Mira Nair Delivers Tolles Lecture

Mina Nair, internationally acclaimed director of films including "Monsoon Wedding," "Salaam Bombay," "Hysterical Blindness" and "Vanity Fair," gave the annual Tolles Lecture on April 16.  Nair spoke about her career in filmmaking, and screened a short film she was commissioned to make after 9/11. The Tolles Lecture Series brings distinguished speakers from the fields of literature, journalism and theater to Hamilton to lecture and meet with students.

Nair began her lecture by saying that she hoped it would be an opportunity to think aloud about the issues that have been on her mind since September 11, 2001. She said that her career has always been motivated by the question of an artist's role in society. "In the creative world, boundaries need to be fluid and porous," she said. "Talent knows no boundaries." In the post-9/11 world, however, the borders between nations and cultures are being cemented, and we need cinema to break these boundaries down. She has been deeply disturbed by growing Islamophobia in today's world, in which people who look, talk and dress like her are marked as "the other." She said her only revenge is to make films that challenge cultural boundaries and discrimination.

Nair believes that films which show stories of particular local cultures can in fact display the universality of human experience. Her career in filmmaking has been based around this idea of telling local stories, particularly those from areas that have been formerly colonized. "The cruelest impact of colonialism," she said, "has been thinking that we are incapable of telling our own stories." Nair has set up workshops for aspiring African and South Asian filmmakers to combat what she calls "wounds of imagination."

Nair's own career began in documentary filmmaking, which she studied at Harvard. Her early documentaries, including "So Far From India" and "India Cabaret," explored issues of modern Indian culture. She made the switch to fiction film with 1988's "Salaam Bombay," a story inspired by the street children of Bombay that she encountered while making her earlier films. Nair described the film as bringing together the traditions of political theater, documentary film and fiction film. The film was cast with street children whom Nair trained in a workshop. The proceeds from "Salaam Bombay" later went to fund the creation of centers throughout India to serve street children, and the film also influenced government policy dealing with these children. Nair said that the film was an example of how the right situation can create a synergy in which art can directly influence the world.

In her filmmaking workshops in Africa, Nair often told her students that they could "make something out of nothing," creating films without lots of money or big studio backing. In 2001, she decided to put this lesson into practice by going back to basics for her own feature film, "Monsoon Wedding," which was shot in 30 days with a budget of less than $1 million. "You don't need men in suits or lots of money to make a film," Nair said. First and foremost, you need to have something to say in your film and the cinematic discipline to make it happen.

Nair screened a short film she made as part of a international project called "11'09"01 – September 11," made up of 11 pieces by directors from all over the world about the effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nair's contribution is based on the true story of the Hamdani family of Queens, New York. After the Hamdani's son went missing on September 11, 2001, he was rumored to have been a terrorist, and the family was marginalized in their community. Six months later, his remains were recovered in the ruins of the World Trade Center, and it was discovered that he had, in fact, rushed into the building to help.

When asked by a student what she is working on currently, Nair spoke about her upcoming film "The Namesake," which will be released this September. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri about an Indian family coming to America. The film has scenes in both Calcutta and New York City, which Nair said "share an amazingly common energy and visual imagery." In filming "The Namesake," Nair shot Calcutta and New York the same way, attempting to create cinematically the state of being of an immigrant's mind. Nair also answered other questions from the audience about her relationship to the Bollywood film industry in India, her film adaptation of the Thackeray novel "Vanity Fair" and her advice for young independent filmmakers.

Mira Nair's visit was part of the Tolles Lecture Series which annually brings distinguished speakers from the fields of literature, journalism and theater to Hamilton to lecture and meet with students. The earlier screenings of Nair's films "Monsoon Wedding" and "Salaam Bombay" were part of Hamilton's F.I.L.M Series (Forum on Images and Language in Motion), which brings a variety of films and filmmakers to campus throughout the year.

"The Laughing Club of India," a 38-minute documentary directed by Nair that explores the power of laughter through the popular phenomenon of laughing clubs in contemporary Bombay, will be shown Thursday, April 20, at 4:15 p.m. in the Kirner-Johnson auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

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