Interview: Mira Nair, pt. 2


As The Namesake releases in NY and LA today,  here is the second  part of an interview with Mira Nair, conducted the day after the Academy Awards, last week:

Q: You mentioned the things you liked, immigrants you see in the book,  what you don’t see in the book.   Can you talk about that?

MN:   It’s more cosmopolitan.   I get many Asian writers of fiction asking me to make movies out of their books, and a lot of the classic sort of tales are of the mailorder bride coming from the darker continent, from India to the shining new world.   What I liked among many things that Jhumpa has written that of course it is not only the Calcutta of the 70s that I have loved, but the Manhattan of today.   And her Manhattan of today is much closer to my Manhattan of today than the Jackson Heights, Little India, little immigrant communities.   This is New York as a playing ground.   There’s the galleries, there’s the protests, the Ivy League sort of networking, that is the world I also inhabit every day and that was very interesting for me to finally put on screen the kind of life I also live.   And I haven’t seen that on screen.

Q:   When you experienced your loss, it was when you were filming Vanity Fair?

MN: Yes.

Q: Was it your mother?

MN: It was my mother-in-law, whom I was very close to.   My in-laws live with us and she came in for an operation, I insisted, we all insisted to do the operation in New York city and they just didn’t look after her.   It was Thanksgiving holiday and never, ever get anything medical done on a holiday in America because they just literally disappear.

There’s no post-operative care of any sort, and it was very tragic and totally unexpected.   She went in for something routine and never came out.  

So it was during Vanity Fair, I was composing music and it happened at that time, December 2003 and then I read this book on my way back to India, I was going back to finish the last two minutes of the film and I read this book in February.   I was just reading a book, I was supposed to make other things, I had it all sorted, and it just came out of nowhere.   I had bought this book like six months before, I just hadn’t opened it.   Life is amazing.  

And then you have inspiration.   I’ve made films for 20, more than 20 plus years, and inspiration is rare, when you have that kind of power, where you get inspired by something so deeply, I follow that inspiration.   It’s not something to take lightly.  

When Vanity Fair opened, which was about five months after that, you know, Warner Brothers immediately offered me Harry Potter, because of Vanity Fair, and I was two months before shooting The Namesake and had all these meetings and everyone thought I would do it [Harry Potter], there’s no question, you just say “˜yes’, but I would be derailing my inspiration, I would be derailing The Namesake, because there’s a time and place for things in life.   It happens, you seize it.

Q: How did the idea come about to list Kal Penn twice in the cast credits?

MN: Kalpen Modi is his real name and Kal Penn is his screen name.   And one day, because the film is all about namesakes, he asked me, just casually, “˜Wouldn’t it be great if you do this?’ and I thought, yeah, it was fun.   Also, I usually don’t have much tolerance for people who change their names, like “˜Sam Patel’.   I don’t let anyone mispronounce my name if they have to say my name, but I liked that Kal sort of made his own name his two names, he didn’t invent a new name, and I thought it was quite fitting for this movie to give him the two identities, his real name and his other real name.   It was months ago he said this to me and I slipped it in, into the credits.

Q: Jhumpa says she thought the book was unfilmable at one point.   Now when you read the book, did you feel at any time that there are too many things happening in this book?

MN:   I’m a bulldozer! If that’s what I’m seeing, I’m seeing that.   The thing I wanted to do was an exquisite love story among the parents.   For me there was going to be two pillars on which the story would rest.   One, the adult love story which is a stillness between two people who don’t need Hallmark cards, who don’t need roses and diamonds and “˜I love yous’ and physical displays of affection, the kind of our parents’ generation.   It’s about having a cup of tea and looking in one another’s eyes in a certain way, and it is a love that is never understood by the young.   We all think when we were young that we invented love.

So that was the one pillar, and the second was Gogol’s coming of age.   But in counterpoint to his parents.   That was what my emphasis was always going to be.   Early on I knew I was not going into his high school years and his college years.   But it would be about this counterpoint.  

And I have the benefit and great blessing of working with my dearest and oldest friend Sooni Taraporevala; we’re in sync completely.   Once we knew that, and we knew that early on, that we would remove that section of the book, then we made the film, then we started on what you’re seeing, then even in the book Jhumpa writes”¦ there’s a lot of ellipsis, there are things that have already happened, like Maxine and Gogol have already broken up, there’s no present in that break-up scene, for instance.   We have to invent that.  

That kind of, what I call the air between chapters, once I understood that I would film the two cities like they were one city, because I also happen to think that there’s a great synergy between Calcutta and Manhattan.   And also we know, we look outside the window, not on a snowy day like this, but I look out at the Hudson from my window and it’s the Ganges one day.  

It’s the way it is when you live between worlds, to film these two cities as if they are one is the state of being of an immigrant, of a person who lives between worlds, almost like viscerally one gives the audience the actual emotional feeling of what it’s like to live where your body is here, you’re your mind might be somewhere else.  

So once I understood that that would be my motif, a lot fell into place, in terms of the transitions, because the most difficult thing in the film is I had to sort out the transitions that would propel the story and not have me resort to the cliché of voiceover or subtitles or that stuff, and for me, shooting the two cities as if they are one was the key to help me propel it.

Q: The jacket that you’re wearing, it’s beautiful.   Who is it by?

MN:   Oh, a friend of mine designed it for me.   Her name is Neeru Kumar.   She’s in Delhi and she’s a great artist.   Thank you, that’s the first day I’m wearing it.

Q:   What’s happening next, Mira?

MN:   Shantaram!

Q:   And one of the producers of The Departed is the producer?

MN:   My producer!   I was so happy yesterday!   [Academy Awards]   Graham King is the producer.   I was delighted.   All my friends won yesterday.   I was thrilled about Marty.   I was very happy.


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