RAVE: Chai With Mira Nair- 3

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TeenPeople: Celebrity Stress Chai with Mira

September 2004
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“The struggle was not being an Indian woman,” Mira clarifies. “The struggle is simply independent filmmaking–trying to do personal work, trying to do something that you don’t see anything else like. It wasn’t so simple for me. I didn’t have a mentor whom I could follow down a path. Without realizing it, I was creating my own path.”

But despite her success, she faced rejection after rejection when trying to sell her next project, the politically-charged interracial love story Mississippi Masala, to studios. The film, which dealt with the concept of home life, led Mira to gain a new one of her own. While scouting locations for the project in Africa, she met East African-Indian sociologist and professor Mahmood Mamdani, who became her second husband.

After the controversy surrounding her next project, the stunning erotic period drama Kama Sutra: A Story of Love, Mira spent several years focusing on home and her son, living a quiet, settled life in Kampala, Uganda. “I thought I’d become a suburban housewife, sort of lost my edge,” she says. “The loneliness of this business sometimes gets to you. You think you’re mad. The stamina you need–you really have to believe in what you’re doing or you give up. That’s the thing. I always chose to do my own thing. You have to see yourself as a leader, even if it’s of your own tiny pond.”

That renewed ambition, along with another long-incubating idea, transformed itself into the $1.2 million runaway hit Monsoon Wedding, a deeply personal slice-of-life which Mira decided to shoot in 30 days in New Delhi, employing an army of a family. “Any actor I asked to be in Vanity Fair said yes almost immediately because of Monsoon Wedding,” she says. “It’s amazing when you do something that’s a piece of your heart, people feel it and it comes back to you in great gifts in various places. It has opened doors for me, but in terms of other South Asians, I hope it’s done a lot. Because I really, deliberately made that film in that way so I could show that you really don’t need a lot of money and men in suits to tell you how to make a good movie.”

Though Vanity Fair is big money, Mira had complete control of the project, from casting to costumes. “When we went to India, we were out in the countryside for two days with this tiny budget to do this little location shoot,” says Witherspoon, “and she managed to get 500 extras speaking three different languages, four elephants, six camels, 15 actors and a crew of 200 men to completely listen to her. She got everything she wanted out of it and more. This is a woman who came from India and decided she wasn’t going to go to Bollywood to make films. She was going to come to America and make big Hollywood movies. And she did it.”

Witherspoon adds, “She has her head screwed on straight. She’s been doing this for a long time and has gotten a lot further just on pure will and ambition than most of us ever will.”

At Home in Manhattan and Kampala

But Mira is quick to point out that will and ambition are grounded in home and family. “My family is my anchor,” says Mira, who shares homes in Manhattan and Kampala, Uganda, with her husband and 13-year-old son Zohran. “I’m pretty focused–on my work and family. I don’t have a glam social life. I purposely keep the rest of it very simple. In many ways, I’m a homebody. I’ve created very peaceful homes that have become refuges from the hurly-burly of city life and the adrenaline of the creative life.”

She also practices yoga for 90 minutes every morning, as James Purefoy learned the hard way. “Mira tried getting us all to do yoga,” says Purefoy, “She was always insisting, ‘Jim, Jim, are you coming to yoga this morning?’ No, Mira, really, it’s six am. Makeup! Two hours in costume. I really have no time for an upward thrusting dog. Or whatever is. I’m not a yoga man. I’m British. I don’t even go to the gym. Let alone do yoga. But Mira and maybe sometimes poor Declan Quinn, the cinematographer, he had to go with her to yoga at 6 o’clock in the morning.”

Mira’s deep abiding belief in what she calls the ‘yogic question’ is what brought her to the project in the first place. “Which of us are happy in this world and when we meet our desire, are we content? That is the essence of Vanity Fair,” she says. “I loved that he’s (Thackeray) not just giving us an elegant soap opera, but he’s trying to go underneath that to the soul of what we all are. A lot of it was to try to invoke the class structure of the time. And we don’t see that in period movies–the shit on the road, the pigs on the street, the filth, the coalmongers–the entire army of working class England who had to support the upper classes to make them look and behave the way they did. So, the happiest moment for me was when a friend had come to visit the city of Bath, which we had taken over, and he saw the peat, and the pigs and the shit on the street and said, ‘My God, Mira, this looks just like Salaam Bombay!’ And I got really excited, because that is what I wanted to do, I just didn’t realize it.”

The Next Big Thing

Her next project, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel The Namesake, which begins shooting in December, is similarly close to her heart. “I read the novel on my way to Jodhpur when we were shooting the finale for Vanity Fair,” she says, “and as soon as the plane landed, I called my agent and bought the rights immediately. It’s my baby. I’m making it my own way. It’s very much a road I’ve traveled, metaphorically and literally. Almost exactly in some ways–between Calcutta and Cambridge and New York. And I think at the heart of it is the loss of a parent in a foreign country. And I’ve sadly gone through that experience very recently. So it’s healing, in a way, for me. And it moved me to my bones. So I want to make a film of my own people, after two years of Vanity Fair. I want to see my own skin through my lens.”

“I want to speak of, and to capture desi power in contemporary New York because that’s where I live, that’s what I’m steeped in,” she says. “I haven’t yet seen it on screen.”

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