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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 June, 2005, 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK
Mira Nair - it's just not Bollywood

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Agra

The Namesake still
The Namesake is an immigrants tale spanning three decades
There's confusion at the world's most famous monument to love, the Taj Mahal.

Tourists, memorabilia peddlers and residents of the north Indian city of Agra are watching a film being shot - but they can't make out what it's all about.

People here are used to watching gaudily made-up stars dancing around the mausoleum on cue from 'dance directors' - the Taj is a favourite location with Bollywood filmmakers.

Inside the Taj, director Mira Nair, the maker of Monsoon Wedding, is wrapping up an exacting shooting schedule for her $9m budget eighth feature - The Namesake.

It is the unfussy, quiet way the crew is shooting this cross-continental film about an Indian immigrant family in a red sandstone mosque that has left onlookers bemused.


Never mind the fact that Nair is an internationally feted Indian filmmaker.

The film is also a tribute to two of the world's greatest cities - New York and Calcutta
Mira Nair
Also, The Namesake's cast includes two of Bollywood's most talented performers, Tabu and Irfan Khan.

"Are you the director Mira Nair? Why don't you cast (Bollywood star) Shah Rukh Khan in your film?" a tourist asks me gruffly as I make my way past the verdant lawns to the mausoleum.

A local journalist sidles up to me and whispers that Nair's film will "defame" the Taj because it is being shot "by a lot of white people".

Inside the Taj, Nair's director of photography Frederick Elmes of Kinsey and The Ice Storm fame, is busy filming a young immigrant boy (Kal Penn) admiring the red sandstone motifs on the mosque wall.

"Why is the boy not dancing?," asks a curious tourist.

The Namesake is Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian writer Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel - an immigrant saga spanning two continents and spread over three decades.

Tale of two cities

The story talks about the immigrant experience, the inevitable clash of cultures and explores the tangled skein of generational ties.

"It's not a simple, typical immigrant's tale. It's more complex, and a lot of it happens in two of the world's greatest cities - New York and Calcutta," says Nair, who divides her time between New York and Kampala, Uganda.

Mira Nair and Kal Penn
Nair directs Kal Penn on the sets of The Namesake in New York
It helps that Nair has lived and work in both cities and is totally enamoured with them- she spent her summer school holidays in Calcutta for 12 years, and she has lived in New York for the past two decades.

The Namesake promises to inter-cut between the two cities with its itinerant characters journeying between homes and cultures.

Nair says she finds the sounds, smell, street life and the funky graffiti in the two cities similar.

"There's loads of creative energy in both the cities. And Calcutta has this incredible 'gothic' bustle," she says.

For a filmmaker with a penchant for cinema verite (remember Monsoon Wedding with it's giddy hand-held camera frames and a largely amateur cast?), Nair has even got the writer of the novel and her family to act in the film.

So Jhumpa Lahiri and 26 members of her extended family from New York and Calcutta have put in appearances in the film.

"Being authentic has always been very important to me," says Nair.

Mira Nair and Tabu
Nair directs Bollywood actress Tabu
Nair has previously worked with Mumbai's (Bombay) street children in Salaam Bombay, and got her and cast members' entire families to act in the raucous Monsoon Wedding.

From an immigrant's tale, Nair changes pace and mood next spring to begin filming Gangsta MD, a caper about an African-American boy who lives a double life as a 'fake' doctor and a gangster.

Gangsta MD, which is being written by Jason Filardi (Bringing Down The House) is inspired by a Bollywood film Munnabhai MBBS.

Nair says she plans to cast Chris Tucker in the lead role, and some Indian actors - Gangsta MD's love interest, she says, will be an Indian girl.

Also in the works are a sequel to the immensely successful Monsoon Wedding to be shot in Pakistan, and a film set in the crisis in the Middle East.

'First of its kind'

Between her films, the peripatetic Nair is opening a film school for south Asian and east African students in Kampala.

Some 150 scripts landed at her table from six countries when she sent word out for applications to the school.

Calcutta skyline
Nair finds Calcutta similar to New York in its 'creative energy'
Finally, eight students have been chosen to attend this year's school which Nair calls the 'first of its kind in Africa'.

Hollywood friends like Sophia Copolla and Spike Lee are on the board of the film school.

Every year, Nair plans to fly in leading film people to teach at the school.

"There are so many stories to be told in these countries in south Asia and Africa. This is one way we can train people to translate them on film," says Nair.

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