An Interview with Mira Nair
The Indian-born filmmaker Mira Nair has been directing since 1979, when she made the first of her five documentaries, but her breakthrough film was a feature—the gritty, lush, and painfully sad Salaam Bombay! (1988), which told the story of street children in Bombay (sometimes known as Mumbai now) using mostly nonprofessional actors, whom Nair and her crew found on the thoroughfares of the city. It won the Caméra d’Or and the Prix du Publique at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. When the poster was made for the film’s release in India, a quote from Nair’s mentor Satyajit Ray introduced the film by saying, “I cannot recall ever being impressed so much by a first feature. It is completely unlike any other film ever made in India, and shows complete command over every aspect of the medium.”
Nair—who calls Kampala and New Delhi home, and also regularly spends time in New York, teaching at Columbia University’s graduate school of film studies—has ventured into such diverse cinematic territories as a sixteenth-century Indian court in Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996—banned in India and Pakistan for its erotic scenes), working-class New Jersey in Hysterical Blindness (2002), and nineteenth-century England in her adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (2004). There is a boldness that runs through all these films in their vivid use of color and what Nair describes as “the unabashed quality we have not only in Indian cinema but in Indian life of wearing your heart out there—which I don’t confuse with sentiment, because I feel I am fairly ruthlessly unsentimental.”
Best known for her vital, swirling crossover hit Monsoon Wedding (2001), Nair has also made the features Mississippi Masala (1991), The Perez Family (1995), and My Own Country (1998). Her documentaries are Jama Masjid Street Journal (1979), So Far from India (1983), India Cabaret (1985), Children of a Desired Sex (1987), and The Laughing Club of India (1999), and her short movies are 11’09″01—September 11 (2002), The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat (1993), and a forthcoming one about AIDS in India.
Her new adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake (officially released this spring) whisks the viewer around the globe several times to deftly convey the dislocation, the beauty, and the loss of living in several different places at once. It is both a faithful adaptation of the novel and one in which Nair’s own vision is now very much a part of the story. By using an international cast and the settings of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and New York practically as characters themselves, she wrangles compellingly with such topics as the parent-child generation gap, marriage (both successful and unsuccessful), the differences between Indian and American cultures, and surviving New York in your twenties.
On a late December afternoon, I spoke with Nair at her office near Manhattan’s Union Square. Before a backdrop of twilit winter sky and water towers, we shared chai and dates brought back to her from Saudi Arabia by the actor Kal Penn (best known for Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, 2004). She spoke with easygoing, animated warmth about her son, her film school, Maisha, in Kampala, and her garden. She was frankly impatient with the political climate in the U.S. over the last few years, and she described with great candor the twisty-turny path of her career, and the surprises along the way.
I. THE GANGES AND THE HUDSON
THE BELIEVER: In rewatching your films I noticed how entwined the music is with the story. How involved are you personally with that process?
MIRA NAIR: Very much! As I wrote in the soundtrack notes of The Namesake, if I am blessed, a piece of music will inform the film I’m going to make even before the writing of it. For The Namesake, it was these boatmen songs.
BLVR: The ones we hear when the family is scattering the father’s ashes?
MN: Yes, they are called the Baul singers, and they’re a community of singers, like wandering minstrels, in Bengal. I have loved their music for many, many years, but I felt that in this film they would finally have a proper home. Because Jhumpa gave me the bookends to make a musical track of more than thirty years, I could combine that sound with the pulse of Manhattan—so it’s the past as well as a little bit of the future, I hope.
BLVR: Was Mychael Danna the person who did the soundtrack?
MN: No, this time I went with a cutting-edge BritishAsian musician in London whom I admire named Nitin Sawhney. I thought with Jhumpa writing the story, me working on it, Sooni [Taraporevala, the screenwriter], and all the actors and actresses, I wanted it to be a kind of flag of desi creative power. We were everyone from everywhere, but we were all from one subcontinent. But Mychael is a brother, and I am returning to him very soon.
BLVR: Did you decide on New York as the setting instead of Jhumpa’s Boston because this is really your city here?
MN: Not only that at all. If you look at the span of the story, the part in our screenplay that required Boston is only two or three scenes.They are about life in a coldwater flat in a Nordic country, and a Yonkers cold-water flat is a hell of a lot like one in Somerville. Our story, as you know, was a real balance between the parents’ story and Gogol’s story, so I didn’t want to belabor any particular chapter.
BLVR:What kind of schema did you have in your head as you thought about going back and forth between Kolkata and New York, both for the continuity and the disjunction?
MN: Well, number one, in the book you could say there is a lot of air between important narrative moments, which gave me room as a filmmaker to breathe in those moments. My challenge was, how do I eclipse thirty years and not lose gargantuan steps? I began looking at these two cities which I know so well, Kolkata and New York, and trying to visualize them as one, which is the state of mind and state of heart for someone like us who lives between places. You look outside at the Hudson River one day, and it could be the Ganges. Also, the bridges of both cities are extraordinarily and iconically similar. There is a similar energy too. Both cities are slaves of excellence—politics, art, graffiti, etc. In Kolkata, I grew up, and in New York, I learned how to see. So once I understood that the bridges were the major transitions, as well as trees—which is my new secret passion, gardens and trees—then that was the key.
BLVR: When I talked to you in 2002, you were busy planting lots of trees on your property in Uganda. How many was it?
MN: You spoke to me before I started my other gardens. I’ve planted about four gardens in the last two or three years in East Africa that are just beautiful now. One I planted in memory of my mother-in-law, though with no plaque or anything, just to do it, and it’s in a slum, in a mosque in the middle of a dirt-poor area of Kampala, which was complete ugliness itself. But Kampala is so fertile. So suddenly this absolutely scummy thing that had been lying there for fifteen years is now fragrant and giving fruit. As for my own personal garden, it’s almost mature now. Part of it is almost eighteen years old, and part of it I started planting just after Monsoon Wedding, six years ago. There are these amazing ten trees we’ve bought that are local grafts of the Ugandan mango with the queen of Indian mangos, Alphonso, which I think is like a symbol of my life.
BLVR: Ugandan Alphonsos?
MN: They’re like my son—Ugindian. So my husband, who is there, called yesterday and said there are nine mangos hanging from the first fruiting tree, which is four years old now. We have lots of mangos, bananas, passion fruit, papaya, pineapple, pomegranate, loquat. My goal is that in some years we are entirely self-sufficient. In Kampala, you can afford to have those goals.
BLVR: Is that what started your whole passion for these trees, this idea of self-sufficiency?
MN: Well, I don’t like ornament. I like to use everything, and no, trees I just love. But if you have two acres, then make food from it. Everyone has a little handkerchief shamba—as they call them there—that they live on, so why can’t I live off of so much?
BLVR: A shamba is a plot of land?
MN: A shamba is like your own private vegetable patch. So if you have something larger than that it would be ridiculous to go out and buy tomatoes when you can grow them.
BLVR: How much time are you spending there now?
MN: I go the day my son finishes school, June fifteenth, normally, and I come back Labor Day. You know, we have our film school there?
BLVR: I was going to ask you about that.
MN: This is our third year. It used to just happen for four weeks over the summer, but as of this year, we have three all-year-round screenwriting orientation classes so that the kids who actually make it to the school are much more with-it and prepared.
BLVR: How do you do all this? You’re prolific, but you also have all these projects.
MN: These gorgeous girls, you know [she waves in the direction of her two assistants in the outer office], and I have a dynamo in Kampala who runs Maisha. I don’t know. I do it because—I mean I don’t want to sound holy or noble about it—I do my film, but the real work is outside the film. I don’t like to say nonprofit, because it smacks of charity and that’s not the point, but I just have always wanted to do that. As for Maisha, I really wanted to demystify the whole process of film. I’ve lived in Kampala since 1989, and there is such dignity and power and poetry around me, and political engagement in every moment of my life there, not to mention unmanicured beauty. Then when you see a film like I Dreamed of Africa, where Kim Basinger is having a neurotic breakdown in a country that they just call Africa, with a faceless Masai warrior at the horizon somewhere, you get sick. There’s such a miss between what is and what is sucked out of somebody’s thumb in Hollywood. I felt like we had to tell our own stories, or no one else will. I’d done so much of this mentoring at Sundance and other places, and I thought, Why not teach right there? I have so many friends in the business who have come to teach these two-week courses.
BLVR:They come from here or England?
MN: From England, from Nigeria, Hollywood, Bollywood, New York. Stephen Frears is an old friend of mine. He’s going to come soon. Vishal Bharadwaj, a brilliant visionary writer-director from Bollywood. It’s about bringing the kind of education we have available to us here, that kind of high-level expertise and a fantastic audiovisual library, to young people there. I just read this amazing comedy by a forty-five-year-old Ugandan photojournalist about being an unemployed business school graduate in Kampala, and he told me had just read his first screenplay, Shakespeare in Love, at the library.
II. BEWARE THE STEPPING-STONES, VISIT A LAUGHING CLUB.
BLVR: Are you working on a new film already?
MN: I’m doing a couple of things. I am producing a series of four twelve-minute Panavision films with three other commercial Indian directors, to raise awareness in India on HIV and AIDS. It’s kind of a Decalogue-inspired thing that just happens to be “Wake Up to AIDS.” My idea is to link each of these films to big Bollywood blockbusters so that when the masses see the Bollywood films onscreen, they will first see a highly untraditional twelve minute film with the same movie stars, about AIDS. So I am going to India soon to shoot my film in Bombay about the virus being the great class leveler of society.
BLVR: It’s an upper-class setting?
MN: No, it’s a true story between a migrant laborer and an upper-class housewife, about his world and hers.
BLVR: In twelve minutes?
MN: Yeah [laughs], well, I make these movies. But it’s about this guy who’s a “suicide farmer” [a shorthand term for one of central India’s struggling farmers who have not benefited from the country’s booming economy, and a number of whom have actually committed suicide] who leaves his wife to become a migrant laborer on the outside of one of these high-rises in Bombay. Inside one of the windows, there’s a housewife, married but neglected, and they have this one-shot encounter. She is with her husband, who’s part of the new India and is the manager of the Rolls-Royce salon. He’s fantastic at his job, but he prefers men and she cannot deal with that. So then this laborer goes back to his own wife, whom he adores.A baby is born among these four people who are all with other people. And who gets affected is the innocent babe. It’s called Migration. In India, there’s very little awareness and education about what the virus is, and the number of those affected in India will soon exceed the number of those infected on the entire African continent. So it’s a pretty dire situation. I’m also doing a feature documentary on the Beatles in India. And I’m superstitious to say it, but I’m at the brink of signing a massive film with a movie star that will go between three continents. If all goes well, I’ll do the AIDS series, but the Beatles might have to take a back burner. [About a month after we spoke, it was announced that Nair would be directing Shantaram, starring Johnny Depp, which is based on the novelized account by Gregory David Roberts of his life as an escaped convict/heroin addict from Australia who reinvents himself as a doctor in Bombay’s slums and gets involved in the city’s underworld.]
BLVR: Does your work back and forth between documentary and feature feel fairly organic? I just saw The Laughing Club of India, and I laughed so much. But I also loved the way they tell their stories so quietly toward the end about the various tragedies that have brought them to the laughing club.
MN: That was the thing. I thought I was going to make an absurdist film as an antidote to my own despondence, but then it turned out to be this oddly moving film. Because people who seek to laugh have come through loss, which I didn’t know before I started. In fact, Oprah just asked me to write about an “ahha moment” for her magazine. So, I started thinking about it, and actually, mine was a long ah-ha moment. The first part was, when I was eleven years old, I really wanted to learn music, and for two years, I had a sitar teacher, a Bengali guy who would come on a bicycle, dhoti-clad, and every time he would come he would look around my room and see all my pursuits—painting, theater, writing. I was so busy! One day he said to me,“You have to decide. Either you can be a sitar player or you can be something else, but you can’t do everything.”And that was a big light bulb for me: (a) that he was taking me so seriously, and (b) that this was advice. I remembered that advice when I was making Laughing Club. I was at a low point in my life. I had just fought this huge six-month legal battle over the ban of Kama Sutra in India and was absolutely exhausted. I’d also spent a year and a half developing a new screenplay—a big, ambitious film, raising eight million dollars, and when I looked at the screenplay again, I decided it wasn’t good enough. I returned the money, the first and only time I did that. It was at that time that I saw these women crossing the highway laughing like banshees. I thought, What is this? I followed them, literally, and found this laughing club phenomenon. I thought, The hell with everything else, let me just go back to documentaries, because I don’t know when I’m going to get inspired again for films. I made it in two weeks with video cameras in the monsoon, a small thing. I always wanted to shoot in the monsoon. Fancy director friends were all having parties, and they all expected me to come. But I was in my burrow with the guy putting on hats and laughing with this woman—and I was thinking, Where is my life? What the hell? I don’t feel confident enough to go to a party. Then this movie, which I made for nothing, put together in six weeks, was directly the genesis, stylistically and emotionally, in every way, of Monsoon Wedding, which became the biggest hit I had made. If you look at those movies, it’s the same style—handheld in the rain, old vintage love songs, the portrait of a city, people talking. The Laughing Club was made for no reason, just for sanity and to feel alive. That was my ah-ha moment for Oprah: if you think of everything as a stepping-stone to something else, you will never be ripe for the plucking. That is the key to what I do. I think if you give yourself fully to whatever that is, there are connections that are being made without your knowing it at first. Whereas if you force it, you lose that spark that makes you see something and drop everything.That’s how I made Namesake, I just dropped everything when I read that. I wasn’t looking for it.
BLVR: I was going to ask you how you came to make it.
MN: I had everything ready to go for two films. One was Homebody/Kabul, Tony [Kushner]’s play, for HBO, and the other was The Impressionist, Hari Kunzru’s novel. Then I lost my mother-in-law, and I was in complete mourning. I was finishing up Vanity Fair, and I went to India to shoot the end of it. I just picked up this book for the plane. It was like some sort of balm to be understood in my loss, to be understood also in the seesaw of the worlds and so on.The plane landed and I called up to ask if the rights were available. Jhumpa knew me and was ecstatic, and one week later… It’s like that. I feel grateful that one can have force of inspiration like that. You know, when I began, I never looked at books for movies. I was working on the streets, and the streets were my inspiration. They still are.
BLVR: When you were reading The Namesake were you lost in it or already seeing it cinematically?
MN: First, I wasn’t looking like that. First, it was just solace that I was not alone in my grief. I was belonging to a community of people who understood this strange, terrible zone of death. I had never had that experience. Then I found myself needing to read and re-read it. When I arrived in Jodhpur, I had to do this big scene with elephants, but the rest of the movie was finished, so I didn’t have this huge anxiety. At six o’clock, I would just say, “Guys, my work is done for today. I am going to my room.” I would go and read. Only when I had the rights did I start looking at it scientifically, how to adapt it. But at first it was just balm, and also a banquet.
BLVR: Have other people said this? I think I cried through the entire film of The Namesake. Not sobbing, but still. It’s so beautiful, and there are so many light moments, but there’s an intense melancholy to it too.
MN: I’ve seen it with about six big audiences around the world, each about fifteen hundred people: New York, London, Rome, Telluride, Singapore, and Toronto. All languages. And I’ve never seen such an interactive reaction to anything that I have made or not made. People belly laugh and then they sniffle and cry, and then they outright, audibly sob.And then they come back to laughter, which is a wonderful thing. It is melancholic, but it is also funny, thank god. You have to tell me, but I think there’s a certain kind of heart explosion that goes on, which I think is rare, because everything is so processed and predictable normally. Also, a lot of people are telling me that it’s about them, their lives, whether they’re Jewish, Icelandic, or Hungarian, whatever. But this one is about loss—though not only that—so you are not alone.
III. THE HOUSEHOLDER PHASE AND THE KARMA YOGI
BLVR: Has family—and the potential for loneliness within it—always been a subject of interest for you, or am I bringing that to them?
MN: You know, I think these films are reflecting the stage of life that I’m in. In Hindu philosophy we have this belief that every person’s life is divided into four stages. It starts with the student phase or celibacy phase, then the householder phase, then the karma yogi— you’re working in the world. Then it goes to renunciation. In retrospect only, I feel that Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala were of the world. I was on the streets, listening to people’s stories, then embroidering the fabric of a screenplay. The writing and the conception would often take much longer than the filming and the execution.
MN:Then I began to have a family, and one summer, because I wasn’t going to leave my son and family, I thought, Let’s make a film very quickly, during the school holidays in the monsoon. It came about like that—an intimate family flick. Even while I was looking at four hundred actors and nonactors for every role, even then I thought it was a small-time thing that I was doing. It was really nice to have that nonexpectation of the film. I think that Namesake grew entirely and completely out of this loss, of facing death for the first time.
BLVR: So which phase would you say you are at now?
MN: I think I am at the cusp of householder and karma yogi. I’m on the cusp of someone who is at home. But now my son is fifteen, my adopted daughter is twentythree. I feel like I want to return to the streets. I’m ready to go back to the unknown.
BLVR: Did raising your son influence how you viewed The Namesake?
MN: So much. All those Gogol scenes, when the father gives him the book. That’s a scene about my son.
BLVR: It’s so heartbreaking!
MN:And my son says,“Hullooo?!” He’s not as caustic as Gogol. But it’s like,“C’mon, get with it! Can you finish a sentence?”That kind of “get on with the show.” [Laughs]
BLVR: Does he call himself Ugindian?
MN: Yes. He stood for election at his school last year, and won, and now when you call his phone, it’s hysterical. His voicemail says [in a suave, Americanized accent], “Hi, you’ve reached the Ugindian president of the United States, otherwise known as the Brownest Man on Earth. He’s not here to take your call.” He’s talking about himself in the third person. I think, Zohran, please! You can’t do this. But they all love it.
BLVR: He sounds very comfortable in his own skin. And your daughter?
MN: She is the daughter of our closest friend in Kampala, who passed away seven or eight years ago. Without legal adoption, she lives with us as our daughter, and she’s a gem of a girl, Delia. We’ve known her since she was three.
BLVR: I was riveted by Tabu and Irfan Khan. Every time they came on screen, I couldn’t blink. Did you know they would be the ones when you were casting?
MN: I always say an angel of casting flew over me. Seriously. Irfan was the first choice, but almost all the other roles were supposed to be other people. I knew Tabu. The film I abandoned before Laughing Club was for her. She’s just brilliant, but because this film is so Bengali, I wanted to go with all Bengalis.
BLVR: Where’s she from?
MN: Hyderabad. She’s fluent in Bengali and has done Bengali films, but she’s just not Bengali, so I never thought of her first up. I cast a Bengali actress, and then things changed in her life as we got closer to the film. Her mother’s a director, and she had to be in her mother’s film. I had to find another person quickly for a very challenging role, so I called Tabu, and she managed to clear her schedule. She’s a very popular, busy actress, and an amazing one.
IV: WEDDINGS ARE NAKED DRAMA, AND A THING FOR OLDER MEN.
BLVR: It’s hard for me to think of a film of yours where a wedding isn’t a major scene or at least a majorly delightful scene. What do you think happens at weddings that doesn’t happen anywhere else that keeps drawing you back to this particular scenario?
MN: Well, weddings are sort of naked drama. People are frayed. Nerves are frayed. But in India, as a child, weddings are great fun and bonding experiences. I’m already booked for one month for my niece’s wedding, and there’s no wedding in sight. I said to her once,“For you, Sahira, I’ll take two weeks.” She said, “Mira, one month or nothing.” Really fierce! So I said,“OK, OK.” It’s a deal. I will be moved in, ordering, coordinating designs, ordering trousseau, whatever. It’s a lovely kind of cocoon to surrender into. So I like all that, I must say I do.
BLVR: We’re going in a few weeks for a wedding in Bombay. My two-year-old is very excited and regularly announces,“I’m going to India!”
MN: He’s going to be eaten up there, because at weddings they just love children. So that’s lovely.
BLVR: So where do you consider your home?
MN: In a real way, I feel it’s between Kampala and Delhi, but I also feel very much at home in New York City. I love this city and it has made me so much of who I am. But when you plant a garden, as I have in Kampala, you ache to return to it. And I think that in about five or ten years I can see us full-time in Kampala and Delhi.
BLVR: So how much time do you spend in Delhi now?
MN: About a month with the family, but because of the movies I make it ends up being much more than a month. I come and go quite a lot.
BLVR: I was thinking about the three fathers of The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding, and Mississippi Masala, and I was thinking how tender and compassionate they are. Is that pure coincidence? In the New Yorker profile by John Lahr, he portrays your father as much more austere and detached.
MN: I think I’ve always had a thing for older men. What can I say? I’ve been drawn to people who have more wisdom of experience in them. My father, though he impressed me with certain things very much, was not that kind of companion growing up. But I’ve always gravitated toward that kind of person, the three fathers you mention, though I’ve never thought of them in one sentence. I was actually going to write for my memoir that I’m supposed to start working on a little essay on “meetings with remarkable men,” these three older men that I lived and worked with: Satyajit Ray, Robert Bolt, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
BLVR: You worked with all three of them?
MN: I didn’t work with them, but I had different encounters with all three. I worked with Robert Bolt for six months on the screenplay of Buddha. And then Satyajit Ray I introduced myself to when I had my first film, and I used to see him every summer from 1983 to 1992, when he died. He’s the one who presented Salaam Bombay! to India. He’s a wonderful man, and I dedicated The Namesake to him and to Ritwik Ghatak, two great filmmakers whom I loved. And Cartier-Bresson called me up, out of the blue sky, one day—
BLVR: After Salaam Bombay!?
MN: Yes, in 1988 or ’89, and he said, “I’m having my eightieth birthday celebration, and so-and-so is paying for twelve people whom I admire to be with me on my birthday for the weekend. I love your work, and I’d like you to come.” I couldn’t believe it. So I spent three days with him. The first day, we did all this work with photography. Then, for two days he took me to museums and taught me how to look at paintings. He refused to let me look at anything but what he wanted to show me.
BLVR: Kal Penn has such different performances in Harold & Kumar and The Namesake. How did you know he could do it?
MN: To be honest, it was because of two fifteen-yearolds I know. My son, Zohran, and my dear friend Sam Walker. Two years ago, they took me by the hand and sat me down in front of the internet and said, “You’ve got to see!” They showed me trailers and whatever. I didn’t pay too much attention. He was goofy. But they wouldn’t stop talking about him. Then I got a letter from Kal saying he would like to fly himself down because he needs to see me for three reasons. One, he was an actor because of Mississippi Masala, which he saw when he was fourteen in New Jersey, and he realized people could look like him on screen.“So thank you for giving me my life.” And two, he loves The Namesake and gives it to everyone he loves, and three, his short name is Gogol Ganguli.
BLVR: He knew you were making it?
MN: Yeah. I said, if you want to fly yourself down, but I was very straightforward—I was just going to talk to him. He came here and he just blew me away with his readings, and he had real appeal in person. I couldn’t get through Harold & Kumar. But between his blowing me away and being the genuine American boy, and my son going to bed every night saying, “Mama, in the morning, tell me it’s Kal Penn. Please tell me it’s Kal. It’s Kal, right?” This is like three times a week. Between those things coinciding, but mostly it was his readings sitting right here.
V. A MORE GLOBAL CONTEXT
BLVR: When I spoke to you a few years ago, 11’09″01—September 11 had just come out with your short in it, and I remember how disappointed you were that it wasn’t finding an audience—
BLVR: Around the world, yes, of course it was. Do you think things have changed here?
MN: [Sighs] Um, have things changed? I think now, with the Democratic win, people have come out much clearer to say, we are not fools. We want a change. But I think these last three years—I don’t know what to say and not to say—but it’s been very McCarthyist. I think the censorship is so embedded. I’m reading a book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. And I think twice about opening it on the subway, because here you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think that now there’s a small window opening to know the truth, but the “so-called” truth is still allowed to come to us in small, manicured doses.
BLVR: As we watched Monsoon Wedding again, my husband kept saying,“Fellini. I see Fellini!” He wanted me to ask about that.
MN: [Laughs] I don’t think of him often, not directly— but actually, to be honest, I took La Dolce Vita with me in Monsoon Wedding because I was working with a young crew, all first-timers, and I wanted to show them how extras could be managed. I ended up loving again the swirl and activity and the intensity. So that sort of became what I watched for Monsoon Wedding. For The Namesake, it was more a great Bengali film called Meghe Dhaka Tara, which means “The Cloud-Capped Star,” by Ritwik Ghatak.
BLVR: I don’t know it. Can you tell me about it?
MN: It’s black-and-white. It’s deeply Bengali. It’s an uncompromising capturing of Indian classical music. One of the characters in the movie is a classical singer, and there’s this quality of “let’s listen to the whole thing.” It’s deeply personal, and yet I think of it as Soviet in its frames, like Eisenstein of Bengal. I just love his work. The emotional intensity and the musicality of it is very beautiful.
BLVR: Is that where the stillness comes from in The Namesake too? There were these cinematic moments that could have been quite hectic in their effect, but instead, the camera stayed still and allowed the viewer to just watch.
MN: The stillness is exactly what I wanted to achieve, because of the stillness of our parents’ generation. When Ashoke and Ashima have a cup of tea, they only have a cup of tea. They do not need to be doing anything else. They don’t even need to be looking into each other’s eyes and saying “I love you,” but they do. Also, I wanted the contrast between the stillness and courtliness of that life and the lack of it in young people’s lives today.
BLVR: Would you say that’s not only true here but in India?
MN: In India, there is still more courtesy, because etiquette is something that we still value immensely. But still that type of stillness is very rare. So I really wanted to try to capture it, and not make it boring.
BLVR: Somewhere I read that you try to create an atmosphere of harmony and egolessness on the set, and I was struck by how very un-American that idea is, because here it’s like if you’re going to be a genius you’ve got to be the biggest ego on the set. How do you maintain that? Do you still do yoga with the cast and crew before each day?
MN: The cast often can’t join us in the morning because of hair and makeup, but they are doing it in the middle of the day. We do yoga all the time. I think ego stuff is a hell of a lot of sound and fury, and it doesn’t get much work done. I also think women know that better than men do. But I’ve never had much.
BLVR: Do you ever lose your temper on set?
MN: No, it’s been years. With Salaam Bombay! I didn’t lose my temper, but [the atmosphere] was manic. If you lose your temper, you exhaust yourself, and you need that energy when you’re shooting to create solutions. So anything that takes you away from that is absolutely pointless.
BLVR: I wasn’t sure I was going to ask this question, but I noticed that Ashima’s friend at the library is the only white person who doesn’t have any foolishness to her. I was wondering, is there something just deeply wrong with our culture?
MN: No, no, no. Don’t say that, please!
BLVR: I’m sure it touched some nerve.
MN: You know what is so startling, or not startling because I’m used to it now, is the ignorance that people here have of any other culture. They have no idea of the kind of layers of refinement and education and culture and history in those people, whether it be a newsstand man or a professor. That ignorance, which is acceptable to have, coupled with a slight arrogance is a deadly combination, and sadly one encounters it a lot in America. Like the woman who’s introduced to Gogol at a party who says [in a spot-on American drawl],“My friend came back from India thin as a rail, and I just envied her!” There’s an interesting thing, Americans are so open, but I think it’s a lack of exposure.The insularity and openness go hand in hand.
BLVR: You can be that open because you’re insular.
MN: When I came here for the first time at seventeen, I knew about the Vietnam War and every Beatles lyric, and I would say I was less culture-shocked than the kid from Missouri arriving in Cambridge, Mass. Definitely, I was more aware of where I was than he.
BLVR: Even then, India had a more global context?
MN: It has a worldview. I can still draw a map of Australia with my eyes closed—rivers, states—because in geography we had to study the entire U.S.A. and Australia and then India. Here, they don’t even teach geography. People don’t have a clue about the rest of it. I met this filmmaker who had done a film on Abu Ghraib, and he said they had named every inmate after television show characters. The soldiers didn’t want to know their names, forget about their names. But they would, say, get Claw Hand out here. It was all—
BLVR: —a way to detach.
MN: So you know the prison is America, and it continues to be America in every aspect of one’s interaction.
BLVR: Do you feel aligned more with one cinematic tradition than another in the world? Is it Bengali?
MN: No, no. I think my sensibility is a hybrid of eclectic influences. And I think the primary influence is life itself, is the street. It’s my foundation and my love for the cinéma vérité way. That coupled with a desire to see the world in a frame that is heightened almost, and colored by, the unabashed quality we have not only in Indian cinema but in Indian life of wearing your heart out there—which I don’t confuse with sentiment, because I feel I am fairly ruthlessly unsentimental. That quality is married to a kind of cinema that is more European than American. Though in some way the pace of living here and the pace of cinema here has definitely affected me. So if you put it all together it would make what I do, what it is. As John [Lahr], sweetheart, put in the article,“It’s not Bollywood, not Hollywood.” Definitely not Bollywood, but also not the shininess of Hollywood.
BLVR: Are there any things you are always sure to tell your graduate students at Columbia?
MN: I tell them always to do what they are doing. Never let it be a stepping-stone. It’s important to do something fully without thinking of reward. People should know that. Of course, the promise of celebrity is around the corner here. It’s pervasive and corruptive. It’s also true that it’s available. We always want what we can’t have and when we get it, we want something else. Yoga helps a lot with that. It allows for the discontent.