LAAPFF Legacy Award: Mira Nair
May 2, 2022
LAAPFF Legacy Award: Mira Nair
For the 38th edition of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, in tandem with a special screening of her feature-length debut work Salaam Bombay (1988), Mira Nair will be the recipient of the LAAPFF Legacy Award.
Since making a splash on the world cinema stage with Salaam Bombay, Nair has forged an indelible independent career with films whose productions and narratives alike span the globe, from India, the U.S., the U.K., and to Uganda, all while remaining anchored in their distinct geographical and (inter-)cultural specificities, beginning with Indian diasporic movements, experiences, identities, and perspectives. Significantly enough, her first film after finishing her university studies at Harvard in 1979 was the documentary So Far From India (1983), which follows a recently married Indian couple who endures separate lives due to Ashok immigrating to New York to find work and Hansa in her native Gujarat village waiting for Ashok’s return home. Nair’s work thus closely dialogues with her own personal international trajectory and the plurality of places that she calls home, such that the significance of home and family, shifting notions of home/land, and the challenge and process of carving out one’s own sense of belonging and identity inside and outside the home/land and family, are themes that cut across her filmography, regardless of genre, including Mississippi Masala (1991), The Perez Family (1995), Monsoon Wedding (2001), Vanity Fair (2004), The Namesake (2006), and The Queen of Katwe (2016).
Just as importantly, Nair and her films embody a staunch dedication to social activism, one that is specifically tied to place while also transcending borders through collaborations with international organizations. In fact, her filmography and social activism are intimately intertwined. This intertwining expresses not only the role that film and media have had in shaping her personal trajectory but also how her activist projects have grown out of her interactions with the people whom she has met, the cultures that they represent, and the places that she has visited through and for her films.
For Salaam Bombay, Nair worked with 130 street kids in India, 24 of whom she selected to collaborate with and appear in the film, co-creating the screenplay with their input. With its immersive documentary/social realist visual style, a mark of both her filmmaking roots in documentary as well as the influence of Satyajit Ray’s own brand of realism via his Apu trilogy (1955-1959), the film caught international audiences by surprise and was lauded the Cannes Festival’s prestigious Caméra d’Or prize for the best first feature film in 1988. In the wake of its critical and ensuing box-office success, Nair channeled the film’s profits towards Salaam Baakal Trust (SBT), a non-profit NGO that provides a variety of support services and programs for children under 18 years of age who live and/or work in city streets, by choice or by circumstance. Yet an important detail to note is that Nair established STB during Salaam Bombay’s pre-production and envisioned it as a long-term project to enact sustained socio-economic impact and not simply limited to the timeline of a production shoot or the film’s success, with SBT still operating in the present day and encompassing more than a dozen centers.
Similarly, Nair’s establishment of the Maisha Film Lab in Uganda has its roots during the production shoot of Nair’s follow-up film to Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala. As the film’s narrative presents an Indian family’s experiences of relocating from Uganda to the U.S., and the different ways in which members of the family process their ties to the past and present settings of their lives and identities, portions of the film were shot in Kampala, the experience of which prompted Nair to make Uganda one of her home bases. Eventually, being witness to and interacting with Ugandan cultures and seeing the limited resources available for local filmmaking efforts also prompted Nair to set up the Maisha Film Lab, which provides film training programs for aspiring film creatives of all ages to help develop and sustain East African filmmaking cultures and represent East African storytelling traditions and narratives.
Nair has undeniably cemented her place in the filmmaking world through her joint trailblazing efforts as an independent director and producer creating works that continually register cross-border movements, intercultural relationships, discourses of selfhood, and the power of community ties, and as an activist geared towards sustainable social impact and changes, in part through the medium of film.
–Dr. Rowena Santos Aquino
About the Author: Dr. Rowena Santos Aquino is a Lecturer of Film and Electronic Arts (FEA) and teaches courses on Film History, Documentary Film History & Theory, and international cinemas.
Watch SALAAM BOMBAY! at LAAPFF on SUN 05/08/22 at 2:30pm. Tickets are FREE/PAY WHAT YOU CAN; you can get tickets here.