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Mira Nair's Movie Magic

September 2004
Mira Nair's Movie Magic

Her very first film was an Oscar nominee. Her Monsoon Wedding showcased Indian culture to the mainstream like never before. Her latest Vanity Fair is what Hollywood is all about: epic plot, visual opulence, acclaimed artists? all with just a twist of India thrown into it. Welcome to Mira Nair's world of make believe that appears as real as can be.

By Murali Kamma

Last month, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta, Mira Nair was bubbling over with energy and enthusiasm as she warmly greeted this interviewer. "Vanity Fair is actually a desi movie," she said, laughing. "It's a lot like a ?gora' Monsoon Wedding." Nair was in town to promote her new Hollywood film, which is based on William Makepeace Thackeray's famous novel. Although she'd already spoken to several people, and a few more were patiently waiting for their turn in her suite, this vivacious filmmaker remained fully alert and engaged. Sipping a fresh cup of coffee, which probably kept her going, she seemed eager to talk. Her infectious smile and friendly, down-to-earth manner helped to establish an immediate rapport.

Mira Nair belongs to a small coterie of Indian filmmakers who have gained wide international acclaim in recent years. Yet, despite her growing renown in the West, she remains a passionate defender of commercial Indian cinema ? as exemplified by the vibrant world of Bollywood. In a lecture given at the Netherlands Film Festival, Nair described this cinema as being "necessarily adaptive and composite ? a genre welcoming outside influences, not fearing them." She added, "Commercially and artistically Bollywood is supple and muscular ? much like Indian culture itself."

But for a long time, while growing up in Orissa, Nair had been indifferent to Bollywood films, although she did find many of the hit songs irresistible. In those formative years, she'd mostly been enchanted by the traditional jatra form of mythological theater, widely performed in rural India by traveling troupes. Later, in Calcutta, she became interested in political protest theater and the avant-garde films of the West. Ironically, it was only after she came to the U.S. as a film student that she turned to Indian cinema. The works of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Guru Dutt made a profound impression on her. "I rely on seeing one of Guru Dutt's movies every six months before I make one of my own," she notes.

It was through the works of these giants of Indian cinema that Nair also rediscovered the ever-popular films of Bollywood. In a revealing passage, she comments: "I've seen that the Indian films' influence ? specifically that unabashed emotional directness, the freewheeling use of music, that emphasis on elemental motivations and values ? is a thread running consistently through every one of my films; even when exploring foreign worlds, I have taken the bones and flesh of these societies and tried to infuse them with the spirit of where I'm from." Ultimately, from an Indian point of view, it's this singular approach as a filmmaker that makes her new Western-yet-Eastern movie so fascinating.

Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding are perhaps Nair's best-known works. With the former, her first one, she gained wide recognition after it was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-film category. Only two other Indian movies (Mother India and Lagaan) share that distinction. So far, according to one report, Monsoon Wedding has been the most successful Indian film released in the U.S. Her many other movies include the well-received Mississippi Masala and the critically unsuccessful Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. Nair's future projects include a film based on The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru, and ? possibly ? a $10-million staged version of Monsoon Wedding for Broadway. In her interview with Khabar, Nair announced that her very next movie would be based on Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake.

Nair teaches film at Columbia University in New York, where her husband, Mahmood Mamdani, is a professor of government and anthropology. Nair is also involved with a production company called the International Behnji Brigade, which she co-launched recently with Balaji Rao, the director of Venkateswara Hatcheries Group in India. Their plan is to showcase the subcontinent's talent by making three independent films over the next three years. Each one will have a South Asian director, and the themes being considered pertain to the diverse people of Indian descent, no matter where they live. These so-called ?glocal' movies will be made for a worldwide audience.

The extraordinary magic of Mira Nair's movie-making can hardly be summed up by the written word. Watching her films is, of course, the best way to appreciate her immense talent. As she observed, "Cinema can mirror an individual's tiny world, yet reveal infinite other worlds in all their particularity." Sometimes, though, people who have worked closely with her can shed light on certain aspects of her multifaceted genius. Here is one such comment by Gabriel Byrne, who plays the crucial role of a society bigwig in Vanity Fair. "I would say that Mira Nair, in terms of directing actors, is one of the best," he remarked. "Mira is one of the few directors I've ever worked with who tells the extras what's happening. She realizes that there's not a corner of the frame that's not important, and that all the details contribute to the whole. Not only is she supremely technically competent, but when it comes to the little minor details and the tiny moments when drama is created, she's hyper-aware of those ? a look, a pause, a quickening of rhythm, an overlap."

"For me, emotion is very important ? not melodrama?"

Mira Nair talks about her moviemaking, about how she is influenced by Guru Dutt films, and more?

In the past you mentioned how, as an Indian filmmaker, you enjoyed "applying an Eastern gaze to Western contexts." How important was this reverse gaze in Vanity Fair, especially since there is such a strong colonial connection to India in the story?

Actually I've loved Vanity Fair, the book, since I was 16 years old in my Loretto Convent days in Simla. I know it very well, so it gave me a way to plumb it for the screenplay. And what I loved about it was that Thackeray, as you know, was born and raised in Calcutta, and he came to his country only at the age of six. So I think he was as much of an outsider to his society as Becky was. His happiest memories, as he always writes, were of India. The relationship between the colony and the empire, which was burgeoning at the time he was writing Vanity Fair in 1848, is of great interest to me. It was the first time that England was feeling the flush of wealth from the rape of the colony. That was what created his beautiful term, Vanity Fair, because the middle classes of England now had the money of the aristocracy, but not the status. And they wanted that status. That was what he was looking at in a very clear-eyed way, and he wanted to expose the hypocrisy of his own society. So I loved that and it's something I tried to convey in my film.

Thackeray's Vanity Fair is a massive, panoramic novel that seems more appropriate for a miniseries on TV. How did you manage to turn it into a compact feature film without leaving out anything that may be considered integral to the story?

Mostly because I knew it so well for so many years. I knew what was going to be of interest ? to me at least. And I've to say I could not have done this without Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for Gosford Park. I went to him because I knew he would understand that society, and instead I found him to be an equally helpless fan of Thackeray. So he knew it as well as I. First, I started with a map of life, and for me, the democratic swirl of all the characters ? the interrelatedness ? was really important. It's a lot like a ?gora' Monsoon Wedding. There are so many lessons from that film that applied to this film. Funnily enough, there are 68 characters in this film ? just like in Monsoon Wedding. First, I've always enjoyed casting and I learned a lot from Monsoon. Secondly, it was important to keep each character completely distinctive. Whether they have five minutes or the whole movie, they have to be memorable. And how do you do that? You do that, of course, with a combination of writing and the performer. So I used a lot of lessons to make it sing with life.

You seem to have a very visual style in your filmmaking. Does that help . . . ?

Enormously. And it's the joy of it! I could not be dragged to see a stuffy period film set in a drawing room, you know, with a well-mannered girl waiting for the proposals to come in. Thackeray gives us a lot of fuel to understand the world at that time. One thing I did visually was to take a lot of the interior scenes out to the exteriors, and maximize the exteriors to bring to life the London of that time, which was one of the filthiest and nosiest cities in the world. It had those coal mongers, horse carriages, and manure on the streets. In a way it was to suggest how much the working classes had to do so that the upper classes could live the way they did. And it was also done to suggest that if Becky made a wrong move, that's where she would come back to. This is what they call the theory of the leisure class. My happiest moment was when a friend of mine came to the set in the city of Bath, where we were shooting the film, and said that it was exactly like Salaam Bombay! I think of Vanity Fair as an incredibly refined and totally sumptuous soap opera. But it's elegant, not your roena-dhona type (sentimental tear-jerker). For me, the emotion is very important ? not melodrama, but the emotion of understanding that each one wanted that which they could not have.

The class system depicted in the film is quite striking. It seems so similar to India in many ways.

Well, I really believe that Indians understand class and hierarchy better than anybody on this planet, because we're steeped in it. And, frankly, we only reinforce the English understanding of their class. If you're an Indian interpreting that hierarchy of English society, you can understand it in a second. Besides, we're colonial hangovers in any case, and we're steeped in English literature. So we already know a lot about their culture.

I understand that you're making a film based on The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru. It's a very different kind of work, although he also deals with the British Empire. What drew you to the project?

Oh, it's just made for me. It's sprawling, lush, and completely dramatic. It gives me so much juice ? from 40 percent on the streets in Bombay to England and then to Africa. He sets it in West Africa, of course, whereas I live in Uganda. I told Hari, "You've written this novel for me. These are my three worlds." I'm going to do that in a year; but before that, I'm going to do Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. I haven't announced it fully, but I guess I'm going to announce it now. It moved me to my bones. It's contemporary, of course, and it almost exactly describes the journey I have traveled. I've put aside everything else for the moment. Also, after two years of making Vanity Fair, I want to see my own people through my lens. It's enormously validating to see our stories on the screen.

Looking back, which of your films mean the most to you?

I don't look back so much, but I've to say that Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding bring me great joy. Salaam because we made it against all odds, and there's a kind of life-or-death quality in it. And Monsoon because it had this wonderful synergy which creates joy. And this doesn't happen often on the screen.

Although contemporary Indian films have gained some ground in recent years, they usually don't attract the same kind of attention in the West as, say, Chinese or Iranian films. What do you think is the reason? Is something lost in the translation? Of course, there are exceptions like you.

Number one, what I love about Indian films is that we don't think about the West when we're making them. We have such a vast audience for ourselves, and we've always had. It's the other half of the world, which maybe doesn't control the media; but believe me, it's half the world. It has been there since Raj Kapoor and it continues to exist today. So what I love about that is we are being ourselves ? however flamboyant, however artificial, however sometimes ridiculous ? we are who we are. Which is a huge thing. The West needs another kind of vocabulary. Yes, there are a few people like me who can plumb that vocabulary and add to our own thing. But it doesn't matter to me whether they appreciate us or not. We have our multitudes. Our cinema is the biggest and the most vigorous in the world, and let's face facts, it has a helluva lot of style. I'm happy to be reaching people all over the world, but you don't have to be everything to everybody, because that would be boring and you'd be a milquetoast.

Who are some of the newer filmmakers you admire? Also, are there any old classics that you continue to watch with enjoyment?

I just saw Michael Mann's Collateral. I really learn a lot from his cinema. It's a very different kind of male cinema, but just technically I get a lot of juice from him. I'm very interested in Jane Campion's work; I see it with great curiosity. And I also like the Iranian cinema ? some of it. Emir Kusturica's films (Black Cat, White Cat and Underground) give me a lot. But I've to say that a lot of the fuel when I make a film comes from older masters. Like Guru Dutt. I made the whole crew of Vanity Fair see his Pyaasa. For me, Becky's rise in society through song was very interesting. I love to do those song sequences, but I normally don't do films that require that. So I wanted the "crimson petal" song ? the one Becky sings to get into society ? to be done very much the way Guru Dutt has taught me. I wanted that emotional picturization: very visual, very lush, everything means something. So I made the English crew sit down and see Waheeda (Rahman) doing her thing. (Laughs)

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