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MIRA NAIR'S TIME, PLACE AND "NAMESAKE"
By Omar P.L. Moore
The Popcorn Reel/PopcornReel.com

   

"The Namesake" director Mira Nair in a photo taken in Uganda in July 2004 by Karin Luisa Badt; "The Namesake" movie poster-- the film opens on March 9 in the U.S. and Canada. (Poster: Fox Searchlight)
 

March 4, 2007

Filmmaker Mira Nair (her last name is pronounced to rhyme with the word "fire") had been in San Francisco for just a few hours. 

Last week, a day before a roundtable of journalists interviewed her on a sunny afternoon at the Ritz Carlton hotel, she had barely arrived in town on a flight from New York City, where she resides.  Time and place are important to the one of the world's top directors.  Born near Calcutta, India, Ms. Nair has chronicled the lives of young poor boys on the streets and marketplaces of India in "Salaam Bombay"; an interracial romance between Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury in "Mississippi Masala"; a group of Cuban immigrants in a predicament of sorts in "The Perez Family"; a traditional Indian wedding and culture clashes in "Monsoon Wedding", and a period drama set in England, "Vanity Fair", adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray's renowned novel, among other films. 

As she approaches the tender years of middle age, Ms. Nair's global perspective expands even more, and culture enriches that perspective in her films, aspects of which are present in a very clear fashion in the director's latest film "The Namesake", which Nair describes as her most personal film.  The film, based on Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri's novel of the same name, stars Kal Penn ("Superman Returns", "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle"), Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Zuleikha Robinson and Jacinda Barrett.  "The Namesake" opens in the United States and Canada on March 9 and is released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

"The Namesake" charts the evolution of Gogol Ganguli (Penn) a young Indian-American who shuns his given name (named after the famous Russian author Nikolai Gogol) and his parents' Indian roots.  Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) have an arranged marriage and jet set from Calcutta to New York City to explore the bountiful opportunities that America's gateway city has to offer.  Gogol arrives as the first born and his name is tied to a secret past.  Gogol has to bridge the gap between his American roots and his adopted homeland of India with the Bengali origins of his parents.  Gogol's relationship with Maxine, a white American woman (Barrett) sends subtle shudders down the spines of his parents, but Maxine's wealthy parents are apparently more open-minded.  Later, Gogol encounters Moushima (Robinson) with whom he is completely entranced and enraptured by, entering a romance with her that will lead to several interesting twists and turns.

On this particular afternoon in early March, Mira Nair was describing the visual look of "The Namesake", and other related inquiries posed to her.  Dressed in a what appeared to be a burgundy gown and golden pants which looked very much like traditional Indian dress, the charismatic Ms. Nair cast a calm and disarming presence, patiently listening to her questioners assembled in one of the rooms at the Ritz Carlton, as they asked about her new film "The Namesake".

"I felt that it need[ed] a different austerity in its photographic style, in its quietness.  I was very clear on that and keen on that."  Indeed, Nair has always made films independent of Hollywood, allowing her full autonomy over the finished product.  The director does not pretend that she is making her films to please every single taste that exists in an audience.  "I made it for myself.  I have no one to answer to in making this film."  The statement is made not in arrogance, but just matter-of-factly, with Ms. Nair's gentle smile seeming to speak louder than the words that she utters.  "For me ["The Namesake"] was very much a story about parents and children, and I wanted to make that seesaw," Nair reveals.  The "seesaw" effect is reflected in the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, upon which Sooni Taraporevala's screenplay is adapted.  The book switches back and forth between the story of Gogol's parents who are transitioning to life in America, and Gogol, who has to harness his own feelings of American pride and reconcile them with India, the land of his parents' origin.

            
A pensive Gogol (played by Kal Penn, crossed hands) joins his father Ashoke (Irrfan Khan), wife (Zuleikha Robinson) and mother (Tabu) in India, in Mira Nair's new film "The Namesake", about two generations' struggles with cross-cultural identity and interracial romance, which opens on North America on Friday.  (Photo: Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight)


I think that's what's most interesting, where we come from, what our parents have done without our vaguely realizing what they might have done for us.
                                                                                                                                                                                                               -- Mira Nair


"I'm very interested in the idea of strangers who marry and they fall in love in a distant climate. . . the unfolding of that type of a drama.  I'm very interested in how they have that stillness of an older generation that I no longer see today, that generation that requires a cup of tea in a kitchen and how you look at each other, rather than . . . roses and diamonds and proclamations of love that the young know.  I wanted to show that and I wanted to find it for myself, you know, and to use Gogol's burning to be American, you know in the counterpoint to this other world.  I think that's what's most interesting, where we come from, what our parents have done without our vaguely realizing what they might have done for us.  It's very interesting for me."

Along with that theme, the film's visualization becomes significant.  Nair collaborated with cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who worked with David Lynch on "Blue Velvet" to come up with a photography that created a visual peace and tranquility.  The film was deliberately shot to make the viewer unclear as to which city -- Calcutta or New York -- that "The Namesake" was in at any given time.  Calcutta's Howrah Bridge and Manhattan's East 59th Street Bridge are very similar looking-structures in reality and several shots in the film reveal this.  "One of the keys early on was to film these two cities like they were one city.  Because it is to my eyes and my soul, uncannily similar," the director said.  These visual similarities added an emotional depth and dimension to the stories and the sense of time and place that could not be deciphered very easily when watching the film unfold on the big screen.

Transition between time and place during "this thirty-year saga", as the director termed her film, is also an ever-present theme in "The Namesake".  "This is a film about movement and crossings and traffic and trams in one, and subways in another, and rivers and airports, and these neutered spaces that become temples for an immigrant, you know." 

In one aspect of the film's casting, the theme of transition became trepidation, as Mira Nair had a sizable amount of that emotion about casting Kal Penn, an actor who heretofore had appeared almost exclusively in such comedies as "Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj" and the previously mentioned "Harold and Kumar" film.  She revealed that it was persistence from two sources: Mr. Penn and her own 15-year-old son, who idolizes the actor.  "It used to be a mantra.  Mama, tell me in the morning it's Kal Penn, tell me in the morning it's Kal Penn."  Mr. Penn's own repeated conveyance of interest (he had pursued and entreated Nair and told her that he "became an actor because he had seen my film "Mississippi Masala" when he was eight, and realized people on screen could look like him," she said.) 

Soon enough, Mr. Penn auditioned and became the real thing. 

Initially though, the director was not interested in casting him. "I must say [that at first] I didn't pay him any attention.  I just thought he was a comic goof, you know, and that was that.  And I was looking for a dashing young man.  I don't know, they do make him look sort of absolutely silly in his movies.  It was only actually when Kal showed up at my door and performed and auditioned that I could understand that he could be someone that I would consider attractive."


I think that's what's most interesting, where we come from, what our parents have done without our vaguely realizing what they might have done for us.
                                                                                                                                                                                                              -- Mira Nair



Tabu as Ashima, in Mira Nair's "The Namesake".  Tabu had to age 30 years during the film and the astounding make-up she wears during parts of the film shows just how seamlessly she ages.  (Photo: Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight)


For the role of Ashoke, the director had no such trepidation.  Irrfan Khan, one of India's most noteworthy actors, delivers a performance that is seamless, a meditation of sorts.  For an actor that the director describes as 180 degrees away from his onscreen character's tranquil persona, Ms. Nair revealed that a lot went into cultivating his character.  Mr. Khan (and Tabu, who plays Ashoke's wife Ashima) spent a day with the parents of "The Namesake" novelist Jhumpa Lahiri.  Mr. Khan plays a "self-effacing, deeply erudite, but never calling attention to himself, but always there, with a kind of twinkle."  As the director tells it, Mr. Khan's Ashoke character was an invisible man of sorts.  "If you didn't want to pay attention to him, that was absolutely fine."  Nair describes the parents Lahiri as "very amazing, simple and strong, wonderful human beings."  The director added that the "big key for Irrfan was Mr. Lahiri, who is like this."  Of Mr. Khan's acting in the film, the director agreed that "it was meditation.  It was exactly that.  I would insist on it, but I wouldn't have to insist on it very much, because he understood exactly what I wanted."

Furthermore, there was an undeniable magnetism to Mr. Khan's acting that shook the director in a profound way.  "There's a kind of immediacy when you've actually got your eye to the eyepiece [of the camera], you're actually shooting something.  And I tell you, I raised my eyes from that camera and I thought I had been singed.  I felt the love [in Mr. Khan's character's eyes] so powerfully that I thought that . . . it was like being singed by the love in his eyes.  It was unbelievable."  (Italics are the director's emphasis.)

"And he jokes with me, because he's a real bandit, you know -- he's nothing like this [the character that Mr. Khan plays.  In real life he's] Casanova, white linen suit, 'let's go clubbing', like he's nothing like this -- neither is Tabu -- Ashima -- for that matter.  And he always says, you know, 'you bloody hell made me a family man, goddamnit!'  He's a great guy."



                                                            I think that's what's most interesting, where we come from, what our parents have done without our vaguely realizing what they might have done for us.
                                                                                                                                                           -- Mira Nair



Kal Penn as Gogol, and Zuleikha Robinson as Moushima, in "The Namesake."  (Photo: Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight)


Many films the world over have dealt with the universal themes of immigrants or political refugees wading through both difficult and exhilarating waters of a new culture and life in a nation different from their own.  Often these films show moments where a particular person new to a culture unlike their own, fuses aspects of their own culture's customs with the new culture they have suddenly had to adapt to.  In films like "The Lost Boys of Sudan", a recent feature-length documentary film about young Sudanese men displaced from their homeland by that nation's ongoing civil war, which has claimed more than a million lives and counting.  The young men and boys had walked thousands of miles in the African continent over several months with no food or water, to escape to a safe place for refuge.  Upon being invited to America through a U.S. government program of sponsorship some of them are seen using shaving cream for toothpaste, or other similar cultural mismatches.  Having no idea of what it is like to have 24 hour electricity or running water or bathrooms, or toiletries, these new accoutrements in America seem very alien to them.  Audiences sometimes laugh at this, as they may find it comical. 

Sometimes such moments on film are intended as comedic, but sometimes an audience's laughter and ignorance of different nationalities and their cultures in such moments reveals something more about those watching the film.  Nair has a cultural mismatching moment in "The Namesake", where early on during her first days in New York City, Ashima adds spices from her homeland to a bowl of Rice Krispies.  This brings a laugh, and the director is asked about whether such a moment is intended for audiences to laugh at Ashima. 

"But this is not laughing at her, but this is what we actually do -- we eat Rice Krispies but we screw it up and we put it with nuts and lemons and because it will at least somewhat come closer to the tang and spice that I need.  I can't tell you, these hotels, I don't know what to eat here.  I just don't know what to do."

The room bursts with laughter.

"I live here, and I just think, 'oh my god!'.  San Francisco has such a great Japanese, great Chinese communities, how come there's not one bloody set of noodles that I can ask for, that has some spice in them!  I can't tell you!  So I just ordered some pasta and I said, 'please bring me some red chili flakes on the side so I can, like deal with it', you know?  But it's not what I want.  It's like something that will approximate something.  Otherwise I will have to have the bloody grilled cheese sandwich with french fries, and I can't bear it!  So it's not to make fun, it's more to appropriate it to say, 'make this mine -- I have to eat this, so put it in a way I like to have it, you know.  It's not to make [Ashima] a comic thing.  In fact, with the audience's laugh, it is out of recognition."

The director then refers to an old Indian couple at a screening in Pasadena, California who she says were pointing at the screen saying 'that's like us!'  "It's not because [Ashima] doesn't know [better].  It's because she wants to have that taste [of her homeland's food] in her mouth."

Mira Nair, who began her film career as an actor, is busy on several forthcoming films, including "Gangsta, MD", which is an African-American adaptation of "Munnabhai Mbbs", India's blockbuster comedy, as well as "The Impressionist", an adaptation of Hari Kunzru's epic novel.  Nair is currently involved in production on a feature-length documentary on The Beatles in India.

For now, however, "The Namesake" is the film Mira Nair brings to the world, and its globally identifiable themes will likely strike a chord in audiences particularly in the United States, a nation of immigrants.  "The Namesake" opens this Friday in North America.

Related: The Popcorn Reel Review of "The Namesake"
 


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