INTERVIEW: Salaam India! Mira Nair Celebrates a "Monsoon Wedding"
by Jacque Lynn Schiller/indieWIRE
[The USA Films release opened last week in New York and expands to Los Angeles theaters today.]
Mira Nair is the only Oscar-nominated filmmaker from Bhubaneshwar, India. Her homeland produces more movies than any other country in the world, but Nair traveled to the U.S. to launch her career. After a stint studying theater at Harvard, she cut her teeth working with documentary maestros Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, making several non-fiction films that documented Indian culture. But it was her feature-length debut “Salaam Bombay!” — winner of the best first film at Cannes 1989 and nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film — that put the director on the map.
Nair is once again receiving major international acclaim for her latest work “Monsoon Wedding,” which USA Films will release today. Winner of the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, “Monsoon Wedding” chronicles the lives of several family members and servants on the eve of a daughter’s wedding. Vibrant, dramatic and charming, the film uses handheld cameras and an interweaving narrative to tell Nair’s most ambitious and successful work yet. Nair spoke to indieWIRE’s Jacque Lynn Schiller about writing, Indian families, and the rehearsal process.
indieWIRE: Talk a bit about your transition from docs to features. What inspired the move and do you expect you will ever return to the non-fiction genre?
Mira Nair: I came from the school of cinema verité documentaries, which was: Do not manipulate reality as it was happening but create a narrative in the editing
room. After seven years of making those kinds of films – which I love — I was
struggling to find an audience. I began to get impatient. I want to make
things happen myself: gestures, light, the storytelling. What I love about
documentaries, which is always stranger than fiction, is the
inexplicable nature of it, the idea to amalgamate both these things lead to
“Salaam Bombay.” There is a fiction camera but it’s working with real people,
so the frame is heightened and informed by life but aesthetically influenced
by many things.
After 15 years of making features, last year I made the documentary “Laughing
Club of India,” which was bought by HBO. I think it is similar in
style and spirit to “Monsoon Wedding”. It was made in two weeks with my best
friend Adam, a great photographer, on DV and is about this fantastic phenomena in India of people who get together every morning to laugh.
iW: How has your experience been working with HBO on “Hysterical Blindness?”
Nair: Excellent. They’re the only independent studio in town. First class all
the way and they did nothing but nourish me.
iW: How did the collaboration between you and Sabrina Dhawan, the screenwriter of “Monsoon Wedding”, come about?
Nair: I was teaching at Columbia Film School and Sabrina was introduced to me as one of the best students there. We come from the same milieu, a middle-class Punjabi society in Delhi. We started to talk about the fact that there’s nothing we had really seen that represented contemporary Indian life, certainly not life as we know it and live it. Sabrina had many ideas, such as wanting to make a portrait of a single woman’s life in Delhi. We also wanted to tell a story of abuse, so we put it all together and she wrote this screenplay that I really mother-henned.
iW: How would you compare the life of a single, American woman with her Indian counterpart?
Nair: Well, the one big difference is we have a huge emphasis on family in India. On the one hand, family can be restricting and oppressive in terms of always forcing you to put it first. Here, there’s definitely that feeling of loneliness that I see among many single women. I’ve never encountered that in India. It’s almost the other way around. There are almost too many people in one’s life. (laughs)
iW: Is it frustrating to be constantly referred to as a “female director” or a “director from India”?
Nair: Fortunately there are enough people who have the sense to view me simply
as a director. (laughs) I hope there will be more soon!
iW: Are families very open in India, as far as communication?
Nair: There’s nothing universal about Indian families except that the family itself is deeply important across the country. It’s sort of the fabric and anchor of our country. My family is almost exactly like the one in “Monsoon Wedding”. We are very open, fairly liberal, loud people.
iW: How did you rehearse with your actors?
Nair: I rehearsed with the actors scene by scene. We improvised. We rewrote scenes according to the best idea or best lines. And then the last week before shooting, we took the actors to the house in which most of the film was shot and blocked everything with the cinematographer, Declan Quinn. He was by my side the whole time because everything was handheld. In order to finish the shoot in 30 days, we really had to know what we were doing before we hit the set. And by the time we started shooting, everyone behind the camera, and in front of it, we knew exactly what we were doing, so we could attempt this sort of freewheeling environment.
iW: Had you worked with this DP before?
Nair: This is the second film we have worked on together; “Kama Sutra” was before this. And I’ve just shot another film with him [“Hysterical Blindness”].
iW: Growing up in India then moving to the states, how has the influence of the different cultures affected your work?
Nair: I guess because my nourishment has come from eclectic things — living an
everyday life in Kampala and Uganda. I’ve been able to look at the world
differently from three continents practically. I’ve always lived between
India and the U.S. When I married Mahmood I became a daughter-in-law of
Africa. That really changed my worldview. I can see it from so many
iW: And unfortunately most of us in Western society have no clue about these other cultures. I really think “Monsoon” will surprise people. You present a side of India that is not often imagined.
Nair: But it’s exactly what India is.
iW: “Monsoon Wedding” opens here this month. Are you expecting a particular reaction stateside?
Nair: I’ve been doing a lot of world promotion with the film, and it’s become
something of a massive success in the UK, Australia and so on