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Accolade from many a quarter

"Monsoon Wedding", which won the Golden Lion at the recent Venice Film Festival, comes to Indian cinema halls today. GIRIJA RAJENDRAN talks to its maker Mira Nair, who is here for the release of the film.

Mira Nair ... the ingenious director scales greater heights.

AS AN internationally renowned cine person, Mira Nair was certainly on cloud nine when I met her after she had received the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for ``Monsoon Wedding" — a show that could go on to reap rare acclaim at Cannes too.

Mira Nair was in Mumbai to celebrate the November 30 release of ``Monsoon Wedding'' in India. This is a prelude to the film competing for the Golden Globe in the U.S.; for the Bafta Awards in the U.K.; and for the Cesars in France. The creative director has come a long way from the days of her well-noticed ``Salaam Bombay''(on the street children of the metro), some 13 years ago.

``Salaam Bombay", Mira Nair's maiden feature, won her an Academy Award nomination (in the Best Foreign Language Film category). It also fetched her the coveted ``Camera D'Or''(for Best First Feature) and the``Prix du Publique''(for Most Popular Entry) at the Cannes Festival. In fact, ``Salaam Bombay'' lives in the mind and heart, as Mira Nair's most recognised feature till date — with some 25 international awards against its name. And this is one NRI film-maker who never lost touch with her roots in India and the issues confronting the nation.

Thus was Mira Nair able to come to imaginative grips with the tricky subject of an NRI family trying to cope with the growing American influence on its youth (even while expecting it to conform to its own Indian values) in ``Mississippi Masala''(1991).

Mira revealed at the movie's premiere at the Venice Festival that she was overwhelmed by the warm and spontaneous response from the glitterati, to her ``Monsoon Wedding''. Said Mira, not without awe in her voice: ``We, the cast and the crew of `Monsoon Wedding', were all sitting in the last row of the auditorium, trying to gauge the viewers' response. And were absolutely floored by the way some 300 foreign invitees rose from their seats right in the middle of the screening — to dance and clap to the tune and rhythm of the `bhangra' in the movie. These were not what you'd call initiated ethnic viewers reacting, it was a glamorous stream of the international film fraternity being carried away by the magic of the moment. Just could not believe it was happening to my film!"

There was more to come. Having finished with the premiere event in Venice, Mira moved to New York — to work on her next film, ``Hysterical Blindness" and also to keep up with endless interviews lined up for her in that city. No sooner had the lady landed in New York than there was a desperate phone call, asking Mira to rush right back to Venice. ``Something very big, by way of an award, is in the offing and none of your representatives nor stand-ins would do for the occasion '', she was excitedly informed.

Mira related with relish how she couldn't believe that it was the Golden Lion she was finally holding in her hands, having won it from a clutch of world-class films offering stiff competition.

Yet the central fact remains that the subject matter of her ``Monsoon Wedding'' holds instant universal appeal, revolving as it does around a typical Punjabi marriage that takes place in Delhi during the rainy season.

Was your `Monsoon Wedding' inspired by `Two Weddings And A Funeral'? Or by our own `Hum Aap Ke Hain Koun'?

Mira laughed aloud: The truth is that neither "Two Weddings ... " nor "Hum Aap Ke ... " has been my inspiration in fashioning "Monsoon Wedding". I wanted to tackle a simple, straightforward theme, a theme zeroing in on contemporary and modern India that would not require any major technological pyrotechnics, cinematically speaking. After my last movie, "My Own Country" — about an immigrant doctor dealing with the problem of AIDS down South — the idea of a film on an Indian wedding came to my mind. Sabrina Dhawan — a writer with whom I came to work for the first time — liked the idea no less, so we got down to doing the script. Contrary to the masti and mazaa one feels while watching "Monsoon Wedding", it was not a very easy movie to shoot. We canned quite a few of the roadside scenes on the actual streets of Delhi, on hot summer days, with a hand-held camera — in an effort to capture the real feel of the locale — by no means an easy task. Yet, as the maker of "Monsoon Wedding", I too could enjoy the proceedings, since it was so much like a real shaadi — with all the excitement, the last-minute faux pas and the tensions. Everything was so down-to-earth in the movie. We even had young girls dancing, typically imitating one of, say, Madhuri Dixit's hits — just like it happens at a real wedding. I suppose the grandeur of a Punjabi wedding conveys its spirit to the viewer, quite evocatively, via my movie.

The "super actor" suits the role perfectly ... Naseeruddin Shah in "Monsoon Wedding".

Handling such a big cast for you (21 performers) must have had its trying moments...

I did yoga every day at six in the morning, something that prepared me for the day's rigours. Plus I encouraged whoever was familiar with this discipline to join in the yoga with me, as I genuinely believed that this regimen would help see us through the most difficult moments that the filming posed. I have learnt to keep my cool in the most trying setting.

There is a sense of calculated urgency and total commitment when I'm working, because I strongly feel that, without complete involvement and a keen awareness to get things done, you can't achieve much on schedule.

Not always has your zest for experiment yielded positive results. For instance, `Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love' (1996) was not such a thumping success, either here or abroad. What went wrong?

But "Kama Sutra" got through to the younger women audience everywhere! Yet yes ... it wasn't a film with universal appeal.

You were born in India but you have lived abroad all your adult life. What have been the native and foreign influences on you as a film-maker?

I suppose I think about my films with my heart — like does the typical Indian — but I execute them as one abroad would do it, absolutely professionally. That is to say, I'm rooted in India but my craft has been honed by my foreign training. I'd describe my attitude to work as emotional but unsentimental. The two aren't really as contradictory as they might seem. Both traits are necessary to be effective as a film-maker at all times and in all climes.

You were working with Naseeruddin Shah for the first time in "Monsoon Wedding". How was the experience?

Mira smiled: You know, I've been in love with Naseer's theatre work ever since I saw him act in "The Zoo Story" — when I was just 17 years old — and have always wanted to work with this super actor, right from the time I did "Salaam Bombay".

I had Naseer in mind for the role ultimately done by Nana Patekar, in "Salaam Bombay". Now, in "Monsoon Wedding", I found, at last, the rightly shaded role for an artiste of Naseeruddin Shah's calibre, Lalit Verma — the father of the bride.

Paired with him is another remarkable theatre person — Lillete Dubey. She's slim but she transformed herself into a typically buxom Punjabi housewife for her "Monsoon Wedding" role.

My cast was chosen totally on the criterion of the suitability of the roles. I had seen Shefali Shetty's work in "Satya" and felt she was the right choice for the character that she plays in "Monsoon Wedding". Do you know the biggest surprise of the movie? It's the real-life housewife, Kamini Khanna, one who did not have any acting experience at all!

Mira carried out a six-week rehearsal before the actual shooting started, so that each artiste was thoroughly prepared by the time he or she faced the camera.

``That way the artistes had enough time to get their teeth into the characters they played and I was able to save both on time and film'', notes Mira. ``The film was being shot on a shoe-string budget — my own mother sending food from her kitchen in order to conserve our resources! Yet there has been no compromise on the opulence that is part and parcel of an Indian wedding.''

What do you think are the chances of "Monsoon Wedding" vis--vis the Oscar and the Golden Globe?

Mira Nair tried hard to hide her excitement and joy at the possibility, yet she observed: ``To be mentioned alongside such giants as Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa, and their classics like `Aparajito' and `Roshomon', is reward enough for me. I have made strides in cinema absorbing the art and craft of these masters, so what more could I want?"

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