Twenty-five years after Salaam Bombay, Mira Nair continues to make waves. With her new film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, to be released this month, the director talks to Lavina Melwani about her labour of love.
This year Mira Nair celebrates the 25th anniversary of her first feature film, the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! and the birth of her new film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. On the eve of the release of Salaam Bombay! in New York back in 1988, I had taken a subway downtown to interview the new, not-so-famous filmmaker in her tiny apartment.The world had not yet discovered Salaam Bombay! but she was exuberant, excited, animated.
Twenty-five years later, she seems exactly the same — exuberant, excited, animated. There have been critically acclaimed films from Mississippi Masala to Monsoon Wedding to The Namesake. The awards and accolades have come thick and fast.
Nair calls The Reluctant Fundamentalist — screened at The Venice International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival, among others — her labour of love. The film premiered in New York where Mira Nair was present, with actors Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson, and author Moshin Hamid. It is releasing on 650 screens on May 17 in both India and Pakistan. The Urdu version will be called Changez. Excerpts from an interview:
What inspired you to make The Reluctant Fundamentalist?
I first visited Lahore in 2004 and was absolutely dazzled by the warmth and the large spirit of the city and its great artistic expression. As a kid in modern India, you don’t get to Pakistan that easily. My father, who came from Lahore, was educated there. We were raised in India but I was raised like a Lahori kid, speaking Urdu and knowing Faiz and great music. When I finally went there, I thought it’s just such a different Pakistan from the one we read about in the newspapers. It’s an ancient culture like India is, but it’s also desperately modern in artistic ways, in many ways.
How did you arrive at the point where you could make this film?
Mohsin says I’m an Indian director making a Pakistani film. I appreciate that but, for me, there was no border; I feel in my bones it is one. Living in multiple worlds as I do and yet feeling very rooted and being a fierce desi in my soul — I’ve always taken courage in being distinct, in knowing and remembering where we come from — but being totally open to the world. I wanted to bring that sensibility to the screen. With the polarities of our world, we need that.
Your film gives a human dimension to Pakistan and populates it with real life characters. Can you talk about that?
Indian directors have always done the Partition but we’ve never done anything contemporary. For me especially, living in New York as I mostly do, what you read about is so different from what you see and know.
I feel a great lament that the conversation between the American world, the western world and the Islamic world in broader strokes is not a conversation; it’s a monologue. You never hear the other side. It was Mohsin’s brilliant novel that I read a year after I visited Lahore which gave me the bones of making this conversation because, like Mohsin, I have lived here and I have lived there, as much as half my life.
Did you shoot in Lahore or did you have to create Pakistan in India?
We couldn’t shoot the whole Pakistan part in Lahore as I wanted to because we didn’t get insurance for the huge actors and there was also the general insecurity. Also, the Lahore film industry is quite defunct and it’s mostly in Karachi, so it is a very expensive place. We went to Lahore for three or four days, so the street scenes are in Lahore but the interiors, riots scenes and teahouse were shot in Delhi. I’ve been to Lahore about five times, so I had a barometer for it.
Riz Ahmed has received high praise as Changez Khan. How did you find him?
It’s a difficult role, and you need a worldliness, an elegance, an intelligence to play Changez. I found him in London after a year of searching in Pakistan and India. He had sent me a kind of dorky audition tape and I didn’t even take it seriously but then I asked him to do the scene with the father at the wedding — and he understood the cornerstone of sharam (shame) and izzat (honour), without my having to tell him.
You have an international cast including two of India’s finest actors, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri. What were the special joys of working with them?
I have known Shabana and Om for three decades and, through our friendship, have longed to work with them. Just waiting for the right roles, really. Om is such a master, impossible to be anything but authentic — and the perfect Lahori Punjabi. And Shabana — besides sharing an uncanny resemblance to Mohsin Hamid’s mother — is such a giving actor and generous friend. Having legendary actors such as them raises the bar on everything.
The film has powerful music from qawallis to pop, from Fareed Ayas to Peter Gabriel. Tell us about it.
Well, music is my breathing universe. Not only was I raised on the poems of Faiz but the modern sound coming out of Pakistan is just so inspiring. It’s old but it’s eternal in its modernity. Listening to the new sounds coming from there was amazing, including ‘Mori Araj Suno’ sung by Tina Sahni in the Coke Studio version. This movie went down three times; it was the hardest movie to finance. Every time it would go down, I would put on ‘Mori Araj Suno’. We re-did it in a male voice for Changez’s cry from the heart, with Atif Aslam.
There are so many disagreements between India and Pakistan, do you think your film is one on which they’ll both agree?
I’m so excited to be probably one of the first Indian directors to make a Pakistani film and also bring it to the U.S. I’m so happy to have been embraced in India; we won the Centenary Award for this film and I was just so proud of my country that they could go into that space and embrace a piece of work that crosses our borders, that makes our borders really disappear. I’m hoping for the same in Pakistan.