Campus News

Baccalaureate 2011 Address: Mira Nair

Story posted May 27, 2011

“Between Worlds”
By Mira Nair
May 27, 2011

Honorable President, teachers, artists, students all, thank you for this great honor of such a weighty degree from an accomplished institution like Bowdoin College. I hope and intend to do such an honor justice. I must warn you though that my nickname growing up was Pagli, which means “the mad girl.” I still think I am more a mad girl than will ever be a doctor of fine arts, but then in my work as a film maker, indeed if we ever deserve the title of artists, then we must always welcome madness as a vital guest.

Mira Nair200.jpg
Mira Nair

Today is a remarkable day in which all of you young graduates will be unleashed from the cocoon into the world — without the safety net of a nourishing school like Bowdoin — into a world that has never been less peaceful, more destructive, more commercial, less glorifying in risk and experiment. What is happening to our world today, at the moment, lies just outside the realm of common understanding. My prayer for you all today is to use your scholarship wisely, express yourself at the highest standard but always have something to say, to make your work illuminate this common understanding.

People often ask me, is it difficult being an Indian woman director in America? At first I do not know how to answer this. I say, “It’s much easier than back when I was a man.” but seriously, I am relieved to be a woman, and to be from India where, paradoxically, I grew up seeing women on either side of Mahatma Gandhi, fighting for freedom from the British in our country. The country was, for years, led by a woman prime minister, the thought of which still gives the United States indigestion. My dynamic mother was an early inspiration — when I was eight years old, calling herself a “professional beggar”, she raised money for the first home for healthy children born to leper parents. So I was brought up with the foolish confidence that anything is possible.

I grew up in a small town in Orissa, India — in those days it was considered the backwaters, the armpit of India. My two elder brothers had been sent to prestigious boarding schools. I was expected to stay in the all-girls convent, taught by non—teachers whom I called “the ladies in waiting” — each waiting for an arranged marriage that was bound to come I carefully and patiently crafted my escape to a place at the foothills of the Himalayas, an Irish Catholic boarding school from where Mother Teresa came —  Tara Hall in Simla, a place where I first fell in love with America. I was sick one day up in the mountains, being rushed to hospital in a horse-drawn carriage, and it was James Taylor who comforted me night after night with his haunting voice and iconic lyrics of his classic song, “Fire and Rain.” It was the era of the Vietnam War, and it was the music of peace and protest that fuelled me, the great conversation of race in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the wild imagination of the group theater, of Jean-Claude van Itallie and Joseph Chaikin that inspired me, the speeches of Malcolm X, the irreverent humor of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus that we read under the covers of our counterpanes — an America so different and freewheeling and youthful than the militaristic one we see now — that kept me wanting more.

People don’t believe me when I say that it was love story that brought me to America. At the Odeon Cinema in Delhi, as a 19-year old who dreamed of changing the world through theater, I watched Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal flirt on Harvard’s ivy-laden campus, I thought, “That place looks like they could afford to give me a full scholarship!” I came to Harvard with dreams of making political theater, but alas all, Igot was Oklahoma on Mainstage. Hoopskirts and musicals didn’t have any meaning for me then – instead I moved over to documentary film. Of course it was 20 years later that Oklahoma came back to haunt me — my son was cast as curly and I would wake up singing, “Oh, what a beautiful morning….!”

As an Indian filmmaker in New York in the 1980s, I would ride the Greyhound with my documentaries, showing my films to anyone who’d have me. I would have to tolerate audiences who would ask me whether there was tap water in India and how come I spoke such good English.   After seeing India Cabaret, New York Indian doctors would indignantly ask why I had made a film about strippers in Bombay rather than successful men driving Porsches like themselves.

In these years, I discovered the loneliness of being an artist. I didn’t want to be a cultural ambassador for my country, educating Americans about my homeland. I was rooted in India and came to the USA for my education. But back home, my films were also alternative. Mired in the reality of the streets, faithful to the idea that truth is always stranger and more powerful than fiction, they were the opposite of Bollywood and I was an outsider. There is a saying in India, “Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar na ghaat ka,” which literally means “the washerman’s dog— neither at home nor of the street, yet at home everywhere.”

In the early years of making films, I felt like that washerman’s dog, not really understood at home, considered a novelty abroad, but at home everywhere. I learned many lessons those days: to prize one’s own intuition, to persist in creating what makes one distinct, to seek courage from rejection. I found that people who inhabit different worlds can see through each of them— it is such people who have a sense of modesty, who know that there are other ways of seeing, who develop appreciation for, rather than mere charitable tolerance for other ways of life.

As a film director, my work entails the creation of a safe environment in which my actors feel protected enough to fail, even to make fools of themselves. To work with human beings, to work with emotion, and to visualize the drama of humanity, I need to feel my blood go faster, you need to feel your heart beat. In the creative world, borders, by necessity, need to be fluid and porous. Talent knows no borders. I always say that for actors, their fragility is their power. They trust themselves to me, the director, and I set about the task of making that power bloom.

I feel that in the creative realm, borders and bridges alike need to be fluid and porous. I try to tell stories in which people can see themselves.  Not just some people, but all. Not just in some places, but everywhere. It takes courage to be original, especially for those who have been told for the past few centuries that the west is the mirror in which they can see their future.

Four truths I know:

One, never treat what you do as a stepping stone to something else. Do it fully and completely and only at its fullest do you know where it might lead you.

Two, let the heart inform the brain. Prepare, communicate, but at the moment of working, allow inspiration from any quarter: a carpenter, a streetchild, the light of the moon.

Three, be brave and prepare to be lonely. Cultivate stamina.

Four, beware the fruits of action. Serve your work purely and without thinking of reward. In the film world, rewards can be immense and confusing.

I grew up with the guru shishya tradition, which is the spiritual relationship in which a guru passes his or her knowledge onto a disciple. It was this that led me to create Maisha, Maisha is a filmmakers’ lab that is based in Kampala, Uganda, and we are now in our seventh year of operation. We train screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, and sound mixers to promote a local film culture the mantra that defines our work in Maisha is: If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will. Our program pairs experienced mentors with East African students through the filmmaking process — from story idea to finished film. And it is this country’s generous culture of philanthropy that allows us to train filmmakers who are lacking resources, but certainly not originality or motivation.

This visionary quality has defined America around the globe for many decades. The artists that brought me to America with their work, brought us all truth and beauty with feeling, personal and political stories about how they see their world. We need them more than ever in a world, which markets beauty as commerce but finds truth unpalatable. As this world changes before our eyes,  it becomes increasingly necessary to join beauty with truth so we may give expressive freedom to those who call for a change in the world. Not simply in Egypt and Libya and Wisconsin but also in the little mosque and cultural center a little down from Ground Zero, and in so many places where the gunfire is American, so that a child on the street in Afghanistan can associate the USA with a novel or a poem or a painting instead of violent siege. We need to bring this country back to being defined by artistry instead of war. We can affect the world in far greater, deeper, and more positive ways than a missile. If we put even a tiny percentage of our military budget back into prioritizing the arts, it would be a step in the right direction.

That is it, that is the only revenge, to make work that destabilizes the dull competence of most of what is produced, that infuses life with idiosyncrasy, whimsy, brutality, to use your work to hold a mirror to a society that is bent on creating walls instead of peace.

Remember, there is not a single human imagination, but multiple imaginations. Imaginative people amongst us are seen as crazy.  But not everyone marches on the same road. Not everyone is cast in the same image. There should be no borders within art — rather, every artist should own all conventions.

I don’t know what you will learn from a mad girl, but I salute you on this heroic day of achievement, I salute your years of learning, I command you to serve your imagination purely, your stories, your paintings, your work, I hope to be reading your names as beacons of clarity and madness in a better world that you will, inshallah (God willing), create. Finally, I hope you remain true to the twin goddesses, beauty and truth, as long as there is fire in your hearts.

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