Mira Nair: The God of Fundamental Things

Last Updated: Fri, May 24, 2013 07:29 hrs

Mira Nair reveals to Satyen K Bordoloi her motivations behind The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the differences between the film and the book, approaching adaptations and fleshing out non-existent characters, exploration of the settler (the white man) as a native, her amazing relationships with her 'adapted' writers and making Salaam Bombay on a flat just above Shyam Benegal's.

Why did you make this film more than a decade after the event that changed the world?

The Reluctant Fundamentalist came out of two inspirations. My maiden journey to Lahore in 2004 was a very touching experience. I felt I was moving into a deeply familiar world yet it was completely unseen. Thus the first inspiration was to reveal a Lahore we have hardly ever seen or know about. 

The second was a response to the lament I felt about America having a one way conversation with the rest of the world post 9/11, be it in the movies or popular media. We only got part of the story of American soldiers going to fight for freedom somewhere. We never ever understood the impact of their war. 

Mohsin's story gave me just the opportunity to really create a dialogue, one that was humane and that was distilled into the humanity of one man who has to go through a journey like all of us, to find who he really is. But it is a journey complicated by globalisation and the world post 9/11.

Both the book and the movie talk about what one can call 'capitalistic fundamentalism'. The book came out in 2005 and the movie much after the economic meltdown of 2008. 

Did 2008 justify this idea of two types of fundamentalism you explore?

I brought the rights to the film in early 2007. The world began turning into what it has become today where we have seen the financial collapse and the ascent of terror. That is what I am excited about because the film reveals the fundamentalism of both. 

What does a reluctant fundamentalist mean? At the heart of it is the inspiration of the idea of what is our fundamentalism in this story. What is really unique is to understand as Changez does, that at the heart of both the fundamentals of money and terror is a belief system where the human being does not matter. 

He has to ask himself, as we all have to I hope – what are doing here, who are we serving? What is happiness and where will I find it. That is what the film does through a very contemporary struggle that we all know about. 

Have people been able to identify with this struggle.

Yes. I have got some overwhelming responses from people who have really been impacted by this movie. They ask themselves those questions and that is what I had wished for. 

I wish to engage in a discussion that may or may not be one way or another, but just holds a mirror to our own struggles. That is the most important affect for me.

Whose idea was it to change the monologue of the book into a dialogue? And how did you create the character of Bobby who does not exist in the book.

Any filmmaker looks at a book - at least I do - as a springboard for their imagination. You want to inhabit this world and bring to the film worlds that may not be there.

For example, the family of Changez is implied in the book. But to flesh them out in the film, to make the father a poet, have the mother a certain way, to see the daughter as a modern women with a mind of her own... that is the Pakistan I saw.

Similar is the case with Bobby, the American. I created that character. I have always been fascinated by one question: can the settler become the native? Can the western outsider feel at home especially in the subcontinent? 

Like the characters of Graham Green who come to the subcontinent with the noblest intentions and who literally fall in love with the culture and surrender to it. But is that it? What next?

I have always been fascinated by this and I thought merely making them fall in love would be too simple. The writing was hence driven by a return to complexity in the character and not to make it an 'us versus them' struggle. The idea was to weave them in a way that you feel that if these two met in a different time and place, they would really understand each other and could perhaps have struck a friendship. 

The struggle was, how do you go about inventing them? From some reality, from this fascination I have with the outsider, emerged a character, almost like a flipside of Changez, someone who has come to this part of the world, but he picked a side during his journey.

What was Mohsin Hamid's contribution to this 'new' story? The film is completely different despite having the same soul as the book?

Mohsin is very open and loves movies and the process of creating movies. He was not pressured about changing or not changing something. He was working with us to change them. He and Ami Boghani wrote the first two drafts of the script entirely themselves. 

I was with them for the next draft which we wrote in Lahore. In this draft we stepped out of the artifice of the conversation in the tea house. We created Bobby, but not in the tea house construct of the story that goes back in flashbacks. We got a lot of elements right like the Pakistani family, Changez's return to Pakistan, what he does when he goes back etc. But we needed help with the creation of tension. 

Then we found William Wheeler who worked with all of us and then we very carefully invented the return to the artifice of the tea house in the next draft. Mohsin was with us all the way. Will wrote this draft but when we were shooting, Mohsin and Ami were there on the sets, especially in the tea house. Because if you think about it, it is a very difficult thing to do in a movie - two men sitting in a tea house doing nothing but talking. 

Everything has to matter, and everything has to transition into something else. Mohsin was key in those as well.

I have a complaint. In the book Erica is a metaphor for America. Changez is equally in love with Erica and America but is spurned by both. Erica's preoccupation with nostalgia is analogous to America's preoccupation with their short history and their patriotism especially after 9/11. 

It was a beautiful simile where her refusal to come out of her past shell, similar to America's refusal to come out of its self-inflicted cocoon, kills a beautiful relationship. That was the most poignant metaphor for me in the book, which doesn't come out in the film.

I had two issues with that. One was that Erica's character really felt like a metaphor and not a flesh and blood human being to me. Secondly, I make movies with characters that I want to be with, that I can live with for years during which the film is being made. I just can't love a woman who gives up on life. I simply can't make that character work. 

It is very personal and I wanted to be with someone who was complicated, but who was not giving up, not defeated. I have to love my characters fully and completely because they live with me for years.

Another interesting departure from the book is the ending. In the book Changez clearly makes his choice to help the fundamentalists of terror, reluctantly or otherwise. The film's ending is just the opposite where Changez becomes this Gandhian figure extolling peace and asking his brothers to resist, but resist peacefully without violence. 

Why this shift and did someone suggest it or did it just evolve?

The ambiguity is so very interesting and delicious in the novel. I think we have preserved that in the spine of the screenplay. That was how the screenplay was always constructed: is he or isn't he a fundamentalist? You don't know this, about either characters till you actually do. 

In the film, even after Sameer's death and we cut back to Changez, we still don't know which way he will go. The mystery is still there. The other thing is that I wanted to end with the philosophy of Changez and he speaking and communicating it to his community. It seems very weird to say this now but it is true that we had to create a context for him to make this speech, this declaration. 

We were grappling with the story because we couldn't kill Changez as it would be too hopeless and we couldn't kill Bobby either because that would be too didactic. So we invented a normal, an apolitical sort of hipster, charming fellow who is just an innocent guy who gets caught up in our follies, of our trigger happy culture. 

You saw what happened with Raymond Davis and those amazing footage of shooting at people as if it were a video game. This is what is going on in the world - a complete dehumanisation of violence. So we invented someone I hoped the audience would feel for in this hapless innocent way and who sadly had to die

Now that you mention, one can look at that character as a metaphor for every innocent and that between the crossfire of opposing 'fundamentals' it's the innocent who becomes a victim?

Yes, he is a regular person who is not engaged, who wants to go home. He even makes fun of the protest. He's a regular chilled out guy. 

Also the idea in his creation was to defeat the idea that all Pakistanis are Jihadis one way or the other. That is not true. Most of them are regular people, like most of us.  

What did Mohsin think about all the changes you made to the screenplay?

He was with us every step of the way. We made the changes together, so these were not surprises he saw at the premiere. As I said, he is very fascinated by the process and very open to it. He is very happy with the movie.

The greatest gift for me is how close we are and how we are like family. It is the same feeling I have had with Jhumpa Lahiri. She is like my sister. We are really close friends. It's a great feeling. In Mohsin's case we were very intimately involved in the creation.

Do you see a delightful irony that an Indian director living in America finds a Pakistani writer living in America and the two make a film on the most pressing question of our times, something few American filmmakers have been able to do? For me it's a delicious metaphor of how wonderfully inclusive the world can be.

Just to correct you, Mohsin lives in Lahore. I am also living now more in Kampala (Uganda) and India than in America. I don't know if irony is the word, but Mohsin keeps saying this 'imagine this - an Indian director making a Pakistani film about America'. 

But to be honest with you, I don't think like that. I don't feel the border between us. So I don't take on that extra pressure about how and what it's got to be. Maybe I am crazy.

If you are crazy, then we need many more crazy people in the world. Is the film releasing in Pakistan?

It is releasing on the 24th in a big way - almost 50 screens. Even in India, I was surprised that it was released in a substantial way.

Any personal visits on this trip?

I've had a busy schedule but I took time out to visit Shyam Benegal. He's the only person I visited this time. But when he told me he had just come out of the hospital, I skipped a beat. I don't know when I'll be back so I had to see him and it was lovely. He is an amazing man. I love him so much. He is such an anchor to us all. 

It's so funny because I made Salaam Bombay on one floor above his home. I rented this apartment. It was empty and I lived there for six odd months and every street kid who did not have a home stayed there and everyone, Chillum, Raghuvir (Yadav), Irfaan (Khan) were all staying with me. We were living like in a dormitory upstairs. 

And I was in awe because below me stays Shyam Benegal who I had never seen, never met and I never had the courage to go and meet him because he was so revered and I was making my first film. But I always had this theory that there's a time and place to meet people.


How is Salaam Balak trust doing?

Oh it has been an unmitigated success in terms of how many lives it has touched and changed. More than 15 centers now and 5,000 kids a year for the last 25 years. So it's very established and amazing.

What is your husband Mahmood Mandani's contribution to the film considering that the subject matter of the film is right up his sleeve?

You know, he is acting in the film. He plays a taxi driver. I cast him just for fun and he was very good. We share a world in a deep way but I do not inflict my rough drafts or anything on him. He is too busy. 

But he is such a support to this movie. He just loves it and believes in it. Many times he really insisted that it be made and it kept me going. It is a really special movie for him. It's special to him and to my son.

What's next?

I've talked so much that first I am doing a 'Maun Vrat' (vow of silence). I am busy with this Monsoon Wedding musical for stage. Then I am thinking of a couple of things. 

I have signed a film for Disney on the true story of an eight year old girl who lives in the worst slum in Kampala, Uganda, near my home who learnt to play chess and has now become a prodigy. I am just starting; I am not fully immersed in it yet.

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