At Home With… Mira Nair
This incredibly special conversation with Mira Nair warms our hearts as we enter the year’s final, cooler quarter. A filmmaker who needs little introduction, we were fortunate to catch her at home, during what would have otherwise been a busy time for her.
On the tail end of wrapping up A Suitable Boy – the television drama miniseries she recently directed for the BBC – her introspective words offer a slice of what we eagerly anticipate and enjoy in her art – a way to live:
What has this time at home given you?
This time at home has been an extraordinary pause. It has imposed a beautiful stillness and chance to be with my husband who I haven’t seen for almost two years while shooting A Suitable Boy on location across northern India. We were lucky because I had just come from London to New York to see my son for a weekend with a knapsack on my back. The world changed when the borders closed that weekend in March, and I got to be in New York City.
I was preparing to be alone, because our son lives across the Hudson River and Mahmood was teaching in Uganda, but as luck would have it, Mahmood returned home 12 hours later just before Uganda closed its borders.
“I remotely finished the film’s post-production at my desk – in my book-lined and art-lined cocoon – with three devices, each making post-production possible across continents.”
But it was a regular life of work, cooking, cleaning, walking and doing yoga. As Mahmood (seriously) joked, the lockdown has been the best part of our married lives, to which I responded: ‘that doesn’t say much about the rest of it’.
With your multicultural perspective, how would you describe 'home'?
I am privileged to have three homes: and by that I mean places I can step into without a toothbrush and that have been imbued with my own life. In New York, we are completely independent and self-sufficient – whether it’s the two of us or just me. In Kampala, our house faces Lake Victoria with a garden that I have created and nurtured for over 31 years. Having planted each tree as a sapling, every element has a history and story for me.
“The whole garden is planted in threes of a kind because we are a small family of three – Mahmood, Zohran and me. It’s wonderful to see everything in threes as a sort of protection for my life ahead.”
In Delhi, which is in a sense, my real home, I am extraordinarily located between 15th and 16th century tombs – Humayun’s and the great shrine of Khan-i-Khana – outside my window. It feels great to be a witness to the times, like the trees in Kampala. Home is full of good friends, aunties, naanies, and extended family. Often my work is inspired within India so the Delhi home becomes an important base for my colleagues and friends.
Finishing up a project in the midst of a pandemic must have been challenging. Would you share an epiphany or pivot in your approach?
It’s been absolutely mindblowing to know that one can finish the detailed post-production of a six-hour piece of longform cinema from your desk. The remarkable and strange thing about working remotely on Zoom is that it hones my focus. I concentrate fully and can see everyone on the screen concentrating equally. It was lucky that I knew my film editors before the lockdown through shorthand communication. Everyone was everywhere – Australia, London – but we were reunited by the film itself and by knowing each other, and we managed.
One epiphany was recording music for the score, a part of which was performed in Budapest by a 30-piece orchestra, written by our composer. Budapest has the only Soviet-style auditorium where 30 live musicians could gather with social distancing to create the fullness that we needed. We used Gateway, an app where I could view the orchestra and be able to speak to them virtually, along with our composer and music team. It was extraordinary to be in a cocoon in New York and completely feel the presence and fullness of orchestral music.
What gets you out of bed every morning? Your morning routine?
I’m a morning person, I sleep early-ish and wake up early at 6am. It begins with the fairly meditative act of making chai with elaichi, ground ginger and milk, brewed with a certain kind of andaaz (style). It takes about 20 minutes and I love that it’s a ritual both natural and tasty.
“We then usually have a quiet morning, listening to Vilayat Khan Saheb play Raag Piloo and Jaijaivanti with our cup of tea.”
At eight, we begin the day by going to the study, starting work which involves all kinds of things. This is interspersed with Zoom yoga classes three-four times a week with the greatest teachers of Iyengar, my usual teachers in person who are now all online.
Your favourite space at home?
My favourite space is an open kitchen living room surrounded on two sides – we’re a corner apartment – by windows. Our floor, being on the treeline, overlooks Riverside Park which is leafy six months of the year. The other six, there are no leaves and you can see the Hudson River. Anytime of year, it’s a garland of a view.
Since our in-laws passed away and our son now lives across the water, it’s no more a two-three generation home. Due to Covid, no one visits and it’s just us with a big open area for what we like to do there. It’s become our yogic space with mats permanently in place; in the evenings, we have it set for a smoke and drink as we look out across the park. In the morning, it’s really quite something to have a cup of tea and be surrounded by green.
Even while depicting serious subjects, humour and mischief are key tools in your arsenal. Would you share something that has made you laugh out loud recently?
Thank you for that – there’s nothing more wonderful than the sound of laughter. The other day, one of the great rays of sunshine during these difficult times has been our son Zohran Mamdani winning the first New York City election he stood for. He’s now the first assemblyman from Astoria, Queens, and of course, we’re proud of him and the change he brings. He comes from the socialist wing of the Democratic Party.
I got a call from a friend in Kampala, who marvelled at how Zohran had done all this while being a socialite. Of course she meant socialist, but I just laughed out loud at the thought of him as a socialite!
A perfect Sunday at home...
… is making idli, sambar and chutney for 11 o'clock brunch; sometimes bagels and lox on the other side which we love here.
“Reading the newspapers and going out to the farmers’ market where I buy heirloom tomatoes in season, wildflowers and scallops from a fisherman who comes to sell.”
Because of Covid, there’s no art or gardens which I usually love to see. Now, in the afternoon we walk in Riverside Park, and we've been going to a number of protests which makes us at least feel connected to the great struggle going on everywhere in the world.
With filming for A Suitable Boy wrapped up, how are you taking a well-deserved break? How do you recharge?
The thing I always love and have to do after we finish a film is see the open sea. It takes me away and is my ultimate healer. I went to Goa after A Suitable Boy, stayed in Arjun Bhasin’s wonderful home and went to the ocean everyday. We drank margaritas in the morning and blissed out in the evening with close friends who live there.
Recently after five-six months of lockdown and post-production, we took a week to go see Martha's Vineyard with the family. We ate lobster, oysters, swam, and took in the sun. To drink in the expanse of horizon after being essentially closed in by four walls has helped me pace up for whatever is in the future.
Before turning off the lights…
I just turn them off and go to sleep actually. I'm usually happily tired. I'm, of course, the butt of all family jokes because I go to sleep in the movies. Often, we’re watching something on TV and I'm already asleep.
Favourite bedroom feature:
The pleasure of handmade linen that feels terrific on the body; it is always about texture and then warmth. The bed is often equipped, in terms of pillows and sheets for lightness and warmth in the quilt. Akanksha (Himêya's founder) sends me even lovelier gifts which surround me on the bed. It’s a sensual pleasure in many ways.
“I enjoy all aspects of linen, and inevitably, beds are full of these gifts.”
Featured (L): Himêya's Flannel Blanket and Shams in Clay Red/Olive Grey and Sheet in Wheatfield Honey, Image (R): Shreya Dev Dube
Success and rest go hand in hand. Your thoughts, and tips for a good night's rest?
The best tip for a good night’s rest is to do yoga in the day, to really anchor the body in both flexibility and strength. There’s a cleansing that happens inside with prana. I’m not quite erudite on the subject but there’s a definite unknotting of energy when I do yoga. Unfortunately, I don’t do it everyday but I should. Those days I sleep wonderfully.
But a good night's rest is to have a clean mind and a sense of peace if you can achieve it – without always beating yourself up!
Feature image courtesy Carlo Allegri (Getty Images)