Two or Three Things I Know about Mira Nair: Thoughts from a Former Intern

Nargis and Raj Kapoor in one of the most iconic shots of classic Indian cinema from Shree 420 (1955)

A scene from Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) inspired by Raj Kapoor’s classic

After the summer of my sophomore year, I was fortunate enough to intern with my favorite contemporary director Mira Nair. Both of us had studied film production at Harvard University and incidentally under the same professor! I first met Mira at his film screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City when I spotted her in the audience. My heart was beating so fast, I could hardly sit still through the screening. After the show, I gave her my impromptu elevator speech and joined the crew at Mirabai Films that summer!

Intern Mira Nair

Mira Nair and I at the MoMA my sophomore year. Note the glazed look in my eyes. Best day ever!

I was twelve years old when I saw Monsoon Wedding (2001) and have yet to find a movie from my generation that I love more. Mira’s other films include Vanity Fair, Salaam Bombay, The Namesake, Kama Sutra, and Amelia, but what does any of this have to do with old Hindi cinema? I want to talk about a side to her movies that you may not have been familiar with—that is, the impact of classic Bollywood on her work.

Perhaps you can recall that scene from Monsoon Wedding in which the wedding planner marries the housemaid beneath an umbrella. Look familiar? It should! Mira was directly inspired by Raj Kapoor’s famous song “Pyaar Hua Iqrar Hua” in directing this scene. Like Nargis and Raj Kapoor walking together on a rainy night, huddled together beneath an umbrella, Mira’s characters strike the same pose to celebrate their romance at the height of the Indian monsoons.

On-set and behind-the-camera with Hollywood director, Mira Nair.

In the front lobby of Mirabai Films hangs an original hand-painted movie poster of Aurat (1940), Mehboob Khan’s little-known precursor to the later smash-hit Mother India (1959). Its relative obscurity (and the eagerness to explain) brings a pride that can only be known to a fellow old Bollywood fanatic. By her desk is a beautiful and fascinating work of photography taken of the interior of R.K. Studios. Mira once explained how the studio in her photograph seems so unassuming and bland, but there, in an inconspicuous back wall besides an empty soda bottle hangs a small, telling picture of the greatest showman of India—Raj Kapoor himself. Despite his wealth and glamour, he and his colleagues maintained an inspiring sense of humility throughout his career that inspired hers.

If you’re looking for more celebrity interest, there is a great scene in her film, Vanity Fair (2004), in which the heroine (played fearlessly by Reese Witherspoon) makes an ill-received attempt to blend in among a high-class dinner party. Guess what? The scene was inspired by none other that the classic song Jaane Woh Kaise from Guru Dutt’s classic Pyaasa! In fact, Mira love it so much and wanted to make sure she captured Dutt’s spirit so precisely, that she got the whole cast together and watched Pyaasa for a movie night before the shoot. You heard me, people. If you have yet to watch Pyaasa yourself and are still looking for reasons to make the commitment, try this: Reese Witherspoon has seen it and you haven’t. Enough said.

Guru Dutt makes the room incredibly uncomfortable in Pyaasa (1957), an inspiration for Reese Witherspoon’s future character in Vanity Fair (2004).

And did you know Mira was very close friends with bold auteur Satyajit Ray? Mira’s favorite of his films include The Apu Trilogy and Days and Night in the Forest (1970), the latter of which was actually screened at the Harvard Film Archive last year with Sharmila Tagore in person! (I obviously had front row seats, almost underwent cardiac arrest upon seeing Sharmila in person, and begged for an autograph that is now framed on my desk. But that’s neither here nor there.) In fact, after growing up on these films, Mira came to respect Sharmila so much as an actress, and eagerly cast her in one of her first indie films called Mississippi Masala (1991)!

There are a million other ways old Bollywood films have influenced her work, and I have highlighted only a few that I know from working with her personally. Watch her films and let us know which others you can spot! Until then, put Pyaasa on your early Christmas list.

-Mrs. 55

Guru Dutt and the Struggle to Break Free of Convention

Guru Dutt’s poetic magnum opus, Pyaasa (1957), is often considered among the greatest cinematic achievements of all time, easily among the top 30 greatest Bollywood films ever made. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find someone more defensive of the genius that is Guru Dutt than yours truly. Pyaasa is an evocative film that explores one man’s search for humanism in the cold cynicism of post-independence Indian society. People often contrast Guru Dutt with his contemporary, famed actor and director Raj Kapoor, who shot hits like Shree 420 (1955)–a song-laden, fun rags-to-riches story with a clean happy ending. In contrast, the melancholic, disillusioned tone of Guru Dutt’s poetic films usually leave me feeling like my heart has been slowly torn out, but so beautifully done, I don’t even want it back anymore.

But I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and ask those who know and love both films, does it not seem that Pyaasa and Shree 420 both actually stemmed from the same reaction to the ideals of Nehru’s India under the “mandate of modernization?” Perhaps the creed of the heroic tramp of Shree 420 that spoke to the working masses is not so far from that of the starving poet of Pyaasa that stirred the minds of the intelligentsia. When Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, or any contemporary film-maker for that matter, sought to fill a void in their country’s cinema, despite such seemingly different approaches, they represented the emotions and wants of the same people. When you look closely, in fact, Pyaasa falls into many traps of the very conventions Guru Dutt wanted to break.

According to Raj Khosla, Guru Dutt believed the soul of Pyaasa was contained in the lines of hero Vijay’s song of lament: “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par, woh kahaan hain?” (“Where are those who are proud of this India?”), and Prime Minister Nehru himself is rumored to have been quite upset upon hearing this line, a direct invocation to the government for change.

Appalled and disillusioned, Guru Dutt’s hero stands Christ-like in the doorway of a ceremony to honor his own death.

But if that’s the case, what the heck is the chintzy “Hum aapki aankhon mein” dream sequence in which hero Vijay and Meena sing and dance in a heavenly courtyard of swirling mist and starry skies doing in the film? Perhaps it is not entirely surprising to learn that the song was not originally intended to be in the film–it was only added in later to appease the distributors who believed it to be unmarketable without at least one glitzy, expensive Bollywood song. The other songs in his film mesh seamlessly into the narrative, as if they are not songs at all, but mere continuations of dialogue–a novel technique pioneered by Dutt.

A greater travesty is, did you know the film was actually supposed to end with the high-angle crane shot of Meena all alone in the grand room with papers flying everywhere after Vijay leaves? To me, the scattered pages are a symbol of Vijay’s poetry whose role as a commodity in the film is in turn a symbolic attack of the loss of romanticism in the realities of the industrialization process. It’s as if to say, society must also honor the man who breathes life into the poems, not merely the price of the written words.

But as Dutt’s assistant recalls, Guru Dutt, “changed the ending because of how the distributors reacted. They felt the ending was too heavy. The financiers requested, ‘Why don’t you have a happy ending?’” Now Pyaasa finishes with Vijay finding spiritual fulfillment with the companionship of Gulabo and the two making their way into the hopeful sunset. I mean, isn’t this the kind of “all’s well that ends well” of conventional cinema he wanted to fight against?

So ultimately, the very focus on wealth and profitability that Guru Dutt chastises in his film is actually the force that proved overpowering in its production. Though Guru Dutt himself wanted otherwise, the distributors, believing to represent the mass market, were able to convince Dutt to change his plans and take fewer risks. He becomes just another flaw in his own criticism against Nehru’s India, greatly compromising the effectiveness of Pyaasa’s commentary. Essentially, the “solution” presented in a film like Shree 420 to try to work the system as best as possible, is all that Pyaasa shows is possible–try to be “purposeful” (as Guru Dutt wanted) within the limitations of the system. Recalling Vijay’s own lines, “Isko hi jeena kehte hain, to yuhiin jee lenge,” (“If this is life, then this is how we’ll live,”) Pyaasa often invites a sentiment to conform to the status quo rather than fight or question it.

Or am I reading too much into this?

–Mrs. 55