'I'm a creature of many worlds'

What prompted you to make a film on Mohsin Hamid’s best-selling novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist?
After reading Mohsin’s novel, I realised that though it was a monologue, it had the potential to have a dialogue with America. And that gave me the springboard to adapt it into a movie. That’s the way I look at adaptations. They need to have a point of view. While being faithful to the book’s spirit, I should also be able to say what I want to.

Mira Nair

Was Mohsin involved in the adaptation process?
Yes. When I bought the novel, I approached A-list Hollywood screenwriters and saw how ignorant they were about the subcontinent. And, sometimes, with ignorance comes arrogance. I would have conversations with them where they would say, “Firstly, we should just crop the word fundamentalist” and I knew instantly that the collaboration wouldn’t work. I knew what I wanted to do in the movie -- embellish the Pakistani family in the film, create a third act depicting what happens when Changez (the protagonist played by Riz Ahmed) comes to Pakistan and what makes him the popular voice of the people. I also wanted to reflect the contemporary goings on of the world in the last decade. But I needed help with regards to how to do it. Finally, I went to Mohsin and we decided to adapt the film ourselves. Mohsin was with us right from the beginning.

It took you five years to make the film.
Yes, five years is a long time. But I didn’t get impatient. We had a wonderful screenplay, I had the cast I wanted, but the project fell apart twice because we couldn’t get financiers. That was disheartening. There was a certain moment when I wanted to give up cinema altogether. I told myself that I have a lot of other interests in life. I’m a gardener, I can study the Upanishads forever, I do yoga. I felt the universe had conspired against me for this movie. But I had two inspirations to keep me going, one were my 21-year-old son Zohran and my husband (Mahmood Mamdani), who are not great fans of me leaving the family to make movies but they felt I should really make this film. So they would say, ‘You gonna do it.’ And the other inspiration was Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem Mori Araj Suno. I would hear it like a mantra everyday. And I kept going. My pet name is pagli, you know (laughs). Now when I look back I’m glad I made this film because it has turned out exactly the way I wanted it to be. It’s made with complete creative freedom.

In your earlier interviews you have mentioned that you are smitten by Lahore. What is it about the city that you love so much?
I love the refinement of artistic expression, be it music, art or even fashion. I would meet ordinary people who would do riyaaz just because they had a “shauq” for music. Their love for traditional arts and unbelievable largesse of spirit is fascinating. We tried to capture every nuance of the city as accurately as we could whether it was the pouchas (pleats) of the pyjamas or the poster of Benazir Bhutto during elections. I’m a sucker for perfection. Pakistani actor-singer Meesha Shafi, who is in the movie, calls me ‘an authenticity junkie’.

Was it difficult to shoot in Pakistan?
No, because we shot with the second unit. We couldn’t shoot with the stars there, because we needed insurance. But it was a wonderful experience as the people are so warm over there. There is so much talent there but, for artistes, getting a visa out of there is a different issue altogether. So when someone goes there to shoot a film, they welcome you with open arms.

After facing so many trials and tribulations while making this movie, what have you taken away from this journey?
That I’m soon heading towards naach gaana and tamasha in a hurry (laughs out loud). I’m just joking. I’m really grateful that I made this movie. It’s a film you haven’t seen before. At the heart of it is a brown man’s coming-of-age story, supported by A-list Hollywood actors such as Kate Hudson, Keifer Sutherland and Liev Schreiber. Just that shift of power itself says that ‘We are the world, this is
our story.’

You have made movies that have been set in the Indian and western ethos. How do you shift between the two?
I have made each film for a different reason. Although my roots are strong, I can fly. I’m a creature of many worlds and that is the beauty and complexity of life wherein you can be more than one thing. I’m at home at many places and that’s what I bring to my movies. And that is also the strength of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I wanted both the worlds (Pakistan and America) to be interpreted with the same intimacy, grace and love.

What are your future projects?
I’m working on the Broadway musical of Monsoon Wedding. And I’m also doing research for my next film The Queen of Katwe. It’s the true story of an eight-year-old-slum girl, Phiona, who was taught chess by another slum kid. They played chess with bottle caps. By nine, she was the Ugandan female chess champion and by 10, she played in the Olympics. She is now 14.

Will we ever see you helm a Bollywood film?
Would you like me to? You have so many people who are great at it. Honestly, I would love to and I might do it some day. But I need to say something in my movie rather than just proving that even I can make a typical Bollywood film like the others. That’s not interesting.

Human relationships and emotions play a significant role in all your movies. What prompts you to highlight them with such detail?
I didn’t set out to be a filmmaker. I was an actor and I went on a scholarship to America where I stumbled upon the cinema verite (truth of cinema) course. It was taught by Rikki Leacock, who also invented the mobile camera. From him, I learnt how to capture the truth of life through a documentary. I think there’s nothing more extraordinary than ordinary life and capturing the varied dimensions of human emotions. Also, I’m an apolitical person who knows what is going on in the world. So combining both these aspects gives me a minefield of opportunities. That’s the way I look at life. And I hope to capture that in my cinema.

You have made short films in the past. With the recent release of Bombay Talkies, do you think short films are the next big step in Indian cinema or is it too early to say that?
I make at least one short film every year. Honestly, I think it’s all about making good cinema. I have been involved in this form since many years. I love the rigueur of short film. But I don’t know if it’s the big thing. Woh aapke haath mein hai (That’s in your hands). We make, you proclaim.

How would you describe yourself as a person?
My pet name (Pagli) describes me fairly well. I don’t look at mirrors.

How do you unwind after a long hard day?
I’m an aspiring yogi. Yoga is the key to putting ego out of the door and having strength and equilibrium. Over the years, I have become a fairly serious gardener. The equator runs through my garden, so it’s a very fertile place and helps me learn a lot about trees and plants. Trees are a great teacher for cinema. You can’t impose anything on them. You have to understand why something is working and why something is not. Apart from that, I’m an active mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law. I live with three generations at my home. So when I want to make a film, it better be good enough for me to leave my family and home.

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