Queen Of Katwe Director Mira Nair On Hollywood's "Diversity Paradox"

Photo: Courtesy of Mira Nair.
Introducing The Gratitude Series, a four-part Refinery29 special running in November that will celebrate the women of color whose work in Hollywood we are grateful for — especially during a time when the industry is still struggling to be more inclusive. Mira is our third subject; be sure to also check out parts one, two, and four.

When Mira Nair was studying documentary film and cinema vérité at Harvard thousands of miles away from her home state of Odisha, India, she used to sneak off by herself to New York City on the weekends to see live theater.

"My love for creating stories began watching political street theater in India, but when I came to study at Harvard on a scholarship, theater wasn't taken seriously," Nair says. "So in school I studied the filmmaking craft, and in my spare time I'd feed myself performances."

Eventually Nair was able to combine her love of theater with her talent for moviemaking, developing fictional narratives that seem almost like documentaries: the story of an Indian and Black couple encountering racism in the deep South; a group of refugees emigrating from Cuba; an American teen who traces his roots back to India. These days, she is one of the world's best-known Indian-American filmmakers. After making a handful of documentaries, Nair's first feature film — Salaam Bombay!, which trailed a little boy living in the streets of Bombay — was nominated for an Academy Award. It also took home Cannes Caméra d'Or prize in 1988.

India is considered to be such a traditional society regarding men and women, but the existence of women directors behind the camera is much more common there than in America.

Mira Nair
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Salaam led to nearly 20 more successful independent films, all backed by Nair's production company, Mirabai Films. "I started my own company by sheer necessity," she says. "I was the ultimate outsider, in the sense of wanting to make documentaries about, say, East Asian immigrants in New Jersey, or their lives back in India. It was hard enough to find people that wanted to work on those projects. But then to find people to finance them and trying to get them to see what kind of world you’re talking about? Well, I had to do it myself."

Nearly three decades later, Nair says she's still often surprised by just how exclusive Hollywood can be, both when it comes to ethnicity and gender. "It’s sometimes paradoxical regarding diversity," she says. "India is considered to be such a traditional society regarding men and women, but the existence of women directors behind the camera is much more common there than in America. Which is troubling, because though women are so much a part of the fabric of life, in Hollywood, we have not been regarded as such.”

For her part, Nair has never been content to sit around and wait for more women or more racial diversity to appear on screen. She's simply made it happen herself. Her latest feat is this fall's hit Disney film Queen of Katwe, which stars newbie actress Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, a girl from Uganda who becomes a world-renowned chess champion with a little help from her coach (David Oyelowo) and some reluctant encouragement from her mother, played by Lupita Nyong'o.
Photo: Courtesy of Disney.
Nair directing Nyong'o and Oyelowo in Kampala, Ugana last year.
Nair calls filming in Kampala, Uganda — where she now lives half the year, when she's not in New York — "a beautiful orchestration of chaos led by wonderful children, and chess."

While she says working with Nyong'o and Oyelowo was "pure joy," she also doesn't hesitate to share the challenges of bringing a real-life slum to the big screen. "It was torturous. We were freezing and there were real hazards shooting in these very real communities. But I feel very strongly that if you want to truly bring a place to life, you need to go to that place."

Perhaps it is that commitment to authenticity that makes her work so deeply relatable and meaningful for any viewer, no matter where they're from. “I come from a Punjabi family. We're party animals!" Nair says. "Of course I think that enchanting childhood and my close family life have been a great foundation for what eventually became my cinema. But being an outsider myself in so many different societies helped me create a fluidity between borders in my films.”

Still, the director hasn't let go of her deeply rooted passion for theater. In fact, she's currently knee-deep in directing her first Broadway musical, Monsoon Wedding, a theater version of her 2001 Punjabi family wedding comedy, which "will be great fun!" and opens in May.

So with a major Broadway musical, a blockbuster Disney movie, and awards under her belt, what's left on Nair's list of career goals?

"I harbor a desire to work with Daniel Day Lewis," Nair admits, laughing. "I don't necessarily sit around dreaming about it. But it would be nice!"

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