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Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2002


When magic is in the air

When talking with a filmmaker, there's a clear difference between "conversation" and "hype." "Hype" is what happens when a filmmaker is trying to sell you something, putting a pre-rehearsed spin on every answer. A conversation occurs when the director is confident enough in her work that there's no need to spin. Mira Nair knows she's sitting on a winner with "Monsoon Wedding," so she relaxed, curled up on the sofa, and we had a very fine conversation.

News photo
Director Mira Nair

The film looks like it was a lot of fun to make. Was it?

Well, it was fun, but the whole idea was that I wanted to make a film in 30 days, and that's something I had in mind even before writing the script. But when we finished the script, it was this circus of a movie, with 68 characters, a big wedding and four days leading up to it, so it was a huge, fairly grueling thing to achieve in 30 days. And if you know movies, this kind of film should have been 60 or 70 days of shooting, on average. It was an extraordinary level of discipline and real assuredness of craft that made it possible to achieve in 30 days.

Why the limit?

It was really a self-imposed leanness, early on. Because one of the original inspirations of the film was to prove that I could make something out of nothing, to prove that one doesn't need millions of dollars and special FX and manipulations and the whole juggernaut of feature-film-making to make a film.

So the way I constructed it was three weeks of a workshop prior to the shooting of the film. The cast was [composed of] both screen legends and total non-actors -- and all the members of my family in between. So two weeks for rehearsal and for creating a real feeling of family. And the third week, we took the family into the location and designed all the scenes.

So by the time we were shooting, we flew! I'm a serious practitioner of yoga, and we had yoga every day one hour before shooting, and that really affected things as well, because it gave us focus and stamina and a kind of eagerness. This was hardly the film to have tantrums, because there was just too much to do! [Laughs]

Why shoot on Super-16 instead of, say, DV?

The first idea was to shoot on DV, but it didn't do justice to the opulence and sensuality of Indian weddings, you know, in terms of the jewelry and silks and so on, and it doesn't do justice to darkness, to black. And the post-production, for DV to be blown up to 35mm, is actually more expensive than going from 16mm to 35mm.

Have Bollywood films influenced you in any way, or is that just one part of the film's ambience?

Hmm. There are certain great craftsmen of Bollywood, more from the '60s. There was this great, great filmmaker -- you could liken him to our Orson Welles -- Guru Dutt. He worked in the mainstream but made highly independent films, which were not successful in his lifetime, and then he committed suicide at the age of 39.

His films are now heralded as classics, and these films, I look at every six months. I just think they're amazing. Absolutely lush visualization -- what they call "song picturization" -- and performance, and in two or three frames of "Monsoon Wedding," I literally pay homage to him. Like when Alice emerges and Dubei is holding the heart [made of marigolds] for her, and her hair flies in the darkness and she smiles at him -- that's a frame out of Guru Dutt's film. So there are a couple of, like, affectionate winks at the great Bollywood stuff. And, of course, the high-kitsch dance number is a sort of homemade Bollywood.

And why not? That's what it's like now: Bollywood has entered our daily life, and weddings in Delhi today often imitate Bollywood dance numbers, and it's completely normal. But this did not happen even 10 or 15 years ago. Bollywood has really become like eating or breathing, in Indian terms.

How has it played in India?

It's been a phenomenon, commercially, in India. It's still running, after five months! It's totally getting the same sort of audience a Bollywood film would get. It's hugely popular. Dubey has become a big star. He's a revelation, and an unknown, until now.

How long did the casting process take, with all those roles?

I must have seen 400 or 500 people. I wanted to stay away from movie stars, because of this demand of working with them for three weeks before shooting. I needed to ask them for seven weeks total, and that's a lot to ask of an Indian movie star who has 50 roles going on at the same time! A lot of the people I cast -- in smaller but important roles, like the bride's lover -- just didn't show up!

That's very Indian.

[Laughs.] So, oftentimes, I had to cast the crew in the roles. I just had to get it done.

What is the reality of arranged marriages in India these days?

It's more like a "semi-arranged marriage," where the parents introduce you, but you go out on a courtship to decide whether or not you'll go forward. I've not gone down that route myself, but like Hemant says in the film, "Marriage is a risk anyway." So whether your parents introduce you or you meet in a club, either way it's a gamble.

Your career started off with a bang, and you're pretty hot now once again, but it was a bit of a rocky road in-between. Do you ever try to analyze what made certain films work and why?

No, not really. I try to learn from each film, but I don't pick it apart. There is something very elusive about cinema, where in some films you can capture magic, and in some films, you can't. With this one, what I didn't realize and didn't discover until we were in the editing room, was that because we had only 30 days and had prepared for it in this way, there was a kind of urgency and energy that everybody brought to it. And that energy is the magic of the film, so that was an interesting lesson.

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