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Smriti Kiran: I will not attempt to introduce the guest, the creator-mentor for this session but I would like to share as a matter of great pride, the sweep, spectrum, scale, ambition, audacity, fearlessness, diversity, and sprawl of a career that is spread over four decades and is still going strong.

Denzel Washington, Lupita Nyong’o, Richard Gere, Hilary Swank, Mia Wasikowska, Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Shabana Azmi, Irrfan Khan, Kate Hudson, Riz Ahmed, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Tabu, Marisa Tomei, Angelica Huston, Uma Thurman and Gena Rowlands, what do they all have in common? Mira Nair. She has handled artists, budgets, narratives that most aspire to in their dreams. Her first fiction feature, Salaam Bombay! was India’s official entry to the Oscars in 1998. For the Oscar campaign, a quote by Satyajit Ray was used to introduce the film. Apparently, the story goes that Jodie Foster, at the Oscar ceremony, called out to Mira and Sooni Taraporevala and said, ‘Hey guys, you should have won!’

Salaam Bombay! also won the Caméra d’Or, making her the first Indian filmmaker and only the fourth woman filmmaker out of the 16 that have won this honour at the Cannes Film Festival across its 73 years. In 2001, with Monsoon Wedding, not only did she win hearts and the box office across India and the world, but she also won the Golden Lion, the top award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, making her the second Indian filmmaker to win this award in the festival’s 77-year history.

She carried forward the legacy of directors Debaki Bose, Raj Kapoor, Chetan Anand, Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Mrinal Sen and Hrishikesh Mukherjee who were slowly and consistently making their presence felt across the international film arena at film festivals like Cannes, Venice and Berlinale.

She’s the first Indian woman filmmaker to cut across the ranks and blaze through to make way for many that came after her because she brought dreams that seemed improbable into the realm of probability.

Her latest, A Suitable Boy, also her first series, is an adaptation of Vikram Seth’s iconic book, A Suitable Boy. Vikram is a friend of Mira. In fact, she visited his house in Delhi when he was writing the book and had a wall filled with post-its. She’s almost finished with the screenplay for a feature film on Amrita Sher-Gil. She plans to open the stage musical of Monsoon Wedding in India next year and there is an eight-hour show in the oven based on The Jungle Prince of Delhi that she hopes to start in 2022.

She doesn’t wear her success or legacy with a heavy hand. She’s a certified original gangster, the toofani, the pagli, the one who tells robust stories with a lot of colour, music and heart. The woman who led the way… Mira Nair, welcome to Dial M for Films! Thank you for giving us time.

Mira Nair: Wow, what an introduction! Thank you so much, Smriti. It fills my heart to be in the same sentence with Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and Satyajit Ray, who really have done such beautiful work, and work that spurred me on.

Smriti Kiran: Mira, out of the twelve fiction features that you’ve made, eight are adaptations, and these are just the ones that you said yes to. In an interview, you’d said that when you began, you never looked at books for movies. ‘I was working on the streets, and the streets were my inspiration. They still are.’ How did literature become such a source of inspiration for your work over the years?

Mira Nair: Literature was a source of inspiration growing up. I grew up in Orissa, in Bhubaneshwar, in the early sixties into the seventies. It was an enchanting place in which not much happened. It was the written word and our stories that kept us going. But the written word held prime importance for us. It’s as Jhumpa (Lahiri) wrote so beautifully in The Namesake, ‘Pack a pillow and a blanket. See the world.’ With a book, you don’t have to travel an inch. You’re just in your mind. It was that for me.

In fact, one of the earliest sagas I went through was to find an Indian author in our own home. You got Russian books, English books, but I was sure we wrote our books as well. Growing up, you’re only fed that colonial stuff. I remember trying to find someone who’d written our books. So, books were always an inspiration.

My path into film came from what is called documentary now and what was called cinema verité then – the cinema of truth. That’s what I studied with Ricky Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker—great documentarians—when I was in college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That path led me to the street, to the stories of real people. That was the initial capture of cinema: how to try to capture the absolutely unpredictable and yet terrifyingly powerful real life.

“There’s really no design. It’s the books that happened to completely capture me at that point in time.”

It is true that we did Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala very much in the same spirit; very closely with Sooni Taraporevala. We went into it like social science – researching, working with street kids for months, hearing their stories, and then fashioning a screenplay. Similarly, with Mississippi Masala – going to Uganda, seeing the dream that the Asians had left, and conducting several interviews with exiles from Uganda in England. My friend, Dina Stafford—who still works very closely with me—and I did close to 2,000 interviews of exiles in London, England. Then of course we went to Mississippi. The material was really gathered from the earth, from the people who lived that story, then the screenplay emerged from that.

The Perez Family was offered to me coming out of Mississippi Masala itself. That was an adaptation that was already done. I didn’t mastermind the adaptation. It was beautifully written by Robin Swicord. That attracted me because it was about exile. It was about living in-between worlds. I was also always obsessed with Cuba and the kind of magic realism of that story as well.

Mira Nair on the sets of The Perez Family

There’s really no design, Smriti. It’s the books that happened to completely capture me at that point in time. The Namesake is a case in point. It was something that came out of the blue; it captured my own loss and my own grief of losing a parent in a foreign country. I just couldn’t believe it. I’d never confronted the finality of that loss. Then I happened to read Jhumpa’s novel, and it was something that spoke to me so deeply. Once I found a visual clue on how to make it (the bridges between Calcutta and New York City), I realised that living in-between worlds is what my state of being has been for several decades. It’s not a design ki ye bhi kitaab karna hai, vo bhi kitaab karna hai. It’s not like that.

I loved A Suitable Boy. It was my close companion through the early years of it being published, but I didn’t even pursue it. I know several series were trying to be made, but I wasn’t part of that game. I went on to make my own things. When I heard that it was written and they were out and about trying to make it, I just said, ‘To hell with this, ain’t no gora gonna make this thing. I’m going to get it there.’ And I did.

Sometimes it’s like that. Now we are back to an original screenplay on Amrita Sher-Gil. There’s a lot of liberation in that, too, because it’s based on her diaries and on everything you know about her, but really her own diaries and letters. It’s such a beautiful way to take off.

I’m not somebody who has a distinct plan. I’m pretty focused, but I don’t have a list of things to achieve before I pop.

Smriti Kiran: You said that there has to be a visual hook that has to capture you for you to commit to a book adaptation. Since you’ve done so many of them, even if they aren’t by design, how does the process of adapting begin for you? What are the first steps?

Mira Nair: A case in point is Vanity Fair, which is a tome by (William Makepeace) Thackeray. I was offered this book by Focus Features soon after the success of Monsoon Wedding. I was immediately interested because of two reasons. It was by Thackeray and I had loved this book since I was 16. I was in Loreto Convent, Irish Catholic, and received a very good education there; but they didn’t care for badass girls, and there was Becky Sharp at the centre of Vanity Fair. I used to read it under the covers because I loved the story of how this badass rose from rags to riches in early 19th century England.

Thackeray was born in Calcutta and was sent to England at 14, where he first discovered his society. I always saw in his book that he saw his own world with the eyes of an outsider and with the eyes of somebody who had understood what the colony of India had contributed—after being pillaged and raped—to provide to the coffers of England. That was the upward mobility that began Becky Sharp’s story in Vanity Fair. But the multiple versions of Vanity Fair that had been made were always about the rags to riches story of a girl. They were never about the society and the politics that created this upward mobility within England. That was my angle. 

Reese Witherspoon and Mira Nair on the sets of Vanity Fair

It’s a question for me because I never like to step in the same river twice or do what other people may have done with it. I wouldn’t do it then. I knew this angle, which was Thackeray’s angle, which was never explored. It was my sensibility that it really provoked. I chose to work with the great Julian Fellowes, who is now the creator of Downton Abbey and a wonderful, rich man at the moment. Back then he was a struggling actor, and he had just written his first screenplay, Gosford Park, and won the Oscar for it. Wonderful chap. He also comes from that aristocracy. So, his world was very much that world, and we had the most extraordinary time. I invited him home to New York City when my family was away. He stayed with me for a week. I said, ‘Listen, Julian, no cutlery, no butlery, okay? We eat with our fingers. Here’s the thali. I’ll make you your chhole bhature, I’ll make you what I eat, and you will eat without six spoons on either side. Mere paas hai hi nahi.’ Anyway, he was completely charmed and we got down to our hands and ate and worked. We looked at that tome with that point of view.

Mira Nair and Jullian Fellowes on the sets of Vanity Fair

He set off to write it and I was very much shepherding him through it. It’s always the case: you choose what you want to make and you have to kill some darlings. I am desi after all. There are some things in me that I really want to do.

I loved Amelia’s best friend, William Dobbin’s case. The guy who doesn’t get the girl, who goes to India and becomes a native Indian. I love all those sub-echoes. You maximize them. You bring them to the fore and you put other things away. Sometimes an actor inspires so much, so I follow that part. We created our own tapestry, in that way. It was a new Vanity Fair. It was not something that had been seen or done before.

With The Namesake, I’d just buried my mother-in-law here, in a snowstorm. She was from East Africa. This was not her home, and I could not believe it. It was medical malpractice that led her to that end. It was terrible. I was on a plane to India, making the end of Vanity Fair. The finale where Becky Sharp is going to India, which was a bit of a fanciful idea. When I read The Namesake, I immediately felt like I had a sister in this world. When the plane landed, I made two calls: one to Jhumpa, whom I knew a little bit (she had asked me to work on her earlier book) – she said that the rights were available and she would have loved for me to have them. I was amazed. The second call was to my dear friend Sooni. I said, ‘Have you read The Namesake?’ Sooni is a more avid reader than anyone I know. She said, ‘Yes, and I love it.’ I said, ‘Will you adapt it?’ She said, ‘Absolutely.’ That was all one week. So, we had the rights.

 

“I love sub-echoes. You maximize them. You bring them to the fore and you put other things away and create your own tapestry.”

With that, my angle was inspired by the love affair of my own father-in-law and mother-in-law with whom I lived for 25 years. It was an extraordinary relationship of sitting at the kitchen table, having your chai, not saying a word, no I love you, no Valentine’s day, nothing to show off, but just the way they looked at each other. It was such a deep relationship that I was privy to for so long. So, my inspiration for The Namesake were the parents more than it was Gogol, the son. That is all I said to Sooni: ‘Instead of the novel, which is essentially three acts of Gogol, the young man, taking us through it, let’s make it more about Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli.’ When you have a collaborator like Sooni, who understands me and my sensibility, it’s so beautiful, because, literally, within nine months of reading the book on the plane, we were shooting it. It was this kind of pure force that happened, and largely because of our collaborations and the collaboration of the team that came together; also because of the clarity of where I wanted to go with it, and that Sooni could realise that and we could do it together.

Smriti Kiran: Mira, it was a difficult time for you. I think you had to let go of two projects to do The Namesake: The Impressionist (by Hari Kunzru) and Homebody/Kabul (by Tony Kushner) that you were going to adapt. Did you have to move those pieces as well?

Mira Nair: Yes. Interesting you brought up The Impressionist. I loved that book. I still do. I can’t recall now what happened. I know that Sooni did adapt it. I think it got stuck in the morass of development with Fox Searchlight, and we kind of ran out of steam with the option – something like that. I can’t remember.

With Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, it was always my dilemma about looking at a country, like Afghanistan, through a Western character. Of course, it was a tour de force in dramatic storytelling, but ultimately, I lost interest in trying to speak about Afghanistan and what it meant to the world through this female American protagonist, who was very compelling. That’s a very tough question for me. There’s so little about Afghanistan that one can know and feel and smell and touch that I would rather do it with an Afghan filmmaker or make it about an Afghani person. It’s hard for me sometimes, as much as I’ve tried, to enter through somebody who’s constantly viewing it from the outside, which is different from say, Vanity Fair, which is about an outsider’s point of view in a way but about someone from the inside. That’s what prevented me from doing it.

With The Namesake, it was really like being struck by a bolt of lightning. The project I turned down in the middle, just before making The Namesake, was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That was an extraordinary thing. I thought, ‘Arre baap re, how can I do this? My son learned to read from this book. I have to take it seriously.’ But it was my 14-year-old at the time who said to me, ‘Mama, many good people can make Harry Potter, but only you can make The Namesake.’ He liberated me from should-I-how-can-I-say-no, come-on-I-should-do-it.

I excel in saying no to what would make me rich, Smriti. I’ve only been rich in years, not in the pocket.

Smriti Kiran: Thank you for making the choices that you’ve made, but I must say that was a big one!

Your films are very often described as full of colour splendour, complexity, and having an innate Indian-ness. This quality of zindadili you described very beautifully in an interview. You said, “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.’ What did you mean by this?

Mira Nair: Well, I can’t really bear mawkishness or overly stated pyaar – the way people are not in life, bordering on melodrama sometimes, but more mawkishness and gooey sentiment. I find it much more moving to be unsentimental, to have great emotion. The human heart is such a complicated place to be at. Mawkishness, maudlin or sentimental is the easy road that you will completely forget in one second because you understand it as fake. It’s not what intrigues me, honestly. Cinema verité, to have to look at a cinema that is truthful, which is what life can show you in all its craziness, is a big lesson for me because it’s not rona-dhona, haan usne ye kiya ya vo kiya. It’s not sentimental, it’s surprising.

When I made a film on strippers in a nightclub in Ghatkopar, called India Cabaret, in 1984, there were two protagonists, Rekha and Rosie. Rosie was really into being sexy. She was into doing it as much as she could; she enjoyed it. She was doing it to raise money for her sister’s dowry, who was just about to get married.

We went across to Hyderabad with her on a train to attend the wedding and give the dowry. We went right into the village, way outside Hyderabad. When we reached her home (cinema verité – you don’t know what’s going to happen), we saw her emaciated mother come to the door, sitting her down outside, taking the money and saying, ‘You will pollute the inside with your presence during an auspicious ceremony, so you remain out’, but only after taking the money and going back in. Now, this is not what we expected at all, and we were filming. She was left outside in her pink silk sari, essentially financing the wedding, but not allowed to enter because she was “bad”, she was polluted because she was a stripper.

“I find it much more moving to be unsentimental, to have great emotion. The human heart is such a complicated place to be at.”

That’s life, isn’t it? It’s extraordinary. You don’t know this is going to happen. Then she wept. Now that, for me, is a good example of what happens in life. I learned from that very early on, what moves me, I suppose, the injustice, the double standards, the clarity that if you make a deal with the devil and dance for a living, the family will use you, but will not let you in again. Those are more interesting to me than, say, ‘Haye Allah!’ and chest-beating.

 

I’ve always been in that direction, I suppose because that’s ruthless. For Salaam Bombay!, when we were researching, just the territorial battles between beggars – on the way to Haji Ali – was ruthless. If you sit there, they’ll throw you out. You haven’t got permission to beg here. That’s the reality of life. And it’s infinitely more powerful than fiction. So, I go in that direction.

Smriti Kiran: It’s also a very clear-eyed view of India, which is away from all the stereotypes that people mistake it for. That’s why I loved what you said: colour and heart do not mean sentimentality. It goes beyond that.

Mira Nair: And colour does not mean gaudy colour. This is what I hate about many images of India. It’s all completely gaudy and not easy on the eyes. Somehow what we do in India is easier on the eyes, not so much in this current present climate. That was a big part of A Suitable Boy for me: the visual palette of the hand-loomed world. We dressed people, close to 200-300 extras in those colours, the vegetable dyes, in the Khadi, and the way we used to live. That’s something I miss actually, that palette. The privilege of cinema to make that happen again is beautiful.

Smriti Kiran: The profile that Architectural Digest did on the behind the scenes and the making of A Suitable Boy was beautiful. Those handwritten notes! Mira, I also wanted to say that you actually sought the adaptation by getting in touch with the BBC. It was a no brainer for them. They told you that they were honoured that you were considering this.

Mira Nair: Not considering it – I wanted it.

Smriti Kiran: There were a lot of challenges while you were making A Suitable Boy – there were push backs on language, budgets, length – it was already distilled and written, but you stuck on. What made you stick on? Was there a point when you said that you’d rather not do this?

Mira Nair: Yeah, there was. I got involved formally in January 2018, and we were supposed to shoot in September 2018. It was a challenge because they had a mentality of the director doing one thing and them doing the rest. I’ve never worked that way.

In fact, I know how to increase the bang for the buck in India. I know how to make films at home. They come from the outside. It’s very different. Firstly, even the style of how to mount the production was different from mine, but I went along with it because I loved the material. I felt a little bit like a guardian, like isko karna hi hai. I had to protect it. But those struggles went on. Actually, the financial stuff was really strong. I’m shocked to tell you that I ended up working for 25-30% of my own salary, of whatever I had chosen to or agreed to till then because the budget was slashed to that extent.

Then it became about what we could do. When people write about why it is ‘six hours, let’s have more,’ they have no idea the kind of things that play to make something actually exist. A Suitable Boy is a great thing for us, but in England, or in the West, it’s like a radical departure from their white situation. They think it’s radical. So, the way to preserve it was to make it in six hours. Then in that distillation from eight to six, I got very involved in trying to bring in the balance of the politics, and they were very porous to that.

Mira Nair on the sets of A Suitable Boy

The final thing was the language. I knew Vikram had written it brilliantly in English. I went to him—I mean, he was always there; he was the most important person for me in the game—I said, ‘Look, I can’t do this. I can’t do rural hinterland. Rasheed’s father saying, ‘Haan ji, welcome to our village homestead.’ I can’t do that. In this day and age, we’ve got Narcos, we’ve got every series on the planet happening in the languages in which they are written, and so we should do it in our language, in just the characters that could speak to that.’ Of course, there were four Anglicised families. They would be in English, but Saeeda Bai was a bone of contention.

Vikram agreed, which was very good of him, he said, ‘Thanks for translating it back.’ We did a very careful dialogue translation with Hriday Lani, who had also done the dialogues for Salaam Bombay!, and Kavita Seth did the compositions and the singing for Saeeda.

But then the question of kitna language was really a very careful manoeuvre. I was allowed literally 20% because they had their own fundas about it. If it was more than 20%, it would be then demoted to BBC Two, and not BBC One, which is their prime time, which we were designed for.

 

A Suitable Boy is a great thing for us, but in England, or in the West, it’s like a radical departure from their white situation.”

So, they met me a little bit on the journey. But had I been involved since the beginning and had I made it like my own pictures, I would have had more Urdu. I thought we made it work because we logically explained that Saeeda was raised in an atmosphere where English could be learned by the rajas, but taught by the governesses, in the mahaul that she was raised in.

The music was very new for them. That was an issue for me. I said, ‘Look, the courtesan is the heart of the film – her whole ada is in her language, in her poetry. If you made a film on an opera singer, you would have opera,’ but they don’t actually have an understanding of the music, and for us, for me, it was the lifeblood.

I had to constantly negotiate, but they were actually quite blown away by what we were achieving, besides these two issues. They’d never achieved that stuff. There was a time in the beginning when they were trying to bring the budget down, when one person said to me, an important person, ‘Oh, Mira, don’t worry about all those real locations. They won’t know in Manchester where you are.’ And I said, ‘Manchester? Who the fuck cares about Manchester?’

So, by the end of 2018, I remember meeting Vikram for dinner once, and he said, ‘How are you?’ I said, ‘I’m passionate but detached because I don’t know whether it’ll happen, and in what shape it could happen.’ Then we figured out a formula, which was very tight, budget-wise. Lydia Dean Pilcher, who has been my producing partner for 35 years, really knows how to work the numbers in India, and always with artistry in mind. Then this great team I was so lucky to have: Arjun Bhasin for costumes, Declan Quinn with the cinematography, Stephanie Carroll and Mithva Krishen and all the art department team – this is a team that has known me for years, so we speak a shorthand and we also know how to make it work, even logistically. We found a way and they let us do it. Otherwise, it would be as it is the case when firang companies come: they hire people who don’t know you. So, that’s what happened.

Mira Nair on the sets of A Suitable Boy

Once we commenced, it was joy. And, of course, once we found this amazing cast, it was joy; also when I did the real creative work and made it come to life; I asked Shimit Amin, my darling, to collaborate. He is extraordinary and so selfless about just blending in with whatever vision that I was designing with Declan. He just came along and loved it, and sought to be a part of that fabric.

Then we began to have a way to make such a sprawling saga in very limited time to make it work. There are a lot of challenges, especially when ‘you’re the first person to make an entirely Indian book in the Indian way’ like they used to tell me in the BBC. When I was doing the publicity, it opened there in July, somebody said, ‘Oh, the first South Asian cast!’ I said, ‘Where else would it be? I mean, would we cast Americans?’ I was even asked, ‘How do you feel about making a series with the first radical South Asian cast?’ I said, ‘Two words: about time.’ It’s about time you open your eyes to the world and the talent of the subcontinent. Why would you choose a subcontinental book – a great book about us – and do it with people who don’t come from there? Those basic things. But these things are still considered radical in the Western world.

Smriti Kiran: Thank you for making it. It’s one of my favourite books, and you had me seduced. Also, what a wonderful cast and one that mixes new and old! You have people who worked for years and then you have people that are just starting their journey.

Mira Nair: Like Joyeeta (Dutta), who plays Tasneem, and Tabu. It’s Joyeeta’s first time on the screen, and Tabu, of course, is a legend. They look like each – they’re cast because she could be totally related.

Mira Nair, Joyeeta Dutta and Tabu on the sets of A Suitable Boy

I once joked with Arjun. I told him, ‘Arjun, you’re dressing Vijay (Varma) like I dress. I want all those.’ He said, ‘Yaar, auntyji,’—he calls me ‘auntyji’—’aapka hi inspiration tha.’ I said, ‘Which villager would wear ikat jackets? I wear them.’ He said, ‘Sirf inspiration liya hai, bana do usko distinctive.’ I said, ‘Thik hai.’ But what lovely actors! They all said yes, even if it was for only five scenes. Vijay Raaz came for two scenes. These are all mates of mine. I mean, Vijay Raaz has been for a long time, these others are new mates of mine. It was really the joy that actually kept me going – the joy of knowing that I would be working with such delights.

Smriti Kiran: Mira, I think that distilling the spirit of the book is another muscle that comes into play when you’re attempting an adaptation. What makes you decide what you want to commit to? What are the subjects that speak to you most?

Mira Nair: Right now, I’m really in the midst of Amrita Sher-Gil’s life. Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings and her way of seeing have been the fountain of my inspiration in almost every film that I’ve made – the way she framed, her colour palette, the bravery of her own work. Again, I know that it’s feeling protective, like a little bit of a guardian, like agar main nahi banaungi na, toh phir nahi banega ye. I just feel like I must do this. Even though it may not be a commercial idea at all. People don’t really know about her in the world – the film will certainly explore that.

“It all ties up into a kind of the global story of trauma, of being taken away from your country, of your own country being divided in the mind and in the heart, and what it does to survive.”

I actively feel that life is very short and creative energy is not endless. I feel like this is something I could do, I must do and I want to do. It’s that type of feeling. I’ve just turned down something very, very large and very exciting, and I would have been rich at the end of it, but I turned it down. It was quite a shock that I did that to myself even because I know what I’m doing. I know in a year I’ll be making The Jungle Prince of Delhi.

 

The silk route interests me a lot. The whole confluence of what is our India, what is our Hindustan, the major route of flow from Iran, from the Mughals, from Balochistan, from what is now Pakistan to our country, which affects us in every way – in language, in music, in poetry, in our own culture. That interests me.

The Jungle Prince of Delhi is so extraordinary. It’s a remarkable true story, a psychological thriller of sorts, of this woman who invents herself as the descendant of the great Mughal emperors, and spins the tale for so long in her life that she believes it and people begin to believe it. It’s an amazing true story. And, again, unlike an adaptation, it’s an invention. We will have eight hours and we will have a budget on this one. It’s a great big Amazon series. She patterns herself on the Mughal empress who started what is now known as the Independence War, the mutiny, of 1857. I would just love to have the scale to do that. This woman goes to Pakistan just after partition as a young bride. I have never had this budget or scale to see what Pakistan looked like at partition, or Kashmir. It has all that terrain that I’m interested in. It all ties up into a kind of the global story of trauma, of being taken away from your country, of your own country being divided in the mind and in the heart, and what it does to survive.

These are the things that interest me. These subjects give me that almost operatic foundation from which to invent that story.

My plate is pretty full for the next three years, so that is why I turned down the money again.

Smriti Kiran: What have you turned down, Mira? We want to know.

Mira Nair: I turned down a series called FLOTUS, which means the First Lady of the United States. It’s a fantastic 10 episode show for Showtime, which is wonderful. It’s about three first ladies, across three different decades – Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford. Three women in the White House. If the walls could talk, what would they tell you about reality and about the reality of those times that they lived in? It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m sure it will be excellent. It’s just, again, many others could also make that, and I feel like these things that I’m doing, even though they are unfunded and unsung, well, one of them is, The Jungle Prince of Delhi isn’t, is going to be what I would love to see.

Smriti Kiran: Mira, you spoke about how creative energy is not endless and that brings me to legacy. When does an artist begin to think about legacy? Is this something you ponder over? If so, has it become a factor in your decisions regarding the projects you take on now?

If I looked for legacy, then I would do these other grander things that would definitely give me a place in memory, and kiss the system much more than I do.”

Mira Nair: Well, I don’t think about legacy at all. Life is too short for me to ponder. Kya hoga? Kuch nahi. We don’t know what will happen. Life can be snuffed out like that. I’ve had one life-threatening episode that I never thought would happen to me. I know these things now, although I’m not that old at the game, and that they can happen. So, I don’t think about legacy at all.

I think about whether doing this will work within what I have done, within what I want to do, within what is particular to me. I do think about that. I also think about the world that I will inhabit while making it. I wanted to live in the world of A Suitable Boy. I’ve always wanted to live in the fifties, when India was born, in a way, the new India, the free India – I wanted to inhabit that world. I had a real sense of connection to what I knew and what I did not know, both. So that world that you’re evoking in your work and your art is important. I’m offered things which I don’t love. I don’t want to be with a bunch of characters who are only about money and the pursuit of success. I am not interested in that. I’m interested in different things, in what I’ve been speaking about. If I looked for legacy, then I would do these other grander things that would definitely give me a place in memory, and kiss the system much more than I do. I don’t kiss the system very much. That makes life sometimes tougher and lonelier, but, at least, I feel like I could wallow in it or I can stand up to it. I’m not interested in making things that perpetuate ideas or values that I don’t believe in. Other people can do that, but I don’t have to do that.

It’s a brutal struggle to make films. It’s not easy. People think I’m feted, but I’m here at my desk trying to understand just the next year financially. Unless I have this Amrita thing that encapsulates what we want to make—I have this wonderful writer in Clara Royer, who wrote Son of Saul, and we are working on it—it’s not going to be financed until it is financed, whenever it is. That independent chase doesn’t change. It all depends on the work you’re doing. If you’re doing a rom-com with two white people in Malibu, I’d have 10 takers for it, or I would have before. It’s that I need to have fuel from the subject itself to carry me through the struggle that it is to make it. Once we have it together, actually shooting or making it, bringing the family together, going into the world is bliss for me. It’s wonderful for me. I love that. It gives me the juice. Editing, which I love, is when you’re juicing it, maximizing it; and music is my oxygen. All those parts are really rewarding. But the struggle to first create and be rigorous, then raise the money, and then talk a good game, and then get the cast together – all that is not easy.

I’m doing things that are between worlds: for Amrita’s story, we are shooting in Hungary, in Paris, and then Punjab, and the South as well. It’s always these kinds of long, road movie journeys. But it is what it is, and I happen to love it.

Smriti Kiran: There is a fever pitch conversation around representation, diversity, women, and empowerment. Calling out has become common, and yet we are still not where we would like the gender balance to be. I’m just curious to know what it was like for you when you began in 1982. What were the rules of the game and how did you play?

Mira Nair: Thank you for that question. It was confusing. I came to America as a scholarship student when I was 18 and a half years old. I had never left India. Forget about knowing the world. I never came here to immigrate or to do anything of the sort. I came here with my roots very strong in India. So, that impacted very much the choices of films that I was making (documentaries at the time). I was a complete novelty. One thing I did was to use my distinctiveness to say that if I don’t make this film, on, say, the subway newsstand worker who is an Indian immigrant, you will not know that world. You will never be able to make the films that I can make.

I began to make my distinctiveness my calling card as opposed to hiding behind it and being like anyone else. In fact, I was talking to young filmmakers recently, where I told them how I would be told in the beginning, ‘Be grateful that you’re getting this grant,’ or whatever. I told them, ‘Don’t be grateful. Do not be grateful because what you can offer is so enhancing to their notion of what life is and the diversity that is in your life. We add, we amplify. We should not be camouflaged like them.’ This is something I feel very strongly about.

“You have to surrender to that idea of not having a community, and therefore cherish the community that you do have.”

In those times, there was no movement – there was no #MeToo, there was no Black Lives Matter; there were no women achieving, there was no organisation towards that. So, the loneliness, the feeling that you’re out there on your own, was definitely there. And especially for me, because I am a bloody dhobi ka kutta yaar – yahan bhi nahi aur vahan bhi nahi.

Sandi Sissel, a wonderful cinematographer, would take silk clothes around Kamathipura to diffuse the light when we were shooting. We were shooting with street kids and Nana Patekar; with non-actors and actors – under silks across the entire street – and people would ask, ‘Ye sab kya hai, kiske liye hai?’ Then they would look at Chaipau. Then they would say, ‘Ye in log ke liye hai? In tapori logon ke liye ye kya hai? Kuch aur karo, yaar. Stars toh laao.’ They couldn’t understand. So, it was neither here nor there. ‘Why do you want to make such things about just these ordinary urchins?’ Thankfully, the movie was very much embraced later. There was nothing like it before, so in the process of making it, you think you are mad.

Mira Nair on the sets of Salaam Bombay!

The act of making it is also tough. I would shoot in the day and then raise money at night, hoping that I wouldn’t wake up Irrfan Khan next door and Raghubir Yadav the other way across from me. We were all living in an empty flat for months, while I was raising money for the next week.

You have to surrender to that idea of not having a community, and therefore cherish the community that you do have. Like to have somebody as extraordinary as Sooni – we grew up together, from the age of 18, and we share a sensibility even though we are not necessarily trained in these things, we find a way to start that community. I’ve worked with Mulchand Dedhia, my gaffer, who used to sell saree-blouses. He became my gaffer in 1983 with India Cabaret, where we had a three-part crew, and he was the light guy. He came with one light and one bounce, and that’s how we shot the documentaries, and then he left the matching blouse business and became the empire that you know him now. But I have known him and worked with him since 1983. This is my team and my family. I love and cherish my creative community. That’s my community. But otherwise, to deal with the world community, you have to find the conviction.

Even though the doubt is strong, many times, somehow, you have to con the world into feeling that you have never experienced any doubt – that’s the tough part. If you’re asking me that question, my feeling is that you have to arm yourself with craft. You have to arm yourself with knowledge and be humble about that. Be humble about what you don’t know and be strong about what you do know, the idea of bringing people together and taking yourself further is what kept me going through that.

Sometimes there are fallow times, Smriti, and sometimes there are inspiring times. That’s the other thing to understand: when you feel that bolt of inspiration as I did with The Namesake, cherish it because it doesn’t come that clearly and that often; then, chase it.

Monsoon Wedding came out of a very fallow time. When I was in South Africa, where my husband was teaching for three years, I felt like a novelty there. I didn’t feel like I belonged. So, I started to teach film in a township. They have black, coloured and Asian townships. I put together 26 people from these townships and began to teach. (Nelson) Mandela had just come out of prison; the independent South Africa had just come into being, but apartheid was a long and old wound – the privileges were only given to the whites and not to the people of colour. This was my team, the coloured township, the black township. I talked to the students and said, ‘You know, imagination is what we’ve got. We may not have anything else, but we have our imagination.’ I was teaching about what they can do in their own worlds and so on, and then I asked myself, ‘Can I do the same thing? I’ve made bigger films. Can I go back to the down and dirty?’ The Danish filmmakers had come up with the Dogme style, which was such a fantastic inspiration for how to get to the basics and make inventive cinema. I thought, ‘Can I do that?’ That’s what led me weirdly to making a documentary.

Mira Nair on the sets of Monsoon Wedding

Here’s another story about money: we had written a screenplay, there were several comments on it and I got very hiloed. I had just put out Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, and it was good and everything, but the story had kept changing because of various reasons. I didn’t love what I ended up with, which was the first time. I just wanted to not do that again. As a result, I returned money for a screenplay that we had. In that sense of shock, like, ‘What I have done!’

 

“That’s the journey, right? The act of making things and the act of listening to your own heart because otherwise you get lost in the morass of being like other people.”

I basically made a film called The Laughing Club of India, which is a documentary that you can find on the Criterion Collection DVD of Monsoon Wedding because it’s a direct precursor to it. I made this film, again, with a handheld camera and friends, about people who take laughing seriously, an absurd film because I was quite depressed. I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s just see what this is,’ and we made a lovely film with a freewheeling, handheld camera in the rain and with all the movie songs. Again, usual life being what it is, the people who take laughing seriously have always come to it through loss. That was very oddly moving. That gave me the energy to know that if I could do this in the rain, I could also make a feature like this in the rain. Monsoon Wedding emerged out of that, and it was set in the monsoon because my son was in school and that was the school holidays. I thought, ‘What can we do in the monsoon?’ Of course, Sabrina Dhawan was such an amazing part of it; she was a student of mine at Columbia University, also from Delhi; and we cooked it up.

I must tell you this other story: When I was shooting The Laughing Club of India, I was living at the Sun-n-Sand Hotel, feeling low about my life, about my creative thing. Shekhar Kapur, who’s an old and dear friend, was releasing Elizabeth or its sequel. He had a big party in Taj. He called me up, and said, ‘Cate Blanchett’s here, and she only just wants to meet one person, and that’s you.’ I hid my head, and I said, ‘Nahi yaar, Shekhar. Pehle toh kapde hi nahi hai mere paas. I’m shooting. Secondly, basically, main kuch nahi hu. I can’t. I just don’t have it in me to go out there and be so-and-so,’ and I didn’t. I was feeling that bad about what was going on with me. Then we made The Laughing Club of India.

Monsoon Wedding is an intimate family flick. Everyone turned me down and then family members were cast because they were really around at the time. I’m still making Monsoon Wedding in the sense that we are now doing the stage musical 20 years later. We are doing so many things. People are now ripping off Monsoon Wedding all the way from Los Angeles. That’s the journey, right? You don’t know where it will lead you, but you have to trust, I suppose, the act of making things and the act of, I think, listening to your own heart because otherwise you get lost in the morass of being like other people. Why should we be like other people?

Smriti Kiran: You met Satyajit Ray between ‘83 and ‘91 – I think every summer in those years. What was that like? How did you do that?

“It was quite halting for me because I didn’t know how much to speak to the great man.”

Mira Nair: I’m mad, yaar. Isiliye pagli bola hai na. It’s amazing. I have a stash of letters, actually, from him that we exchanged. Well, I met him because he came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Shatranj Ke Khilari, with Suresh Jindal, his producer. Sooni and I went to hear him at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and we couldn’t get in. So, I just wrangled my way inside, somehow, and even wrangled our way into the dinner with him and the party that night. That’s the confidence that being in these fancy colleges gives you. You think, ‘What can be worse? They can just say no, right? So, let’s try to get a yes.’

Anyway, I set up communication with him, wanting to assist him. It didn’t work out to work with him on a film. I have this theory: I don’t like to meet those I admire unless I have something to offer them, unless I have something to share with them; otherwise ‘haan ji, I’m so-and-so’ is not much fun.

When I finished my second film, the first film out of college, So Far From India, which was a cinema verité documentary, I literally got it under my arm, the 16-millimetre reels, two reels, took a projector, and set up to go to 1/1 Bishop Lefroy Road, where Manik da lived, and climbed up the stairs with the projector. Then his lovely wife, Bijoya, showed me the veranda and said, ‘You can put the projector up here.’ I put up the projector, put up the reel and just projected it on his wall. He sat there patiently watching the 52-minute film. It’s not a fiction film. It’s a cinema verité film, as life was, about a young Gujarati man who leaves Ahmedabad to come and work in the subways here. His wife gives birth to a son back home. He goes back, and we go back with him. The son looks just like him but doesn’t know the father. He doesn’t want to speak to the wife because she is a peasant in his mind; he’s an American, and he doesn’t want to take her back. There’s all this estrangement. So, they end up speaking, both husband and wife, to my camera, and I’m the median between them.

Mr Ray saw the whole thing, and he said to me, ‘You know, if you had cast a more attractive woman, he would have gone back with her.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘I didn’t cast anyone. I just chose the young man and then followed his life. I inherited his world as this style of filmmaking.’ He had never seen this style of filmmaking. Documentaries at that time, in the early eighties, were about how much coal the government had made or newsreel type of things. It wasn’t about the dramas of people’s lives. So, he didn’t have any experience of that. It was quite halting for me because I didn’t know how much to speak to the great man. I don’t think I gave him any lecture on it. I just said to him, ‘I didn’t cast anyone.’ Then we would basically sit in his study and talk.

He loved a bit of gossip. He would love to hear of what other films were going on, other film directors, in those worlds – we would talk like that. As I would go, even in later years, it would be like addas in his study, just like his own movies. All these librarians and other people fed him the great reviews of Pather Panchali from the fifties. He did like hearing those things. He would laugh, also. It was just really lovely. He was porous. I didn’t interview him or anything like that, but I just saw just the extraordinary expanse of his graphs, then his music, the writing, around him, and how he used it. It was never about commerce or money, it was always about finding a way to tell his tale, which he did with such beauty and finesse. As he got older, it was harder. But he was amazing.

Then he wrote that beautiful thing about Salaam Bombay!, and I asked him to open the film. He opened it at Nandan Theatre in Calcutta. He was in a wheelchair by then. I remember wheeling him into the balcony, and I just couldn’t sit there. I sat outside, I was so nervous.

Another person whom I befriended later, who was extraordinary, was Subrata Mitra, Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer on the Apu Trilogy and several other films. He was an extraordinary artist, and he also really loved Salaam Bombay! He befriended Sooni and me and remained our friend. I want to very much do something to honour him because he is unsung – he was such a revolutionary in how he taught us to see the world without anything, without any grand equipment and any money whatsoever – just with his wits and with his extraordinary artistry.

There are some things like that that I won’t forget. He is a lodestar, as is Ritwik Ghatak for me, who taught me to trust my instincts and barrel on, even though the worlds in which I operate now are somewhat different, but still that lodestar of what you choose to pursue and how you choose to do it. This came from these great artists.

 

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube

Prateek Raina: Since you’ve worked with writers from both India and abroad, is there a difference that you’ve experienced? Is there something that we can absorb into our writing culture to make it better?

Mira Nair: The act of writing is different with each writer, rather than India mein aise hota hai, yahan aise hota hai. It’s different according to the artist or the writer that I am working with. Now I’m working with a Hungarian-French writer, Clara Royer, who wrote Son of Saul, who is writing Amrita Sher-Gil’s biopic, and she has totally loaded herself with reading and knowing, and meeting anyone to do with Amrita Sher-Gil. She has spent, I think, close to a year getting all that research in her bones, in her blood. She’ll refer to a letter at some point, which she knows well.

With writers, what I like to do is to finally get together in a room and first create a kind of, what I call, a map of life – that this could happen, that could happen, and then that could happen. We have our index cards and we have our graph. Then when the writer goes off and writes the scenes, I come back in and sort of edit or shepherd or shape it, and then we talk about it.

With Clara, the map of life is not just an index card, she writes the scenes in a paragraph. Then we have a 25-page treatment. It’s amazing, but I just want the screenplay. I would just tease her about it. Her process is better, too – she wants to follow the treatment. I’m now more involved with it, and we are finishing that treatment in a screenplay, but I’m also parallelly thinking of other things. For instance, there are four actors, four real roles in this: there’s Amrita herself, her mother, her father, who’s an extraordinary photographer, Umrao Singh Majithia, and her lover – her husband to be. They are amazing characters. I also know that to make this film, I want to cast certain incredible actors. It’s even a way to finance it, but also, I want them. If you want to cast Julianne Moore or Naseeruddin Shah, you have to give them roles that they can sink into. It might be about Amrita, but these people have all fed into what Amrita becomes or her journey. Then we have to look at what those scenes actually do and what they’re asking for from an actor as well, especially the great actors.

A page from Mira Nair’s look book for A Suitable Boy

So, then I’ll bring in what I’m calling the four pillars of her journey, and then we’ll go back and see what we can do with those characters and whether they fuel her journey, and how. But in half my mind, 15%, I’m thinking, ‘Naseer bhai will be reading this, and I want to do him justice,’ because Umrao deserves justice. It’s not like I’m just inventing it for an actor I love. It’s both those things at play.

Now, for the next two weeks, we’re going to do nothing else but look at that map, look at the actual scenes, then shape and distil. As I’ve always produced my work, I know how much it takes to have a set piece like a bullfight. I know what that would cost and I know also how long it’ll take to do. Then I have to maximize the bullfight. I have to get so much out of the bullfight to help our story and our characters, then I’ll deserve the bullfight and more. But if it doesn’t, if it’s just ki background mein bada accha bullfight ho raha hai, it won’t serve my purpose. I won’t be able to do it. Then you make those decisions, you shape it. Then in the auditioning process, in the acting, in the auditioning of actors, you begin to hear the words and you see what is working better and what is not. You keep going, as you must know, until you say action, until you write it again for the third time in the editing room because a lot of what I’ve also done is to create a lot in the dubbing process. I’m always making ensemble films, which have a zillion characters, and how to achieve that clarity, how to make the threads clear, and who’s who requires embellishment peeche se, not necessarily on the page. So that’s how I work in this case. There are other cases. Mostly, for me, the privilege is Sooni, Sabrina, the writers that I’ve loved and known, but in this case, there is a new writer, but we get along.

Also, through years of making movies, I have three fundas: one funda is that every scene should do at least three things. I call it two plus two filmmaking – if a scene is about a guy who goes to get a job, then I don’t have fun in that. It has to be more than that. We can do more than that. So then that’s what I try to make: greater density with clarity.

Manas Kumar: What were the questions that you asked Vikram Seth when BBC approached you for A Suitable Boy? How important is it to know (not necessarily in the personal sense) the writer when you are adapting their work? How did you approach the casting of this particular web-series?

Mira Nair: I first met with the BBC and with Lookout Point, the production company that has produced and developed this with Andrew Davies. At the end of that first meeting, in which I shared my look book, we all agreed that the blessings had to come from Vikram and no one else since he’s the creator. Then I went to Delhi and we met each other.

 

Pages from Mira Nair’s look book for A Suitable Boy

Of course, I knew him from before. We took a walk in the park. Seeing as we’re great lovers of trees, we talked about them and some other things. We didn’t get down to the nitty-gritty of A Suitable Boy at that time. We talked more generally.

He had done a lot of homework on me, reading and seeing my work. He had been comprehensive about it. He was referring to things that I had not even known, like articles on my work. He gave me a beautiful three-part series of A Suitable Boy and inscribed it. While he gave it to me, he said, ‘Mira, the deal is, you’re going to do A Suitable Girl.’ I said, ‘No, sweetheart, I can’t do that. I’ll give two-three years of my life to A Suitable Boy, but I just cannot guarantee more years for the girl.’ We sort of half-joked, and that was it. It was not a quiz about The Boy at all.

Later, of course, as we started working, when I began to get much more involved with how the distillation was happening, I went and stayed with him for three-four days, outside London, to essentially make sure that the tenor and the timbre that we were establishing between the Hindu and Muslim relationships and the whole quotient—because it’s such a tricky time in India now, with the schisms between these communities so strong, that I just didn’t want to fall into any of those traps—was being given the same justice and treatment as he had given in the book in the script to everything – the Hindu and Muslim tensions, love, the music, the poetry, the friendships, the history, the political experience, Nawab and Mahesh. That’s what I specifically worked with him on.

Then I wanted to enhance certain scenes. For instance, the scene in the prison between Maan and Lata is something that we wrote together. I don’t know why I have this weird obsession with prison. I even think I’m going to go to prison one day, and I have to tell myself, ‘How do I cope with prison?’ If I’m in prison, I know I’ll yearn for beauty. I’ll yearn to see something beautiful. That weird thing for me made Lata wear a gardenia from her mother’s garden.

Maan (played by Ishaan Khattar) and Lata (played by Tanya Maniktala) in A Suitable Boy

Enhancing Mrs Mahesh Kapoor was very important to me because she was hardly in the draft before, and I loved her character. I loved that she was this quiet strength of this political family; this devout person, this so-called traditional woman whom you can often bypass, but the core of this family. She’s also a gardener like Vikram and I are. I love flora-fauna. I wanted to use in that prison scene a reference to her, to the mother’s garden, and what Maan would think to see that flower, touch it and fill his heart with it. It’s small things like that. I wanted to juice and maximize every scene to the best that we could to show this complexity within the extremely limited time that we had.

When people say that we want more, people have no idea of the pressure of being asked to do it all in six hours. Otherwise, it wouldn’t happen. Otherwise, there would be no A Suitable Boy. So, then you try to look at the six hours and ask yourself what you can do to get the rass, the real spirit. Yes, you have to kill a lot of darlings, but the spirit is vital. That was always my goal.

Anithya Balachandran: How did you manage to tell an Indian story in the English language without losing the essence of the milieu the story is set in?

Mira Nair: You see, that’s what Vikram had done in the novel. That’s also one of the reasons why I love the novel. I think and dream in English, even though I love our languages. We are who we are. That was his milieu in A Suitable Boy: the English soaked Indians who wanted to shrug off the British life and create a new India, but that’s who we are. We still spout Shakespeare. We still, in this case, with the Chatterjee’s, listen to Schubert and speak in rhyme. I mean, that’s the world that he brought us.

I also love it because it’s much more my world. Then there’s Maan, who’s clearly a Doon School kid in many ways. He’s educated, but only in English. He just speaks in Hindi to the servants probably, and to his mother. In this case, I made that distinction because of who Mrs Mahesh Kapoor was – she would only speak in Hindi.

That’s the world that we still could find by sifting away the cacophony of today’s India – in Lucknow, and mixing it with Kanpur. These were actually the places that Vikram had written in. In fact, the room, where Kabir goes to visit his mother – there are only two scenes in that room, with the great Sheeba Chaddha playing the mother – is the room in which Vikram stayed and wrote several chapters of the novel. I love to do those types of things, where things have meanings beyond meanings.

That was there for us to extrapolate from Lucknow and Kanpur, and mix it. Then I brought Maheshwar into it because I happened to love it, and because the ghats and Benaras and the Ganges and the temples are not possible to find closer to Lucknow. We needed to go to Madhya Pradesh for that. That’s how we did it. Then Calcutta, where I’ve lived and loved. We had to invent that in Lucknow and Kanpur, too, which was quite a challenge. Again, we found it. We found it in a way that we couldn’t find in Calcutta. So that was more the logistics of how to preserve, how to keep that small-town universe.

I was born and raised in Bhubaneswar in Orissa, and we lived in bungalows just like Mr and Mrs Mahesh Kapoor’s. That was how I lived. So those things I have longed to shoot for many, many years. It was a chance to do that.

Aditi Joshi: For an adapted work of literature, can an actor pick up cues about the character from the book or do you prefer they remain focused on the script?

Mira Nair: I hope to always— I’m being mischievous; I used to say, ‘breastfeed actors’—give anything I got to help you, but certainly if you can arm yourself in some ways from the book, it’s great. Most of the actors I met on A Suitable Boy never read the book. The young don’t read much, sadly. But, yes, whatever helps the actor. In many cases, I bring that stuff to them; in some cases, I show films to actors as well.

I remember Tillotama Shome’s first film was Monsoon Wedding. I remember all the actors sitting on my bed in Vasant Vihar and I showed them Pyaasa, and all the earlier Guru Dutt films, just to speak about Alice, the maid-servant, in Monsoon Wedding. Just her grace, the dewdrop of her, and the way Waheeda (Rehman) used to walk in those films, and that atmosphere. So that was a help to them.

The influences to bring to an actor, to help the actor, are limitless. You don’t want to overwhelm them, you kind of want to just guide and create an atmosphere of real safety, and often make fools of ourselves. I love mischief. I love creating an atmosphere where you can play the fool. I also love observing actors off-screen – see what they do and how they are and what goes on with them, and then use it. That’s how I work.

Trisha Majumdar: What if you’d chosen to do a modern adaptation of the novel? How can we practice secularism and create it through films or any form of content in such an extreme political climate as India is currently witnessing?

Mira Nair: That’s a very good question and a very difficult question. It’s a very difficult situation as well. I think it’s to do with knowing your point of view. It’s all about the point of view. I don’t like what I call agitprop cinema, where you say this is Hindu and this is Muslim, that kind of very didactic way of looking at it. I think it’s much more interesting to do it patli gali se, something that you are just evoking, but with a strong point of view. It’s all about that. My films are like that. They’re about a point of view.

To make a film, let’s say like Mississippi Masala, for me, was about how to look at the racism within our own hearts as Indians – we who speak about fair and lovely. How do we get an extraordinary couple like this one? And not question it with a dartboard, but question it by stealing your own heart, having you come with me on this journey to find out what it might be.

Mira Nair on the sets of Mississippi Masala

The astonishing thing in Mississippi Masala was when we finally went there and saw the African-American community that always lived there and these Indians who are manning the motels. The extraordinary thing was that both sets of families, the African-American and the Indian, were deeply similar. They were familial. They stuck together and to themselves. There was lots of religion, devotion, and devoutness. They didn’t intermix. They were just remarkably similar. But never the two would meet – never would society and the world at that time allow this boundary to be crossed. So, what if it were crossed? What would happen then?

That’s what I mean when I say it’s about a point of view – what are you telling the story about. It’s a little bit subversive. You just have to find that subversive moment from what you choose to make something about; then it is about the point of view. That translates into everything: who will speak, who will not, what they say, how you shoot it, who will have the voice – that’s the point of view. That’s what I urge to keep doing, especially now. I mean, I want to do it all the time, but especially now, when everything is being threatened. The great plurality of our own culture is actually in the dark.

Maitreyi Mittal: Did you experience the duality of looking at something from the outside, seeing as you have lived in various countries throughout your life?

Mira Nair: Absolutely. I live in three continents. I live in India. I live in East Africa, in Uganda, and I live in New York City – I have now for 30 years or more. Early on, before I even knew the African continent, when I had just started studying film, it used to be a very confusing time. ‘Who am I? What am I doing? My parents can’t understand these documentaries I make. They don’t know. They’ve never seen them.’ They never admit this, but the first film my family saw was Salaam Bombay!, which is seven-eight years after I was making films. I would say, ‘What am I doing? Who am I doing it for?’

Then I began to understand that if I used this confusion in my work, it could be interesting. That’s what began. It was not with a plan, but that became distinctive to me that you can’t get everywhere – dime a dozen. When I started to understand the nature of self-imposed exile, the nature of looking out of your window and instead of seeing the Hudson River, which is out my window, to see my garden in Kampala, or to remember the Harsingar that would bloom in Orissa at this time, it’s sort of started a seesaw in my soul that was very cinematic. That lent itself to the cinema almost better than literature. And I began to trust that. The trajectory began to take me on a journey that was about living between worlds without having an agenda of that’s what I’m going to do and that’s all I’m going to do. That’s how I started it.

Now, it’s not that I’m always doing that, but it’s very humbling to look at life from different angles because what’s meaningful in one place is completely meaningless in the other place. I would leave New York and people would say, ‘Oh, you didn’t get the Oscar nomination.’ They would go on and on about the Oscar. Then I would go to Kampala, and they’re like, ‘We don’t even know.’ Now it’s different with the internet, but there, most years it would be like I just didn’t have to, I was never surrounded by that stuff. I would just do whatever I had to do. It’s important, at least for me, to look at things from different worldviews.

Stuti Guha: As you reside outside of India, how are you able to be attuned to and capture the Indian culture and people so well in your films without missing the nuances of it both in your current and period work?

Mira Nair: For me, it is the love of detail. It’s also something which shows the particularity of human beings. In The Namesake, Ashima and the idea of her stepping into Ashoke’s shoes was in the novel; at least she looks at them. But what I like to do is to have some mazaa, really have some mischief. Now we know this about Tabu, but she’s extraordinarily funny. She makes you laugh like you can’t imagine. I wanted to use the mischief of Ashima, not the cliché of an arranged marriage or chhui-mui, aao vahan, aur aise karo, vaise karo, I don’t have any interest in that. Even though she is playing it with that decorum, there’s still always a little something more to make you smile and to make you know her – most importantly, to make you know that person. That’s why she steps into the shoe, but that was, I’m almost positive, in the novel.

Ashima (played by Tabu) in The Namesake

But then I wanted her to stand like a major-domo and to walk and to enjoy and have fun, because she was private in that scene, right? The family is extolling her virtues in the living room, but she’s outside there having her own piece of fun. It was done precisely to make you feel the way you are, that you know this woman, you could be this girl, she has her own heartbeat and she’s doing her own thing. That’s why when she goes in there to meet Ashoke Ganguli and the others, she recites a poem, which wasn’t in the book. Jhumpa loved us for this because she was raised in Rhode Island, I was raised in Calcutta, and went to Loreto Convent, where we were taught to do elocution by clasping our fingers and recite the words with a pronounced cadence. It was such a classic and Bengali thing to do, reciting Wordsworth or Longfellow. Again, it was that anglicised India that we are still caught up with. Hence, I gave her that poem to recite. Jhumpa just adored it when she saw it later, because she hadn’t thought of it. I said, ‘Well, we know because we were raised here.’

It’s whatever you do to maximize the scene. And it’s not just for charm or exotica or anything of the sort; it has to be about the characters. That’s how Ashoke falls for her, and she falls for him, and it’s all done without words. These are the ways, I suppose, to make you, as the audience, totally understand how they are charmed by each other. It also makes for a little bit of fun, and that’s very important to me. I always say that I hate films that feel like homework, but I want to take you on a journey. I want to make sure that you don’t let go of the screen while you’re with me. So, these are small ways of doing that.

 

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Mira Nair in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.

P.S: The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) conducts Dial M For Films, an online knowledge series, free of cost because we believe in fair and equal access to the insight and experience of talent from the world of cinema for all. If you find these sessions of value and would like to quote from them or distribute them further as study material, we request that you give MAMI and Dial M For Films credit while doing so.

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