Director Mira Nair

One of few women of color to break through the ranks as a major motion picture director, Nair describes her new film, which tackles issues of nationalism and identity in a post-9-11 world.

Award-winning director-writer-producer Mira Nair moves seamlessly between Hollywood and indie films. Since her debut feature, Salaam Bombay!—a best foreign language film Oscar nominee and considered standard fare for film students—her credits have included Vanity Fair, HBO's original film, Hysterical Blindness, and, her latest, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Born in India, she was educated at Delhi University and Harvard and began her career as an actor before turning to directing. A longtime activist, Nair divides her energies between filmmaking and her two successful nonprofit organizations: Salaam Baalak Trust and Maisha Film Lab.


Tavis: Indian-born Mira Nair is one of the few women of color to break through the ranks as a director of major motion pictures. Her debut film, “Salaam Bombay,” won a Golden Globe and was also nominated for an Oscar.

She went on to direct Denzel Washington in “Mississippi Masala,” Hilary Swank in “Amelia,” and Reese Witherspoon in “Vanity Fair.” Her latest movie stars Kate Hudson and Liev Schreiber and deals in part with the aftermath of 9/11. We’ll take a look at the clip from “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”


Tavis: Welcome to our program. Good to have you here.

Mira Nair: Nice to be here, Tavis. Good to see you.

Tavis: Good to see you. I want to start with you – Mira very kindly and very gently corrected me with regard to my introduction. (Laughter) So I said that she was Indian-born. Indeed you are, but we Americans can tend to be a little myopic and a little insular and a little – you fill in the blank. But what did you say to me when I said “Indian-born?”

Nair: Well, I said I am Indian. I am not just Indian-born. I’m not someone who really came to be an immigrant here. I’m not really regards as – I’m not, don’t think of myself as one. But I’m equally at home in America as I am in India, but I am an Indian as opposed to being simply Indian-born.

Tavis: Give me your sense of how these – I want to phrase this the right way – how these distinctions, how these views, how these prisms matter when you are a resident of the world?

Nair: Well, I am actually a resident of three worlds – of America, of India, and of Africa. I live in Uganda most of the year. It’s extraordinary to have that worldview that is an expansive one, rather than just looking at the world from where you sit.

I think that the world is increasingly becoming like that. People are settling and unsettling other places, as they have for decades and generations. But sometimes in the media, in the world as we see it, there are real, no understanding, really, of the other side.

That’s one of the big reasons I made this new film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” because so many of us are hybrids. So many of us are from one place but are at home in another place and embody the philosophy of both places.

So I’m tired of the reductivism with which we see the world. Either you’re this or you’re that, either you’re – if you’re a Pakistani you’re a terrorist; if you’re an American you might be a militarist. Those kind of prisms that we see each other through are really stultifying, and they don’t often show the complexity and the incredible warmth and encompassing of the world.

When it comes to what this new movie deals with, so often sitting in America we have seen now so much in the last decade of wars we are engaged in in Afghanistan and Iraq and all kinds of places.

But always these movies, the media, the stories are pretty much I would say a monologue. It’s always from one point of view; usually the American point of view. That’s also how films about Vietnam were dealt with. I remember the dazzlement with which I saw “The Killing Fields” some years ago, when there was truly a Cambodian character in the heart of it.

So that’s what “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is also doing. At the heart of it is a young man, Changez, who is from Lahore, whose family once had money and now has no cash, who dreams of America, who gets to Princeton, who achieves the American dream, ascends Wall Street and falls in love and has it all.

Then 9/11 happens and suddenly this young man is looked at askance, like he could be, perhaps, a terrorist or whatever. How does this man then find his voice? That is the story of my film. It’s a coming of age story, but it’s a story that in a way is about all of us, because we are being taught so much to see ourselves and then the other, whom we will not know.

This is a film in which the other is yourself. It’s a human being, a conversation between an American and a Pakistani, both equally complicated, equally contradictory, equally human human beings.

Tavis: What say you about this notion that you really just hit upon now, which is that what we are up against, to my read, the obstacle that we are most up against in the world is the contestation of the humanity of the other.

Nair: That’s right.

Tavis: The contestation of the other’s humanity. Tell me what your film has to say about that, and then I want to go a little further.

Nair: Well, so often we just don’t know the person. We don’t know the person’s family, what they believe in, what they laugh about, whether they marry, whether they quarrel.

These are human attributes. This is what it’s about. This is what our lives are like, whichever side of the planet you come from. But if you don’t know and if you don’t see, then you certainly are much quicker to judge that person as this hysteric or belonging to a faceless, nameless race who don’t believe what you believe in, which is really what is given to us.

We never know that person, even by his or her name. So one is to demystify that, and to make that person alive in all their complexity, and in doing so, really take the hot-blooded political theories that we bandy about in our lives and understand them through a human being.

That is what my film is doing. Not just one human being, not just a Pakistani guy, but an American equally. So it’s a dialogue, truly, between two worlds that deserve to speak to each other.

Tavis: Right. So to your notion of these political theories, there are more, obviously – I know your point, but they’re obviously more than just theories. There are geopolitics that are based upon these theories.

Nair: Absolutely.

Tavis: So juxtapose for me in terms of your own view, juxtapose for me this notion of – how might I put this – this “we are the world” notion that you started this conversation talking about, that we really are the world, that I am you and that you are me, and what matters to me matters to you, and our destiny as human beings is inextricably bound together.

So this notion of we are the world, with the geopolitics on the ground, which still has all these wars happening, these factions that are fighting against each other. How do you square – if you were talking to an eight-year-old, a 10-year-old, how do you square that we are the world, that I am my brother or sister’s keeper, with the infighting and the wars and the fights over water and territory and space? I don’t think a 10-year-old understands that or gets that.

Nair: But “we are the world” is putting it very broadly. I don’t want to say that we are the world in that we are not distinct from each other. I want to say that the humanity that is our foundation is common, but my culture, my beliefs, my values, what makes me sing and what makes me happy and the language I speak in and the relationships I have in the world are distinctive.

It is culturally formed in a different way than let’s say an American is formed. The humanity is common, but the way in which we live has to be known as distinctive and is distinctive, and I always celebrate that because we are not all cookie-cut from the exact same way of living and being.

But having said that, what is stunning to me in today’s world is that we don’t know each other. We don’t know what it really is like to live on the other side. Instead, what we are given is really a facelessness and a whitewash.

We get the noble soldiers who go and fight for freedom and democracy in other parts of the world, but we will never know on whom the bombs rain. Whether that woman who’s lost her home and family, what will her future be in this quest for democracy? What is that?

We don’t understand the actual reality of what then becomes a kind of almost video war for the rest of the world watching it. It’s a drone, it’s a game. It’s not something we understand the impact of.

So that’s what I’m trying to do, and not – it almost sounds terribly serious, but really, it’s an exploration of the fact that the humanity is common and the path to finding out whom we really are is also common, but we also come from different places and it’s about time we understand what that place, in all its complexity, is.

Tavis: Since you went there, I want to follow you there, which is this debate, this almost debate that we’re having in this country now about the drones.

Because you are a resident of the world and live in two other places beyond this country, what’s your sense of how the world is viewing us with the use of these drones? Thankfully, and my audience knows I talk about this all the time, thankfully for me at least Congress is starting to take this issue a bit more seriously.

The Obama administration has not been as transparent as they ought to be about this issue, and I’m glad to see that member of Congress are starting to step up, asking the tough questions.

Still a long way to go to get to the bottom of this, but something is going to have to give here on what the process is for when, where, and how we use these drones.

But since you are, again, a resident of the world beyond this country, what’s your sense of how the world is looking at us with the increasing use of these unmanned aerial vehicles known as drones?

Nair: It’s a dreaded example of what America is doing. The fact that they’re unmanned, the fact that there’s impunity – somehow no one will ever get hurt in a drone; the drone simply hurts below.

The extraordinary civilian casualties – just last week, 18 Afghani children, wrapped up like little dolls, dead – often just assigned to collateral damage. I’m just a human being who laments that loss, and I’ve never seen, in all these 12 years of the drones in operation, of the wars simply multiplying, I haven’t seen a sliver of peace or a sliver of progress, really, in this.

So I look at that and I think what is the future of this? This is certainly not going to take us to any form of understanding.

Tavis: You spend a good part of your time in Africa.

Nair: That’s right, in Uganda.

Tavis: In Uganda, specifically. Again, another large question here and I’ll come back to the film in a moment. Give me some sense of how Africa, the continent, is being regarded or not at this particular moment in history, and I ask that in part because –

Nair: Oh, my God.

Tavis: – there’s a great debate raging about China and its advance onto the continent of Africa and whether or not China is the next country to colonize Africa, what that really means.

But give me your sense of – and again, it’s obviously a huge continent, but give me some sense of where the Africa conversation is right about now.

Nair: Well, I live in Uganda, and Africa is an enormous continent. Right here in Uganda where we live, and I’ve lived for many years, it’s a very – it’s a lively place. It’s a place that the multi-party system has finally come in a few years ago.

There are elections, there are people who are – there’s the opposition. It’s loaded. It’s not always simple as to who, whether the people will be heard, but there is an active voice of the people, and there is generally a feeling of real civil rights and safety where I live, contrary to let’s say Kenya, which is a much greater source of tension, and our neighbor.

So it’s – and the economy is just sort of booming in the last few years, especially now, since the discovery of oil, there’s all kinds of apprehension and tension in terms of what will happen in the next era of it.

But it is, generally speaking, a place that I find great dignity and great power. Education is absolutely the cornerstone of people’s lives, so even if they don’t have anything, they will have a school uniform and make sure the school fees are paid.

Whether you go from house to house to collect it or whatever, school must be – we must go to school. That kind of emphasis, in contrast to let’s say India, where poverty is so extreme and the wealth is so extreme, and beggars and sort of the have-nots and the haves are just constantly juxtaposed with each other.

In Uganda, for instance, I have never seen that level of poverty, even though we have so much less than, say, India does, because people have their food, they have their basis of living.

So there’s a certain kind of existence of civil rights, which is liberating, which makes one feel breathing – when you can breathe, you can be easy. But there’s so much to do, there’s so much to do, and there’s so much to do in terms of new leadership, hoping that this working towards democracy will create new leadership that will learn from the mistakes of the old.

Tavis: What’s your sense of the future, the immediate future, I should say, of India? If you’re going to – you’re talking major powers these days. You’re talking about the U.S., you’re talking about China, you talk about India. India’s coming on, they’re coming on strong.

Nair: Very strong.

Tavis: Give me your sense of what India’s going to look like in the coming years.

Nair: Well, I’m really not an expert on these geopolitical sort of things, but India is the most unbelievably vigorous place. Unbelievably vibrant on many, many, many levels, and the wealth, to see it grow as much as it is, is actually for me almost more disturbing, because you see the fact of so many who don’t have not even a sliver of what those who have now have.

That juxtaposition, that discrepancy, is – I see some improvement because we have a huge middle class now in a way we didn’t 20 years ago, but unless we work with the rural poor, unless we really address the needs of the bulk of India, India could continue to be an equally riddled place, whether it’s privileged to unprivileged, fraught with all the social tension that comes with that.

That will still reign until we really get to the heart of who real Indian, who’s really a rural Indian, until those rights, until that liberties and the sort of basic human rights come to that person, India will not progress as it should.

Tavis: It’s clear that you believe in doing work that matters. That comes through with the choices that you’ve made.

Nair: Life is short, Tavis.

Tavis: It is.

Nair: You’ve got to do it.

Tavis: Exactly. So I appreciate the choices that you’ve made, but obviously, those choices are informed by something, and they’re informed by what makes you you and the way, the prism through which you see the world.

So I raise that to ask how it is, or – I was going to say how it is that you chose this profession to express that, and maybe it wasn’t that you chose the profession, maybe the profession chose you. You tell me.

Nair: Well, I think the profession – I was lucky to find film when I was 20 years old. I came on a scholarship to Harvard and I came to act. I was in political street theater in India, and here it was, the theater did not appeal to me, and I was lucky to find documentary filmmaking.

It was a way to engage with the world, it was a way to engage visually, because I’m a – I love to look at the frame; I love to look at the world. It was a way to hold a mirror to whatever concerns us as a people, as a society.

Not that I also, not that I want to make my films sound like homework, because I really like to take you for a ride. I like to take you on – I love fun, I love laughter, I love fashion, I love music. Music is the breath of life for me.

So it’s a way to sort of harness my distinctiveness, but speak of the world as I know it and as I experience it as well, because so often we come to a place of great insularity, and we don’t know what, that we are simply one speck of a larger universe. I think I am kind of put on this Earth to speak of being between worlds in my films.

Tavis: To this new film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” tell me why you think this particular ground has not been tilled before in a way that you are offering it to us in this project?

Nair: Well, at its heart, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is a coming of age story, and I really made it for the 20-year-olds. I have a 21-year-old son, and I want to make it for him and his friends, because these are kids, like we did, set out in the world to make your name, to see who you really are, and we’ve never heard the story from the subcontinental side coming to this country, number one.

Moshin Hamid’s very brilliant kind of mind game of a novel gave me that possibility of Changez, a young man who loves America, from Pakistan, comes here, makes good, and then is betrayed by the country he’s in love with and returns home.

But equally he meets Bobby Lincoln, who’s played by Liev Schreiber in this, and played with incredible nuance, but Bobby is as much of a flesh-and-blood character as Changez is, and understanding the question of whether the settler can become a native, whether someone from another country can come to a country and really have the best intentions for that country, but will he ever belong? Will he ever be at home in that place?

This is a notion that both men are grappling with. So number one, that coming of age story is what really compelled me, and secondly, it’s really that we don’t know the other side, and I think very much in these two men at a table, talking about what makes them tick and what they’re here to do, we humanize.

We bring this world to a greater audience, and I think it’s about time that we understand what it’s like on both sides of the ocean.

Tavis: Let me ask you just a point-blank question. Given how nativist we Americans can be – I don’t want to indict all of us, but given how nativist we can be, you think we care?

Nair: I think now, what I’m facing with even just the reaction to this film, is that people are hungry to know. They are tired of destruction, they’re tired of the fact that the government, what Bush did; either you are with us or against us. You’re the good guys or the bad guys.

I think people, this reductivism of this box or not that box is not working, and the ordinary person on the street wants to know more and wants to question this wall, because the wall isn’t bringing us any closer.

Even – forget about the other side, even within our homes, even with the kind of danger we have to live with and the insecurity we have to live with, this is the reason. If we don’t understand each other, and if we continue to use war, it is simple – it’s going to come back to haunt us, and that’s what’s happening.

Tavis: Let me ask you to set your modesty aside for just a second, Mira. What do you think all of this, and I mean all of this, uniquely brings to any project that you direct?

Nair: (Laughs) Well, I think everything one does is a political act, Tavis. I think if you bring your living in this world and knowing things from within and without, but having a sense of humility about the world and loving people as I do, I try to bring that.

I try to bring the love, I try to bring that understanding, and I also try to bring sometimes the questioning. Sometimes it’s prickly stuff. Sometimes it’s really complicated. But I think when you look at a place with that love, with that intimacy, then you have to also have, at least the way I do it, is I don’t tame it. I try to stay unflinching, because I come to it with love.

So that’s what I hope to bring in my work, and I always believe that if we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will tell them. So you better tell them well, and you better tell them in a way that will just entertain and transport and hopefully provoke you to imagining something different.

Also imagining seeing yourself in it. It’s not that it’s about someone else, it’s about us.

Tavis: That answer that you just offered now could be the answer to the exit question I now want to ask. Let me ask it anyway. What’s your hope for what the takeaway will be from this project, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist?”

Nair: I hope that people who might see the film begin to question the so-called “truth” that is handed out to us. I hope that they will see themselves in these characters and in their journey. I hope that they will ask themselves where do we matter, where will we be heard, what are we really doing in the broader sense of living life? Who are we serving?

What does our work, whatever our attempts might be, what does it lead to? These are big questions, but I hope that in a journey that will take you through many continents with extraordinary movie stars like we have, who really, from both sides of the ocean, from Om Puri and Shabana Azmi in India and Pakistan, to Kate Hudson and Liev and Kiefer Sutherland, and the most charismatic performance by Riz Ahmed as Changez, as our protagonist.

You see, in a way this film has never been seen before. To have an Indian director make a Pakistani film about a Pakistani young man who was supported by the literally A-list, most serious actors in Hollywood and Bollywood, but the shift of power is in itself very interesting in that it’s an Asian man’s tale in a global world which questions what we think of as fundamentalism.

The fundamentalism of money and the fundamentalism of religion, understanding that there is a parallel in both that speaks to us as a people.

Tavis: I love that, I love that – Hollywood and Bollywood comes together, (laughter) and it’s directed by Mira Nair. You can’t miss with that one. The project is called “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” I think you’ll want to see it. Good to have you here.

Nair: Nice to be here, Tavis.

Tavis: Congratulations on the project.

Nair: Thank you so much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 2, 2013 at 11:15 pm