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Stars and Scholars: Mira Nair

Apr 14, 2011

Acclaimed for directing movies that are in turn poignant, bittersweet and joyful, Mira Nair is known for a brand of socially conscious filmmaking that few in the entertainment industry are skilled or courageous enough to attempt. The Harvard grad has relied heavily on her academic background to help steer her film career.

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By Douglas Fehlen

Mira Nair director Mirabai Films Maisah Salaam Baalak! Mississippi Masala The Namesake Vanity Fair Amelia So Far from India India Cabaret

A Special Brand of Film

Venture out to see a film on any given weekend and you're likely to encounter plenty of uncomplicated romantic comedies, screwball slapstick movies and CGI-enhanced fantasy flicks. While these features have their place, too often their bountifulness is at the detriment of a theater's ability to show less-glitzy, more thoughtful films that allow audiences to not only be entertained, but also edified.

For some thirty years, Mira Nair has been making these kinds of films, boldly taking on topics like poverty, prostitution, AIDS, immigration, gender equality, class and racism. For instance, Salaam Bombay! is a portrait of destitute children living on the streets of Mumbai (previously Bombay). Another film by Nair, Mississippi Masala, uses a relationship between an African American man and a woman from the Indian diaspora living in Mississippi to provide a meditation on personal and national identity.

Mira Nair director Mirabai Films Maisah Salaam Baalak! Mississippi Masala The Namesake Vanity Fair Amelia So Far from India India Cabaret

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Sociology at the Movies

Born and raised near Calcutta, India, Mira Nair first attended the University of Delhi. As a sophomore, she transferred on scholarship to Harvard University where she picked up her studies in sociology. Nair would ultimately earn a degree in visual and environmental studies, though her sociology background is strongly represented in her films. Each of her movies bear the unmistakable mark of someone who is deeply curious about the world around us.

Nair's films are intended to inspire thoughtfulness, but that doesn't mean they also don't cause a deep emotional impact. Memorable characters and heartrending scenes clearly demonstrate the director's movie-making skills. And while some may feel challenged by select Nair-directed films, a movie like Monsoon Wedding features a celebration of life as vibrant as any moviegoer will find. Nair's accomplished career has distinguished her in the eyes of her alma mater, which awarded her the Harvard Arts Medal. She also operates Mirabai Films, a successful production company.

Mira Nair director Mirabai Films Maisah Salaam Baalak! Mississippi Masala The Namesake Vanity Fair Amelia So Far from India India Cabaret

Helping Others

What may be most distinguishing about Mira Nair, though, is her commitment to helping others, including many of those people who are represented in her films. Nair operates two nonprofit organizations including the Salaam Baalak Trust, which has for 20 years helped to provide homeless children in India with education opportunities and a safe place to spend time. Some two dozen centers serve 5,000 young people each year.

Nair's other nonprofit venture is Maisah, a film training program she set up in East Africa. Programs in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda have provided instruction in acting, directing, screenwriting, editing and producing, among other film crafts. Hundreds of young people have completed the program, many moving on to other film education programs and movie jobs around Africa and the world. Providing the skills by which to create narratives is important to Nair. As she has put it, 'One of my mantras is that if we don't tell our own stories, nobody else will tell them.'

James Franco is another big figure in film with an impressive academic background.

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