February 28-March 6, 2007

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Mira Nair

Photograph by Abbot Genser
Focal pointer: Director Mira Nair calls the shots on the set of 'The Namesake.'

Cinema Masala

Mira Nair opens Cinequest with 'The Namesake,' a story of Indian-American identity

By Richard von Busack

EAST IS EAST, and West is West, and the twain had better meet soon, or we're all cooked. Cinequest begins today, with guests ranging from actress Minnie Driver to J.J. Abrams of Lost—at last a chance to ask him what the hell is going on on that island.

The festival is exhibiting films from all over the globe. But perhaps opening-night guest Mira Nair (pronounced "Ny-eer") has done the most of any of this year's attendees to try to connect the halves of the planet. Her hits Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding introduced Westerners to the hardships, music and comedy of India.

Nair's ambitious The Namesake is her adaptation of the National Book Award-winning novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, telling of the journey of an Indian-American architect and his parents from Calcutta to New York. In the lead role is Kal Penn, here rescued from the dumb comedies he has been trapped in since he played a certain burger-seeking New Jerseyite. And Penn proves himself likely to become the first Indian romantic lead in American movies.

In The Namesake, Nair fashions a wide canvas that takes in Calcutta and New York: "I was trying to make one city out of two," she says, by phone from Philadelphia, where she's promoting The Namesake.

One particular image ought to be remembered for a long time. It is an interior shot of the so-called "living room" of an extended-stay apartment where one of the characters lives during long-term assignment. The white, deep-pile carpet is spotless, and the frosty-white walls are blank and cheerless. The room is as welcoming as the inside of a freezer.

I'm sure the image will be as bitter as wormwood to the Indian engineers who have come to the valley, leaving behind their homeland, and everything that goes with it: the voluptuous heat and the comfort of their families.

"We tried to make it as white as we could," Nair says. "Typical and charmless, the foreign place within a foreign place."

Visiting Hours

Because Silicon Valley is a world-renowned center for the Indian diaspora, I am not surprised to learn that Nair knows San Jose. She has stayed with friends here for the Fourth of July. She has traveled across much of America, having toured with her 16 mm documentaries in the late 1980s, barnstorming by Greyhound bus.

"I used to go where anyone would want me; usually union halls, women's groups ... anyone with $300—that was my price. I'd go on six-month tours and stay in student dorms."

Ultimately, Nair became discouraged with documentary film. She was able to sell her work to television, but "it was selling work into the void. I'd never see the audience and find out what they thought about the films."

This hasn't been the case with The Namesake, which she judges as a success already based on audience reaction. Nair says she realized that Monsoon Wedding was going to be a worldwide hit when it played out of competition at Cannes.

She recalls, "The screenings were mobbed even by people who were seeing 10 movies a day. And then it was pronounced the best film at Cannes, even if it played outside the competition."

Then, notoriously, the film played at the Toronto Film Festival during the Sept. 11 attacks, and distributors got cold feet about any movies with people wearing turbans.

"I knew it was going to be a time of demonization of the Other. But by the time Monsoon Wedding opened in February 2002, it was embraced."

And Nair believes that The Namesake is due for the same status. "I've seen the same—the belly laughs, the sniffling and sobbing—as in Monsoon Wedding."

'The Namesake'

Photograph by Mira Nair
You can go home again: Kal Penn (left), Irrfan Khan, Sahira Nair and Tabu play tourists in their homeland.

Cultural Buffet

In Nair's Mississippi Masala, Denzel Washington has a line that culture is like a buffet—that you have to take what you want and leave the rest. But if you leave everything, you're going to starve.

In The Namesake, the young man Gogol (Penn), who has come to New York with his parents, withdraws from mainstream America into some traditional Indian customs. In some ways, The Namesake seems like Nair's most traditional film. Nair even takes on the challenge of depicting India's ultimate cultural symbol and finds a new angle to photograph the Taj Mahal. She does this sumptuously, discovering its hidden curves and arabesques. The Taj doesn't look like a biscuit box, as that old Noel Coward joke goes.

"I'd been to the Taj Mahal twice before when I was young," Nair says. "We arrived the day before, and we had permission to shoot for one day. We got 18 camera setups. I really felt the spirit of Shah Jehan and all the people who had been there before. It was actually our final day of shooting the film."

As for whether The Namesake was all that traditional: "I hadn't thought of it like that," she replies. "It's about my deep love for Bengali life and the city of Calcutta. And it's an homage to Satyajit Ray's work." (Nair was friendly with the genius of Bengali film; in 2002, she commented about Ray, "I think of myself as wilder and naughtier than him; he thinks the same of me.")

Nair continues, "It's very rare that you have a love story with married, older people who have the sort of calm that [Gogol's] parents Ashoke and Ashima have here. That culture of stillness—of having a cup of tea together—it's a very different way of expressing love than the proclamation and physical display of youth. The Namesake is a homage to my parents' generation."

It was a member of the younger generation who got Penn into the title role of the film as the Indian-American named Gogol: "My 15-year-old son loved Penn in a movie ..." Nair said.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, eh?

"Yes. Oh man, not my kind of movie. But as for Penn, not many people could do Gogol both as an adolescent and a dashing youth. It would have been a real casting challenge to find two separate actors who matched."


In midcareer, Nair is returning to documentaries and short films. She recently made a four-minute AIDS-prevention picture attached as a short in India to more mainstream Bollywood opuses.

"It's called Migration," she explains, and it's about how the virus moves from the rural world to Rolls-Royces. I'm working in the style they call 'challu'—meaning 'sexy, streetwise.'"

She also has a documentary on tap. "I have to put it on the back burner now, but it's a fascinating story. It was 1968, and everything was in absolute chaos—My Lai in Vietnam and the Martin Luther King assassination ... and that's when the Beatles left the West. They came to India with a strange entourage, including Mia Farrow and her sister, and the musician Paul Horn. ... Many of the people who went with them are still alive to talk about it. The Beatles spent eight weeks in India and wrote some 48 songs in that time, by the side of the Ganges."

In the meantime, Nair is returning to the site of her first feature film, Salaam Bombay!, preparing a Johnny Depp opus set in Mumbai (Bombay). It is called Shantaram and is based on the semiautobiographical novel by Australian political-activist-turned-convict-turned-Mumbai-mafioso Gregory David Roberts. Roberts' résumé is online under the title "Author Facts" at It beats anything you'll read at

Nair's own CV is a little more gentle. She was raised in a middle-class, civil-servant family in East Orissa, some 300 miles south of Calcutta. She was the youngest of three children, with two older brothers.

"There's 2,000 temples there, and we used to play hide and seek in the tall grass outside of them. I was a tomboy, a boy for all practical purposes. Where we lived was remote, it wasn't on the tourist path as yet ... but when I was 14 or 15, I started to see folk theater performances brought in by traveling performers. I was entranced at how they could make something out of nothing, and turn a flight of stairs, or a field, into a stage. They performed stories of good and evil—Peter Brook's film Mahabharata is based on the methods they used.

"In the summers, we used to be shipped off to relatives in Calcutta, and that was how I started to perform in political theaters."

Nair was a good enough student to get a scholarship to Cambridge but, she says, "I had a chip on my shoulder about England, and I didn't want to go there." Instead she went to Harvard to study theater, but she found the scene there stodgy: "It was performances of Oklahoma! more than anything else." Instead she studied documentary-making and became a filmmaker.

One of Nair's smaller accomplishments is proof that the multicultural could also be tasty. Check her early films: highly erotic mélanges like The Perez Family (Marisa Tomei, luscious as a ripe mango, offered up in a wardrobe of tropical underwear). For that matter, 1991's Mississippi Masala has one of the steamiest phone conversations in cinema, between the usually too-cool-for-lust Denzel Washington and the bewitching Sarita Choudhury.

And Nair's films are as musically eclectic as anybody's this side of Jonathan Demme. Her soundtracks include everyone from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Custer Larue of the early-music group the Baltimore Consort. The infectious vintage tune "Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo" on Salaam Bombay!* was the first introduction to Indian film music for many viewers.

It has been said of Monsoon Wedding that you could tell it was a hit just from the title theme, "Baraat" by Mychael Danna. "In Monsoon Wedding," Nair says, "what I was aiming for was an Indian version of Nino Rota. We used a street wedding band. I'm happy to see the song got picked up as the repertoire for wedding bands all over India ever since."

Nair studied the sitar when she was a teenager, but her teacher told her she had to make a choice between acting and playing music. Today, she is studying Indian classical music. "Only by performing can you really understand Indian rag, the essential improvisation of it."

Nair practices two hours a day, because she wants to perform at her 50th birthday. "It keeps the crew in line," she comments. "I tell them if they don't hurry up, I'll sing at them."

In an interview with the British newspaper the Guardian, Nair answered interviewer Bonnie Greer's question, "Are you drawn to marginal figures?" with "I want to question what the outside is and who defines it." In this, Nair's purpose is the same as the purpose of all film festivals in general, and Cinequest in particular.

*This track was picked up from a 1958 musical called Howrah Bridge, and the original clip from it on YouTube will make you too happy.

Movie Times The Namesake plays Wednesday (Feb. 28) at 7pm at the California Theatre. A party with the filmmakers takes place afterward at the Paragon Restaurant and Bar.

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