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From the Archive: the films of Mira Nair
September 15, 2020
This year’s TIFF Tribute Award honour a festival regular: Mira Nair. The Indian director has screened virtually all of her films at the festival. From her Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! to her Golden Lion winner Monsoon Wedding to the red carpet sensation of Queen of Katwe, Nair’s films are synonymous with TIFF’s mission to transform the way people see the world through film. Nair is back at the festival (virtually) this year with her first foray into television as a showrunner, A Suitable Boy.
As part of the celebrations for the 2020 TIFF Tribute Awards, Nair receives TIFF’s Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media to acknowledge her work telling stories that engage audiences with diverse experiences. To mark the occasion, we rounded-up coverage of Nair’s work throughout her career by TFCA members. Some articles and interviews have unfortunately been lost to the archives of now defunct outlets like EyeWeekly or were penned by writers who moved onto other things, but here’s a snapshot of Nair’s career through the eyes of the Toronto film scene.
Mississippi Masala (1991)
“Like last year’s Jungle Fever, Spike Lee’s controversial movie about sex across the color bar, Mississippi Masala is a Romeo and Juliet fable of havoc wreaked by intolerance. But instead of portraying racism in black-and-white terms, Nair’s film explores the politics of complexion in all their complexity,” observed Brian D. Johnson, Maclean’s.
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
“Affectionately adapts the song-and-dance style of Bollywood movies to keep the tone light, even if it addresses serious issues of arranged marriages, infidelity, and pedophilia,” noted Peter Howell at the Toronto Star.
Peter Howell also recounted how TIFF responded to events that changed the world on the night of Monsoon Wedding’s TIFF premiere, September 11, 2001.
“With Monsoon Wedding, [Nair] portrays the kind of middle-class family she grew up in,” wrote Brian D. Johnson at Maclean’s. “And it’s her most accomplished work, a picture that combines the elegance of a Shakespearean comedy with the exuberance of a Bollywood pageant.”
Vanity Fair (2004)
Readers will have to bust out their library cards to revisit Peter Howell’s interview with Mira Nair in the Toronto Star archives. While they’re in the virtual stacks, they can also read his review, which proclaimed, “This lively and mostly successful treatment…has the ideal actress in the choice of Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp. It’s a role Witherspoon was fated to play….”
At the The Globe and Mail, Liam Lacey wrote, “Consciously bringing a postcolonial perspective to this canonical work, Nair emphasizes the dark-skinned servants, the curried food, the cult of Orientalism in decor and fashion. Visually, she has created an unexpectedly vibrant recreation of early 19th-century England, including some pungent details — aristocrats eating rotten mutton stew, the scurvied scalp beneath the powdered wig.”
Back in his days as a TFCA member, TIFF co-head Cameron Bailey reviewed films, including Vanity Fair at NOW Toronto: “The shift for Nair is even more fascinating to watch. Going where countryman Ismail Merchant never dared with his literary adaptations, she pulls what would have been background details to Thackeray’s readers right to the foreground of her film. Like Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, Vanity Fair underlines how England’s social hierarchy was founded on foreign wars and colonizing power grabs.”
The Namesake (2006)
“It’s really been like nothing else I’ve seen,” said Nair, speaking with Glenn Sumi at Now Toronto. “With Monsoon Wedding, people were dancing in the aisles, but with this film, the rhythms of laughter and sorrow are very palpable.”
In one of his earlier gigs, Radheyan Simonpillai reviewed the film at The Varsity, and wrote, “Nair paints a picture of the cultural struggle of first-generation Indians-or any other immigrants for that matter-facing assimilation into their new country. With short playful moments, like when Ashima mixes a bowl of Rice Krispies with curry powder and cashews for breakfast, Nair teases out a bittersweet blend of hope and homesickness.”
New York, I Love You (2008)
In his review at the Toronto Star, Peter Howell singled out Nair’s sequence as one of the film’s highlights.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)
Bruce DeMara called the film a “satisfying post-9/11 thriller” in his review at the Toronto Star. He also interviewed Nair, who drew upon her roots to confront this story of Islamophobia post-9/11, saying, “My father came from Lahore before the partition of India (in 1948). We were raised in India almost like Lahoris without knowing it. We spoke Urdu and heard the poems of Faiz, the great poet. The music, all of this, is my culture, it’s how we grew up.”
Nair also spoke with Susan G. Cole at NOW Toronto and drew upon the importance of engaging with characters of diverse backgrounds in America: “When you give a character a context and a dream of loving America, embracing America and being appreciated in return, the audience enters the character’s world much more deeply – because it is their world. They haven’t seen that perspective of how the world can turn and make a person feel like ‘the other.’ This kind of portrait helps Americans question how that happens.”
Queen of Katwe (2018)
Jim Slotek at the Toronto Sun said, “But within the confines of a too-familiar true-story format, director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala) manages to create a naturalistic environment – the meaner streets of Uganda – and a context for the game of chess that is meaningful to its characters and fresh for us.”
Meanwhile, Norm Wilner at NOW Toronto called it “a brightly coloured and insistently upbeat true story that never stops reminding you how inspirational it is.”
“Nair’s sharp eye for authentic local culture and quirks, previously demonstrated in the likes of Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala, melds beautifully with the expressive cinematography of Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave),” wrote Peter Howell at the Toronto Star.
The TIFF Tribute Awards air at 8:00 pm ET/PT on CTV and CTV.ca in Canada.
They will be streamed internationally by Variety at 8:30 pm ET.