Unbridled with Life: Interview with Mira Nair

2007-03-09 (Limited release)

Mira Nair has a cold. She’s been traveling for her new film, The Namesake, and has been recently laid low by one of those stuffy-airplane-cabin-borne viruses. But she’s hardly slowed down. To the contrary, it’s as if her sensitivity is heightened.

Born in Rourkela, Orissa, educated at Delhi University and Harvard, Nair makes films about movement — across continents and generations. In her brilliant debut feature, Salaam Bombay!, the movement was at once limited and incessant, tracking the efforts of street kids just to survive. Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding expanded her carefully composed color and political palettes, as did her segment of 11’09’01 (titled “India”) and 2004’s Vanity Fair. Each of her films combines canny political critique with thick, wholly captivating cultural context. With The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s popular novel, the director has found an ideal subject — a family full of complex characters who spend their lives traversing traditions and expectations.

How does your background in documentary influence your fiction films, in form and concept?

Well, I never leave documentary behind, even in fiction films. Sections of all my fiction films, even The Namesake, are composed like a documentary film. I go out with the camera, without actors, and we shoot, because documentary is my treasure, like life is my treasure. And in India, especially, the sort of orchestration of chaos that one can do with the documentary camera, you can’t do it the same way with a full set-up. When we shot in the train station in Calcutta in The Namesake, the local paper wanted to pay homage and respect, as my films have many Bengali fans. And so they published on the morning of the shoot a very respectful article, noting the time and place [of the production], very sweetly. It wasn’t gossip or that nonsense. We had a super-mob watching us and a super-mob within us. That’s the sort of thing I mean. It was a crazy scene, but it also was so unbridled with life. I love that, so even in fiction, I’m constantly relying on what we know as documentary.

How does that kind of life affect your sense of composition?

The composition of frames is vital in any case, whether on a set or outdoors. That’s why I work with specific cinematographers [for Namesake, the great Frederick Elmes]. It’s not just that you do or don’t “shoot from the hip.” Many of my films, and The Namesake especially, are conceived in a kind of austere, photographic style, inspired a lot by great photographers, like Garry Winogrand and Adam Bartos, or modern Indian photographers like Raghubir Singh. I had these frames in my head as leaping off point for many images.

How does your experience of living in multiple places — feeling at home in them — shape your work?

With The Namesake, it was uncanny, that it was set in the two cities in which I a) grew up, which is Calcutta, and b) formally learned to see, which is New York. These streets and these situations are now more than 40 years in my blood. In the conception of the film, I decided to shoot the two cities as if they were one city. This is also the state of being for an immigrant. I have a hesitation, though: I don’t think of myself as an immigrant because I actively live in three countries [the third being South Africa]. It was moving to me, and I was able to cut to the chase each time, to decide on the bridges [the Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River and Manhattan’s 59th Street Bridge], because the bridges were the same. And then to decide on shots of “nature,” trees and such. Knowing these places so well made it easier to make transitions between locations, without resorting to clichés and spoon-feeding by subtitles and voiceover and all that.

I knew Garry Winogrand in my youth, because I was married to a photographer, and Garry used to be his teacher. He was a wonderful wild man, and has had a book published posthumously, Arrivals and Departures, about airports. Airports are like the temple for an immigrant. We’re always in these neutral spaces, you live your most crucial hours in them, as you’re on your way to from one home to another, or your father’s funeral, for instance. I learned a lot about how to read the airport from Garry, the building elements, the reflections. So that scene, for instance, when Ashima [Tabu] and Ashoke [Irfan Khan] are saying goodbye [at JFK], it’s only one shot — we had to shoot quickly and on a small budget — but there are so many layers. She’s in the foreground and then she turns and the focus changes. But in this one shot, you get everything: you get the gulf between them, the fact that they don’t touch and hug and kiss to say goodbye, but the love is visible. The way to shoot these things came from photographers.

That image and others — like the one where Ashoke places his hand on the glass while he’s talking on the phone to Ashima, or when Gogol [Kal Penn] slips on his father’s shoes — show a kind of communication without words.

You know, this whole film was inspired by grief. I had just lost my mother-in-law. There so many things in that particular shot for me. With my mother-in-law, she was there, and the next day I was cleaning her hospital room. It was a wild insane mess in the main room, but when I opened her cupboard, she had left her perfume, all in order, and these exquisite, tiny Ferragamo shoes. She would never step in them again. At that moment, she was in the ICU, but I just knew. All of this was in the film.

I gather she has influenced you in other ways.

She was a radical woman who really made it possible for me to shoot film. She lived with us. I used to wait for her to come so I could shoot film, and the house could carry on. She was an amazing woman.

Like Ashima…

Yes, an anchor. In that very unshowy way.

I was struck by Ashima’s making her elephant greeting cards…

She’s so careful with her handmade work, absolutely unfettered with the new world and this crap that you buy — the conspiracy of Hallmark. That’s also a very Bengali thing; it’s such a deeply cultured community. I went to stay with my mother’s best friend, just to squat there quietly without the press knowing everything. And there she was, painting her greeting cards. Again, not showy at all: this is what she had done for 70 years. It’s all about the handmade. There is nothing more beautiful.

The movie is unusual in that it offers a number of perspectives.

The book is very different. In spirit, it’s very similar, but the book moves from the parents very quickly to Gogol. I knew because of my love for the older generation, that I wanted to have two pillars in the story. First, a very adult love story, which I think is a very erotic idea, two strangers who marry and then fall in love in a completely foreign, terribly cold place — it’s an enchanting a strange idea. And then, of course, it’s Gogol, what they create. I fashioned more of a balance between those stories. For the parents, every scene is economically designed, to show the depth of their love and the uniqueness of their love. It’s not about giving diamonds or saying, “I love you,” but about how you look at each other over a cup of tea. It’s small things. The second pillar shows Gogol on his own but also in relation to his parents. The audience should love Ashoke so much, as his son does, so that when he is gone, the blow is sudden, like the phone call in the night.

And so Gogol’s loss is at once specific and familiar.

If there’s anything I want to create with The Namesake, it’s a sense of mindfulness. [Laughs] Youth is created to forget, but you know, it will soon be too late.

Can you talk about how names work in the movie, as they are imposed (as in the racist graffiti) or part of your own decision and self-making?

I have a name that is so simple. I always say, “You say ‘Me’ so much, just add ‘Ra’ to it. And the “Nair” rhymes with fire, and I always correct the pronunciation when I’m outside of India. But when you grow up with names given to you, like Gogol, when you’re the only brown face in a sea of white ones, you don’t always have that courage. That’s the difference between Gogol and Nicky.

And he comes to understand that he can be both, that his identity needn’t be limited to one or the other.

This is a very Indian concept, the pet name and the public name, the person you are at home and the persona you are outside.

This duality becomes more complex, I think, but it’s possible to see Gogol’s options rather too neatly embodied by the two women, Maxine [Jacinda Barrett] and Moushumi [Zuleikha Robinson].

Well, it’s the folly of youth, that he sees it this way. You have to go through things like that to understand who you are. What I love is the flow between the traditional anchor of Ashima — who is traditional, but also porous and brave. She’s fortunate to have married this particular man. Moushumi, I love her, because she’s the bad ass. That’s Jhumpa [Lahiri]’s brilliance, because she’s not what you expect. That’s what the Asian community is, like any other community, full of good asses and bad asses. And when you’re a full-on frumpy teenager, you decide that the way to exist is to have affairs and explore who you are. You don’t read about these characters, but they exist.

Maxine is an interesting character for me: she’s empathetic and intelligent, but she could so easily have become this whining, self-centered girl. What’s interesting to me, and what people here [in the U.S.] don’t always realize, is that she also has a typically American subliminal arrogance, as if she thinks, “This is my world. I do what I do, even if you tell me not to use first names with your parents. This is my world.” It’s a very different experience when you’re the Gangulis, and you have to negotiate and you have to be mindful of the other community. We’re not taught humility in the U.S. In India, it’s a big part of life. It’s very moving for me when I work with legendary musicians, as I have for many of my soundtracks, and they open up their instrument boxes and they have [references] to gods and their ancestors. I mean, the most modern people do this, like every note they make is from someplace or someone else. And they acknowledge and treasure it. You’re only part of a universe. It’s not “me, me, me.” That is deeply missing in American culture. That’s why America is what it is, too. It gallops along and does its thing. It’s missing for Maxine, and she doesn’t realize it. Gogol doesn’t see it either, until she’s looking at his trip to India as just a trip.

Maxine seems to me not only arrogant and “galloping,” but also appropriative. Gogol looks “cool” to her, someone she wants.

You know, loads of people wished that he had married Maxine. But “appropriative” is right. Her sort of attitude, I get it all the time. They ask me questions that they would never ask another film director, and they’re not even aware of it. The typical “arranged marriage” question, or some other version of the “hothouse flower” question, as I call it. Like, “Ooh, you flew in from another planet. Describe it for us.” Again, it’s part of the reason the U.S. gallops along, because it’s not a habit to put yourself in someone else’s place, to see things are larger than you.

Some of this emerges in the reverence for the new, and the loss of previous generations.

Here, they don’t keep those generations near. It’s all nuclear family, and it’s an enormous deprivation to the culture.