Director Mira Nair talks about what drew her to “Amelia”, and the fine art of translating books onto the big screen

Celebrated filmmaker Mira Nair has turned her lens on one of America's greatest icons, Amelia Earhart, the first aviatrix to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, with the bio-pic “Amelia”.

Ask the director of fascinating films such as “Salaam Bombay” and “Monsoon Wedding” why she chose a bio-pic, and crackling over telephone lines from the Big Apple comes Mira's “Why not?”

Dream on

She elaborates: “Mostly because I was intrigued by Amelia's humility — an unusual trait in Americans, especially for someone who has achieved so much. I was also fascinated by how a small-town girl could dream such an extraordinary dream. Amelia had a sense of fun and lived beyond herself. She was an activist with a world view. I felt a strange affinity for Amelia, as I too come from a small town, Rourkela, and her dreams to experience the bigger world were my dreams too.”

“Amelia” is Mira's third period film after “Kama Sutra” and “Vanity Fair”. “Those were completely different periods! And, I do not set out to make a period film; the subject matter has to interest me. For instance, I did ‘Vanity Fair' because I love Thackeray and the story of a girl on the wrong side of the tracks making it, and also because it was an interesting period in history. A time of great intersection between the colonisers and colonised.”

“Amelia” is set in the roaring Twenties and Thirties, and Mira says: “I love the music, the fashion and the inherent modernity of Amelia.” To the fear of the story getting lost in the period details, Mira says: “A historical film is just set in a particular period. You should be able to embrace the settings and tell your story. You should want to be in the world you create.”

The 53-year-old auteur says the real challenge in making a bio-pic comes from the fact that you are dealing with “real, iconic people. With ‘Amelia', I needed to be faithful to her accomplishments as well as go to the heart of Amelia”.

Small vs big

Mira has made small, intimate, independent films such as “Mississippi Masala” as well as lavish studio productions such as “Vanity Fair”.

Ask her which she prefers, and pat comes the reply: “Small films. A film such as ‘Namesake' is my vision through and through. ‘Amelia', on the other hand, is a collaborative effort. We drew from two seminal biographies — Susan Butler's East to the Dawn, and Mary Lovell's The Sound of Wings. There are several pros of having a large team. I wanted to explore the ecstasy of flying, and that was possible thanks to the brilliant technical team. Having said that, there are a lot of my choices in the making of ‘Amelia'. So, I would say a big budget studio film is a nice marriage of individuality and team effort.

“I structured the film around Amelia's final flight in the summer of 1937, when she disappeared over the Pacific. I wanted to create the adrenalin rush of being in the cockpit with Amelia. When I fly, time becomes surreal, a kind of dream time where I go into free association. That is what I have replicated in telling Amelia's story She goes into free association on that last fateful flight. .”

The cast of “Amelia” is Hollywood royalty, with two-time Academy-award winner Hilary Swank playing Amelia; Richard Gere donning the role of Amelia's publicist, publisher and husband, George Putnam; and indie-hottie Ewan Mcgregor playing fellow aviator and Amelia's lover, Gene Vidal.

“The cast is consummate pros. I shared a wonderful sisterhood with Hilary. Watching the process of her becoming Amelia was truly beautiful. Richard had the flamboyance as well as the meditative maturity to play Putnam, who spun the wheels to make Amelia's dream come true.”

Mira is now working on Mohsin Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist. “We start shooting in September, and there is also a musical on ‘Monsoon Wedding'.” On making films based on books, Mira says: “It is a question of being grabbed by the book; of what you want to say when translating from one medium to the other.”

That brings us to the other book she is to bring to screen, Shantaram. “Ahh… well, ‘Shantaram' is sleeping now. It just depends on Johnny Depp. He is the producer and quite obsessed by the movie. So, I am sure we will be making ‘Shantaram'. Johnny is an incredibly-busy actor, and the film will surely roll when Johnny has a window of time.”