970s, she felt stilted by a theater world that didn’t have interest in telling the stories she was interested in, so she transferred her energies to film.
Now, some thirty years later, Nair is going back to where it all began as she turns one of her most successful films, Monsoon Wedding—about the complexities of an extended Punjabi family during a week leading up to an arranged marriage—into a theatrical musical. The show premieres at Berkley Rep on May 5th before heading to Broadway later this year, with a script by original writer Sabrina Dhawan, music by Bollywood director and composer Vishal Bhardwaj, and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. The show also has a cast of star actors culled from India, Canada and the United States, featuring talent like Anisha Nagarajan—who played Piya in the Andrew Lloyd Webber—and A.R. Rahman musical Bombay Dreams and the hilariously soft-spoken Madhuri on NBC’s short-lived Outsourced.
Nair spoke with us over the phone from Berkeley in-between final rehearsals for the show.
How did Monsoon Wedding go from movie to a full Broadway musical?
The idea came from my late agent Sam Cohn, who was a real heavyweight in Broadway and Hollywood. He worked opposite The Paris Theater in New York, that played Monsoon Wedding for weeks and weeks—a really long run. Sam would drop in on the film three times a week! One day at dinner in 2002, he just said to me: ‘You should really think about making this a Broadway musical.” It really was an a-ha moment. Monsoon Wedding is at its core a musical; music is such a core part of our weddings. Music is really part and parcel of how we breathe, [at] all Indian weddings but especially Punjabi weddings. The theater is my first home, and so then I started to really think about the idea and approach it from an authentic Indian point-of-view, not a Broadway point of view.
I put together the amazing team and we really started working on it in 2005, but we all have very busy lives. For all of us to get in a room together took a lot of work! We would get together and eek out four to five songs, get an act done. But with live theater you have to test it out, so we would have to get a cast together, get a band together.
It has taken us four workshops over several years, as we’ve all made other movies. But I am a long distance runner, and now we are here, such a privilege, such an exciting feeling to make live theater from something that is in our bones. It is very much about a Punjabi Indian story, but also about the rest of the world, about a globalizing world and it is set in today’s America as it is set in India. It is about this moment when we are routinely being recognized as the “other,” but it is a universal story of family as well. It really speaks to the idea that the “other” is in all of us.
How is the process of creating theater different from your filmmaking process?
It is beautifully different. Unlike film, which is a director’s medium, which you create the scene layer on layer after the shooting; in theater, you have to prepare every single moment of it. From the wind to the note to the entry—every single thing—is to create a moment that will never happen again! I love the ephemeral nature. It’s beautiful. But you really have to prepare, every moment. In that way, it really is the actor’s medium because it is about what they do at any given moment. I am really happy though; it is an extraordinary cast. It has taken us three years to bring together these extraordinary South Asian actors. I think it is going to be a real treat for people.
Your career has allowed you to focus mostly on stories about the South Asian diaspora. How do you choose your projects?
I’m very relieved to come from a part of the world that has an expansive worldview like India, and then for me that has been further expanded by my home in the African continent, in Uganda, for almost two decades now. And yet I am very much at home in America. In America, it is easy to be overpowered by the enormity of the mainstream culture, which does not reflect the diversity of who really makes up America. I have always taken courage in my distinctive community. I want to see our names, our voices, our dreams, our struggles—that is what I am devoted to.
I was really interested in the underlying themes in Vanity Fair (2004)—staring Reese Witherspoon. You turned it into a movie that was so much about India.
Vanity Fair, the novel, was written by William Thackeray, who was the ultimate outsider to the Empire, and that is the point of view that I wanted to explore. I always ask myself a critical question when I offered things from outside my own experience, which is: Can anyone else make this film? With Vanity Fair, I knew I could make in that way no one else had looked at, as a story exploring the relationship between the Empire and the colonies, and in terms of the rise and fall of Asia.
When The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamid’s Booker Award-winning novel, came out in 2012 you spoke widely about being inspired by shooting in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, but most of your films celebrate place, from Uganda in Mississippi Masala and your recent film The Queen of Katwe to Calcutta from The Namesake. It seems like place is a major factor in inspiring your work.
The places that you see in my films are places that I know and love and are integral to making me who I am and that’s what draws me to those stories. For example, the bridges that connect New York City and Kolkata in The Namesake—once I came to that commonality visually and emotionally it told me a way to make that see-saw between those worlds that I had lived and that the story is set in.
Along with being a long-time educator, you’ve also created the Maisha Film Lab in Uganda to train filmmakers. Why is this work important to you.
Maisha is now 13 years old and I created it to train East African peoples in the craft of screenwriting and directing. We’ve produced over 60 short films, and the people who have gone through the program are working in film. Thirty percent of my crew on Queen of Katwe were Maisha graduates, which is saying a lot because that was a major Hollywood union film. Now I am winding things down, to be much more interdisciplinary—for the inner city, the ones from Katwe. There will still be filmmaking, but also larger education. Our slogan for Maisha has always been: If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will. We all have an extraordinary storytelling tradition—and especially in East Africa—but the tools to translate that into the film medium is what Maisha addressed.
There has been a great deal of media attention—and a major Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation against major studios—about the lack of opportunity for women directors in the entertainment industry. You have been making films since the late 1970s, how are you feeling about this wave of action?
It is about time, and quite wonderful, to have been a part of creating the impact of organizing—to show that the inequity is completely shocking behind the camera, and in front of the camera. My journey has been challenging, like any filmmakers journey, but I found a way very early on to be a producer and a director because I had to. No one else was there or interested in financing a film about strippers in a seedy night club in Bombay [referring to her first film Indian Cabaret}. (laughs heartily). You have to find a way to raise your money. You have to find people to convince who can help you complete your mission. And then, once I got a reputation, studios woke up very quickly to what I can do.
Because of the chemistry of how we work together, for me, it’s usually majority women running my set. But it is not like that in the world like when I go and make a studio film. When I went to India to make Vanity Fair, there is this old guard sitting around wondering how this Asian woman in a salwar kameez (traditional Punjabi Indian tunic over pants) is going to fuck up today. (laughs long and hard). I am happy to be a disappointment, and then I catch them in my embrace, and change their minds. But now I’m a dadi-ma (grandmother). I just have to give them a look and they recognize the vibe.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Neelanjana Banerjee is the Managing Editor of Kaya Press.