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Films are a great binding factor, or so the late film critic Roger Ebert would have us believe.
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A story of guts and glory
Mira Nair's 'Salaam Bombay!' was a small film with a big heart. Featuring a cast of street children - an unprecedented feat in 1988 - Nair shifted the action from the studios to the grimy streets of old Bombay. The screenplay was born out of, as Nair likes to say, the truth of the children's hard lives and our observation and imagination. To the young audience for whom 'Salaam Bombay!' is virgin territory, the good news is that the Oscar-nominated film re-released this Friday to commemorate its 25th anniversary. In a chat with TOI-Crest, Nair looks back at the film.
After 25 years, how attached are you to 'Salaam Bombay' ?
Deeply attached. It's one of those rare films that is as alive today as it was 25 years ago. In fact, more alive today because we couldn't achieve what we did back then in terms of shooting on the streets, and the power and the purity of the children's performances. We made the film with the idealistic question that burned me from my childhood - can art change the world in any way? And I really believe that this is the one film that has changed the world, in the sense that we created the Salaam Baalak Trust which has nurtured 5, 000 children a year for the last 25 years. For us, the real celebration is that the Salaam Baalak Trust has stayed and has really influenced government policies on street children, thus, directly impacting their lives.
You combined into the film's making your three enduring passions - photography, cinêma vêritê style of documentary filmmaking and street life. How did you do it?
And people's engagement - you forgot that. Well, it's a trajectory you have in life. I started by first getting excited by Jatra, the mythological theatre in Orissa where I was born. And, then going to join Badal Sircar in Calcutta and creating political theatre with him as an actor and then, you know, wanting to see if theatre could change society. Later, when I went abroad to study, I literally stumbled on to documentary films. I was fortunate to have worked with the gurus of cinêma vêritê - Ricky Leacock and DA Pennebaker. Their work on mobile camera influenced me. I felt at 20, I had found my niche - of working visually, of working with life and working so that I could reach people. I made documentaries for seven years. Then, I got tired of not having an audience. After the success of my documentary India Cabaret, Sooni (Taraporevala, screenwriter) and I gave ourselves the courage to make Salaam Bombay! but in the same way, like having a theatre workshop with kids and getting a script out of that experience. Our mantra was, 'No guts, no glory'.
During 'Monsoon Wedding' and 'The Namesake' you conducted a workshop with actors. Why?
For The Namesake, it was not quite the same type of workshop. It was more like a rehearsal. However, in Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding, we were working with non-actors and at the same time, with legends like Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah). So, how to create a balance where the non-actors are not intimidated by the professional actors and the professional actors get some real juice from the purity of the nonactors ? And because Monsoon Wedding is about a family we had to create that sense among actors of being relaxed with each other.
What were the reasons for making 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' ?
It was not about first reading Mohsin Hamid's book and then wanting to adapt it. It came about because finally I went to the land of my father's birth (Lahore) in 2004 or 2005. I was deeply moved by the familiarity of Pakistan, by the unbelievable hospitality and generosity and the fact that everyone looked like my uncles and aunts. It's so familiar yet forbidden for so long. Indian filmmakers, many of us, we have always told the story of the Partition. No one has ever turned the lens to contemporary Pakistan and that's what interested me. And then, I was more and more tired with the movies that were coming out of post 9/11 America, about demonising the Islamic world - the other people, so to speak. So, you have these noble films about Americans who went to fight for freedom in Afghanistan and returned with bodies of the martyred. But nobody ever talked about the Afghani or Iraqi woman whose house was bombed in the name of freedom or the Afghani children who were killed. In The Hurt Locker, there is an amazing five-minute scene where the guy can't detonate the bomb. They didn't give him a name but at least they gave five minutes to the pain of this anguished human being who doesn't want to die. But it will only go that far. It won't go any further. More and more, I was feeling this need to speak of the other side. Only eight months after I visited Pakistan that I got to read Mohsin's novel. I immediately found that to be the foundation for the film I wanted to make. What intrigued me about the book was that it not only speaks of today's Pakistan but also engages in a dialogue with America.
You spend a great deal of time in Delhi and Mumbai now. Will you ever make a Bollywood film?
Why do something that other people can do better ? Bollywood films are great pieces of work and they have a different rhythm and style. I want to make films my way.
Why is it that you always come close to working with Bollywood stars but never end up doing so? For 'The Namesake', you had Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukerji in mind and for 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', you had approached both Ranbir Kapoor and Imran Khan.
Firstly, they are such terribly busy and popular actors that they never have the kind of dates - one schedule straight - that I work with. Also, I think they are a little apprehensive about doing an international film because that means stepping out of their comfort zone. The real actors are the best for me. But it's not that I am anti-mainstream. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I have Kate Hudson - you can't get more mainstream than that. Through my career, I have worked with the Denzels (Denzel Washington), the Reeses (Reese Witherspoon ) and the Naseers (Naseeruddin Shah) of the world. As far as these young Bollywood men and women are concerned, I have to have the right role for them and then they have to have the time for me. Often, they don't.
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