Riz Ahmed: I get pulled aside every time I come here

RizAhmed2 Riz Ahmed: I get pulled aside every time I come here

As part of the press junket for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a group of seven of us had a roundtable interview with Riz Ahmed (who plays Changez Khan) and Kate Hudson (who plays his girlfriend, Erica).

On a purely gossipy notes, one could not help but notice that Ms. Hudson was wearing this massive emerald-cut rock.

Riz, did I read correctly somewhere that you were detained for several hours at an airport in the UK when you returned from the Berlin Film Festival a couple of years ago?

RA: I was, yes, you did read that correctly.

Then let me ask you, did you have any concerns coming to the US, and have you had any issues here?

RA:  Concerns… I get pulled aside for three and a half hours every time I come here.  Not so much the last 3 or 4 times since I got a work visa, but it’s funny, this film nearly fell apart because my US visa was delayed indefinitely.   There’s something called sec 221.G which is a blanket security measure American authorities impose on most Muslim males ages 18-50.  They check your name against an international database of suspected or known terrorists and associates, and it’s a process that can take up to nine months and we needed to start shooting in a month.  So, yeah, it’s something that’s a reality and it’s sad and in my opinion it’s a slightly ham-fisted and counterproductive way of leading an intelligence operation, or managing your borders.

KateHudson2 Riz Ahmed: I get pulled aside every time I come here

Kate, you said that taking on this role was a no-brainer, could you tell us why?

KH: When I met with Mira I was eight months pregnant  and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do the movie because of that, but Mira somehow didn’t know and I walked in and was so excited to talk about the movie and she says “Wow, you’re so pregnant!”  And  I said “I thought you knew!  I just wanted to talk to you, it’s such an interesting script!”

We talked, we fell in love with each other, she just felt very familial to me.  I don’t if it’s my mother’s going to India since the ‘70s, I’m just surrounded by my mother’s Indian friends, I just felt like it was meeting a soulmate and I just felt like if it wasn’t this, whatever she would ever want me to do, I would be there to do with her.  Fortunately, the movie pushed and I was able to do it.

I had just had Bing, I showed up and it was more than just Mira, it’s when I read it I had to read it two times in a row because there was just so much material and it was so rich in its themes.  I really wanted to know how Mira was going to tackle it.  It felt like a really brave project.  When I heard her talk about using these themes and this political thriller backdrop as a way to tell a story about a young man’s journey in finding himself and human connection and the human spirit and how do you find it and get to that place in your life and being authentic with yourself, and I thought only Mira could tell this story.  I’m happy I was able to be a part of it.

What’s she like as a director?

KH: Wonderful, nurturing.  Riz likes to say “holistic”.  She knows the story she wants to tell and I like talking about Mira and the sense of she’s very sensual in how she brings people together and how she gets the creative juice out of whether it be your DP or her actors.  When she knows she has to say something to tell her story, she is adamant about getting what she wants and I think within that, she creates that world where everybody wants to deliver for her.  And she’s very passionate, on a daily, hourly, minutes, seconds basis as you can tell if you’ve already spoken to her just now.  It’s infectious and you can’t help but go there with her.

For both of you, what stayed with you after shooting the movie was over?

RA: Wow, I mean, there’s a lot that stayed with me.  Going to Istanbul was amazing.  I’d never been, always wanted to go, and a lot of the film is about trying to get beyond the labels or divisions that we try and put up between people and even different sides of ourselves, and Istanbul is a city that kind of evaporates lots of dichotomies, East and West, secular – religious, it’s a special place.  Going there and visiting ancient Roman temples that were turned into grand Byzantine churches and then turned into huge mosques, in the same building.  That says something, it has an important energy.  So ending this film’s shoot in that city was amazing – it felt really fitting.

KH: For me, it was how exhausted I was by the end of it, emotionally & physically…breastfeeding and handing Bing to Riz, ….. It was funny, I was so into it when I was there I didn’t realize how much I was working.

RA: It was kind of amazing, to be honest.  I found it really impressive, you were hardly sleeping, breast-feeding, hand over the baby, “Action!”, burst into tears – you were amazing!  (laughs)   Like…what the hell – she’s a machine!

KH: When I got home I did say only Mira could – if I had another child – she’s probably the only one to convince me to do that again, because I was tired and it wasn’t even that long of a shoot.  But I think it worked because I really was emotional.  I had no moment where I had to take time to get there.  Between the material I was working with and how closely connected I felt to Erica, and her guilt and her trauma, and the exhaustion that I was feeling somehow connected and made for a good harmonious experience for me to get it out.

Riz, you guys have really good chemistry together.  What really struck me was the theme of an inter-racial relationship and how the challenges that there are already in one, then set against the backdrop of 9/11.  Could you talk about that and how you portrayed the relationship in the film?

RA: Well, I think the important thing for those characters is they don’t go into it, or at least they don’t go into it consciously thinking of each other as a collection of labels.  He doesn’t think “Oh, Upper East Side, comes from money…” and she doesn’t think “Pakistani, Muslim…”  I think what emerges down the line is they start realizing maybe there is a hint of exoticism in the attraction and the extent to which that is healthy – just to want to investigate that which is previously unknown to you – and the extent to which is kind of objectifying and turning someone into this kind of fashion accessory or something.  I think there is that tension in this relationship, but I don’t think it’s common to all interracial relationships.  I think the kind of prevalence and rise of interracial relationships is one of the beaut things about modern cosmopolitan societies and there are many that are totally healthy and just grow and blossom.

Riz, can you talk a bit about the audition process – is that right that you were asked to come to Mira while you were in the recording studio?

RA:  I was on my way to the shoot the album cover for MICroscope, my debut album, and at that point I’d already been turned down like, four times, because I kept sending in tapes and Mira just didn’t vibe with them.  My agent said “Look, Mira Nair’s in London, go and see her.” And I said ”I’m done with that.  There’s no point.”  But I went and met her and it’s so different when you’re in the room.  We just clicked and it just kinda’ went from there very naturally.”

Riz, any Hindi movies in your future?

RA:   I want to work with this new wave of Indian filmmakers and Pakistani filmmakers, not quite Bollywood.  I don’t have the dance moves for Bollywood.

Note: After its initial release last Friday in Manhattan and Los Angeles, today The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens across the US in these cinemas:

Camera 3 – San Jose CA
Cinema 100 – White Plains NY
Clairidge – Montclair NJ
Manhasset Cinemas – Manhasset NY
South Coast Village – Costa Mesa CA
Rancho Niguel – Laguna Niguel CA
Garden Cinemas – Norwalk CT
Montgomery Cinema – Rocky Hill NJ
Playhouse – Pasadena CA
Town Center – Encino CA
Bethesda Row – Bethesda MD
Century Centre – Chicago IL
Embarcadero – San Francisco CA
Kendall Square – Cambridge MA
Mayan – Denver CO
Frontenac – St. Louis MO
River Oaks – Houston TX
Ritz 5 – Philadelphia PA
Shattuck – Berkeley CA
Magnolia – Dallas TX
Seven Gables – Seattle WA
Smith Rafael Film Center – San Rafael CA
Uptown – Minneapolis MN
Kew Gardens – Kew Gardens NY
Malverne – Malverne NY

Midnight’s Children

MCUSposter Midnights Children

You gotta give it to Deepa Mehta – the director has guts by the truckload.

After having incurred the ire of Hindu conservatives for her film Fire and then again almost a decade later for Water (during the filming of which she had to ditch India and instead shoot in Sri Lanka), she then had the titanium cojones to decide to take on not only a much loved, much lauded novel (which many considered unfilmable, owing to its length and sprawl), but one that was written by a man who himself knew a little something about the ruffling of ideologue feathers.  Moreover, Mehta didn’t just buy the rights to Midnight’s Children, she also decided to actively involve author Salman Rushdie, enrolling him to work on the script and narrate the film.  For all that alone, she should receive a medal for bravery.

SalmanDeepa2 Midnights Children

With regard to the film itself, this is the first time in my life, having read the book beforehand, I actually felt at a disadvantage.  Going in to the screening years after having once enjoyed Midnight’s Children during a daily 90-minute commute to and from Manhattan, and carrying the pleasure of those memories with me still, when it came time to watch the film adaptation in some two hours plus of screen time, I felt a little like If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium.  There’s a lot of ground to cover and only so much time.

It’s not the choices Mehta and Rushdie made as to what to keep and what to omit that I fault, it’s my own memory and awareness of the source material.  In fact, the film does manage to encompass Saleem Sinai’s family saga rather comprehensively.  Dilip Mehta’s production design, Dolly Ahluwalia’s costumes and Nitin Sawney’s music all work well together to give you a great sense of place and time, as we journey from Kashmir in 1915 to Bombay in the ‘70s.

ShriyaSatya2 Midnights Children

And what a cast.  Mehta has brought together so many big names from the Indian film industries (including those from The South – hurrah!) that in reviewing the press notes and seeing one name on the list I said “Oh, that’s right – she was in this too!”

Mehta has enlisted actors you’re used to seeing in mainstream movies and others who you’d know if you watch a lot of indie flics, and some folks who manage to swim in all rivers.  Here’s a sampling: Rajat Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Seema Biswas, Shabana Azmi, Shriya Saran, Siddharth, Shahana Goswami, Rahul Bose, Samrat Chakrabarti, Darsheel Safary, Soha Ali Khan, Sarita Choudhury, Kulbushan Kharbanda, Charles Dance and Satya Bhabha.

Rahul2 Midnights Children

That’s too many people to write about each, but I’ll mention a few who really stood out for me.  Rahul Bose, who was supposedly slated for the role of Saleem Sinai when the film was first in the works about a decade ago, now he’s General Zulfikar, Saleem’s uncle, and looks as though he thoroughly enjoying the role.  Darsheel Safary as the young Saleem (so grown up now, compared to his Taare Zameen Par days!) looks like he’s here to stay in films, and do well in them.

Samrat2 Midnights Children

Local (NYC) hero, Samrat Chakrabarti is memorable and heart-breaking as Wee Willie Winkie.  It was a good call, casting someone with both acting and musical chops for this role.

SatyaSid2 Midnights Children

Another stand-out for me was Siddharth, known primarily for his Tamil & Telugu films, as the adult Shiva, unlikeable tormentor of Saleem yet bad-boy irresistible nonetheless.

Siddharth2 Midnights Children

And then there’s Satya Bhabha.  For me, I never connected to his Saleem.  He felt too contemporary for the years we see him live through and I just never managed to feel any great care or concern for Saleem, and that was disappointing, as he is the heart of the story.

KulbushanSatya2 Midnights Children

Final thoughts

Despite what didn’t work for me in the film, I’d still encourage you to see it.  Deepa Mehta’s work is always memorable, so how can you not venture out to see her interpretation of such a great novel?

Midnight’s Children opened in NYC on April 26th, and on May 3rd it opens to NY cinemas beyond Manhattan (Kew Gardens Cinema, Clearview Roslyn 4 and Malverne Cinemas) and as well as to DC (Landmark Cinema) and several in the LA area (Arclight Hollywood and Laemmle’s Royal in Los Angeles, Laemmle’s Playhouse in Pasadena, Regal’s Westpark 8 in Irvine, and Laemmle’s Town center 5 in Encino).

Deepa Mehta: The pure delight and fun of working with Salman

Deepa2 Deepa Mehta: The pure delight and fun of working with Salman

Deepa Mehta took time recently to discuss her latest film Midnight’s Children:

Can you tell us how you first discovered the award-winning novel Midnight’s Children?

DM: I distinctly remember talking about the wonder of it all with a friend in 1982 while we walked around Lodhi Gardens. It had an enormous impact on me. It uncannily echoed my own upbringing and, for a novice filmmaker in the early ‘80s, the book seemed to read like a movie — full of cinematic language and rooted in popular Indian cinema. The novel’s fearless, dark humor, combined with its affection for all human foibles, stayed with me.

How did you acquire the rights to the book?

One night, over dinner, I asked Salman Rushdie who had the rights to ‘Midnight’s Children.’ He said he did. I asked to buy them and he sold the option to me for one dollar. It was not premeditated; it was just gut instinct.

Did you feel you were ready to make a film of such an enormous scope?

There is a saying – luck favors the prepared. The choices I have embraced in life, and the movies I made previously, have certainly given me the technical and emotional confidence to tackle an epic about my homeland, though in many ways, I felt that I was learning the filmmaking craft all over again.  I knew I wanted to do it, but it required a huge amount of chutzpah to then wrap my head around actually filming it. I think that my producing partner David Hamilton’s dedication and leadership really did make it possible. Some of the most meaningful decisions in life are based on that indiscernible feeling of just knowing it’s time. And it was.

How did you find collaborating with such an accomplished author on this film project?

I think the most vital factor of all was the pure delight and fun of working with Salman, and how profoundly in synch we were about the heart of the story. Salman and I have both made our homes in the Indian Diaspora; I in Canada, he in Britain and America, and we have similar complicated intertwined roots in India. Those shared perspectives and memories, plus his creative generosity and wit, kept me, and the movie, going. Salman once said about Indian born artists who have emigrated, ‘our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools. But however ambiguous and shifting the ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy.

What kind of a story are you telling in Midnight’s Children since you are tackling both people and a country?

It is a coming-of-age story, full of the trials and tribulations of growing up, and of the terrible weight of expectations. What separates it from other thematically similar films is that this coming-of-age story is not only about a boy but also about his country, both born at the very same time at a pivotal point in Indian history. Saleem’s journey as our vulnerable, misguided hero is always intertwined with the struggles of the newly independent India, as it finds its own voice in the world.

How did you go about keeping the film authentic to the various time periods?

The most important preparation (except perhaps for the gym!), was meticulously planning the world of the movie. In `Midnight’s Children’ we meet four generations over five very distinct time periods; there are three wars, 64 locations, and 127 speaking parts, plus animals, babies, snakes, cockroaches (Well, that didn’t really work out. Our cockroach wrangler failed). And, everything in the world of the film had to be shipped or found or designed or built in Sri Lanka. My closest ally and second brain/eyes is always my brother Dilip, who is responsible for the entire ‘look’ of this film. He fought for authenticity in every aspect of the movie: visuals, historical period, class, accents, religious backgrounds…no detail too large (wars, helicopters, parades) or too small (ants, lizards) to escape his scrutiny. There is no one else whom I fully trust who knows the historical landscape and the ‘real’ India, and who could create all of this flawlessly and with such a passion for accuracy and for beauty.

How did you prepare with this large cast?

Preparation with the cast is a given. A month before shooting there was an intensive workshop in Mumbai with the actors and me, led by my friend Neelam Choudhry, a theatre director from Chandigarh. This was not a rehearsal of the script; it was work based on the Natya Shastra, a treatise written in India in the 4th century AD about the art of drama, which includes a rasabox or grid of nine essential mental states and emotions: love, repulsion, bravery, cowardice, humor, eroticism, wonderment, compassion, and peace. This intensive work knitted us together as a group and grounded us in the emotional arcs of the film.  Since I don’t use shot lists or storyboards, the actor motivates my camera. From the actors I know what the emotional center of the scene will be and then we shoot it. By now, director of photography Giles Nuttgens and I have a finely honed shorthand.

Midnight’s Children opened April 26 in NYC, and will open in other US cities in May.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

RF poster1 The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Last time I was back in dear Madras, I visited a huge sari and fabric emporium (“shop” just doesn’t begin to describe it) in search of material to have some clothes made for a wedding.  In all my visits to India, this was my first time examining any saris with much attention.

As the salesman rolled out some kancheevarams, I quickly realized just how many elements were layered together into one garment.  If the main color might be described as peacock blue that was only the most general of starting points.  Upon closer examination, I realized I was in fact looking at two cousins in the extended blue and green families married to the point where I couldn’t determine where either one began or ended.  In addition, there was an added color in the weave that gave a particular sheen to the silk.  Depending on how you held the fabric and caught the light, it looked at times more bluish, at others, more green.  But there was more.  The border of that same peacock blue sari had a very different background color running through it, a deep maroon which served as the foundation for the piece de resistance: a wide wave of golden threadwork woven into a repeating line of mangos nestled between twin tracks of yet more design motifs.

She may not sit at a loom with spools of silk, but the latest film Mira Nair has labored on for six years, her rendition of Mohsin Hamid’s successful novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, opening today, is also a rich union of multiple overlapping strands, albeit one that threatened to unravel several times due to potential backers aversion to funding a movie with a bearded Pakistani Muslim man as the protagonist.

JimChangez2 The Reluctant Fundamentalist

But, fortunately for us, the director persisted, and created an expanded version of Changez Khan’s story, that of a Lahori son of a poet, whose once affluent parents (the well suited Shabana Azmi and Om Puri) are not as concerned as he is that the family wealth has diminished, as their position in society remains.  Changez (played by British rapper and actor Riz Ahmed) is admitted to Princeton where he excels and impresses Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), the senior manager at a boutique Wall Street firm, who senses and avails himself of his new employee’s drive.  Changez’s American dream is complete when he falls for the (wealthy) bohemian artist, Erica (played by a chestnut-haired Kate Hudson).

EricaChangezearly2 The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Just as he’s on the cusp of a big promotion while in Manila on a business trip, September 11 happens and by the time Changez steps off the plane in the US and finds himself singled out for a cavity search, it all starts to go to pieces.

As those around him – both the co-workers he knows and complete strangers on the street – start to eye him with suspicion, especially when he starts to grow a beard.  In turn, Changez starts to seriously question who he is and in what and whom he can believe.  While assessing a failing publishing house in Istanbul (yes,yes, where East meets West) his angst grows to a breaking point.

Changezpensive2 The Reluctant Fundamentalist

In bringing Hamid’s novel to the screen, Nair decided to add a third act, with Changez back in Lahore a decade later.  In the present day Pakistan that she presents us, after ten years of The War on Terror and a messy, tortured relationship with the US, tensions are hair-trigger when an American professor is kidnapped.  Changez, now a popular professor himself, sits in the restaurant of a student hostel and is interviewed by an American reporter and possible spy, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber).  As the conversation continues and Bobby presses Changez to reveal if he knows the professor’s whereabouts, student unrest grows around them due to rough police tactics in their hunt for the kidnappers.  Just as you start to wonder if Bobby is a spook, it also looks possible that Changez might be in cahoots with the local militants suspected of the kidnapping.  Nair keeps the ground shifting throughout, for both her characters and her audience, until the very end.

Miradirecting2 The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Riz Ahmed furthers expands the Leading Man section of his CV with this role.  He goes from carefree undergrad to troubled man with seemingly minimal effort, using his demeanor and his deep, intelligent eyes to relay so much.  Sutherland is perfect as the ramrod-straight, tightly wound boss who initially is also a stand-in father figure for Changez.  Kate Hudson is pretty as Erica, but seemed hollow when portraying the emotional depth and confusion of her character.

EricaChangezlater2 The Reluctant Fundamentalist

More than just the leads in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it’s the perfectly chosen string of supporting actors who add the golden embellishments.  First, the compelling Haluk Bilginer is excellent as the worldly and resigned book publisher whose conversations with Changez serve as a wake-up call.  This man is divine to watch, even just smoking.  He’s so good you’d love to see more of him.  And then there’s Chandrachur Singh, a wonderful surprise after so many years away from film, as Bandy Uncle, whom we only see briefly and on the periphery of several scenes, but who manages to hold our eyes and attention when he’s there.  And finally Nelsan Ellis as Wainwright, friend and co-worker to Changez, unrecognizable to me as the same man who plays Lafayette on True Blood.

All the various layers and elements unite to illustrate how first impressions – often colored by our suspicions about ‘the other’ – can frequently be misleading and there is a real value in looking more closely before coming to any conclusions.  This is even telegraphed in the opening credits, where strings of numbers on the screen – which you would assume are code of some sort – morph into rows of tiny passport type photos.  Things are not what they seem.  Those black and white numbers on a screen or a page represent actual lives (a foreshadowing not just of the massive security and surveillance complex that has mushroomed after 2001, but also for the work that Changez’s firm does, making cold, hard decisions to cut jobs – that is, people – in service to X or Y company’s shareholders).

That tone is perfectly established with the opening scene, cutting between that American professor exiting a cinema discussing the film “Bol” with a female companion, and jump over to the Khan home, where Changez’s parents are hosting a musical evening.  The singers sit at the center of the scene, but Changez is restless and circulates on the periphery, receiving pictures on his mobile phone and taking a call.  As the music rises to a crescendo, and the camera focuses on the (blood red) paan-stained mouth of one singer, the scene then cuts back to the professor being grabbed and struggling as he is wrestled into a car which speeds off.  Is Changez connected to that abduction?

Final thoughts

This is such an important film, but not in the way that suggests “Eat your broccoli, it’s good for you” – rather, it deals with both sides of a reality that we are and have been living with for years, and it makes a case for understanding rather than jumping to conclusions.   As you might expect, this is a darker, sadder film than Monsoon Wedding or The Namesake, but it still comes with the trademark sensuality and beauty of those films and is visually and aurally delicious, with many meaningful treats nestled in the images and the dialogue and the music.

If, like Changez, you too have grown tired of the simplistic reduction of everything to assumptions and hazy misperceptions, you won’t want to miss The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens April 26 in New York (at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza) and Los Angeles (at The Landmark), on May 3 it opens in many other US cities.

I Owe It All to Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno and book cover 2 I Owe It All to Rita Moreno

No way is she 81.

That’s the first thing I thought as Rita Moreno sprang  onto the little stage at the 86th street Barnes and Noble tonight, petite and wiry.  She’s more bright-eyed and alert than I think I ever was on any given day in my 20s.

She can’t possibly be 81.

But then, you can’t deny the mathematics of it all.  West Side Story, the film for which she will most be remembered, forever and ever, released in 1961, and she was 30 as she swirled and stamped across that rooftop to debate with George Chakiris the pros and cons of life in los EE UU when you’re a native of Puerto Rico.

Rita Moreno contestando 21 I Owe It All to Rita Moreno

Today marks the release of Rita Moreno’s memoir, a chatty, conversational look back at her rich life and the varied, wide-ranging career that led to Tony, Emmy, Grammy and Academy awards, and where else could she be for that launch but aamchi Nueva York, the city where she and her mother settled, first in the Bronx and then in Washington Heights.  And to discuss the book, who should accompany her but Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony award-winning composer, author and star of In the Heights, who also worked with Stephen Sondheim to translate lyrics and dialogue of West Side Story into Spanish when the show returned to Broadway a few years back.

Manuel Lin Miranda 2 I Owe It All to Rita Moreno

If you can get to any of Ms. Moreno’s public appearances on this book tour (this Thursday, March 7th, she’ll be out at the wonderful Cinema Arts Center in Huntington, Long Island to attend a screening of West Side Story and a reception afterward, and a week later, on March 14th, she’ll be doing a book signing at the Barnes & Noble at The Grove in Los Angeles), do it and be there early, because the crowds will be big (we had to have wristbands tonight in order to be admitted – you’d think it was a queue for U2 tickets).

On stage, she was like Maeve Binchy’s long lost Boricua cousin.  You just ask her a question and get out of the way.  She’ll answer in detail, including all sorts of illustrative asides and commentary, in her warm, bright manner.  This is clearly a woman who – as she mentioned tonight, though she never finished high school – as she grew and progressed through her career, must have had the curiosity and desire to never stop learning.  To listen to her, you would assume not only had she been to university, but had most likely also taught there as well.

When two questions from the audience tonight touched on Latina actresses and their status in the film industry, Moreno had an observation and an admonition.  First, she commented “The door is ajar, but it’s not all the way open yet.”  But she noted that – unlike in her younger days, when playing any Latina character meant she always had to have an accent – Jennifer Lopez can now perform in a film and have no accent.  (Which brought to mind an Aasif Mandvi interview on WNYC last week.)  And second, she stressed the importance of a good education as a necessary foundation for any actriz-in-the-making.

Rita Moreno signing 2 I Owe It All to Rita Moreno

Do I sound like a total fangirl?  Is my pro-Rita bias showing?  I can’t help it.  Though she has no idea of this at all, Rita Moreno has been a combination second godmother and North Star for me.  In a circuitous, quasi-Rube Goldbergian way, her playing Anita in West Side Story brought me to Hindi and then Tamil movies and to writing about them.   Let me see if I can break it down …

At somewhere around age 8, NBC runs West Side Story on TV.  I’m transfixed  and enraptured by it, but especially by Rita in the role as the strong, spirited and incredibly sultry Anita.  Watching her dance the way she did, in that divine mauve dress with the crinolines and the fringe and the matching pointy-toed high heels, I wanted to fall into the TV and become her, and be the one dancing at the gym and flirting on the roof with the equally stunning Bernardo.  But, seeing that it’s getting late, my mother orders me to bed before the film is over, and I proceed to have the biggest meltdown and crying jag in my life.  It was epic.  Unable to budge my mother, I fling myself onto my bed, but before I fall asleep, worn out from all the crying, the cement is set.  The film and those characters have imprinted on me with such permanence, even if I’m not aware of how, until years later.

I do finally get to see the whole film when it runs on TV again a year later, and bawl my eyes out once more, except this time it’s because of the story.  My obsession grows and deepens when I’m given a cassette of the movie soundtrack, which I listen to, over and over and over on my summer vacation, perched in the small apple tree in my grandfather’s garden in Dublin, clutching a little Grundig cassette player, blaring the music at full volume until the poor neighbors appear at the hedge and ask me to please turn that down.

A couple of years later, a few months after my grandfather’s death, my godparents invite us to their home in Mexico for Thanksgiving.  At the town’s fiestas, I meet a boy from the neighboring village.  When we meet again one year later, we spend several evenings together and fall in mute love, neither of us able to speak the other’s language.  Now a girl on a mission, I proceed to teach myself the entire first-level high school Spanish grammar textbook during the summer of my 14th year, supplemented by a TV diet of news and soap operas from Mexico.  My efforts pay off when, not only can I now speak with my novio (albeit with an accent like the late Frank Perdue), but also when commenting to a taxi driver futzing along on the way to the airport “Perdon, pero esque tenemos prisa” and he zooms ahead.  And I think, to my astonishment, “Wow – it works!”

After a four-year, long-distance romance fed on up to three letters a day and twice yearly visits, I head off to college and am swept up by life in Manhattan, and the romance ends.  Now fluent like a native (Mexican) speaker, I end up choosing a major of Spanish and Latin American literature.  Then I go to graduate school in Spain, then return to New York and begin work at my first serious full-time job.

Years later, in 1997, still in love with musicals and now also deeply curious about India, I go on a whim one Saturday night to see my first Hindi movie ever – Pardes, starring Shah Rukh Khan.  There’s no Anita and Bernardo, but there is lots of music and dance and a love story (albeit a rather twisted one).  I quickly learn that – while the musical has long since died out in Hollywood – it’s been thriving for decades in Bombay, and Madras, and a new obsession begins.  Nine years and many Hindi movies later, I meet my first screenwriter for an interview, and my own writing gets a nudge forward.

So, if I’d never seen Rita Moreno in West Side Story, who knows where I’d be instead.  Gracias, Madrina, te agradezco de sobremanera.

Le Tamoul – for a change!

When recently directing a friend who was in Paris to the website for L’Harmattan bookstore there, and their amazing selection of Francophone African literature, and all variety of “international books,” I couldn’t help but notice a brief paragraph on the page promoting an upcoming salon about Indian writing (in November) this year.

Wonderful, of course, but what really caught my eye was this little image:

Lindes%20des%20livres Le Tamoul   for a change!

I thought it interesting to see that – for a change – they had gotten away from the usual faux-Devanagri lettering so many people use for shop signs, restaurant menus, and which I also considered briefly back at the dawn of this site, and the designer/artist/blogger had instead done an adaptation of Le Tamoul script, which I think is kinda’ cute.

The little man in the big turban?  Hmmm….. I leave that one to you, dear reader….