Filmmaker Mira Nair tells stories 'no one else will'
Her latest feature film, 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist,' and her free film school in Kampala, Uganda, are just two ways she's broadening the stories being told on screens.
Mira Nair’s mantra is “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will.”
In her latest film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, she’s exploring her roots in Lahore, Pakistan, with her contemporary lifestyle of crisscrossing borders to tell another tale of East meets West.
Adapted from the award-winning book of the same name by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, the film aspires to show the human side of terrorism.
Ms. Nair is known for her earlier films such as the Oscar-nominated "Salaam Bombay!" "Monsoon Wedding," "Vanity Fair," and "Namesake."
Esha Chhabra spoke with Nair about her latest film and her vision to bring to filmmaking to communities that lack the resources. She starts close to home in Kampala, Uganda, with Maisha Lab that’s nurturing the talent of East African filmmakers.
What propelled you to make the Reluctant Fundamentalist?
Actually it came from visiting Pakistan for the first time in 2004–2005. My father was from Lahore. So even though I grew up in India, I grew up like a Lahori- speaking Urdu, learning poetry. My movies were already popular there, and I was invited to come speak. So, here was a culture that was deeply familiar and yet forbidden to an Indian. That’s why I was inspired to make something contemporary about Pakistan because as Indian directors, we only tend to address Pakistan in partition stories – more historical, less contemporary.
So I was eager to do that, and then in a time when there is increasingly a separation between the Western world and Islamic world.
Around the same time, I had been given a manuscript of the book, before it was published. And I just loved it – it gave me the opportunity to make modern Lahore but also create a dialogue with America. I, like [the book's author] Mohsin [Hamid], have lived half my life in these worlds, so I know these worlds intimately and [they] speak to me in a deep way. And politically it was very exciting – so this script gave me that chance.
To bridge East and West in a film is a tall task. Did you have a specific intent with this film that you wanted to achieve in this rather global debate?
The intent of the film is to create a real dialogue – to show how there are different points of view. And so often the world is reduced to myopia, not knowing the other side. And also there are so many people like us who cross borders. We are in a more globalized world, more so than when I was growing up.
So I wanted to make a film to show the complicatedness, the interconnectedness of our world on a fundamental level – spiritually, economically, and in the realm of terror. And to create a genuine dialogue, a bridge.
In another world, the Pakistani man and the American man would really understand each other. But the world will not allow them to mix.
So, it’s about what we think of America and what America thinks of us. But made from love on both sides – I am at home, literally, in both of these worlds.
Over 10 years after 9/11, as a storyteller, do you feel that we are trying to understand each other better or is that schism still strong due to politics?
My feeling is that we really want to understand each other now. People are fed up with war. The Americans themselves, which is a nation of 350 million or more, and I’ve met with many of them in presenting this film to audiences. And they’re saying that it’s about time we know – after all, there are human beings on both sides. And it’s about time to get rid of the stereotype. But how do we get rid of the stereotype?
Were you able to shoot the film in Lahore or did it have to be staged elsewhere?
We shot for four days in Lahore – all the exteriors. I couldn’t bring actors into Pakistan without insurance. So, that’s why we did it this way.
Delhi and Lahore are sister cities. They were built in the same time, same style. So, if you know Lahore, you can recreate it in Delhi.
However, all the music came from Lahore for this film. The draft of the script was written in Lahore.So, we did a lot of work there, and I love it there, but it would have been very risky to bring a whole crew there.
What kind of misconceptions would you like to erase about Lahore, which was such an inspiration for this film?
Lahore is the like the Venice of the East or I would say, Venice is like the Lahore of the West. It is a deeply refined city from where poetry, singing, craft, food – all this sensuality comes from there at the highest expression of self. The National Institute of Arts is in Lahore, and just the sheer amazing talent that comes of it is astounding to me.
So, one would never know this if you read the newspapers. You would think that it’s just drones, hijackings, and killings, which sadly the nation is ridden with. But life goes on. There is this line in the film that Pakistan was born into chaos. But as the chaos increased, the biryanis got tastier, life got more raucous (laughs). Life continued! Life in all its forms exists in Lahore in a way that’s powerful, not ordinary.
In a lot of these films that are a dime a dozen on Pakistan, you never see the family life, you never know about the family that was bombed in the name of democracy, you don’t know their names, sometimes you don’t even know the character’s name. So, in this film, [the protagonist] Changez’s family is very important to me. In fact, Mohsin used to joke with me that we should [call it] “Monsoon terrorist” (laughs).
Changez’s family isn’t necessarily impressed by his career in finance and Wall Street. They’re not pandering for that.
What role did Mohsin play in the filmmaking process? You’ve worked with several texts now – "Namesake," "Vanity Fair." How do you wrestle with these pieces of fiction? Any different than a traditional script?
It’s genuinely just an organic process of building a relationship. If I love the story so much to inhabit it for several years and make a movie, I will love the author. There’s no question of it.
One of the greatest gifts of the Namesake has been that Jhumpa and I are like sisters now.
Both Jhumpa and Mohsin understood that film is a different medium than a book. So they were happy to have me tell their story in a manner that’s most fit for film. Mohsin took a more direct role and was one of the writers for the screenplay with Ami Boghani and William Wheeler. And he’s a complete kid at the cinema – so he loved it.
I reinvented Erica in the film; she didn’t agree with me, the way she was in the book. But there was no resistance from Mohsin. And then I wanted a third act to the book that doesn’t exist in the story – what happens to Changez after he comes back from America, what does he do in Pakistan?
Mohsin was very experimental in the book – in terms of the layout, the voice – and it was a largely internal book, consumed in Changez’s thoughts, feelings, and frustrations. How do you translate that into a film – is that a challenge?
We kept the structure of the tea house, the nonlinear flashbacks. We had to create a reason for them to meet. And we created a final act on his present day life in Lahore. Also, the ending in the book was very ambiguous. In a film, we could not leave that vague; we had to determine what happened.
That is always a challenge on how to make it less internal. That’s what I love to do in cinema – how to have the images speak of emotions and remove the words.
We also had Riz Ahmed, who plays Changez, and he spent time with Pakistani Wall Street bankers to get a sense of their high-flying life – and a lot came from that. Imagine you work all day, enjoy in the evenings but then come home to an empty flat with a beer bottle in the fridge and no one to greet you. So, that’s a cinematic moment where I can convey emotions and ideas without text. That adds a lot of layers and textures.
You have said many times that you only choose films that only you can do. And many of these films fall outside the parameters of the big production houses. Do you ever find it frustrating as a filmmaker to have to find alternative sources of funding and support?
No, I prefer to be poor and free. I refuse to say harder, or I refuse to do it. I like to work with studios when the subject is right for it. This subject would have [been] censored and hindered if I had gone to the studios – it would have never been what I wanted to do. So, there was question that I wanted to do this independently.
I am just so grateful that Doha Film Festival stayed with us as steadfast partners till the end. And there are other films that should be made with the studios, and I will make them.
You’ve also been pushing for the voice of new, young filmmakers with your film lab in Kampala, Uganda. Can you give us an update on Maisha?
It’s for East Africa – Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. It’s a free school and we have now trained over 600 alumni over the last eight years, and all of them are literally working in media. I’ve just come back from Doha[, Qatar,] where we had a Maisha documentary lab where we training all kinds of filmmakers – Qataris, Palestinians.
The mantra is “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will." So it’s necessary for us to tell these stories.
We have 10 labs in the course of a year in these four countries. We [have] two big annual labs in Kampala – they make 20-minute films. Our films have won 26 awards internationally.... And we have created six feature filmmakers.
My goal was to create local cinema and of the highest standards. It’s become a beacon for artists here since there aren’t too many places to get good training on the continent. And I invite writers, directors, actors from my film circle to come and lead workshops. People want to do good, they just need to know how. So Maisha is a place for them to share their skills.
• "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is now playing in limited release in the United States. To see a trailer, go here.