When Mira Nair travelled to the backstreets of Bombay in the summer of 1987 to shoot her first feature film, Salaam Bombay!, she was repeatedly warned that it was impossible. People told her it was inconceivable to shoot with actors in the red-light district and in the busy train stations, that it was unthinkable to teach illiterate street urchins to act alongside professionals, and to use real crowds, prostitutes and parades to make her film.
But her perseverance paid off. That spring, the 31-year-old Indian director won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for best first feature film.
V. S. Naipaul once remarked that the bulk of Indian films are a “turning away from a too overwhelming reality.” Nair’s films, however, do not turn away from reality; they confront head-on with all the sentimentality of a freight train.
To watch Nair’s films is to enter a completely Indian world with its own language, texture, signs, and signifiers. The result is films with the drama of a feature and the edge and verisimilitude of a documentary.
Nair is no stranger to documentaries. Her short film, India Cabaret, about Indian striptease artistes, won Best Documentary Prize at the American Film Festival and the Global Village Film Festival followed by a closet full of awards including the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival for Monsoon Wedding.
Sitting in the Media Room of Alhamra, on the occasion of LLF 2014, I am finding it hard to concentrate on the task in hand. On the windowsill sat the invisible clock without hands reminding me that the countdown had just begun. When Mira Nair appeared, her manner was gracious, sometimes courtly, and never effusive. As you would expect from a graduate of one of India’s finest colleges, Miranda House, and HarvardUniversity, she had tremendous poise. She was straightforward, friendly and very bright. And she also had a compelling decency. She spoke at length about her projects, and the burdens and rewards of making films. Excerpts:
The News on Sunday: What has been your early interest in theatre prior to filmmaking?
Mira Nair: When I finished high school in India, I was given a scholarship to go to Cambridge University but I turned it down because I had a real chip on my shoulders (that I still do) about the ‘goras’. So, I went to Miranda House in Delhi, instead. There I immersed myself, largely and only, in theatre. We did a combination of political street theatre and stage theatre — dramas in English and not as many in Hindi as I would have preferred. But I went into theatre with a question that has also actually become my main question in cinema: Can art, in any way, change the world? Can it impact the world? It was with that question in mind that I finally applied for a scholarship to come to America — when I was nineteen — to study theatre and to pursue that idea.
There again, theatre was very apolitical; it did not make any sense to me. So, I chose to do the next most-related thing, which turned out to be documentary filmmaking, and I found my place in life when I was twenty which was a real blessing because making films is ‘tough’ — you require such a stomach and guts and stamina for it. So, that’s how I began, and I’ve pretty much devoted myself to that ever since!
TNS: Tell us about India Cabaret in which you turned the female protagonist into a heroine of sorts.
MN: India Cabaret came from a simple question: Who makes the decision or what is the dividing line between women who are considered good in our society and women who are considered outside goodness, outside propriety? Of course, it’s always a portrait of economics but it’s usually women who are forced to use their sexuality to live who are considered outside goodness, outside respectability. And I really question that. My parents were very distressed with my choice of looking for cabaret dancers (to live among), and I found two amazing women, Rekha and Rosy, who worked in a nightclub in Ghatkopar, and were much at home with what they were doing. Rosy was dancing for making dowry for her sister who was getting married but she also enjoyed dancing and being sexy while Rekha was someone who had this fantastic, unpretentious, straightforward view of life and a great sense of humour about the double standards that she had to live and perform in. I found their bravery incredibly inspiring and extremely funny, and all of it lacking in self-pity. These were my women, and they agreed to let me come into their lives. So, I lived with them for four months in a tenement in Bombay and really got to experience from within because I was seen by the neighbours to be a stripper like them. I understood immediately what that felt because every night when we would come home by two or three, I could hear what people were talking about.
TNS: How did you proceed?
MN: It is important not to be outside your subject when you are making a cinema verite portrait of a person. But life is infinitely stranger than fiction and more powerful. The style of documentary making, in those days, was not pre-planned but to ‘go with the flow as the world took you’, and that world took me down Rekha’s and Rosy’s life that I couldn’t have invented myself. For instance, when Rosie goes to Hyderabad, we go with her. Her sister’s getting married. She arrives at the village and her mother comes to the door of the hut, takes the dowry but doesn’t let her come in because she would pollute the auspicious occasion. Rosie gives the money and weeps on the outside of her own house, saying, “This is my life — the unfairness of it and yet the ties that bind.”
Then I met a male customer, Mr Pujara, who’d come to the club five times a week, tipsy. I convinced him to let me go home with him, and ended up living with his extended family for six weeks. I got to know Mr Pujara rather well who would speak to me all the time while we’d film it half the time. While interacting with the lady of the house, I sort of reflected that the woman who has respectability does not have freedom, and the woman who does not have respectability, isn’t she the one who is freer?
In my style of filmmaking, I always let you make up your mind by just trying to get to the truth, to the grey zone – the seesaw of each character. That is what India Cabaret was about and it created an enormous debate in India and in many parts of the world. At the opening night in the National Film Festival in 1985 in Hyderabad, it was a mob scene. There were 1500-2000 men in the audience thinking they were going to get a sex-fest. But it was these stories and these people who are funny, straightforward, and telling it like it is. It became a sensation. Firstly, people understood the language — the street language of India, which you never hear in movies, as the whole dialoguebazi of movies is very stylised. Then there was some outcry by the upper-class feminists. There was a furore for two months in newspapers. I just took this film under my arm, and went to show it to any women’s group, any union, any film society anywhere all across India. And it became a kind of talisman of the working woman. And when the working women really started to champion this movie, it became another dialogue.
TNS: In an interview with Umberto Eco, I recall, Jean-Claude Carriere once remarked that adaptations often impair and overtake the memory of the source. How would you respond to that?
MN: For me, it’s not about overtaking, at all. When I choose to make a book into a film, firstly it has to possess me in a deep way, and each time the possession is different. So, The Namesake was inspired completely by grief — by losing my ammi (mother-in-law) who’d lived with us and passed away suddenly. (I had never lost anyone and never experienced the finality of that loss before). But beyond that, she passed away in New York City, which was not her home. Because of our Muslim faith, we bury where you die, so she was buried in a snowing field in New Jersey. It was devastating for a woman who’d never considered this weather in her life to be buried in! And it was in that melancholy that I read The Namesake that felt like I had a sister in the world — I felt that somebody understood in Jhumpa’s writing what I was going through. The book is about the American boy, Gogol, who is born in America, and even though it is not a novel about the parents, for me it was immediately going to be about the parents — about this idea of two strangers who are hardly strangers to each other, come to a stranger place. I’d never seen that story but I had lived around it in America.
I remember the first day of shivering in The Namesake in the way I have seen so often but never onscreen which is a desi woman wearing her husband’s overcoat and gloves not knowing how the hell to deal with this cold. It was so amazing to film it with Tabu. So that inspiration shaped the adaptation immediately.
With The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it was a different inspiration: of falling in love with Lahore, and wanting to tell the world the contemporary Pakistan that we all dismiss in one way or the other in newspapers. Reading Mohsin’s book, one year later, gave me the potential of contemporary Pakistan and a dialogue with America, which is a dialogue I know well because I know both places with the same intimacy. But, it’s a dialogue you never hear. It’s a coming-of-age story of a desi boy or of a South Asian kid who is in today’s global interconnected world. What is that passage? What is that journey? The goras have their coming-of-age stories; they have their Jack Kerouacs, but do we have that take?
TNS: How did you pick L Subramaniam to compose the soundtrack for Salaam Bombay!?
MN: We wrote the screenplay of Salaam Bombay! to Raga Kirwani, which is haunting and amazing. But then I went back to the source and said this is the man who inspired me. He’d never done a musical score for a film before — he did not even know how to spell movies. I found L Subramaniam in Los Angeles, and practically stayed with him six weeks. He would compose on violin sharing every single rough-cut. This is how we composed music with Vilayat Khan Saheb for Kama Sutra.
This is the joy of cinema — whatever you love you can make happen in the movies. Like, for example, I love paintings. If you see Monsoon Wedding, every painting in that movie is a great masterpiece by the Ustads such as Gaitonde and Padamsee, and I’ve used them in storytelling. Same was the case with The Namesake. Nitin Sawhney had done this Bhatiyali song of Bengal — a boatman’s song — in one of his rock albums. And I loved that piece. I have a great relation with Mychael Danna — before he won the Oscar, he’d done the music for all my films. Mychael and I are like bhais but I went with Nitin because of that piece of music. The same thing happened with The Reluctant Fundamentalist. A big part of us wanting to do this film was to do with capturing the modern sound of Pakistani music because there’s an amazing treasure here, whether it’s Atif or Farid Ayaz and Abu or whosoever.
TNS: Would you agree that out of all the feature films you’ve directed, Vanity Fair remains the only one that doesn’t quite fit into the Mira Nair Omnibus?
MN: I think Amelia doesn’t fit. It’s a Richard Gere and Hilary Swank epic on aviatrix about Amelia Earhart who flew around the world. I actually disagree with that Vanity Fair presumption. It’s a story about a colony and an empire, and that’s how I interpreted it in the sense that a social-climbing woman like Becky could only exist in early nineteenth-century England because there was money that was reaped from the colonies that created a new wealth in England at the time when people could climb on this and not just be stuck in their classes. And it was Thackeray’s 800 page-long novel that gave me that.
I spent a year-and-a-half of my life doing Shantaram with Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan, and we were all set to shoot the film in four weeks when the Writers’ Guild in America went on strike. We had to stop, and it didn’t get resolved in a hundred days — three months. By that time, our film fell apart because the actors took different things, etc. It’s complete adrenalin — you’ve done the adaptation, casting, production, all the hard stuff, and I had to pull the plug.
The producers of Amelia were chasing me in parallel track with Shantaram. As soon as it died, they resurfaced. Hilary Swank came herself to see me. Amelia is a story about female empowerment, in some way — about a woman who doesn’t believe in the ceilings imposed on us, and it was an independent film. I said yes because I was on this adrenalin of making a feature, and I had almost made it and then it never happened. As soon as I said yes, all the studios wanted it. As soon as that happened, they wanted it to be a love story, an Out of Africa. It’s hell of a scene when you’re doing a studio movie.
TNS: Do you harbour any unfulfilled artistic ambitions?
MN: I really want to study The Upanishads in Sanskrit. I am a gardener — I plant guerilla-style landscape gardens all over the place where I live in East Africa. So, I am a closet landscape designer. And I wish I had more knowledge (and I shall hopefully achieve it) of our ancient texts. There’s so much to know and I don’t know it. I am an aspiring yogi and a closet singer. I have a lot of passions. Yesterday, I was so moved and impressed by my dear friend, Vikram Seth, who spoke in four languages. There’s a wonderful well of knowledge to imbibe, but I am a pagli!