Up Close – Interview with Mira Nair
Posted by Vivek on August 26, 2008 | No Comments
What really attracted you to Jhumpa’s story?
Well I was really inspired by grief. I had lost my mother in law, who was like a mother to me and that too very unexpectedly in New York, in a malpractise in a Hospital. We buried her in a snow storm in New Jersey and this was a woman who had spent her whole life in East Africa and I had never experienced the finality of death of a person close to me and I read the Namesake six weeks into mourning, by chance, on a plane, going to India, at the end of Vanity Fair and I felt such a shock of recognition of how Jhumpa had acutely instilled in what it felt like to bury a parent in a country that was not home. The plane landed and I called up my agent and the rights were available and a week later I was sitting across Jhumpa in my office in Union Square, New York, who gave me the rights and nine months later we were shooting this film.
You said that the Namesake is a personal story, did you have a similar experience when you came to the US?
Not similar too Ashima, because I came as a student and was part of a larger institution. I did not come as someone else’s wife. But in so many ways having grown up in Calcutta, grown up in New York city, I know these cities so very well, I know the state of looking outside your window and seeing instead of the Hudson River, imaging it’s the Ganges…the inbetween world of the Ganguli family, as I’ve shown it, is very much the state I’m familiar with and so many things about how families are and how life in Calcutta was in the 70’s versus today’s Manhattan. I’m the mother of a fifteen and a half year old and I know what it’s like to raise an adolescent in this country and to feel the push and pull that is there, of course I bring a lot of that into the film.
How do you mange to get into the “soul” of the cities so well. You did that to Bombay in Salaam, then to Delhi in Monsoon Wedding and now to Calcutta and New York in Namesake…how do you manage to so seamlessly, get into these cities?
Well I have spent formative years of my life in Calcutta. I grew up in Orissa and I used to be shipped to Calcutta for every summer, for 12 summers, from the age of eight till seventeen. And I also had this Punjabi part. This whisky drinking family from Union Carbide, but in the morning I would do to north Calcutta and be a street activist and an actor in the maidans of Cal, so a complete contrast a juxtaposition of the Punjabi scene and the intellectual, cultural Bengali side. So this story, similarly is in these two cities, New York and Cal and I know these cities like the back of my hand. So when I read the book I knew right away that I wanted to make a love story about two strangers who fall in love with each other after they are married, in a different place and the son, who had to exist in counterpoint to his parents, unlike the book which is much, much more about Gogol.
For me it’s a see saw, it’s that balancing act between parents and children that I was interested in. But to you question, how do you condense 30 hours of the two cities into two and for me that was by filming the two cities (Cal and NY) like one….because I really feel that spirit of the bridges, of the traffic of the trams, the subway so as to mix it up so that the audience too by the middle of it where they are, because that is how it is to be between worlds, like we live. And them my background comes from the cinema of the street. I am a humble student of that cinema so Salaam Bombay is about that, it is about the Bombaiya, what Bombay makes us become and similarly Monsoon Wedding is completely about the chaos of my family dining table and for me it has been fused with images that I love about Delhi, my Delhi is not that one dining table, it has to be that expansive.
I love that see saw between comedy and sorrow, you have laughed now because of the sorrow before, so Gogol in Calcutta being accompanied by his servant when he steps out, was a huge comic scene, cause that again is how the streets are so it was a way of using it. I wanted to make a Bengali film in America and I know Bengal, but I’m not Bengali but I submit, I have humility. Also I cast very carefully. I must have seen 1500 people before I cast Ghosh (the man on the train). Because Ghosh is the man who unlocks everyone’s history. In real life he is a journalist, a film critic, he is not an actor, actually he is an actor of sorts, but is really an intellectual who just had it.So coming from documentary where truth is stranger than faction, so follow that truth, find that truth, that is the approach I take, again observing the street.
What lead you to cast Kal Penn, who has always been known for his comic roles and you take him and put him in a serious dramatic role?
My fifteen year old son worships him! And actually introduced me and insisted that I cast Kal. Again he was just hungry to play it. But I had a lot of domestic pressure seriously from my fifteen year old. I was shown Kal on the net and I said, fine he’s a goof, he’s a comic but I’m looking for a dashing young man. Then Kal wrote to me and every night I would put my fifteen year old to bed, he would be “Mummy when I wake up in the morning tell me it is going to be Kal.” Then Kal wrote to me that he became an actor because of me, when he was eight years old he saw Mississippi Masala he realized that people on the screen could look like him. So I said “fly yourself down and we shall see.” So when he auditioned for me in my office I saw that he was deeply the real thing. Like he had grown up and was born a Gogol, like he was someone who had negotiated exactly Gogol’s path and brought to me that kind of hunger and urgency that he wanted to.
And I’m not someone who is concerned with stereotyping like you know “Oh he is a comic so he is only a comic.” It never even occurred to me. If someone can show me the way that they can do it and they want to and they really have it in them and I respond to that then I am there. But it was a lot of pressure from the home front. And I thank him for that because he did a wonderful.
What has been your experience as an Indian, woman, filmmaker in the mainstream world of Hollywood?
I feel I’ve always done my own thing, right from the beginning and in the beginning it used to be pretty lonesome, I did not know whom I was making films for, cause even in India, the documentaries, how I began I had no audience for them. But there is something… I just do what I have to do…I really deal with that and keep on doing it and now it actually amazes me that I have a body of work, cause that’s how people refer to it and I have an audience. But the thing is I never sought to be part of the A list, I never was like “I got to be as good as that guy,” it just……I have to do what I do and in the process of doing that people come to me for my sensibilities.
I feel so happy to now get Shantaram, for instance…that to me was the cream of the crop….actor Jonney Depp…but that’s because of my work which really speaks and sells lots of tickets cause let’s face facts…it’s both things….they are no going to give me work because I’m authentic, they are going to give it to me because people want to see the work…that’s what really talks in Hollywood. But I feel it’s testimony to the fact that I’ve kept on working, kept on doing it…regardless of who is listening…and the films manage to find big audiences now.
Are you drawn to literary works because you did Vanity Fair? Namesake?
Only if the idea really possesses me and don’t let me go. But I am equally at home with the original idea of Monsoon Wedding or Salaam Bombay…I just finished a new film called Migration which is an original screenplay. This series I am producing four films with three other directors – Santosh Shivan, Farhan Akhtar, Vishal Bhardwaj and me, trying to raise awareness of AIDS in India. Each of us is going to do a short film and I’m going to attach it to big Bollywood blockbusters, so that the masses will wake up to AIDS. I’ve just finished mine, Zoya Akhtar wrote the script and it is about the virus not knowing any class level, it can affect anyone. It’s with Irfan, Shiney Ahuja and Samira Reddy and a whole bunch of great actors.
The last dialogue of the movie that Tabu says—so underplayed and yet so powerful, wakes you up? How did that come about?
That is what Ashima would do. That is how she would do it. It’s not about proclamations, it’s about ….I think sorrow takes a lot of energy..when you have been through that in life, you don’t lose your energy on big tamashagiri…and so that is the most human way that she would have spoken. So it was not that we tried different interpretations…it was always like that. A lot of the performances of the film are like meditation and should be like meditation because it’s what it’s like and also what a particular character are like. They are very self effacing and very at home in quietude.
We saw this film with Sharmishta, who was on your team for the Calcutta part of it. She said that the humidity was a challenge in India, what else were some of the difficulties you faced in shooting in India?
It has to be the sixteen pounds of gold that Tabu had on her in that humidity, not a complain, nothing out of her. The humidity was there, but I loved it because it was in such wonderful contrast to the snow and I was not pretending that it was not there. So I full on embraced it. Everyone is mopping themselves in the movie too. But the usual thing with me is I always make an epic on a peanut. We shot that whole section of the movie in India in eleven days exactly.