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The Namesake - Mira Nair interview

Mira Nair, director of The Namesake

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MIRA Nair talks about why The Namesake represents her most personal film to date and some of her casting choices.

She also discusses filming in Calcutta and New York as well as her forthcoming projects, including working with Johnny Depp…

Q. I gather The Namesake is a very personal project for you?
Mira Nair: It is. It was inspired by grief and inspired by losing a beloved person to me unexpectedly in a country that is not her home or mine. I happened to read this novel six weeks after that and in it was this acute understanding of what it’s like to bury a parent in a country that’s not your home. So that was the trigger. But it was also uncannily the same road I had travelled – leaving Calcutta when I was 18 and coming to New York and now living between these worlds.

Q. How easy was it to secure the rights to the novel?
Mira Nair: Very easy. I knew Jhumpa [Lahiri] a bit and a week later we were sitting opposite each other in my office and I was telling her the whole vision I had for it. She gave me the rights instantly. I think she sensed my urgency to make it.

Q. You have made some subtle changes to the novel…
Mira Nair: Yes, we looked at the balancing act between the parents and their children, not just Gogol’s coming of age which is what the book is more about.

Q. The story of the parents is probably the most moving aspect of the film and the casting is just perfect. Was Bollywood star Tabu always a first choice?
Mira Nair: No but she has proved a great choice. Because it was Bengali and I know Bengal very well, I wanted it to be a Bengali actress initially. So I saw a few but then realised that Tabu was the best person. She’s not Bengali but she’s absolutely reinvented herself and the Bengalis are ecstatic.

Q. Her chemistry with Irfan Khan [who plays her husband] is brilliant, especially in their ability to convey feelings without words. Did it help that they’d worked together before?
Mira Nair: Yes because it meant they were comfortable. But that’s what I try and do in my films anyway is to take away the words – to not make it a reading experience but a viewing one.

Q. How did you arrive at the casting of Kal Penn as Gogol because this is a very different kind of dramatic role for him…
Mira Nair: I didn’t know about him. My 15-year-old son cast him essentially by bringing him to my attention. He was sure he should play Gogol. I didn’t know him and I wasn’t so impressed when he showed me Kal on the Internet – little bits of this and that. But Kal was really lovely when he came over. He said he became an actor because of me after seeing Mississippi Masala. Then when he auditioned he was just so appealing and so charming. He also had a hunger and an urgency to play Gogol.

What was the biggest challenge of the film for you?
Mira Nair: For me it was the ending of the film, to create a kind of buoyancy in the ending and not to have a film that ended many times. And to also end on a buoyancy that would make the audience feel like they should also pack a pillow and a blanket and go and see the world. Other than that this film wasn’t so much about struggle because I knew it so well from within. So really it was about exercising the purity of the adventure.

Q. How was filming in Calcutta compared to New York?
Mira Nair: In Calcutta it’s fantastic. It’s about orchestrating chaos. In New York you pay for the chaos – or the chaos I like. But also in India we live in several centuries at once, in Calcutta especially. It was just fantastic to find that decayed mansion for Ashima. The generosity of people was amazing. These are the roads I travel all the time so it was just wonderful to be able to put it on screen.

Q. I understand that you had to employ 100 security guards for the scenes at Howrah train station?
Mira Nair: [Laughs] They are so in love with film so when they published in the paper that Mira Nair was going to be shooting at Howrah station at 9.30am there was a mob to look at the mob that was already at the station! So it was a mob scene but it was a very behaved mob.

Q. And you were only given one day to shoot at the Taj Mahal?
Mira Nair: Yes, just one day. But they didn’t shut down for us. We just had to do it. But we managed it.

Q. The scenes at the Taj Mahal do inspire the same sense of awe in the viewer that we see in the family. Is it a place you have visited often and does it always have the same effect?
Mira Nair: Yeah. It was my third time. But my family hasn’t been yet, I’m ashamed to say. It’s a humbling experience; simply breathtaking.

Q. How was filming in New York compared to that and bringing out a personal side to it that perhaps audiences haven’t seen so much on film?
Mira Nair: I really wanted to make it the New York I know and love – the bars, the Tribeca lofts versus the one room cold water flats.

Q. I would imagine that working with cinematographer Frederick Elmes was also a pleasure, especially in capturing the differences between the two cities and cultures?
Mira Nair: He’s such a remarkable cinematographer, having worked with so many directors from Cassavettes to Ang Lee and David Lynch. He loved India. He really appreciated my wanting it to have an austerity in the photographic frame. Right now, for instance, we have a photography gallery in New York that has a show called Namesake Inspirations that features images of the classic photographers like Eggleston. Fred loved that thinking of the world as one; thinking of New York and Calcutta as one.

Q. How did you come to work with Nitin Sawhney on the music?
Mira Nair: Every film I make there’s a piece of music that I usually carry with me throughout. In The Namesake it was The Boatman song and that was a sign for me that I should ask him to make this soundtrack. It was a painstaking, long process because every note has to augment the image but he was so talented.

Q. Which of the two stories do you identify with most personally? Gogol’s or Ashima’s?
Mira Nair: Actually, not anyone in particular because I’m neither Ashima nor Gogol. But I know what it is like to be Gogol because I am the mother of a 15-year-old and I know what that feels like. But I wanted to make a kind of song about Ashima and Ashoke and their generation – the stillness within them, the calm and the lack of multi-tasking. They’ll sit and have a cup of tea with each other. It’s like a different planet nowadays.

Q. Away from The Namesake, you’re producing four films about the AIDs epidemic in India. Can you tell us some more about that?
Mira Nair: It’s an idea I had to raise people’s awareness because our population is so big that once the virus comes in it becomes a pandemic. The love of our stars and our movies is so strong in India. So the Gates Foundation came to me and talked to me about the pandemic and I had this instant idea to make four 15-minute dramatic films using movie stars in each one, with four popular commercial Indian directors.

We’re each making a 15-minute film on different aspects of the virus. Mine is called Migration. The idea is that we will attach these to a Bollywood blockbuster in the theatre and raise awareness among viewers, so that they will wake up to AIDs. We’ll then put them together for an hour-long programme on television and take them to festivals to spread the word further.

Q. Are you working with Johnny Depp next? What’s that about?
Mira Nair: Yes [smiles]. It’s called Shantaram and we’re going to shoot in November. It’s also based on a best-selling novel about a heroin addict who escapes from prison in Australia and comes to Bombay by chance to disappear. It’s a true story. He becomes a slum doctor mostly to preserve his anonymity but he gradually meets a series of people who change his life.

Q. I guess he must be one of the names near the top of every director’s wish list?
Mira Nair: He’s amazing. He has such humility about the world and a curiosity. And he’s not afraid to be iconoclastic.

Read our review of The Namesake