Nair The Sunshine:
Monsoon Mira Nair Returns with Namesake

by Tony Phillips

Director Mira Nair has explicated the nuances of girl meeting boy over the course of an august career punctuated by such films as Vanity Fair, Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala. She even made a film about the Kama Sutra. This is a woman who knows from relationships. So how exactly do you tell such a woman that you’re not crazy about her new man?

Oh sure, Nair’s newest lead is charming enough. In her latest, The Namesake, he even manages the almost polar transition from geeky stoner to suave architect effortlessly. And who doesn’t have a warm spot in their heart for his 2004 Hollywood entree: Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle? But in person, actor Kal Penn runs a close second only to Sean Penn in the moody, monosyllabic interview department. Namesake, indeed.

But Nair is a director whose sets are populated by niceties like morning yoga, so let’s take a moment and readjust. When she sweeps into the room after Penn, it’s almost like someone burned a little incense and did some chanting. Suddenly the world is better place. Positivism radiates from the smile beaming directly from her handsome face. She’s wearing an earthy green jacket whose silk embroidery is somewhere between floral and camouflage. And that’s Nair all over: the grenade lying in the garden patch.

“An angel of casting flew over me,” she says of populating her new film, “the roles were supposed to be played by other actors, but landed on these actors.” Angel? Nair admits her teenage son also had a lot to do with Penn’s casting. “He twisted my arm,” she laughs, “every night when he went to bed, he said, ‘Mama, tell me in the morning it’s Kal Penn.' That was his chant. Every night. I never knew about Kal before these children got me thinking about him.”

The part is enormous, both in size and what it’s going to do for his career, but don’t’ worry, I’m sure his ego will make it though intact. Penn is cast as titular namesake Gogol Ganguli, an American-born son of Indian-born parents who immigrate to the US and raise two children. Gogol tries to reconcile his Bengali roots with his American birthright to forge an identity. The film got sweep, spanning two generations and jumping back and forth between New York and Calcutta. There’s even a scene at the Taj Mahal. But it’s also intimate and its details are so richly observed that The Namesake becomes quite possibly a whole new genre: the tiny epic.

“He really blew me away,” Nair’s onto the audition, still blathering on about Penn, “he was authentic and charming and had lived Gogol’s life, essentially. Because of his physicality and comic appeal, I could see he could play the adolescent as well as the dashing young man, which is very key for a director. Otherwise, I would have had to cast a younger Gogol and that makes it very hard to convince an audience.”

Perhaps she should have cast a younger Penn for the junket. Maybe it’s the early hour, but this one won’t answer questions about the weirdly Britney-driven cultural moment The Namesake is being released into even though his character shaves his head in the film. He won’t even talk about shaving his head. Without the Britney. Still, it would be hard to call Penn’s performance anything less than stunning. But when he goes on to posit that Harold and Kumar is not a stoner film, I want to practice my cock crowing imitation.

But Nair won’t be swayed. And believe me, I try, even stooping to play on her vanity by pointing out how textbook ingénue Penn’s whole I decided to become an actor when I saw Mississippi Masala as a young child trip really is. And how old is he exactly? That film was made in 1991! But Nair’s not nibbling. In fact, she calls his pandering “seduction for a director to hear.” I suppose seduction can involve ass-kissing, but Nair puts it all into perspective by saying, “a little boy at eight-years-old in a New Jersey mall who had only seen white people on screen for his whole life suddenly sees people who look like him.”

White people figure into her latest, as well. Nair jokingly calls The Namesake “a non-Caucasian film on a Caucasian budget.” It’s as close as she’ll allow herself to come to the label Hollywood. Even though the film is being distributed by one of the majors, Nair will vigorously object to any ties linking her to Hollywood or working for the studios. In fact, she lists Fox Searchlight only after rattling off the countries Japan and India when discussing what she calls the film’s “recipe for finance.”

And that recipe is always cooking for Nair, like a spreadsheet that’s open, but running in the background. For her, the equation is simple: money equals freedom. “An ordinary romantic comedy would cost like 25 million,” Nair says. “This is a nine and a half million dollar film based on two continents so I do get a lot of bang for the buck. In a sense, that is my sort of specialty.” She laughs. “It’s tough to make such a big film on that kind of money, but what’s key for me is that I have the freedom that I need to make the film that I want to make.”

The Indian-born, Harvard-educated director insists she is first and foremost an independent. That she is also a woman goes without saying. Almost. “This film for me is a lot about mothers and sons,” she explains. “I am a mother and I have a wonderful 15 and a half year old son. You rarely see films about mothers and sons so I bring my life experience to it. I look at my films as a way of reflecting what I have gone through in my life and that doesn’t have much to do with gender, of course, I bring what I know to my films: male or female.”

Because Nair and I have met before, there are a few things I know about her that I bring to the interview. Some of this information is almost a running joke between us, like the fact that she doesn’t have any cutlery in her house. Another little factoid Reese Witherspoon dropped while promoting Nair’s last film, the period drama Vanity Fair, was that for all her serene beauty, Nair was a bit of a screamer on-set. Of course, stars with 15-million price tags are quick to point out the director never yelled at them.

Nair will put up with the occasional ribbing about silverware, but categorically denies the other charge, claiming she hasn’t screamed on a film since her feature directorial debut Salaam Bombay! almost two decades ago. I mean, Kal Penn wasn’t even born, but that’s just it. If Nair were a male director, screaming would be just another part of the job description. She wouldn’t have to suffer jokes because it wouldn’t be an issue.

“As I get older it’s less difficult,” Nair shrugs,“ it all depends on what you want to do. When I pitched The Namesake, people instantly assumed it would be like Monsoon Wedding, which I made very consciously for a million dollars in a very lean way. It turned out to be this big financial hit for everyone so they assumed that The Namesake would have that kind of lean way. I said, ‘No, no, no. This is two continents, 30 years, 80 actors, aging of all kinds. This is big. Epic.’”

Perhaps because she was just coming off another epic, Nair was also in the mood for a scale that could be less grand. “It’s about the stillness,” Nair muses of The Namesake’s source novel, “it’s about how you share a cup of tea on a kitchen table.” Gabriel Byrne insisted the director read Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s book while the two were shooting Vanity Fair, and the smallness of The Namesake appealed.

“It was very clear when I read the book,” Nair remembers, “this was one I’d have to make. I wanted to make a deeply exquisite adult love story. The story of the parents was one I haven’t seen often and I love that generation.” The intimacy between Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli is primary for Nair, but the fact that it blossoms from an arranged marriage makes it typically her vision: the flower that blooms from a crack in the asphalt.

She compares “how they look at each other and the tapestry of history they’ve gone through together” with “the roses and the diamonds and the Hallmark cards of this culture” and clearly finds the former more appealing. She also finds the latter much more symptomatic of youth just as she finds Gogol’s coming of age the counterpoint to his parents’ love story in the film. “I live in three generations,” Nair offers, “even in Manhattan. America has deprived itself of the wisdom of the old so categorically. They don’t have it. They send them away. But it’s an enormous anchor in my life.”

“The other thing that really prepared me to make this film and absolutely possessed me was grief,” Nair explains, “losing a parent in a place that’s not fully home.” And as she is constantly finding ways to reflect her life in her films, it’s an idea that finds its way into The Namesake as well. “In India we have this philosophy of believing that life is made up of four stages: the youth, the householder, the walker of the world and renunciation.”

It’s telling that what the Hindi Ashramas describe as forest dweller or hermit in semi-retirement, Nair calls walker of the world. It’s her brand of optimism. “Right now I feel I’m solidly between the second and the third phase,” Nair states, “Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake very much reflect that phase of life for me of being in family and experiencing even death for the first time.” It’s downright scary, and also inconceivable, that Nair will ever fully progress to a state that doesn’t involve work. Say what you will about the silverware, but there’s simply too much on her plate.

To wit, Nair catalogs helming a documentary on The Beatles in India (“That’s happening, but it’s on a kind of back-burner at the moment. I have 20-minutes of the film done.”), producing another series of four documentaries on AIDS in India (“I’m making one of them and we just got back from shooting it. The idea behind the project is to help the Indian masses understand what AIDS is.”), adapting Tony Kushner’s Homebody: Kabul into a big screen picture that she will direct (“I gave up that film because I think so much has changed in the Middle East that I’d rather tell a more contemporary story.”) and readying the big Broadway musical of her hit Monsoon Wedding (“There’s a great and solid interest, but I’ve just not been able to manage to do everything. It’s not going away, but I just have to make it happen.”) That last bit is so Nair, it’s should be plastered across her bumper.

So while this reductionist drive may be central to Hinduism, and where Nair would like to go, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. The funny thing is, even though her film with Johnny Depp headlining has been announced in the trades, and probably represents the biggest cha-ching in her near future, Nair doesn’t mention it. So while shrugging off work, and everything in this life, might be the end goal, it’s probably not in her five-year plan. Still, a girl can dream. “I feel like I’m ready to return to the street,” Nair laughs, “ready to return to the world.”