No guts, no glory!

Back to Bombay: Mira Nair. Photo : K. Bhagya Prakash  

What problem? no problem. As the credits fade on Chaipau and Manju, one salutes Mira Nair for believing that art could change lives. Twenty-five years hence, “Salaam Bombay!” continues to be a cornerstone in independent cinema proving that cinema could be cathartic in the real sense, for Salaam Balak Trust, born out of the box office collections of the film, continues to work for the street kids, like the ones who starred in Mira’s film.

With PVR bringing a digitally restored version of “Salaam Bombay” to theatres this week, one caught up with Nair at the screening. Over the years she 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.” Like a newcomer, she still gets agitated every time a viewer decides to move out or somebody tries to enter the hall while the screening is in progress. As “Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo” seeps through the sound proof walls, she bursts into an uneasy laugh. “We haven’t changed much in the last 25 years,” she rues as we settle down for an interview.

What are your abiding memories of the film?

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 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….

How was the reaction after you won Camera D’Or?

In Cannes I lived in the corridor of an old lady’s home. There were no cell phones and I gave the landline number of this old lady. After the premiere, the phone started ringing and every territory except India was sold. India had to be cuddled and cajoled!

Was presenting Bombay’s street children to the world there 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.

Was there any Bollywood presence, and how did you distribute the film in India?

Though parallel cinema was happening then, there was a difference between making a film with Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil and to make a film with Chaipau and Manju. They could not believe that you can make a feature film with them with the same budget and quality. I was famous by then. The distributors watched the film but said hamare liye nahin hai. Finally an upcoming distributor Pankaj Mehta decided to release it and it ran for 27 weeks at Eros theatre. In those day theatres were 1500-seaters. I had made my point. Bollywood regulars could not come to terms with the fact that it happened in front of them and they couldn’t see it.

What was the best compliment that you got?

After Bombay I went to Calcutta where Satyajit Ray came to the premiere at Nandan cinema. 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. After seeing gaana tamasha, Mohsin used to joke, are you making a “monsoon terrorist”. The family is very important to me. I wanted to create the Pakistani mahaul. We only see the hijacking and bombing. 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 for 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.

What’s next?

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.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2020 8:51:59 AM |

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