Fools by Martin Walker

Monday, March 12, 2007

NY Times article on Mira Nair

NY Times article on Mira Nair
The Endless Journey Home - March 11, 2007

MIRA NAIR’S next film will be the biggest she has ever tackled, with Johnny Depp as the lead and a budget of about $100 million. The film, “Shantaram,” which she has just agreed to direct for Warner Brothers, is based on Gregory David Roberts’s autobiographical novel about an Australian robber and drug addict who escapes from prison and reinvents himself by starting a medical clinic in the slums of Bombay.

Beneath its starry high profile, though, “Shantaram” engages issues that have obsessed Ms. Nair throughout her career. For immigrants and their children, what is home? What is family? How do you forge a new cultural identity?

“He is a man who disappears into the fabric of another place,” Ms. Nair said about the Depp character in a recent conversation. Explaining the lure of the novel, she added: “The theme I’m most interested in is, can a foreigner be a native? I’m interested in the seesaw of it, because I’m not sure that in the deepest way that’s possible. Ultimately you have to understand where you came from. Otherwise you’re lost.”

Those questions have found their richest expression so far in her beautiful, profoundly moving new film, “The Namesake,” which opened on Friday. The story moves from Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli’s arranged marriage in Calcutta, to their life in the New York suburbs, where their improbably named son, Gogol, grows to become the most contemporary and American of young men. Its source, Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel, is an ideal match for Ms. Nair’s sophisticated take on the new reality of immigration and assimilation in America, an up-to-the-minute approach too rarely seen on screen.

From the Corleone family in “The Godfather,” whose intention is to inch closer to respectability with each generation, to the Mexican nanny in “Babel,” so subservient to her American employers that she forgets the government regards her as a foreigner, the depiction of immigrants in movies is usually a story of assimilation or a sociopolitical study of the underclass. Both approaches are too limited for the world today.

Ms. Nair’s films are not about blending in but about forging a new cultural identity, one that is forward looking yet appreciates and incorporates the heritage of the past. Her immigrant and second-generation characters are doctors, professors and architects, yet they do not instantly assume that it is desirable to lose their ancestors’ traditions.

This celebration of cultural fusion reflects a late-20th-century generational shift. Ms. Nair is 49, and Ms. Lahiri a decade younger, but they are united by backgrounds, educations and cosmopolitan instincts. Ms. Nair, born in India, came to America to study at Harvard, and is now based in New York but spends months at her homes in New Delhi and Kampala, Uganda, where her husband was born. Ms. Lahiri, born in London of Indian parents, was raised in Rhode Island from the age of 3, then went to Barnard, earned advanced degrees from Boston University and now lives in New York. A distinctive mark of both Ms. Nair’s films and Ms. Lahiri’s fiction (including her Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, “Interpreter of Maladies”) is that they are never judgmental or simplistic about characters tied to the old country or about those who choose to leave it behind.

Ms. Nair, who has exuberantly incorporated her Indian heritage in most of her films (even her last, “Vanity Fair,” which follows Becky Sharp to India) says she is now sent every book published about an immigrant as possible movie material. “They’re usually very simple tales, about brides in arranged marriages,” she said. “That’s not my world, that is not my experience. My experience of New York is about the multiplicity of the old and the very, very cutting edge.”
Ashoke in “The Namesake” is a thoughtful college teacher, hardly cutting edge, but his American-born son is as hip and accomplished as a movie hero comes. (Kal Penn, playing Gogol, displays a depth you would never guess from his role in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”) As a young man Gogol becomes a Manhattan architect and falls in love first with a blonde from a privileged family and then with a second-generation Indian. But even as he comes to embrace the Indian heritage he had found so amusingly old-fashioned when he was a pot-smoking teenager, he learns that his background is not the deciding factor in life or romance.
The way Gogol creates an identity that is neither purely Indian nor white-bread American may be the strongest link between “The Namesake” and Ms. Nair’s other films, but that was not what drew her to the novel. She read it soon after her beloved mother-in-law died unexpectedly, and saw a reflection of her own grief in that of the characters, who mourn a close family member. Her mother-in-law was buried during a snowstorm in a cemetery in New Jersey, in a scene that sounds as vivid as an image from one of Ms. Nair’s movies.
“A woman who lived most of her life in the red earth of East Africa was being buried in this Siberian snowstorm in Newark,” she said, recalling “the strangeness of burying a parent in a country that is not fully home.” Only on rereading the novel, “did I see the banquet of the two cities where I have lived, New York and Calcutta.”

In “The Namesake” those cities are filtered through the sumptuous visual style Ms. Nair is known for. Her characters may be displaced from their countries, but wherever they have landed she roots them in a vibrantly detailed cinematic world. In “My Own Country” (1998), made for Showtime and based on Abraham Verghese’s memoir, Naveen Andrews (from “Lost”) plays Mr. Verghese, born in Ethiopia to Indian parents and sent into exile by the government. Typically for a Nair film it is not his exile which is front and center but his medical career treating AIDS patients in Tennessee. Here the immigrant doctor is the most educated, upscale character.

And the complexities of class, culture and generational change are at the heart of her best-known film, the colorful, joy-filled “Monsoon Wedding” (2001), in which a sophisticated young woman in New Delhi leaves behind her affair with a married television talk-show host for an arranged marriage with an Indian groom from America.

It is Ms. Nair’s second feature, though, the ambitious “Mississippi Masala” (1991), that provides the most direct line to “The Namesake.” It followed her stunning first drama, “Salaam Bombay!” (1988), about street children in India, and couldn’t have been more different. The film begins in Uganda in 1972, when Indians were expelled by Idi Amin. Jay (Roshan Seth), born there of Indian parents, is forced to leave the only home he has ever known along with his wife and small daughter.

When the film leaps to Mississippi in the ’90s, Jay is working in one of the South’s many Indian-owned motels, yet he constantly looks back toward Uganda. His thoroughly assimilated grown daughter, Meena (Sarita Choudhury) shops at the Piggly Wiggly, and on her way home runs into a black man — literally runs into his car with hers — played by Denzel Washington before the name Denzel alone was enough to identify him. They soon fall in love, and into trouble with their respective families.

The idea for the film, “came from my experience of being a brown person in the middle of black and white at university here,” Ms. Nair said. “I was accessible to both communities but of neither.” And when she learned of the many Ugandan Indians who were running motels in Mississippi, she was intrigued by the idea of “African-Indians who had never known India as their home, and African-Americans who had never known Africa as their home — what would happen if there was an interracial romance?” Among other still-topical issues, the film portrays how ethnic tradition and solidarity can cross an invisible line into bigotry.
It was while researching “Mississippi Masala” that she met her husband, Mahmood Mamdani, like the hero of her film a Ugandan-born Indian and now a highly regarded author and professor of political science at Columbia University.

Other aspects of Ms. Nair’s life suggest also how swiftly cultural identity in America is changing. She recalls that when she arrived at Harvard in the late ’70s, she was one of three students from South Asia. Another was Sooni Taraporevala, who became a frequent collaborator and the writer of both “Mississippi Masala” and the graceful adaptation of “The Namesake.”
When Ms. Nair was invited back to Harvard to speak to South Asian students 10 years ago, she found a group of about 1,500, many born in the United States. During her not-so-long-ago college days, communication with India was still difficult and trips home rare, a situation that seems archaic in the age of cellphones and e-mail.

In the too-neat ending of “Mississippi Masala” Jay tells his wife, “Home is where the heart is and my heart is with you.” But Ms. Nair’s sense of the intricacies of cultural identity has grown and shifted with world events.

Her contribution to “11’09”01,” a series of 11-minute responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by filmmakers from around the world, was based on the true story of a Muslim family who had lived in Brooklyn for 20 years and whose son was suspected by the F.B.I. of being a terrorist after the attacks. He had, it turned out, died in the collapsing buildings when he ran to help. After 9/11 “the experience of those who look like us became so different,” Ms. Nair said. “Suddenly we were the others. It has abated to some extent, but at times continues to rear its jingoistic head. You realize it’s not so simple to blend in.”

Last month she made a short film in Mumbai, as Bombay is now known, as part of a project she is producing for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, called “AIDS Jaago” (roughly “AIDS Aware” in Hindi). The series of 12-minute movies, by well-known directors and Bollywood stars, will be shown in Indian theaters before Bollywood films.

But it is “Shantaram,” the future project, that makes Ms. Nair sound even more engaged than usual. “There’s something about Johnny Depp that embodies that fluidity between East and West,” she said. His character grapples with issues central to her own past and to her life today, with her husband, their 15-year-old son, Zohran, and their sense of home spread over several countries.

With a freshness and timeliness few directors match, her films reflect that multifaceted cultural identity, a fusion that is both distinctly hers and emblematic of the way American identity itself is changing. “The fact that families are so fluid today, it’s like ‘Monsoon Wedding,’ ” she said. “Fluidity, that is my anchor.”

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Directing gender buzz - LA Times Article

Directing gender buzz - LA Times Article

The First Weekenders Group gets the word out about movies made by women in hopes of boosting crowds in their crucial first weekend.

By Josh Friedman
LA Times Staff Writer
February 19, 2007

Director Alexandra Lipsitz's debut feature, "Air Guitar Nation," struck the right chord with cinephiles on last year's film festival circuit.

The whimsical documentary chronicling the birth of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships, where mock rockers finger the frets and twang the strings of their invisible instruments, won audience awards in Austin, Texas, and Traverse City, Mich. Her efforts paid off when a distributor picked up the film for release next month at art house movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

But like most movies, Lipsitz's film will live or die commercially on its opening weekend ticket sales. So her friends at the First Weekenders Group are pitching in. Aiming to do what they can to help diversify Hollywood's director corps, the group goes into overdrive to get people into theaters during that crucial first weekend whenever a female filmmaker such as Lipsitz unveils a movie.

"Everything rides on those first few days," Lipsitz said. "There is just not that much support for women in the film industry, so who else are we going to turn to?"

The group now reaches just 3,500 e-mail subscribers to its free newsletter — not the kind of numbers that can make a dent in a major studio release. But it hopes to help give a boost to small female-directed movies while drawing attention to talented women directors. Last week, First Weekenders expanded its efforts by launching video podcast interviews.

"The fact that such a group needs to exist tells you that it's harder for women," said writer-director Robin Swicord, now finishing her feature directorial debut, "The Jane Austen Book Club."

The group grew out of an informal meeting in spring 2000 in Santa Barbara organized by independent film director Allison Anders ("Gas Food Lodging," "Grace of My Heart") that was aimed at helping women break through in the male-dominated business.

Anders expected half a dozen participants but said close to 200 women showed up. Two days of brainstorming led to a long list of ideas.

"Then we looked over the list again and said, 'Which of these things can we actually do something about?' " said Cari Beauchamp, author of "Without Lying Down," an account of the silent era's powerful but now forgotten women.

Soon after, filmmaker Tara Veneruso started publishing the e-mail newsletter every Thursday, promoting new theatrical releases, special screenings and DVDs from female directors. At one point during the early years, she spent a "depressing" eight weeks without finding a new release to promote — "not even at an L.A. art house."

Veneruso, who along with a handful of volunteers keeps the First Weekenders Group running, expects the subscriber base to triple as the video podcasts are shown at the group's site,, on YouTube and through the iTunes network. Her first interviews feature Lipsitz, "The Dead Girl" writer-director Karen Moncrieff and "The Break-Up" actress Joey Lauren Adams, who made her directing debut with "Come Early Morning."

Although women say Hollywood's past overt sexism has eased, the ranks of female directors remain thin. Of the 250 top-grossing films released last year, only about 15 were directed by women, according to the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Among the bigger titles: Anne Fletcher's "Step Up," Nancy Meyers' "The Holiday" and "Little Miss Sunshine," which was co-directed by Valerie Faris.

Catherine Hardwicke, director of "Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown" and "The Nativity Story," said the presence of top female studio executives such as Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal has made a difference.

Scrambling and behind schedule as the "Lords of Dogtown" shooting wound down, Hardwicke said she expected to be fired. Instead, Pascal gave her five extra days on the gritty 2005 skateboarding drama.

Still, women directors have their war stories. Swicord, who wrote the screenplays for "Little Women" (1994) and "Memoirs of a Geisha," is only now getting her directing break.

"Had I been male it probably would have happened sooner," Swicord said. "Sometimes you see a male writer get a directing job and say to yourself, 'Wow, that person only has one screen credit.' "
Although the First Weekenders Group's marketing efforts are dwarfed by multimilliondollar studio campaigns, the women say they can make a difference.

That's especially true with smaller films that rely on grass-roots marketing, Veneruso said.

She pointed to Georgia Lee's drama "Red Doors," which played for five weeks last fall, and Maria and Gabrielle Burton's 2003 comedy "Manna From Heaven," which played for about a year at scattered theaters, grossing more than $500,000.

"Through sheer perseverance, Tara and her team have been so effective at getting women to the theaters," Anders said. Patricia Foulkrod, whose Iraq war documentary "The Ground Truth" came and went last fall despite critical acclaim, said she wished she had heard about the group sooner.

"So many people said to me, 'I went to go see your movie but it was gone,' " Foulkrod told a dozen others from the First Weekenders Group, gathered at a California Pizza Kitchen after a screening of the bleak mystery "The Dead Girl" at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.

Friends from the group often turn Friday nights into informal events, watching a movie with a few pals and then gathering for dinner or drinks to discuss it.

Veneruso, for example, gathers friends for an outing once a month. She already has "Air Guitar Nation," which opens March 30 in West L.A. at Landmark's Nuart, marked on her calendar.

As the group notes, every ticket purchase counts — regardless of whether the buyer watches the film.

At the recent pizza gathering, Beauchamp proudly told the group that her 15-year-old son, Jake, had gotten the message.

When he and three of his buddies went to see the R-rated "Apocalypto" recently, they bought tickets to the PG-13-rated "The Holiday" before sneaking in to watch Mel Gibson's thriller.

"They could have chosen any movie at the multiplex, but he knew 'The Holiday' was directed by Nancy Meyers," Beauchamp said. "He told his friends, 'My mom will kill me if we don't pick that one.' "

About The Three Shorts

Christine Le wrote and directed the 1st story Love 10 to 1.
The first story explores the life of a 29-year-old virgin, Jenny, who desperately wants to lose her virginity before her 30th birthday. As she encounters one loser after another on dates, Jenny pines after her boss, Dustin. While at her grandmother’s retirement home, Jenny learns a powerful lesson from her grandmother about sex and the meaning of life.

Christine Le (right) directs Shireen Nomura Mui (Jenny) & Justin Klosky (Jim).

Lucy Rodriguez wrote and directed Love Song.
The second story revolves around Shane, the lead singer of the L.A. rock band, Dirty Virgin. Shane has her pick of admirers but it’s her roommate Dustin she wants to be with. Shane confesses her feelings on Jackie and Jared’s show but when Dustin meets Cali, Shane’s shot at love starts to dwindle. With Dirty Virgin about to embark on a world tour, will Dustin realize that he’s the object of Shane’s affections? Will they risk their friendship to give this Love Song a chance?

Lucy Rodriguez & David Villar (Dustin)

Laura Somers wrote and directed Diving Lessons.
The final story picks up where Love 10 to 1 left off, but from the perspective of Jim, the guitarist of Dirty Virgin. Jim sees Jenny at a swimming pool, trying desperately to overcome her fear of diving. In fact, he finds out that she’s making a list of everything that she’s afraid of and trying to overcome them, one by one. He is instantly smitten and tries to convince her that he’s not just a rock star who ‘loves ‘em and leaves ‘em’. Can a rock star find love with a virgin?

Shireen Nomura-Mui, Laura Somers & Justin Klosky

Leah Anova is the Director of Photography for Love 10 to 1 & Diving Lessons.

Additional Cinematography on Diving Lessons by Erik Forsell

Matthew Boyd is the Director of Photography for Love Song.