Mira Nair chats with Jennifer Merin re “The Namesake”

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INNOVATIVE APPRECIATION OF TRADITION: Director Mira Nair genre jumps from ethnocentric films about India and Indian culture (Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding) to Hollywood blockbusters (Vanity Fair). Her latest, “The Namesake,” based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, is an intergenerational family saga about Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) who, immediately after their arranged marriage in Calcutta, immigrate to US suburbia, where their son, Gogol (Kal Penn), is born and grows up as an American kid, with conflicted feelings about his Indian roots.

“I had to make this film. It’s an exquisite adult love story I haven‘t seen often– about parents. I was enchanted by the idea of strangers who marry and then fall in love– in a distant climate, on top of that. I wanted to show their relationship unfolding. Contrary to what young people think, under the propriety and demure obedience to their parents, Ashoke and Ashima have unbridled passions. They’ve found each other, love each other. This is a portrait of the stillness of our parents’ generation– who don’t believe in public displays of love and proclamations, but look at each other with oceans of emotion in one gaze. I love that generation: how they share a coup of tea the kitchen table, the tapestry of their companionship, and what all the history they’ve experienced together means– rather than the roses and hallmark cards of western culture, and of a youngster like Gogol,” says Nair.

“Gogol’s coming of age is counterpoint to his parents. I think that America deprives itself of the wisdom of the old so categorically. They send the old away. For me, they’re an enormous anchor in my life.”

MERIN: Does the film reflect your experiences coming from India to the US?

NAIR: I bring who I am to my films. I moved to NY in 1979, and made documentary films about India and Indian subjects. It was lonely and difficult because my audience knew nothing about India. They’d ask me if we had running water! Now it’s different. Now, the Gogols of the world now graduate from college with greater confidence.

Jhumpas world in “The Namesake” is close to my world. It’s not Jackson Heights and Little India– it’s more cosmopolitan, engaged in the arts scene, the protest scene. Those are my networks.

And, this film’s about mothers and sons. I have a teenage son. Another thing that propelled me– absolutely possessed me– to make this film was the grief of losing a parent in a country that’s not home. In India, our philosophy is that life has four stages: youth, householder, worker, then renunciation. I feel quite solidly between the second and third phases, and “The Namesake” reflects that phase of life– being in a family, experiencing death for the first time. Now I’m ready to return to my work in the world.

MERIN: Film in Indian culture is as important as it is in American culture. In the US, we’re most familiar with Bollywood– which is gaining crossover recognition in, for example, “The Guru,” a Hollywood parody of Bollywood, or “Guru,“ a Bollywood film with a more serious than usual theme. Where do your films fit in the trend?

NAIR: My films are quite alternative– from the time I made documentaries. Salaam Bombay was quite revolutionary when it first came out. India didn’t have distribution for anything other than Bollywood blockbusters. We had only 1500 seat theaters. Now it‘s a multiplex heaven with 100 screens added per month, all looking for alternative product. So now there’s more room for distribution of a “Monsoon Wedding” or “The Namesake.” But back in the “Salaam Bombay” days– well, that film had no stars, only street kids playing themselves and it still played for 27 weeks. No producers wanted to touch it. So my films have been alternative to tradition, but using actors from the tradition.

Now people regard my films as international, so I have different cache than normal independent flicks in India, so I have an easier time getting big stars in my films, but only if they’re interested in going in that international direction.

MERIN: How are your films distinguished from mainstream Indian films?

NAIR: By their vocabulary, really. By their being grounded in a kind of realism, and in what people call my lush visual style. By the economy– I’m not into the overdrawn three-and-a-half-hour film, and although my films use music and so on they’re not based on creating eight new song numbers per film. They’re not bombastic, in that overtly simplified tale of good and evil which everyone can understand in an Indian context.

I like to take people on journeys, but not necessarily escapist ones. Journeys that reflect life and emotion as we live it– a seesaw of laughter and sorrow and people who you see on screen you relate to and identify with. But it’s quite a different approach. I don’t set out to make escapist extravaganzas.

I’m very pleased that Indian film– the full range of it– is gaining recognition in America. If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will tell them. And, to think that a little boy in a New Jersey mall who’d only seen white people on screen for his whole life, can now see an Indian film with Indian people is wonderful.

MERIN: Kal Penn’s known for rather goofy, prankish comedy roles. Gogol‘s a different kind of role, and he‘s wonderful. How did you come to cast him?

NAIR: It was thanks to my fifteen-year-old son and his friend who twisted my arm to tell them that Gogol was going to be Kal Penn. I hadn’t known him or his work, but when he came in and auditioned, he was really so authentic and charming, and he’d lived Gogol’s life almost exactly. He really blew me away. And, he could play Gogol as an adolescent and as the dashing young man– which was terrific, because I didn’t have to cast two actors in the role.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).