Mira Nair

From Bengal to the Big Apple

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Mira Nair loves to tell a good story, no matter what the genre. From the gritty urban realism of her debut feature, Salaam Bombay!, to the gilded world of 19th-century England in Vanity Fair and the intricacies of romance, love, and family in her smash hit, Monsoon Wedding, she’s a director who has continually defied easy categorization.

Nair’s latest film, The Namesake, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the same name, tells the story of the immigrant Ganguli family. The parents, Ashima and Ashoke, immigrate from Calcutta shortly after an arranged marriage and eventually settle in a middle-class suburb outside New York City. Their son, Gogol, struggles with his parents and begins to shun aspects of Bengali culture. That strain lies at the heart of the film, which examines the complexities of immigration, grief, and familial ties.

Nair herself grew up near Calcutta, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, and came to the United States at the age of 19 to attend Harvard. After earning her degree in sociology, she began making films, which have won such accolades as the Caméra D’Or at Cannes (Salaam Bombay!) and a Golden Globe (Hysterical Blindness).

Mother Jones: What inspired you to make The Namesake?

Mira Nair: First and foremost, because of having lost someone who was like a mother to me in a country that was not fully home. The way that Jhumpa had distilled the nature of grief was a solace, and I wanted to give expression to that. The second big draw was the ability to visually link the two cities in which I have grown up: Calcutta in my youth and New York City—critically, the city that taught me how to see in frames—in my later life.

MJ: Although Gogol and his mother have very different relationships to American culture, the push and pull of Bengali and American life is complex for both. Is immigration necessarily an assimilation story? Is it for the Ganguli family?

MN: I think The Namesake is about the history of all our names. And how each person’s name is like a puddle of history. For me it’s very much about the love of “traveling the world without moving an inch”—this is a phrase a viewer told me. I love that about books. I grew up in a small town in India, but through books I knew the world.

MJ: You once said, “I make images in my work. I don’t pen words.” How difficult was it to adapt a novel with so much internal conflict into a movie?

MN: Every frame and every scene has to have an intention. Especially in this film, which covers 30 years in two hours. What I wanted to do was a deep love story about stillness. The parents’ generation is one of stillness and deep love—a different kind of courtliness that we no longer know. And that is balanced by Gogol’s story. I wanted to make a Bengali film in America; I love those early films of Satyajit Ray—the economy, the courtship, the charm. So that type of sweetness, and then with the clang and coolness of Manhattan. It’s a completely New York movie in some ways but with people who look like me in the center.

MJ: How involved was Jhumpa Lahiri?

MN: Well, I cast her in the movie, and there are about 26 members of the Lahiri family in the movie. I spent a weekend with her family in their house in Rhode Island, which informed a lot of the look of the film. We made the Ganguli’s house look like her parents’.

MJ: Your previous feature film, Vanity Fair, had period costumes and big-name stars. Did you consciously want to make a more intimate, contemporary film?

MN: No, because I wasn’t looking to make The Namesake; it began more like a possession. I was on my way to India to reshoot the ending of Vanity Fair when I picked up The Namesake for the journey, and I just couldn’t believe it. It was exactly what I was going through emotionally. I’d shoot Vanity Fair during the day—elephants, carriage, Reese Witherspoon—and at 6 p.m. I would say, “Goodbye, everyone, I’m going to my room.” And I read and reread The Namesake. We began shooting it 10 months later, which is very quick from conception to raising money, all that stuff. It was like a fever.

MJ: Snippets of hip hop, rock and roll, Indian, and classical music populate your films. How important is music to telling a story?

MN: I often begin movies with music in my head; it’s a very important dimension to me. Not just the music itself, but how to use music in film: when and how and subtlety. I don’t like to be too sweet in my stories, and I like the abrasive clang, the contrasting of sounds and cultures. For example, Gogol goes to an American barbershop to get his head shaved in respect to his father. But of course that barber thinks it’s about being trendy. Two people are inhabiting two different spaces seamlessly, and music is an economic way to capture that in a frame. I commissioned a rap song [“The Chosen One,” performed by thelements, featuring Mykill Miers] with the lyrics “You are the chosen one / I am my father’s son,” and it was wonderful fun to work with the musicians on that.

MJ: What are your future projects?

MN: I’m producing a series of short films to raise awareness of aids and hiv in India, called “aids Awake.” I’ve made deals to clip these films onto the beginning of blockbusters. So when the masses go and see Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s new movie this October, they will see a short, maybe even starring him, beforehand. And our Ugandan film school is now in its third year. It’s a three-week boot camp for cinema. We give full fellowships to 12 to 20 screenwriters and directors from Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya, and the remaining 20 percent from South Asia. They come to Kampala, where we have mentors from Spike Lee to Nigerian writer Misan Sagay to Matthew Robbins, who wrote several Spielberg movies. The objective is to make local cinema. If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.

Mira Nair Picks The Best of Bollywood

Directed by Vishal Bharadwaj, one of the directors participating in Nair’s “aids Awake” campaign, Omkara is a modern retelling of Othello.

When their husbands’ lives collide while working abroad in Saudi Arabia, two women form an unlikely,nd ultimately doomed, friendship.

Featuring veteran Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, this homage to The Godfather depicts the ruthless business practices of one corrupt family.

Maestro’s Choice
Kishori Amonkar. Nair’s favorite song, “Raga Ahir Bhairav,” is one of the highlights of this performance by Amonkar, a classical Hindustani singer who is known in India as the Saraswati (goddess of the arts) of Song.

The Namesake
Soundtrack, Various Artists.
The tracks on this eclectic mix range from Argentinean musician Federico Aubele to cutting-edge London DJ State of Bengal, but most are composed by Nitin Sawhney, whose music combines South Asian melodies with Western electronica and breakbeat style.


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