Indian-American director Mira Nair didn’t originally intend to become a filmmaker and expected to study sociology. That is what she studied in India before transferring to Harvard University, but it was at Harvard that she joined the theater club on campus and ignited a passion for performance. Acting would lead her into filmmaking, where she began making documentaries about Indian cultural traditions, even making her Harvard thesis a documentary set on the streets of Old Delhi. Nair would continue to make documentaries throughout her career as a filmmaker, but in 1983, she co-wrote and directed her first feature film: Salaam Bombay!
Salaam Bombay! was a massive success, putting Nair on the map. With her co-writer Sooni Taraporevala, she followed this up with the release of Mississippi Masala in 1991, which discussed the presence and experiences of Indians, born in Uganda, and living in rural Mississippi. Nair has continued to make television shows, short films, documentaries, and movies throughout her career — she was even asked to direct Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at one point. Nair’s subjects are diverse, showing an interest in the stories that often don’t make it to Hollywood, ultimately proving that South Asians have stories outside of Bollywood romance. She will direct the upcoming reimagined National Treasure series on Disney+ and an adaptation of an Ellen Barry short story. Until then, these are her best movies so far.
6/6 Queen of Katwe
Queen of Katwe, which came out in 2016, tells an inspiring true story of the slums of Uganda. A young girl named Phiona Mutsei, portrayed by Madina Nalwanga, is ten and lives in the slums of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. She helps her mother and brother as they try to survive in their everyday conditions and life, but when she meets someone through the missionary program, he teaches her how to play chess. This changes her life forever; she is taken to local competitions and wins all of them, landing her a spot on Uganda’s team. Her family’s hopes and dreams ride on her, as she hopes to make enough money to provide for them.
5/6 The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Released in 2012, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was many years in the making before seeing the light of day. Nair based the film on a novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid. Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson star in the movie. An American professor is kidnapped in Pakistan, and his colleague, Changez (Ahmed), is believed to be involved in the kidnapping. He was educated at Princeton University on a scholarship, but when 9/11 happens in the US, his life changed. Changez is racially profiled and targeted by agents, leaving him with a burning anger towards what is now happening and American intervention in Pakistan.
4/6 Salaam Bombay!
The movie that introduced Mira Nair to the world, Salaam Bombay! was nominated for a plethora of awards when it was released, although it was considered a foreign film due to its subject matter and language (Hindi). The camera focuses on the world’s biggest slums in Mumbai, where street children are forced to survive in the most difficult of circumstances. Several of the actors cast were actual street children from the area. A young boy sets fire to his brother’s motorbike after being bullied, and his mother makes him start working at the circus. He leaves home when the circus packs up to find work but meets people in much worse circumstances than him.
3/6 Monsoon Wedding
Monsoon Wedding is about its namesake: a wedding that happens with a flair for the dramatics. An arranged marriage is about to be conducted and the wedding brings together family members from all corners of the world. This occasion will be grand and expensive, leading to some financial difficulties on some ends while other family members are coming from complicated situations abroad. Monsoon Wedding has a lot of drama packed into its story along with a wide spread of characters, making it a bit difficult at times to remember whose story is whose, but proves rewarding at the end.
2/6 The Namesake
Based on the Jhumpa Lahiri novel of the same name, The Namesake tells the story of Gogol, a son of Bengali immigrants to the United States. The novel covers a lot of ground, and the movie remains true to the spirit of the original story. It opens with the immigration of Ashoke and Ashima from Kolkata to New York City, where they raise their two children Gogol and Sonia. Despite the parents trying to remain intact to their culture and homeland, Gogol grows up to be rebellious and more American than Indian, leading to some major cultural clashes between his parents and him.
1/6 Mississippi Masala
Set in the depths of rural Mississippi, Mississippi Masala is a unique tale about Uganda-born Indians living in the American South. At its roots, the movie is a love story. An Indian family flees Uganda and settles in Mississippi to start over, setting down the roots of a new life after Uganda forced out its entire Indian population. The family’s daughter, Mina, welcomes her new life in America and falls in love with a local Black man, portrayed by Denzel Washington. She keeps the relationship a secret since she knows her parents would never approve, while also facing dislike from the local Black communities he is a part of too.