‘I feel the Punjabi rhythm — work hard, party hard’

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Mira Nair
Mira Nair, 55, Filmmaker Photo: Getty Images

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Mira, you’ve said that to be a director you have to have “the heart of a poet and the skin of an elephant”. Would it be justified to call filmmaking a kind of junoon?

Yes. Because our art is so public, so is our rise and fall. The roses and the eggs are all in public. And that’s only when a film is finished. Just trying to get a film made, we face knocks and rejections — financing, casting, budgets, locations, but still we have to stand our ground. You know, I religiously practise Iyengar Yoga and it has helped. It teaches me the art of resistance and surrender, not to surrender my values, but knowing when to surrender and how to find another way. As for junoon, my nickname growing up was pagli. I don’t know what a pagli can give to the world, but in my work, madness is vital. You have to be a little possessed to take the [critical] onslaught and the praise, and keep both at arms length so that your core remains steadfast to your intent.

Dealing with public failure is very much a part of being a famous filmmaker. How do you deal with disappointments?

In my work, the fruits can be immensely huge and satisfying, but similarly failures can be immensely public too. When I was 16, just after school and before going to college in Miranda House, I spent six months studying the Bhagwata Gita in Bhubaneswar. The shloka ‘Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani’ is what I try to live by and try to remember always. It means, ‘Do your duty but be detached from its outcome.’ This has always stayed within me. Even though I tasted success very early on with Salaam Bombay, no one considers the years of hard work that I put in when I was making documentaries, travelling around America all alone in a bus trying to find an audience. Those ten thousand unsung hours of anonymous struggle prepare you for taking the accolades and failures in your stride.

So what would you say propels you to keep on making movies despite the hard knocks?

Well, the greatest fuel is impacting people. Even with Salaam Bombay! it was not so much the high of the Academy Awards nomination as was the fact that it ran for 27 weeks in a 1,500-seat theatre in Liberty Cinema in Bombay and so many street children and ordinary people saw it. That was sweeter than the Oscar nominations for Sooni (writer Sooni Taraporevala) and me. Also, for me it’s the reward of making a couple of films in your life exactly the way you set out to make them. I mean, to see a movie turn out just how you wanted it to be, with jaadu and purity in every frame; that’s a driving force to continue making films.

As you say, film is a collaborative medium and two of your strongest collaborators have been writers Sooni Taraporevala and Sabrina Dhawan. What are your views on the relationship between writers and directors?

A director is nothing without a good story, and vice versa. It’s a real symbiosis. Sooni and I began together, neither trained in feature cinema. She was trained in English literature and photography and I in Cinéma Vérité, documentary, but we saw the world in similar ways. We got excited by the same things and shared, very importantly, a similar wicked sense of humour. We are not noble, suffering, serious people. I see myself as an elegant hippie and we are both sort of hippies. In the process of researching Salaam Bombay!, I discovered that Sooni had a brilliant gift of dialogue. It’s impossible for her to write a false word. I would ask, “Have we nichoroed all the ras we can from a scene?” Sabrina was the smartest student in my class at Columbia (University). We shared this Punjabi sense of humour. So we said, “Come on man, we can show you the lives of people like us and give you a good time on the screen.” And that’s Monsoon Wedding. So we had a shared dilchaspee of where we are from.

Your latest film is an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist

There is a great schism between anything to do with the Muslim world and the so-called western world. You really only see war from the western, or the American, point of view, like the great Vietnam movies Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter. You get to see what it feels like to bomb Vietnam, but you don’t get to see what it feels like to be bombed. Same for the Iraq and Afghan wars. Close to 12 movies in the past few years were made about Americans coming back in body bags. I would also like to hear the stories of Iraqi women whose houses were bombed in the name of freedom. The need to adapt The Reluctant Fundamentalist was my need to show the world the other side of this complex dialogue. And to show it in an unpredictable, elegant way.

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