Divas Sharing Their Talents to Fight AIDS
Indian Filmmaker Promotes HIV/AIDS Awareness
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm MICHEL MARTIN. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, a look at the Latin Grammy's.
But first, filmmaker Mira Nair was born in India, educated at Harvard and has spent her life traversing between two worlds. From her debut feature "Salaam Bombay!" to the glossy star-studded remake of "Vanity Fair" to her latest feature "The Namesake," Nair has made a career of showcasing the hopes and dreams of others who cross worlds.
Now, she divides her time between the U.S., Uganda and India. But we caught up with her in New York. She's attending the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival. The festival is going now through Sunday in New York and presents a range of works from South Asian filmmakers. Ms. Nair's short film called "Migration" is among the entries. It's just one of a group of films by top Indian filmmakers and stars to help combat the spread of HIV/AIDS in India.
Mira Nair joins us now from our New York bureau.
Welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Ms. MIRA NAIR (Filmmaker): Happy to be here.
MARTIN: You've been making films for so many years now, but I want to ask, what drew you to them to begin with?
Ms. NAIR: I think that I'm sort of interested in the question or was and still am interested in the question of whether one could use art to change the world, to change how people think about what's going on around us. So at the same time as I'm not interested in making agitprop kind of films, but films that are very encompassing of the worlds we live in, off the gray area, you know, and usually films that are not just of the American reality that we always see on Hollywood films, but really the things about the world that I live in, which happens to be India and East Africa, and also very much this country, the U.S.
MARTIN: Has what you're passionate about changed overtime?
Ms. NAIR: I don't believe it has. In fact, the world has gotten much more complicated and much more terrible. So, in fact, it has endorsed the desire to use my energy on this planet to make things that get under people's skin, to make things that entertain but also make you hope to reexamine and be aware more of the world we live in and about our points of view.
MARTIN: One of the things that, I think, distinguishes your career is that you've been able to transcend the boundaries of, you know - clearly, you've dedicated to telling stories of India that you grew up in, stories of modern India today, but you've also told stories from so many other backgrounds, genres, times, "Vanity Fair," was it The Family Perez. I wonder if this was always your vision.
Ms. NAIR: I knew. You know, I grew up in a tiny little town in India Bhubaneshwar in Orissa, where Indians don't even know where that is. And I really grew up seeing "Doctor Zhivago" every month. I mean, there was not really more movies than that or even Bollywood didn't reach where I was. So I came in more through political theater and wanting to be a journalist of sorts, you know? So that was my idea. And then I got very interested and became a performer in traveling theater. But when I came to this country on a scholarship when I was 19, the theater at Harvard was not inspired, was not political - was basically hoop-skirts and musicals, "Oklahoma!" and the thing. So I took…
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Imagine that.
Ms. NAIR: …the next best thing, yeah, which was the documentary and, you know, had great teachers and learned that the visual world could encompass all these ideas of politics and what happens in the world, but also of music, also of color, also of the way of looking at the world visually, but with anything that excites you whether it's a musical thing or, you know, the cinema encompasses all these mediums. So that's the privilege of it.
And, yeah, I mean, I don't want to tell stories that everyone else tells, really. And I do live in a world that is quite layered and more than one place. So I see the world with that richness. And, yes, I make things that explore that, and it needn't be about India or Asia or Africa only, except that that's what really turns me on more than anything. But it also, you know, "Hysterical Blindness" - I made a film about you know white trash New Jersey girls, who look for love in the wrong places with Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis and so on. And that was very American, but, you know, it is the universality of the human condition that interests me.
MARTIN: You used the word rich a couple of moments ago. I want to talk about "Monsoon Wedding" because that's a word that is often used to describe Monsoon Wedding as sort of rich and lush and layered.
Ms. NAIR: That's good because you've made it very cheaply, just a million dollars.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well, I would have not known. But I'd like to play a short clip featuring the women in the family, of course, this is a film about a - it's a wedding and it's a - okay, a gathering of families and all the behind-the-scenes drama comes out as it so often does. Anyway, but here's a scene we're going to play during the henna-painting ritual. I just like to listen to a little bit and I'd like to hear what that means to you.
(Soundbite of movie, "Monsoon Wedding")
Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)
Ms. NAIR: That singing of women around the (unintelligible) or drum brings me right back home. You know, it's - especially this week because it's Diwali. It's the Hindu New Year on the 9th, and that's what going on at home right now. But this is a ceremony that is for the bride to be covered in henna and painted with henna. And it's all-women ceremony, and it's a time for women to tease and be bawdy with each other and to educate the bride through naughty songs what to expect about men and certainly what to expect on the wedding night.
So it's full of fun and raucous kind of laughter, and also a lot of love, and certain amount of sweet sorrow because it signals that after the wedding the girl, the daughter of the house, will leave her house forever and become part of another person's house, could be even far away. You know, before you fly away…
MARTIN: But when you offer something very tender to you to the rest of the world…
Ms. NAIR: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: …how does that feel?
Ms. NAIR: It's very beautiful because it is - when it is embraced by the world as "Monsoon Wedding" has been, you know, that's the language of music, that's the language of, you know, great cinema, is when it crosses those borders without making you feel like you're looking at another planet.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with filmmaker Mira Nair.
And I want to talk about a film that you did that, I think, more - perhaps more sharply, I mean, because there are characters in the "Monsoon Wedding" who were traversing different expectations, different cultures or people who live abroad, who are coming home and, you know, what all that feels like, but I want to talk about "The Namesake," which is, of course, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, a very much appreciated and very critically acclaimed novel. The title character, Gogol, goes through a lot of life changes and one of them - he's trying to talk with his parents about changing his name from that of his namesake. And let's listen for a moment about that scene.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Namesake")
Mr. KAL PENN (Actor): (As Gogol Ganguli) I've been thinking a lot about my name. Gogol's fine on my high school diploma, but can we mention Gogol on a resume or a credit card after that?
Mr. IRFAN KHAN (Actor): (As Gogol's Father) What are you trying to say?
Mr. PENN: (As Gogol Ganguli) I'd like to change my name back to my good name.
TABU (Actress): (As Gogol's Mother) What is done is done. Now Gogol has become your good name.
Mr. KHAN: It's too complicated now.
MARTIN: What's a good name?
Ms. NAIR: This is a - you know, "The Namesake" is about the - a Bengali family and in Bengal, there is a great, lovely tradition of having a family name, a nickname and a good name, a formal name, a name for the public. So Gogol was actually given to this character as his nickname. And Nikil was his formal name, his public name, but he rejected it as a four-year-old, he couldn't respond to this other - in any other word but Gogol. But when he gets older that's an embarrassment to him - the fact that he's named after his father's favorite Russian author.
And anyway, he looks different. He's an Indian kid living in, you know, New York and no one looks like him and certainly no one has a name like him. So by the time he's a teenager, he wants to change it. Anyway, so the story is really about that continuity between the old and the new, but so often the new to come to grips with who they are have to completely embrace the old.
MARTIN: I want to talk about the film festival. You've been working on it for quite sometime. I think - what is it, 50 films? - as a part of the festival including 12 world premieres, 11 U.S. premieres, 15 New York premieres…
Ms. NAIR: Yeah.
MARTIN: It just seems like a tremendous amount of work.
Ms. NAIR: It's a huge thing and it's really - it's the Indo-American Film Festival and it's all thanks to this total dynamo of a woman called Aroon Shivdasani, who decided many years ago that there should be a gathering place for South Asian artists, both from, you know, South Asia and the diaspora to find a place to look at our films because we do make a lot of films.
MARTIN: But that's what sort of funny about it. Forgive me - India has the…
Ms. NAIR: Largest.
MARTIN: …largest film industry in the world.
Ms. NAIR: Hands down. The largest city.
MARTIN: So it just seems kind of funny that, you know, why…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. NAIR: What's funny then?
MARTIN: No. Why have the festival in New York?
Ms. NAIR: Oh, because this is about Indian films, the so-called sort of best of Indian films that are - being made in Indian now but also largely about the diaspora, the films that are made by Indian Americans here or Pakistani Americans or people, you know, in the diaspora everywhere who are making interesting films about the Asian situation.
MARTIN: I'd like to talk about your film. You've got a short film entered - a work called "Migration." Let's play a short clip.
(Soundbite of movie, "Migration")
Unidentified Man: (As Character) And when you drive, the rules - the road…
MARTIN: I'd love to hear more about it.
Ms. NAIR: You know, I had an idea about two years ago when the members of the Bill Gates Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have put a lot of money into India to combat the alarming rise of HIV/AIDS in India. And when they came to talk to me about it, I was inspired immediately to suggest producing a series of four films and then maybe more. Four kind of exciting dramatic films made by cutting-edge, commercial Indian directors - each film to discuss an aspect of the virus, but with total carte blanche that the director could have.
And the brief was to cast movie stars in every role in these films, and to put them out before Bollywood blockbusters in the theaters so that the masses coming to see their favorite movie stars would actually see them in a pretty dramatic and entertaining way to wake them up to the fact of HIV and AIDS.
So my film is called "Migration," which is about AIDS virus as the great class level in our society, something that links the rural and urban and upper and working classes. It's making the circuit all over the world, but we are opening…
MARTIN: And are they being seen in theaters everywhere?
Ms. NAIR: Yes. We're opening in India on the 1st of December, World AIDS Day, both as a campaign on all the national television channels as well in the theaters. So it's going to be quite a blitz there of these films, and I really am proud to, you know, be a part of this.
MARTIN: You said at the beginning of our conversation that when you started making films, you saw them as a way to change the world. Easy to say in your 20s, harder when you are in your 40s to hold on to that vision?
Ms. NAIR: You know, it sounds a little pompous now to change the world, and it was probably pretentious then, too, but the idea is to, you know, stir it up with your work, not to do complacent, dull, you know, let's-have-a-pleasant-Sunday-afternoon-at-the-movies kind of work. For me, I like to give you a pleasant afternoon, but I also want to take you to places that you've never gone and look at places that this reflection of what were are doing in this world. And sometimes what we are doing in this world is treacherous and terrible for it, you know. So I like to do it, I guess, stir it up, mix it up, but take you on a journey in my cinema with a journey that makes you look at what's going on.
MARTIN: Well, it's an honor and a pleasure to speak with you.
Ms. NAIR: Thank you.
MARTIN: Mira Nair joined us from our New York bureau. She's a part of the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival. Her film is called "Migration."
Mira Nair, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. NAIR: Thank you, Michel.
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