AFI FEST Presented by Audi: Mira Nair on A SUITABLE BOY
AFI FEST presented by Audi presented a Tribute to Mira Nair at this year’s AFI FEST presented by Audi, honoring her with an evening of conversation celebrating her distinguished career.
Nair’s accomplished filmmaking has earned her accolades around the world. With her directorial debut, SALAAM BOMBAY! in 1988, Nair won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and later went on to earn an Academy Award® nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Since then she has become a modern cinema master with films such as MISSISSIPPI MASALA (1991), MONSOON WEDDING (2001) and THE NAMESAKE (2006).
AFI spoke with Nair about her latest project A SUITABLE BOY – which is screening at FEST following the Tribute. Nair discussed how this project has ties to her earlier hit MONSOON WEDDING, the film that earned her the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion award, and made her the first woman to receive the honor.
AFI: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. We understand there are some connections between the novel “A Suitable Boy” – which was adapted into the BBC program screening at FEST – and MONSOON WEDDING.
Mira: When “A Suitable Boy” came out in 1993, I was one of those weird people who read it twice despite its size. I loved it, but it didn’t seem that I should make it into a film at that time – I was not ready, so I thought let me make my microcosm version of it. In that sense, “A Suitable Boy” gave me the idea to make my own thing in a much more contained way that I could manage at that age and that time.
For the last 10 years, I have been developing a big Broadway-bound musical of MONSOON WEDDING. We opened the first draft of that in Berkeley, CA, in March 2018 and this year, on July 24, was going to be the big London opening of the musical – and it would have literally been within a month of A SUITABLE BOY being on television – but then COVID happened and we all know what happened, and theaters shut down. And now we are forced to move it to the end of next year.
A lot of the actors in MONSOON WEDDING – for many of whom it was their first film and are now big stars, are in A SUITABLE BOY. And all the actors from the musical are also in A SUITABLE BOY. There is a lot of confluence between the two projects in my heart and mind, and in actuality too.
AFI: Recently in an HLMS seminar with Fellows from the AFI Conservatory, you spoke about trusting your instincts and having a point of view when making a film. Can you talk a little about how you approached creating A SUITABLE BOY and why you felt compelled to direct it?
Mira: It’s really a story of us, it’s a story of India and a story of 1951 which has special significance to me. It is the year I used to say I wish I was born in because it was the most idealistic era on how to create the free India. And this is the India my parents had dreamed about, and fought the freedom struggle for, and this was the India of A SUITABLE BOY. The first democratic election was in 1952 and the way I thought of it – the challenge really was how to distill the huge tome into six hours. The way to help me was to make it a real intertwining of the political and personal. As Lata, the young protagonist, finds her way through the maze of suitors with and without her mother, the country also finds its way as it prepares for the election. In that sense, Lata is actually India, the new India, and she goes for the person who is very much the self-made man like India is to be. That interweaving was critical.
I was raised as a child of that time and with a family that had done exactly what the characters of the film do. It is Northern India, which is where I come from. It is also very deeply about the syncretic culture that exists between Hindis and Muslims both at that time and now – but now it is being severely attacked by the right wing. A SUITABLE BOY is imbued with the music, and friendship and emotional interconnection. It’s about a friendship that we all grew up with, but it is so being threatened today. And I was very fiercely involved in doing justice to that, and because I love it so, I had a reason for making it real for hopefully all of you from the outside watching it – for me it was several reasons, political and emotional that I wanted to tell this tale.
AFI: Tabu plays courtesan Saeeda Bai. You previously worked with her in THE NAMESAKE. What was it like reteaming with her?
She was the absolute first person I cast. She is one of the greatest actors ever, and we have a great, close friendship as well – but she also comes from this culture of not courtesans, but great refinement of the whole Islamic way of being, of song, of language. It was of course a performance, but she embodies it so completely and spiritually – the main thing is her extraordinary charisma. She is like Marlene Dietrich for us. She is someone who is rarely seen and when she is seen, she is a bombshell. She has great mystery and allure, and she cherishes her own talent. She is not going to be in everything and anything. She really is Saeeda Bai – that same quality of mystery and allure. And even though she was a woman of a certain age, as the character, she also has the capacity and the seduction and sensuality to have a 22-25 year-old boy fall head over heels. She is unafraid of that sensuality that she completely possesses. She is a brilliant person.
AFI: You’re known for casting non-actors alongside professional actors. Were you able to do that in this project as well?
Mira: I did, I did. Several actors are working for the first time in front of the camera. For instance, the beautiful, young woman who plays Tasneem, she was a consultant at McKinsey, and she was in my musical, that was her very first onstage role. She is someone who is new – but there are several, even the protagonist Lata. She has only done some very small things. She is somebody I sensed had the spirit and the modesty, the innocence, but still the feistiness and intelligence of Lata. So are the first two suitors, both their first time in front of the camera. Kabir – funny way of how I found him. I met this legendary yoga teacher in Bombay, and we were talking and I said, “how are you, how’s your family? And she said, “My son has just come back from UCLA to Bombay and he doesn’t know where he belongs and he is an actor.” She showed me his photograph, and he looked like just like my son. I said to her, “I want to see him immediately.” In two hours, he came over and I started auditioning him thoroughly. He was just really good, and I gave him the part. There are several others who have played for the first time and several others who are big stars who are doing things because I asked them to and have a history with me, and it was really nice. That mix of legends and newcomers is still going on.
AFI: How do you feel the music influences or informs this story?
Mira: The music in A SUITABLE BOY is a real kaleidoscope of Indian sound. The music that drove me to making it were the poems of Ghalib and Daagh and Mir, these great poets that Vikram wrote about that Saeeda Bai, the courtesan character, sings in a musical form called ghazal that I was raised with – and practice myself sometimes. It was a great joy to take the poems of these extraordinary poets of our time and find a wonderful singer and composer, Kavita Seth, to transform them into music.
The film itself goes across families and classes and rural India and urban India and then super sophisticated mercantile, nightclub India. The British capital was very mercantile. It was very racy, full of nightclubs, swing bands, sailors, cocktails, the whole nine yards, ‘30s and ‘40s sound, jazz. That’s music to my cinema.
At the heart of it, the sound of Lata, the sound of this young girl finding her way always was the sitar for me – the sound of the sitar, the sound of Lata – not just rooted in the traditional past, but a modern girl who takes the tradition and spins with it. The sound of the sitar was always there for me.
Music is a way to really augment and communicate so fluidly the vast cultural plurality of India and of the sound we come from. It’s nothing to do with just one time – it’s really an encompassing kaleidoscope of music, and I’ve used all that in A SUITABLE BOY.
AFI: As someone who has accomplished so much in her career, do you have any advice or insight for aspiring filmmakers?
Mira: When I got my first grant of $22,000 in 1979 or 1980 to make a documentary on Indian immigrants in New York, I was with other people who had received grants too. They were so awestruck. Yes, I was happy, but I was saying to them that we are the only people who can make these films. They should be grateful that we are making alive the extraordinary plurality and diversity of what makes America. We are amplifying America, and we are amplifying where we live by opening people’s minds to who else lives here.
Just remember, you have as much of a place here as anyone else and, not just that, but in making films, some of us have access to these worlds that we must revel in and bring to the fore because this too matters.
AFI FEST Tribute of Mira Nair – GET TICKET