Mira Nair is driven. This 50-year old has been a prolific ever since she found her calling at 21. This week The Namesake opened in India and she is on the verge of what will be her biggest film to date—the Warner Bros production—Shantaram. A film that will give the world a chance to say ‘salaam Mira’.
Anuradha SenGupta: When you released Monsoon Wedding, we saw a lot of international and universal acclaim for the film. That was a Punjabi milieu with a lot of balle balle, warmth, energy and all of that. But in The Namesake you have a very restrained, quiet sort of community and story. Do you think it will make the same connect?
Mira Nair: I believe that one has to be specifically local and as truthful as possible in order to be as universal as possible. The Namesake is really about a Bengali family that leaves Calcutta in the mid 70’s and comes to New York City. It’s the 30-years-long saga of their children growing up in a totally different country than from where their parents came. Basically it’s a universal story of many a millions of us who have left home for another and are coping living between the two worlds.
In Monsoon Wedding they danced in the isles whether it was in Hungary, Iceland, Canada or India. In Namesake when the lights came up people were still sitting in their seats. They didn’t move, they wipe their tears and begin to talk to each other. That’s what I’m seeing at the theatres and it’s an amazing thing to see.
Anuradha SenGupta: I saw the film and while I had went thinking its Tabu’s film, it turned more of Irfan Khan and Kal Penn’s film. Irfan Khan has worked with you in Salaam Bombay where he was the professional letter writer. What made you go back to him?
Mira Nair: I have loved Irfan ever since I discovered him when he was just 18. I couldn’t give him a huge role in Salaam Bombay because he was too tall to play a street kid. He just did not look like a street kid. There was only a little role that I could give him in that film. Since then, we have been very close. I have always looked for a film that would do his brilliance justice. And this was the film. There was no other person that was on my mind. PAGE_BREAK
Anuradha SenGupta: What do you have to say about Kal Penn? He too has been absolutely brilliant in the film.
Mira Nair: Kal Penn is an amazing actor and he actually fought for this role. He came and parked himself outside my office and said, “Look I am an actor because of you. I saw Mississippi Masala when I was eight-years-old in New Jersey and I realized that people on screen could look like me! You have got to see me,” he said. My son would go to sleep and say, “Mom, tell me in the morning you are casting Kal Penn.”
It was a serious pressure from within and without. When he auditioned, it was just clear. He brought such hunger and urgency to playing his part. Now he writes to me pretty much every day because of the amazing reviews. People have loved him and he says, “I really feel this is the first film I ever did.”
Anuradha SenGupta: When you look at Salaam Bombay today, 18-years later, you can’t help but get a sense that it’s the kind of film that the new wave of Mexican directors are making today. But since they made their films and went on to be in the Oscar contention for Babel etc—that was in a comparatively shorter time. Why has it been a longer time for you? Was it out of choice?
Mira Nair: I pretty much worked from intuition and passion. I only do things that get under my skin. I don’t really have a sense that I should do this because for my career it would be better. Life is short and making films is obsessive. I am also a mother and a wife and I have a private life that is very important to me. The film that I make has to be worth leaving the family. If you take Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake for instance, they are a reflection of the stage of life that I’m going through.
Monsoon Wedding is very much about being a solid member of a family and celebrating it. The Namesake is very much about loss and what it feels like losing a parent in a country that is not your home. It is also about living between two worlds, as I have. I operate from that point. Look at the box office response to The Namesake and it’s through the roof. It’s fantastic in the US. So, I think my films do reach people and they are universally looked at.
With Shantaram which is my next film—that’s a hundred million dollar action adventure with Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan. That’s a film that will have the distribution of the world, I suppose. But The Namesake will head there too. I ‘m sure.
Anuradha SenGupta: I am going to quote something that you said. I want to know when Warner Bros and Johnny Depp got this project, did you say to them “Essentially in my blood stream I am an independent film maker. I have a healthy distrust of authority and I like to do it my way. The minute I do it my way, I’m incredibly collaborative and I listen to everybody.”
Mira Nair: I always say that I am very much a team player, so long as I have the last word. But they know that from my films. They know of the fire and the beauty of my films. They really went for my vision of what Shantaram should be. Of course there are films behind me that support that vision.
Anuradha SenGupta: When you are talking of a hundred billion dollars, Johnny Depp and Warner Bros—how much of Mira Nair’s independence and the spirit that I thought was embodied in this quote, will you be able to hang on to?
Mira Nair: I think I would be able to hang on to it a lot. I think that’s what they are coming to me for. That’s the difference. I am not in the market just to be on the ‘A’ list. They come to me for my sensibility, so they don’t want a watered down version of my work in Shantaram. But I’m really happy to work in a team. It’s a massive team of a massive film. I am certainly not naive to the fact that one has to work very collaboratively. And I really do enjoy that.
Anuradha SenGupta:Are there any safeguards that you as a filmmaker can build into these contracts. How does it work? I am trying to get a sense of really how it feels like to be in that space in Hollywood.
Mira Nair: With a film like The Namesake, I have complete final cut. No one tells me what to do. But with a film like Shantaram there is what we call a mutual agreement. It depends entirely on the gang of people that you work with. If people are really open and interested in the universe, interested in the world, it just makes a different experience. Johnny Depp is that kind of person. He is going with the person he thinks will give him the best situation to make Shantaram.
Anuradha SenGupta:Are you excited currently or are you a bit apprehensive or is it a bit of both?
Mira Nair: I am not daunted by the film. I am very excited by the challenge and honoured that they have come to me to direct it. I really think that it’s about time we get the balance between east and west right for a change. You know what happens when these phirangs come from abroad. They just don’t have any relationship with our country. Look what happened with City of Joy. You can fling millions of dollars at things but that doesn’t make it real. Or that doesn’t make it moving or truthful.
Anuradha SenGupta:From all the work that you have done and the persona that you are, or that you project, it seems that you are very comfortable in your Indian skin and yet so much on equal terms with the rest of the world. Is that a correct perception?
Mira Nair: Yes, it is. I am always who I am. I don’t change no matter wherever I go. I still wear my churidar kurta in LA.
Anuradha SenGupta:And you made the word behenji fashionable, isn’t it?
Mira Nair: I love behenjis. I have my own behenji brigade thank God. It’s very important to be truthful to yourself because I’m not interested in imitation.
Anuradha SenGupta:When you come back to India and I see you talking in interviews, some of the expressions are very camp. You know its like “we are like this only.” But when you are working with Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp or Reese Witherspoon are you doing that camp India accent at all?
Mira Nair: I do it all the time. The other accent I have is the Ugandan accent because I live half the time in Uganda. I directed Gabriel Burn in Vanity Fair entirely in an Ugandan accent just for fun.
Anuradha SenGupta: Which goes like?
Mira Nair: Which is “Mr Barn, can you walk through the door? Are you not smart enough to walk through the door?” And he had just collapsed laughing. They get so relaxed because you are not taking it too seriously. The whole work of a director is to create an atmosphere in which we can all make fools of ourselves, so long as you take the risks and then you relax into it and then you do something extraordinary as a performer.
But if you are all uptight and completely in your box, you are not going to see anything unusual or truthful coming out of them. So my work is to make everyone bloom and whichever way I see it happening. Gabriel used to be uptight and I used to say Mr Barn come on, is it quite too expensive for you to smile at me? And then he used to laugh.
Anuradha SenGupta: Is this the way your acting past comes in handy?
Mira Nair: Yes, it comes in very handy. Because I work a lot with non-actors, I sometime have to act for them to know what I want. You can’t just sit around as a director and say ‘ya ya do it again just better’. And I have actually seen directors do that. It’s not my way at all. I have to find out what each person needs in order to open his or her hearts to the camera and to the screen.
Anuradha SenGupta: Do you think in finding Mira Nair, the filmmaker, we the world have lost Mira Nair the actor?
Mira Nair: Oh, no. Who needs me in screen?
Anuradha SenGupta: I remember Mississippi Masala – suddenly there is little appearance.
Mira Nair: That is because I was the best beach in town – or the best gossip. But I have no desire to take an act. Also when you are a director, you know what it is involved in the other side and somehow it doesn’t intrigue me. I have no patience for that hair and make and all that stuff. And I also love to have that control that I got to say to bring a universe together. An actor is one part of that universe.
Anuradha SenGupta: As a person, who brings everything together, and being a woman – you saw the Devil Wears Prada?
Mira Nair: Yes, I was offered it. I was offered to make it.
Anuradha SenGupta: Now, would you feel that, that was the archetypal female boss that everybody loves to run to the ground?
Mira Nair: Ah, I think that was a wonderful character, it’s an wonderful invention, a character, a portrait. I don’t see it as any kind of huge significance to what female bosses are or not.
Anuradha SenGupta: You think females are different?
Mira Nair: I actually think women are extraordinary. They are multi-taskers and pay extraordinary attention to details in a way that men just can’t handle. I do notice that difference between men and women. I certainly know and have grown up with this whole idea that we can do anything.
Anuradha SenGupta: Grownup with this idea that ‘we could do anything’, that you are not different from a guy. Tell us who are your role models? What was it like growing-up?
What is your mom who gave you this kind of feeling? Or was it your dad? I mean how and from where did you get this sense from? Even today, that sense is something that needs to be created.
Mira Nair: Well, I grew up in Orissa, in a small town in Bhubaneswar and have two older brothers. Actually the big part of the liberation of my growing up was that my parents’ concern was my brothers. were They were hoping for them to do well and hoping they would get into the IAS and whatever else, you know. So, I was the kind of left to do my own thing, not that I was neglected but there was no worry for me.
Anuradha SenGupta: No expectations either?
Mira Nair: Yes, no expectation and fortunately I was a very good student, so I was really left to my own devices which was the best recipe to find out what made me tick.
Anuradha SenGupta: Your film Historical Blindness, which perhaps not too many people may have seen in India, I think is a very interesting film because amongst other things, because of that fantastic casting – Uma Thurman, as this woman, who just wants to be loved and willing to do anything to be loved, beauty doesn’t seem to be any guarantee. Isn’t it?
Mira Nair: Not at all. I mean people laughed at me when I was casting Uma Thurman, who could not get laid and they said, how can that be! And it was actually Uma who asked me to direct her in this film as herself produced the film. She trusted me and I really went with her. She is brave and I sort of took her to the abbess in the performance. She got there to such a place, where really beauty is just not even a factor. It’s in fact going to the, sort of, the core of you, which may not be beautiful at all.
Anuradha SenGupta: When I saw the Historic Blindness and I was watching Uma Thurman, I thought here is the beautiful woman who is just so hell bent being loved, is putting so much efforts in the way she looks and how she appears and all of that, and none of that was a guarantee ever. So, what is the guarantee? What is it that you need to invest in to make romantic relationships, lust perhaps may be?
Mira Nair: Well, I think that, you know, selflessness in relationships goes a long way – putting others before yourself. In marriage, for instance, it’s a major key and there is so much in modern life that tells you to just think of yourself and to be an individual and just to be me, me and me. I find that completely corrosive in terms of making a relationship work.
Anuradha SenGupta: When you are going to work on Shantaram now, what happens to your time with family?
Mira Nair: Well, Shantaram is going to be a big uphill task, because it’s a huge film and it’s on four continents. It’s going to take larger part of a year to prepare and shoot. Many films specially Namesake and Monsoon Wedding were really built around my family, sleeping in my own bed with the family and so on. So, it’s going to be a big departure in Shantaram.
But I also comfort myself in the fact that my son is almost 16 years old and he is pretty grounded. He has that foundation. And my husband is a professor. His life unlike mine is much more stable and at home.
Anuradha SenGupta: So, they are going to be selfless.
Mira Nair: They have to be you know. And it’s harder for men to be selfless than for women, I find. But I am blessed in that respect.
Anuradha SenGupta: How do you react, if I say that – Mira Nair’s films that are based in contemporary India and are about people like her are where she does best in, as compared with the other films that she made. How do you react to that comment?
Mira Nair: Well, I make films about subjects that simply get under my skin and don’t let me go. But once I do any film, whether it is Vanity Fair or Historical Blindness, I put myself fully into it. As long as it reaches you, as long as it moves you and as long as it involves you, I am here to do it again.
Anuradha SenGupta: When you look back to the huge body of work that you built up, do you sort of review your work?
Mira Nair: No. I don’t look back much. But I have a film school in South Africa. About a year ago the students there wanted to see Salaam Bombay and I showed them. I hadn’t seen it in 10 years. And I must say after seeing that film I thought, I was just this vessel, this extraordinary piece of work. It just came out of us, came out of me. It was just an amazing feeling. It was amazing to feel how utterly immediate and how utterly contemporary that film is.
Anuradha SenGupta: Hindi movies – you love the songs. Don’t you?
Mira Nair: I love them.
Anuradha SenGupta: Because you tend to pick it up and put it in your films also. It’s almost like a tribute.
Mira Nair: Yes, in Monsoon Wedding we do so definitely. Chunri-Chunri was the song that all the girls were rocking to in Delhi when I was making Monsoon Wedding and I had just picked it up. And I remember David Dhawan, who originally made that song, came to me and said, “Thanks for making my song a hit”. Meri picture mei nahi hua, teri picture mei ho gaya. And it was fantastic you know.
Anuradha SenGupta: So being Mira Nair today, what’s theme song you would pick? Is there anything coming to your mind?
Mira Nair: Woh, Aaj mera diwanapan hai. You know the old Mukesh song that Sushila Raman re-sang for the Namesake. You know it’s all about diwanapan and I am sort of devoted to diwanapan.
Anuradha SenGupta: Still devoted to diwanapan. Thank you very much and all the very best.
Mira Nair: Thank you.