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Desi Making Waves

By Elaine G. Flores

Mira Image: A Chat With Director Mira Nair and Her Namesake Stars

If you have only a few minutes to interview a lightning bolt like director/writer/producer Mira Nair, where do you start? I thought the best place would be to ask the press junket question she never wants to answer again. That would be: “What’s it like to be an Indian woman director in Hollywood?” She says, “I tell them, ‘It’s much easier than when I was a man,’” erupting into a devilish, husky laugh.

On November 28th, Times Talks, a program of The New York Times, presented the discussion “Indian-American Cultural Fusion on Film” with Nair, Mumbai-born leading lady Tabu and Hindi actor Irfan Khan, stars of Nair’s internationally acclaimed family drama, The Namesake, which was released on DVD last week. The trio took to the stage at the packed Times Center for an interview moderated by New York Times critic, Caryn James.

Mira Nair

Special Message from Tabu

Nobody wants to make Tabu cry, but that’s what happened when she talked about her experiences filming in New York. Though she has visited her sisters in the United States regularly since she was 18, she says, “I discovered New York through The Namesake. I discovered Indian life in New York. Every taxi I sat in was driven by an Indian, Pakistani or Bengali. They made me feel so at home. They never took money from me,” there is a catch in her voice, “to show that love and respect far from home.” Tabu notes, “It was the same in Indian restaurants. They never took money from me and were so kind. So, personally, that loving welcome made filming here so special, and I’d like to use this article to say thank you.”

When she first walks on stage, Nair could almost be described as unassuming—but when she speaks in her direct, irreverent and self-assured style, she commands attention. Up-close, the impact is even more powerful when you’re under the laser-like gaze of her copper brown, kohl-rimmed eyes. You can see why she draws such strong performances from her actors; there is something about Nair that is part motherly and part professorial, mixed with just a tiny bit of dominatrix—like when she jokes about whipping her actors—that makes you want to really be on her good side.

On stage, the director spoke of how the book came to her attention in a time of tragedy. “I lost my beloved mother-in-law, who lived with us. I had never experienced such a loss.” On the flight home, Nair distracted herself with the Jhumpa Lahiri novel, which she called an “unbelievable solace.” She immediately obtained the film rights, beating out her star, Kal Penn, who tried to buy the rights shortly thereafter. “You don’t get inspired in that way that often,” she notes. (Film geeks must check out the new DVD’s special features for a comprehensive discussion on all the nitty-gritty that went into bringing the movie to life.)

“I don’t say this easily, but Namesake is exactly what I wanted it to be,” Nair told the audience.

Her determination included landing Tabu, who plays the mother, Ashima. That feat took heavy-duty choreography, because the actress was committed to several other projects. “Literally millions of rupees had been moved around and movies had been moved around,” tells Nair, explaining that ultimately the execs of the other projects wanted Tabu to have the opportunity to appear in an international movie.

Neither Tabu nor her on-screen husband, Irfan Khan, expected to play English-speaking roles with Bengali accents and struggled with it. Tabu admitted to the audience that her initial response was “Oh, my God, how?” Khan wryly noted, “I tried to argue with Mira, I wanted to speak like people in Hollywood films, Pacino, De Niro.”

After even a brief meeting, it’s hard to imagine anyone winning an argument with the feisty director—or even trying to—but when it came to Kal Penn, who stars as American-born son Gogol, she was pressured into it. “I actually didn’t know of Kal Penn, but I had a 14, now 16 year old, who sold him like he was his brother.” She adds knowingly, “And all the girls in my office liked him.”

Tabu, who plays the mother, Ashima.

(Her son’s campaign was rewarded with a Nintendo Wii as a thank-you. “My entertainment center was transformed by Mr. Penn,” Nair says.)

Irfan Khan, who plays the father, Ashoke.

The moderated discussion was followed by a Q&A in which Nair took on some tough audience questions ranging from a rambling query about the legitimacy of Indian racism portrayed in Mississipi Masala (Nair later tells me of being confronted by Indian men on a train who asked, “So, you want my daughter to marry a black man? They’re not all Denzel Washington, you know.”); a question about why Ashoke, Khan’s character, smokes in the movie, which she explains was a device to show the passage of time from the nicotine-happy United States of the 1970s to the tobacco-hostile climate today (not to mention that “Irfan just looks cool smoking”) and a challenge from a chicly-attired young woman, demanding to know why Gogol’s Indian wife turns out to have “loose morals,” which the questioner argued doesn’t represent Desi values. That plotline stays close to the novel and, the director points out, “I like the unpredictability of life.”

After the 75-minute program, I had some one-on-one time with the director. While the question Khan would like to never answer again is “What’s it like working with Mira Nair?” it was obvious from their interaction that they share a genuinely warm relationship. As I was talking to the director, she briefly excused herself to wish the actor farewell, giving him a hug and maternally advising him not to be late for his dinner appointment. As he strolled to the door, he turned on his heel, put both hands to his mouth and blew her a playfully exaggerated Hollywood kiss. Mair, rolling her eyes at him, turned back to me cracking, “Idiot.”

Elaine G. Flores is a feature writer for Soap Opera Digest, contributor to and freelance writer. She is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and lives in New York.

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