Q: You had several other projects when you read The Namesake and you’ve said the project took on an urgency, was it that emotional thing that made it take off?
MN: Entirely. I wasn’t looking for a film. I was booked to do two films, one of which was already financed and I was supposed to be casting right after I’d finished Vanity Fair and it was like a fever when I read this book. I felt firstly this absolute shock of recognition that there was someone in the world who understood exactly what I was going through, and it was like a comfort. I used to retire after shooting Vanity Fair in the mornings. I would just leave and go back to my room and re-read it because that’s that feeling one has when you’re in mourning of needing to be in a cocoon.
Firstly it was the grief that was the cornerstone, the recognition of what it was like to lose a parent in a country that was not fully home. I’m really an intuitive person, so I didn’t question “˜Oh, should I really do this?’ I just knew it had to be done and then, when I was looking at the whole, it was that emotional cornerstone that got me, but also 30 years of a life from Calcutta to NY city, which are two cities that I have grown up in, and in NY where formally I learned how to see. It gave me much more than that emotional underpinning, it gave me the Calcutta of the 70s the culture that I have loved for so long and it gave me the possibility of capturing Manhattan of today which is a very different place than when I first came to the city many years ago.
Q: The book talks about Boston, what made you choose Nyack?
MN: If you look at the film as a 30-year saga, right, the arrival in Boston in the book exists for one reason, the contrast between India and the coldwater flat and the student life that she comes into, then just before Gogol’s birth in the book they move to suburbia. And suburbia is suburbia in the east and the coldwater flats since I moved from Calcutta to Boston myself, so in the scope of our story that is the two points that Boston would have achieved: the coldwater flat and the move to suburbia, other than that, since I’ve lived in those coldwater flats myself, and Yonkers is so exactly like that, I thought there’s no point for us to relocate a whole crew we don’t get much from Boston as a character because I’m making a film about the whole, so we just stayed in one city and had the same quality, so Boston doesn’t give us that much unless I’m doing a different adaptation.
Q: There’s a scene where Irfan Khan gets up after Gogol has just announced that he wants to go back to Nikhil and there’s something about the way that he just stands up and goes out to smoke and he’s maybe a little bit resigned but he doesn’t look terribly angry, and he always throughout the film had this kind of very steady feeling about him, yet he was somewhat mysterious, what was really going on inside him, compared to the mother’s story or the son’s story. Where did that come from? Was it in the script? Was it your direction? Is it something that he did himself in that one piece of that one scene?
MN: You know we modeled Irfan’s character almost entirely on Jhumpa’s father and actually Ashima on her mother. I spent a weekend with her parents early on when we were adapting the screenplay and it was a very deep influence on me. I love them, they’re in the film of course and all of that. And that very self-effacing quality of Ashoke, the feeling that he’s very visible but he’s almost sort of invisible and I can’t say it’s a Bengali quality, per se, but I know many people who are like that, very self-effacing, just amazing, full of love but also have got strong intellectual mettle, strong moral fiber etc.
So the first thing that I made Irfan and Tabu do, the night after they arrived in NY to start the movie, I had them spend a day with Mr. and Mrs. Lahiri. They came from Rhode Island, they were at Jhumpa’s flat and I didn’t go purposely in the beginning because I didn’t want to be all over it. I wanted them to be together. And Irfan said that was the key, “˜Thank you for the key.’ He’s also someone I’m very close to, you know I discovered him when he was 18 and he’s like a younger brother. He’s very different in real life. Both of them are very different from Ashoke and Ashima, I mean really, I can’t even tell you how different.
That quality is exactly Ashoke. Gogol being Gogol would know that his father isn’t happy with the decision but his father is too wise to come down hard and be that way, and you know many parts of India people smoke a lot, and that was the 70s, 80s and 90s in the film. You don’t hardly see anyone smoking now. But the thing for me was about an era, and that moment is actually the last cigarette you’ll see he has in the film, unless in the end there’s a memory of him smoking. He quits, you know.
So it was all part of the makeup of Ashoke, he wouldn’t do it any other way. But of course he’s an amazing actor so he embodies whatever I’m saying, we’re very on sync. But all of that, getting up, opening the door, throwing him a look, going outside, smoking on his own, nothing just happens in a fiction film, you plan everything, but what they bring to it is their gift and their understanding.
Q: I felt that there’s a very soft look at the US and a very hard look at Calcutta.
MN: It’s a rosy look eh?
Q: The son has this relationship with the Caucasian girlfriend, her family welcomes him and everything and I thought that was a bit soft if you contrast it with Gogol’s family where she’s not that welcome, I thought it was a little bit rosy.
MN: I don’t think it’s a rosy look. It’s an ironic welcome on the American side, it’s a welcome where you are treated a bit as a hothouse flower, you know, “˜Meet my Indian boyfriend.’ This Indian guy just stole their heart, “˜Oh my girlfriend went to India and came back as thin as a rail, oh I’m so jealous of her’, it’s actually a much more sophisticated form of, racism is a bit hard to put that word on it, but it’s a kind of, it speaks so many volumes of the apropriativeness of Americans in America where this is their world. You’re welcome, you know, but you are a specimen. And that’s what it’s really like on that level of the upper East side.
Q: It’s not really racism I was thinking of, but people are not really so welcoming of him as her future husband”¦
MN: Oh well I don’t think Maxine’s parents are thinking for a minute that she’s going to marry him.
Q: .. or even as a boyfriend
MN: These are liberal people. People who would never for a second let you know that they have any issue. They, in fact, celebrate their girl’s excursion into the land of color, you know, this is that kind of bohemia. This is very specific. It’s not blind.
Editor’s note: tomorrow, part two of the interview.