From Novel to Movie: Remaking 'The Namesake'

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Film director Mira Nair is adapting Jhumpa Lahiri's novel about an Indian immigrant to the United States. Nair talks about the challenge of bringing a book to life on screen.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Adaptation poses a challenge to any director making a beloved book into a movie. How to put a character's internal emotions into the language of film? Director Mira Nair has had some practice in that art. She adopted Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" to the screen. And this year, her film "The Namesake" was released - based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Now, the DVD of that film is out - complete with exclusive director's remarks. We don't have to wait for that because Mira Nair stopped by our studios yesterday, and she talked to me a little bit about the visual language she used to show the feelings of homesickness, for example, experienced by one of the characters in "The Namesake," Ashima, an immigrant from India.

Professor MIRA NAIR (Director, "The Namesake"; Columbia University, New York): She takes Rice Krispies, and she puts red chili powder and some peanuts…

STEWART: Yeah.

Prof. NAIR: …and some lemon, anything to approximate what we call in Calcutta jhal muri, which is a snack sold on the street. That's a beautiful detail from Jhumpa Lahiri's exquisite novel of "The Namesake," and it was a detail I definitely wanted to put on film.

So it was full of all that kind of, you know, living between worlds but also the conflict really faced by the kids, notably Gogol, their son, who really wants to be - who doesn't think of himself as anything else but American until his, you know, life carries on and things happen to him and he is forced to grow up and forced to face, really, where he comes from.

STEWART: Where was the movie filmed - where in India, because there's some spectacular scenes?

Prof. NAIR: It was filmed in Calcutta…

STEWART: In Calcutta.

Prof. NAIR: …which is a great gothic, fantastic city and it was filmed in Agra where the Taj Mahal is, where, you know, the family makes a fantastic detour to go and see the Taj Mahal, and it was there where Gogol sort of gets the idea to become an architect.

And it was, again, one of those place that here's this American boy who doesn't really know the remotest thing about India. In India, he looks Indian, but he's completely American. But it is in India where he first discovers the exquisite sort of high from architecture, which leads him to become a student of the same, you know.

So it is one of those things a guy like Gogol who denies, really, that he's anything but a New Yorker and then discovers that something in his country, in his old country leads him to becoming something in the new country.

STEWART: Are you still teaching film at Columbia?

Prof. NAIR: I teach film. I'm in the Columbia's film school, in the faculty, and I teach every other year or so. Between making films, I teach the master class in directing at the graduate school. And it's wonderful because the students are really from all over the world and they're incredibly rigorous, and it's a wonderful program.

And I just, you know, like to demystify the process of filmmaking because it's something that - see the nuts and bolts as well, but also the students really keep one alive to what's going on in the world, of purity as well, not just commerce.

STEWART: That was interesting on the DVD. You had a discussion about your decision about whether to make "The Namesake" quickly, so you could get it to Cannes and then deciding not to do that. And I thought that was interesting that it was such a nuts and bolts sort of discussion about, okay, here's the reality of making movies in the 2000 and on, you know?

Prof. NAIR: Well, as an independent filmmaker and producer and director, that's the way I do it. I mean, I cut my class to size, but I also dream fairly expansively, but there has to always be a plan. And I'm very lucky in this journey because I have a great film family - a producer, Lydia Pilcher, various people whom I work with film after film who make these dreams kind of happen in a schedule that is very tightly organized, but still has a vast canvas.

STEWART: Being a professor at a school like Columbia, I'm sure you got some very bright students and some very - maybe even aggressive students who want to make it and want to make movies. What is the one thing that you need to set them straight about?

Prof. NAIR: Well, that, you know, filmmaking is a incredible discipline and it's also a disease and either we are sick or we are not sick. It is such an affliction - cinema - that, you know, you have to be kind of obsessive and really think and believe that you can do nothing else, but this in a certain way.

Besides having that sort of self determination or focus, you have to have the talent. And one thing about being a teacher or at least encountering so many young people in the course of making films - that is something I can kind of glean is when someone has the knack of understanding the encompassing medium of cinema because cinema is very extraordinary in that the plasticity of it is what is interesting.

In cinema, you can use a painting that inspires you. You can use a note of music that really makes you excited. You can use - you could walk with an actor who completely - you know, it's about bringing in all the influences of color, of music, of - but yet, what you are doing is making something that inevitably has to be or feel like cinema, not a radio show, not this, not that, you know?

So that is a unique coming together, and you have to know how to use all this medium. Do not make it be a surfeit of riches or something that just doesn't come to life. The idea of bringing it together to make something come alive is the point.

STEWART: We're speaking with Mira Nair who is the director of "The Namesake" and also "Monsoon Wedding" and "Vanity Fair." What modern mass media movie have you seen recently that you thought, oh, that's good filmmaking?

Prof. NAIR: You know, I saw a movie that transported me to extraordinary place called "Across the Universe," Julie Taymor's very stunning visionary film about sort of the '60s and the '70s through Beatles music, through a band of performers who sing through the eras practically. And I just thought her imagination and the vision and the music and the originality with which the politics of the old ear was brought to life, was so dynamic and so inspiring. I've seen this film actually a few times since then.

STEWART: Oh, really?

Prof. NAIR: Yeah.

STEWART: Will you go back to see movies again and again?

Prof. NAIR: Not often, not often at all, but "Across the Universe" I saw once, then I saw twice, and then I - we showed it to the whole family - my 85-year-old father-in-law to my 16-year-old son. And we all got something from it, and it was an extraordinary film that I think has been - not, you know, you know, I'm fairly unsung. It should be given a lot more regard. It's a very, very stunning piece of work.

STEWART: Did you get to see The "Darjeeling Limited?"

Prof. NAIR: I did. I actually know Wes Anderson, the director of the film, and I thought that the film was very Wes Anderson, you know? And, you know, very much - very truthful to Wes' way of looking at the world and certainly looking at the Indian world. I felt it was a sort of a charming kind of concoction and sometimes extraordinarily moving, especially when Irfan Khan, my lovely actor from "The Namesake" was in it. There was a burst of real reality in it. But I also enjoyed the kind of artificial elitist universe that Wes has - had concocted with the brothers, you know?

STEWART: What next for you?

Prof. NAIR: Well, I'm just coping with the, you know, hard news that my film that I had worked on for almost a year, "Shantaram," which is this fantastic epic with Johnny Depp, in India mostly, has been postponed from the writers strike just only last week.

So that's been, you know, hard to shift gears with that one because I'm already deep in it and dreaming in scenes and so on; we were supposed to shoot in a couple of months. But, you know, life must be lived in the present, and that's what I am trying to do.

The thing I'm doing specifically is going to work quite carefully on the musical version of "Monsoon Wedding" that we hope to take to Broadway, as well as this new film I've just finished called the "AIDS Jaago Series" for 20-minute dramatic films with three other cutting-edge directors in India using movie stars and using sort of entertaining ways of making - we hope riveting cinema to wake people up to the myths and misconceptions of HIV/AIDS in India. And this series has become quite a hit, and we are going off to various film festivals to promote it before we open it in India on the first of December on World AIDS Day. So that's something that I'm currently involved with, but will be heading soon to the musical of "Monsoon Wedding."

STEWART: Well, that sounds exciting. What's the reality of the film that Johnny Depp - I did read about that on the Internet.

Prof. NAIR: "Shantaram."

STEWART: …what's the reality of that coming true?

Prof. NAIR: The reality is that they have postponed it, really, until the strike is settled, but there's no guarantee when that would happen, but we're hoping to resume the film in fall, 2008.

STEWART: All right. Well, we'll keep our fingers crossed.

Prof. NAIR: (Hindu spoken), if God is willing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Mira Nair, thank you so much for joining us. It was a pleasure meeting you.

Prof. NAIR: Thank you so much.

STEWART: Nair's film, "The Namesake," is out on DVD this week.

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