|Is middle age catching up with Mira Nair? Fifteen years ago, Nair directed her second feature—Mississippi Masala, a playful, funny, romantic, but also a fiery and angry tale of race and Indian American immigration set in America’s south. Now, several films later, Nair, who turned 49 last month, has directed an equally funny, but a much quieter and deeply tragic tale The Namesake.
Critics and audiences have been raving about The Namesake—based on Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, as the film had made rounds of various festivals. The film, starring Tabu, Irfan Khan and the Indian American actor Kal Penn, is set to open in the US and India in early March 2007.
“I was not looking to make a film about immigration and I don’t even think of myself as an immigrant,” says Nair, seated in her office in Manhattan’s Union Square neighbourhood, where she surrounds herself with large framed posters of her films. Although she left India over 25 years ago, the filmmaker still holds her Indian passport. Her husband, Mahmood Mamdani, a professor at Columbia University, and her 15-year-old son, Zoran, have Ugandan citizenships. “I actively live in the global space.”
“I think it is more a reflection of the Hindu philosophy, where we have four stages of life and I think I’m definitely in the cusp of my second and third stage— in between the householder and karma yogi,” she says. “Many of my films are a response to or mirroring my stage of life.”
“This is only in hindsight—it is not something I planned, but I think these last few films (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair and now The Namesake) have been strongly about family,” she says. “Because that is my complete immersion—the family, as a wife, a mother, a daughter-in-law, a daughter and sister.”
In December 2003, Nair’s mother-in-law, Kulsoom Alibhai or Ammy, died of complication from surgery for ovarian cancer. Nair had hoped that Ammy would stay with her for a while. “We had called her here,” Nair says about her mother-in-law who was originally from Uganda. “I had hired an ayurvedic cook. We were not expecting this death.”
“With Ammy’s death, it was the first time I entered in that zone of really, palpably feeling that we are not immortal, that everyone must go,” Nair adds. Her mother and father are still alive. “But it was the first time for me to directly experience the finality of loss.”
A short while later Nair was heading to India to shoot the closing scenes of Vanity Fair. Through the journey in the aircraft she decided to read The Namesake. The book just grabbed her. “It was as if I had been understood,” she says. “I had found a person—Jhumpa—who had put into words everything that I had experienced and was experiencing.”
She became possessed by the book. And a week later she recognised that she had to direct a film based on The Namesake. To her surprise, the rights to the novel were still available and so she postponed two other films she had begun to work on at that time, based on American playwright Tony Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul and Hari Kunzru’s novel The Impressionist.
Nair found a personal connection with The Namesake. The story starts in Kolkata and ends in New York and she has lived in the two cities. But more than the story of immigration she was attracted to the love connection between Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli (played by Khan and Tabu)—the parents of the film’s protagonist, Gogol (Penn).
“I wanted to capture the stillness of our parents’ generation,” she says. “If you have a cup of tea, you only have a cup of tea. You do not talk to each other. You do not multi-task. That kind of stillness is a very rare quality.”
“Our parents’ generation had everything we have, but it is just a different language and it is deeper than any language we know,” she adds. “I was interested in people who are strangers and who fall in love versus today’s lack of courtship. Of how you fall in love or fall in lust. It is such a different style. I believe romance must have been far more acute in their generation.”
Nair’s struggle in casting in The Namesake has been well documented in the press. At different times the director has sought Abhishek Bachchan, Rani Mukherjee and Konkana Sen Sharma for the film. Bachchan simply said no, while Mukherjee preferred to act in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, instead of The Namesake and Sharma was committed to appear in her mother’s 15 Park Avenue.
But in finding Penn and Tabu, Nair maintains that she was blessed by an angel of casting.
“Tabu is such a seasoned actor,” she says. At various film festivals she has referred to Tabu as the Indian Meryl Streep. But Nair had to work with Tabu to bring out the musicality in her voice, so that she appeared Bengali. “She was so fascinated with me to take her to that place. It was to do with everything to make her as delicate as possible. I wasn’t interested in this soulful lonely housewife. I liked the fact that they (Ashoke and Ashima) are falling in love.”
Nair learnt about Penn from her son, who is a huge fan of the actor’s 2004 Hollywood comedy—Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. Penn came and auditioned for Nair and she was convinced that she had found her Gogol.
“Kal was so hungry to play drama, which I saw in the audition, I also wanted to lace the role with his comic timing,” she says, referring to a scene in the film where Gogol smokes pot with his school friends. “I counted on him but he was a real revelation.”
Nair discovered Khan while she was auditioning trained actors and street kids for Salaam Bombay. But at the last minute she did not cast Khan in that film, since he was older than the rest of the kids. She had to wait 20 years before she found a role suitable for the actor.
There is a scene towards the middle of The Namesake, where Ashoke and Ashima are sitting and drinking tea before he leaves for Cleveland on a job assignment. Ashoke asks Ashima to come with him, but she says no. Nair had worked with her two actors, but at one point she looked through the camera and she was simply stunned to see Khan’s performance.
“I was very close to them,” she recalls. “I swear to God, I took my eyes off and the love in his (Khan’s) eyes… It was just like singeing, like it was amazing.”
Having travelled with The Namesake to Telluride, Toronto, Rome, London and now, New York (the film’s premiere was held on November 1 at the Indo American Arts Council’s sixth annual film festival), Nair has had the chance to the see film in different settings. “I am happy with this film,” she says. “I can sit through it without suffering or cringing and wishing it was different, which we all do. Many times I introduce my movie and then we go out for dinner and not sit through it, but this one and Monsoon Wedding weren’t like that.”
Nair has directed nine feature length narrative films—including two she made for television (Hysterical Blindness and My Own Country). The filmmaker is certainly not pleased with all her films. A few years ago The New Yorker critic John Lahr quoted her as saying that her 1996 film, Kamasutra: A Tale of Love was “an aberration”.
She now acknowledges that she would have made the film differently. “That was the movie that didn’t end up what I had started making,” she says, now that ten years have passed since the release of Kamasutra. “And it is a lonely feeling when that happens.”
“I would change lots of things, lots of interweaving things that took it away from the core,” she adds.
Her 1995 film The Perez Family was released the same day as another Latino themed film Mi Familia. Critics seemed to favour Mi Familia, even though Nair’s film boasted of a star cast including Marisa Tomei and Anjelica Huston. “It was a confusing situation with distribution, so everyone confused the two films,” she says.
Then, in 2004, Nair directed her most expensive film—Vanity Fair, based on William Thackeray’s classic novel. Several critics seemed unhappy with Nair’s adaptation that was based on Oscar winning writer Julian Fellowes’ screenplay. Nair maintains that she did not drift away from Thackeray’s book. “People have always looked at the 800-page novel as a rags-to-riches story,” she says. “I was more interested in the political context of the story. But I definitely had a sensation that hain bhai, this is an English classic, leave it to us. But at the same time it was well received to make money.” Vanity Fair and Monsoon Wedding became her most successful films, each earning over $20 million worldwide.
The Namesake is nearly off the film circuits. Nair is taking the film to the Dubai International Festival in December and then she will await its release in the spring.
But already her plate is full with her other projects including Gangsta MD, the English language adaptation of Munna Bhai MBBS. She is also scheduled to produce four short films on AIDS in India. The project is funded by the Gates Foundation. In addition to Nair, Vishal Bhardwaj, Santosh Sivan and Kamal Hassan are scheduled to direct the segments. And, finally, Nair is set to direct a full-length documentary on the Beatles in India.
In the midst of all this creative energy, some of which is dedicated each year to a boot camp film school she now runs from her summer home in Kampala, Uganda, Nair manages to maintain a calm balance. She works from 10 to 5 and then three days a week she attends yoga classes at the Iyengar Institute. On Sundays, she takes a private yoga class with her husband and son.
“I keep it in moderation,” she says of her life, and adds that yoga calms her. “That is how I keep stress at bay.”
INTERPRETING JHUMPA MASHI
Mira Nair and Jhumpa Lahiri first connected several years ago, when the filmmaker was planning to work on a film project based on the author’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories—Interpreter of Maladies.
When Nair bought the rights to The Namesake, she also managed to convince Lahiri to play a small role in the film. Lahiri appears as an extra in the film, although she is given a name—Jhumpa Mashi.
The Namesake’s screenplay is written by Nair’s close friend and long-time collaborator, Sooni Taraporevala. But once the screenplay was complete, Nair added some of her own touches. For instance, in the film, Ashoke (Irfan Khan) shows a New York City subway map to his new bride Ashima (Tabu) so that she can go all the way downtown to buy fish from the Fulton Fish market.
Nair says that element of the importance of fish in the life of a newly wed bride is taken straight out of Lahiri’ short story Mrs Sen’s, where a desperately bored housewife in Boston baby-sits an American kid Elliot. The young boy, in narrating the story, informs the readers that Mrs Sen would be happy when a letter from India would arrive in her mailbox or when she had the chance to eat fresh fish from the sea.