focus Mira Nair talks about her struggles to make Salaam Bombay! and what we should expect from The Reluctant Fundamentalist. ANUJ KUMAR
O ver the years Mira Nair has assiduously maintained her independent streak. She said no to Harry Potter And The Order of Phoenix for “she is more interested in human emotions than special effects.” The digitally restored version of her landmark film Salaam Bombay! (1988) hit theatres this week. The director takes a few questions on her the film and her upcoming one The Reluctant Fundamentalist .
What are your abiding memories of Salaam Bombay?
It was a life and death film because it was made against all odds. No one knew me and no one had heard of a film about street kids where they are treated like stars. I am a visual person. I didn’t want to make an apology of cinema. We wanted to shoot Shafiq (the boy who played the lead character Chaipau) with as much care as we would shoot, say, a Meena Kumari film. People were surprised when Kamathipura (Mumbai’s red light area) came alive with diffusion lights. As I came from a documentary background the goal was to capture the extraordinariness of ordinary lives. I still believe life is stranger and much more powerful than fiction. We used hidden cameras, changed locations, all guerrilla techniques….
Was presenting Bombay’s street children to the world somewhere at the back of your mind?
The goal for us was that the children could watch the film in Liberty cinema. There was no model. The idea was to make them see the film, otherwise it would have amounted to abandoning them. So after it became an overnight hit worldwide, I came right back and premiered it at Alexander theatre in Kamathipura. The neighbourhood was like my studio. We had red roses for every person who entered. Around 400 people turned up. Every time there was a shot of the neighbourhood there was tamasha .
What was the best compliment that you got?
In Calcutta Satyajit Ray came to the premiere. He just held me to his chest and said, ‘I cannot recall ever being impressed so much by a first feature. It is completely unlike any other film ever made in India, and shows complete command over every aspect of the medium.’ We used it for our Oscar campaign.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is ready for release. Are there any similarities between your American experience post 9/11 and Changez’s?
Not directly, but there is a great affinity. We always looked westward. America was considered as the future I don’t think it is anymore. I wanted to make a coming of age story for a 20-year-old, like my son. It is a matter of debate in most households. Personally, I never bought the idea wholesale. I was a desi chick. I wanted to do my own thing. For me it was a between-worlds kind of feeling until I started making films about that state.
So how did you connect with Mohsin Hamid’s work?
When Changez, a hard nosed financial analyst on Wall Street, is sent out to shut down a very important publisher of Latin American fiction, which has brought out the voice of that continent, the publisher takes him to lunch and asks Changez, ‘Does it trouble you to make your living by disrupting the lives of others?’ He then tells Changez about the janissaries, Christian boys captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were lethal killers. They had fought to erase their own civilisations because they had no memory, they didn’t know where they came from. Their allegiance was to the empire. Changez says he has no allegiance to the empire. The publisher asks, how old were you when you came to America.’ He says 25, and the publisher comments, ‘Oh too old to be janissary.’ That’s the core of the story and that is the reason I have made the film. You have to wake up now. Think where you come from, think where you are going. Question the truth that is handed to you and think where you matter.
But your gregarious style is different from Mohsin’s metaphorical ways…
A novel is a springboard for the filmmaker’s imagination. I have brought to it what I wanted to bring to it. I have created it as a bridge-making film. I believe I have been able to take it beyond the hotbed political ideologies and humanise them into stories of people where Bobby and Changez could be friends.
How have you dealt with Erica, a symbol for America in the novel ?
I felt it was too much of a metaphor in the book. I like to make characters I want live with, hang out with. I don’t want to make ethereal characters, which fade out in a lake, especially women. We changed a fair amount of it. We made her an artiste who has a secret but someone who falls in love with Changez.
It is being said you auditioned Ranbir Kapoor for the role of Changez ...
I really liked him but he didn’t have dates. Also, it is a tough role. Changez is a ruthless Wall Street guy who recites Faiz and then comes home. It needed someone who has lived in the world. Ranbir lacks that worldliness. And I can’t direct it.
Is Shantaram on? Is there project for India in the offing?
I have the material ready, Johnny (Depp) has to show interest. Yes, the talks are on for an Indian project. I have just finished a 15-minute short film God Room with Raj Kumar Yadav, Richa Chaddha and Tanuja. It is about the conundrum of finding place for god in the urban homes. The child sees Him everywhere but the elders squabble over where to put the idol.
I am working on Monsoon Wedding’s Broadway musical. Then I have signed Disney’s adaptation of The Queen of Katwe . It is the true story of Phiona Mutesi, the first Ugandan grandmaster, who has made a name for herself in chess but still sells corn in the slums of Kampala. I am also the daughter of Uganda and it is my job to bring their stories alive as well.