THE RIGHT DI­REC­TION

With Mira Nair di­rect­ing its adap­ta­tion, Vikram Seth’s A Suit­able Boy seems to have found safe hands

India Today - - LEISURE - —Shree­vatsa Ne­va­tia

NAIR NEVER SHIES AWAY FROM AN­SWER­ING A P OLITICAL QUES­TION, BUT DOESN’T ADD P OLITICAL MO­TIFS TO HER FILMS IN RET­RO­SPECT

WWhen we called Mira Nair last month, she was in Luc­know. Still in her yoga pants, with a hun­dred things to do, she told us, “We be­gin shoot­ing A Suit­able Boy to­mor­row. I’m happy to make movies, but I’m still strug­gling. It never does be­come a cake­walk.” And the 61-year-old film­maker in­sisted she wasn’t be­ing mod­est: “Do­ing this is a lovely plea­sure, but it’s a beau­ti­ful moun­tain ahead.”

Nair had wanted to adapt Vikram Seth’s A Suit­able Boy since the mo­ment it was pub­lished in 1993. Seth’s book was set in 1951. Nair’s par­ents were mar­ried in 1950. She had al­ways imag­ined what it would have been like to live in a newly free In­dia, “an In­dia that was find­ing it­self”. Di­rect­ing a six-hour adap­ta­tion for the BBC, two years af­ter she ac­quired the rights to the book, Nair sounds re­lieved.

In her in­ter­views, all of Nair’s con­vic­tions seem hard to shake. She does, for in­stance, still stand by her view that “film­mak­ing is a po­lit­i­cal act”. She says, “That’s what fu­els me to make A Suit­able Boy. It’s time­lier than ever. It shows us who we were—a great na­tion of in­ter­min­gling, one of co­ex­is­tence. When see­ing where we’re go­ing, it’s some­times very pow­er­ful to re­mem­ber from whence we came.”

One is best ad­vised to not let the words ‘web series’ drop in a con­ver­sa­tion with Nair. She says that nei­ther does she sub­scribe to the term, nor does she un­der­stand it. She much prefers the word ‘long­form’, and tries ex­plain­ing why: “The art of the long­form, which tele­vi­sion now al­lows, is a beau­ti­ful way to make this sweep­ing story of four dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies. With A Suit­able Boy, we are mak­ing three films within a sin­gle film and it needs that pace for its sev­eral re­al­i­ties to un­fold at once.” Hav­ing found the right for­mat to do Seth’s 1,349-page tome jus­tice, Nair also seems de­lighted with the cast of a hun­dred-plus ac­tors she has put to­gether for its vi­su­al­i­sa­tion. Thir­teen years af­ter The Name­sake re­leased, Nair is again work­ing with Tabu. To de­scribe the ac­tor, Nair em­ploys ad­jec­tives such as “eter­nal”. The film­maker calls “sub­lime” the fo­cus with which Tabu gets into char­ac­ter. “There’s no bravura in her per­for­mance. There’s just a quiet­ness to it.” Ishaan Khat­ter and Tanya Manik­tala—the only two other names from her cast that Nair con­firms—might both be in for an ed­u­ca­tion of sorts. It was per­haps its can­dour and aban­don that made Mon­soon Wed­ding (2001) iconic. For the past decade or so, Nair has been work­ing on trans­form­ing her film into a mu­si­cal. Af­ter its Lon­don pre­miere in July 2020, she prom­ises to bring it “homeward”. Nair, sur­pris­ingly, calls A Suit­able Boy the “ma-baap” of Mon­soon Wed­ding. She says, “I couldn’t adapt the book then, but it in­spired me to tell the story of a fam­ily and its vi­cis­si­tudes. I could af­ford to make it in my ac­tual and con­tem­po­rary way.”

Many of Nair’s films—Salaam Bom­bay! (1988), Van­ity Fair (2004), The Re­luc­tant Fun­da­men­tal­ist (2012)—have the abil­ity to feel rel­e­vant and con­tem­po­rary even years af­ter their re­lease. Van­ity Fair, for in­stance, is set in early 19th cen­tury Eng­land, but Nair’s adap­ta­tion seems un­mis­tak­ably mod­ern. Nair, for her part, says she doesn’t have a for­mula to en­sure last­ing fresh­ness: “My en­deav­our is to make sto­ries that aren’t frozen, to make them fully of the time in which they are set, but to make them in a way that speaks to you now. I don’t want peo­ple to ob­serve the film, I want them to en­gage with it. Peo­ple find them­selves in my hot-blooded, funny and fully hu­man char­ac­ters.”

Even though Nair never shies away from an­swer­ing a po­lit­i­cal ques­tion, she doesn’t add po­lit­i­cal mo­tifs to her films in ret­ro­spect. When asked if she thinks that The Name­sake—a

land­mark film about the US im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence—is more res­o­nant in the Trump era, she says, “I think The Name­sake

will be con­sid­ered a pretty ‘woke’ film to­day, but it was about long­ing. To re­spond to im­mi­gra­tion laws would mean mak­ing a dif­fer­ent film, which I did with the Re­luc­tant Fun­da­men­tal­ist.”

Nair knows well the mean­ing of home— she has one in three dif­fer­ent coun­tries

(the US, In­dia and Uganda). In Kampala, she set up the Maisha Film Lab 15 years ago. A free film school for East African stu­dents of cin­ema, Maisha in­vites known di­rec­tors and writ­ers to fa­cil­i­tate its work­shops. It now has more than 800 alumni. Nair says, “Maisha fol­lows my mantra—if we don’t tell our sto­ries, no one else will. And those sto­ries should be told with ex­cel­lence.” De­spite the ob­vi­ous re­wards, doesn’t all the move­ment be­come tir­ing? “I feel lucky be­cause we have three beau­ti­ful homes, but some­times I want to see the sea­sons in one place and not pack my suit­case again. That said, it’s a full life. What to do?” ■

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