Filmmaker Mira Nair Finds Freedom in Exile

Immigrant stories in film and literature often focus on what is lost in the process of migration: particularly the loss of one’s culture and identity. However, the immigrant experience can also be a positive and transformative one, creating a space for multiple cultural identities to interact with one another—cultural hybridity.

Filmmaker Mira Nair is interested in showing “all the possibilities that can come out of the immigrant experience,” says Amardeep Singh, associate professor of English.

Singh’s new book, The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité (University Press of Mississippi) is the first to offer an overview of the Indian-American film director’s body of work.

“When people move abroad, when they start new lives in other countries, Nair often portrays it in her films as a time to transform, to become something new out of the mixing and matching of different cultural norms and values,” says Singh.

Nair’s 40-year filmmaking career spans a variety of storytelling genres―from documentaries to independent film to mainstream Hollywood fare. She is still very much an active filmmaker, having recently helmed Disney’s feature film, Queen of Katwe (2016), about a Ugandan girl whose world transforms after being introduced to the game of chess.

Singh finds commonalities among her films in both theme and style. He coins the term “diaspora vérité” to describe Nair’s approach to storytelling, writing that “...the filmmaker uses documentary realism in order to show that the prospect of migration, dislocation and even exile offers her characters a potential path to freedom from social and cultural repression.”

“Diaspora vérité” refers to Nair’s storytelling sensibilities―influenced by cinéma vérité, the documentary filmmaking movement of the 1960s that sought to capture life as realistically as possible―and is also a nod toward what the author says is “...the filmmaker’s commitment to social justice, especially with respect to women and socially and economically marginalized groups.”

Throughout her career, says Singh, Nair has utilized cinéma vérité techniques to explore diverse experiences of diaspora.

In The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité, Singh also writes about Nair as a transnational filmmaker whose films are not defined by any singular national or linguistic tradition but instead reflect a wide range of cultural and geographical contexts.

“...Nair might be one of a handful of diasporic film directors whose work has helped transform the scope of contemporary world cinema,” writes Singh.