'Namesake' is close to home

The Baltimore Sun

Washington-- Even though she's ill and on her 11th interview of the day, film director Mira Nair gets starry-eyed when discussing her new film, The Namesake.

Dressed in a South Asian salwar kameez, a burgundy shawl elegantly draped over her, the native of India sips tea in a Georgetown hotel room while she recalls the moment she read the novel, The Namesake, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri.

Nair's mother-in-law, a native Ugandan, had just passed away. And she was having to bury a beloved in a land foreign to her. It was in that quiet moment of utter displacement that The Namesake came to her.

It was a story, she found, she had to tell.

"I happened to read The Namesake totally by chance two months during this period of mourning," says Nair. "It just completely captured me because of Jhumpa's understanding of exactly what I was going through - losing parents in a country that was not home.

"And then upon reading and rereading the novel I understood that it really was like a banquet of 30 years and not your typical productive, simple immigrant story which is done to death," she added.

And so Nair embarked on the project of translating the book onto the screen - a task that took her from the eastern reaches of Calcutta to the pulsating Desi (slang for South Asian) life of New York, one of her homes now.

The Namesake chronicles three generations of the Ganguli family, focusing on parents Ashoke and Ashima (played by Bollywood stars Irrfan Khan and Tabu) who immigrate to New York, where they raise their two children.

The son Gogol (Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar go to White Castle fame) is the rebellious teenager who first embraces and then rejects his namesake, a Russian author whom Ashoke learned about on a train ride in India that nearly killed him.

It's a movie that tells the story of grief and love and forging a cultural identity in a land when home is neither here nor there, but in a sense, everywhere - much like Nair's own life, which is split between India, Uganda (her husband's native land) and New York.

It was also a movie that connected two integral parts of Nair's life. Growing up in India, she spent summers in Calcutta, and now she spends a third of her time in New York.

"It gave me the possibility to link the sort of '70s Calcutta that I had loved and grown up in with the pulse of today's Manhattan, which is so culturally South Asian, full of Desi confidence and expression," she says.

Nair, 49, was born and raised in Orissa, an eastern state in India, in a "tiny town," with one movie theater that "incessantly played Doctor Zhivago," she says rolling her eyes.

She attended Delhi University and then went to Harvard University at age 19, where she became interested in film.

Nair directed several documentaries before her debut film Salaam Bombay! about street children in Mumbai. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1989 for best foreign film.

Subsequent projects included Mississippi Masala, which starred Denzel Washington. The movie documented an African-American man's relationship with a Ugandan-Indian whose family had immigrated to Mississippi.

She adapted William Thackeray's novel, Vanity Fair, in a 2004 production starring Reese Witherspoon, and she directed the award-winning HBO film series, Hysterical Blindness (about two single women from New Jersey), with Uma Thurman.

But Nair's greatest success thus far has been the 2001 hit Monsoon Wedding. Shot in just 47 days, the movie is akin to cinema verite, a riot of colors and sounds erupting in a Punjabi wedding that takes place in New Delhi.

Nair, who grew up in a Punjabi family, says the wedding movie, like The Namesake, is close to her heart. She frequently consulted novelist Lahiri during the adaptation of the book and the two have become quite close. "I loved this novel," says Nair. "It was not so much changes as shifting, seeing what you want and what you can do without."

Lahiri sobbed after seeing the movie for the first time, Nair says. The two women recently were in Calcutta together for a screening of the movie. "That was very emotional, a homecoming for both of us," the director says.

Nair is confident that the film has crossover appeal, that it resonates both with Americans - immigrants and nonimmigrants, alike - as well as people in India. "I think it will be a universal story for those of us who leave [one] home for another," she says. "Some of us have left one culture for another. ... That whole idea of going to find out who you are is a universal thing."

Nair likens The Namesake to other movies she's done that have been close to her heart and experiences, though she can't bring herself to pick a favorite.

"It's very hard to ask a mother which is her favorite child," says Nair. "I'm very pleased with The Namesake, which I don't say easily. Usually I really suffer through my films. But The Namesake, like Monsoon Wedding and Salaam, I can watch forever.

"I don't want to say forever," she quickly adds. "I don't revisit my films too much. No, there's too much to do in life."

Indeed. She has just completed a short film about AIDS filmed in Mumbai and is immersed in several others: She's preparing for the production of Shantaram, starring Johnny Depp, about an Australian robber who escapes from prison and starts a new life in India by starting a medical clinic.

She's working on a documentary on the Beatles in India.

And Nair's thought about doing something related to the Iraq war - which she opposes.

"So it's enough," she says. "It's never enough. But it's enough."


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