MIRA NAIR. Interview with Indian director whose new film stars street children from Bombay
``I really, firmly believe that truth is stranger than fiction,'' says filmmaker Mira Nair, whose new movie is an unusual combination of fictional and real-life elements. It's called ``Salaam Bombay!'' and it's an international film in the fullest sense - shot in Bombay by an Indian-born director who discovered filmmaking while at Harvard University and now lives in New York. Nominally an Indian production, it was financed with money from British and French television as well as the Indian Film Development Corporation and Miss Nair's own Indian-American production company.Skip to next paragraph
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The picture began its American theatrical run on Sunday, but it's already a hit on the festival circuit - winning prizes in Cannes and Montreal, and scoring big with audiences at the noncompetitive Telluride and New York filmfests. I interviewed Miss Nair between screenings in Telluride, where the fresh Rocky Mountain breezes seemed as congenial to her as the bustle she's used to in Bombay and Manhattan.
``Salaam Bombay!'' tells the story of Chaipau, a 10-year-old boy who is forced to struggle for a living in the teeming streets of Bombay after his parents oust him from their home. It's not a gentle film, as Chaipau gets drawn into a sordid world of hustlers, prostitutes, and other low-life characters.
He never loses his spirit, though, and ultimately the film can be seen as an affirmation of his resilience and resourcefulness.
``I'm really interested in people living on the edge,'' says Miss Nair, whose previous films are documentaries on such topics as street life in Old Delhi and the use of high-tech medical procedures to accommodate traditional Indian preferences for male children.
``I'm interested in marginal people,'' she continues in her lightly accented English, ``or people who are considered marginal. I think that's because ... I'm interested in capturing the complexity of people and the complexity of life.''
After making four documentaries, Nair turned to fiction because she wanted ``a lot more control over gesture and drama and faces'' in her work.
At the same time, however, she was determined ``to create the unpredictability of life,'' especially ``the gray area that makes us all what we are, and not the `blacks and whites' and `goods and bads' that cinema is often relegated to. `Salaam Bombay!' was an effort to have that control, and yet be open to the inspiration of documentary.''
Nair came up with the idea for ``Salaam Bombay!'' about five years ago.
``I was just struck by the spirit of the kids I used to see on every street corner,'' she recalls. ``I knew that if I were ever to make this film, I would use the kids from the street. It couldn't be made with any other children - primarily because the inspiration that came from them was their spirit, their will to live in a situation where they had been given nothing but life. They really lived it, with a flamboyance that was very striking to me.
``Also, their faces and bodies were a kind of map of the journey that they had traveled,'' Nair adds. ``They had wisdom and childlikeness at the same time.''
The project started when two of Nair's assistants ``walked the streets of the inner city, and spoke to a lot of children in the centers where they hang out - on bridges and platforms and so forth. [The assistants] were both women, and they said we were going to do a workshop on [children's] lives. It was purposely vague. They kept going back to the kids, and the kids got intrigued.''