Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

A catalyst and connector

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Mira Nair talks to Sunil Sethi about bringing a long-simmering Broadway project to fruition: the stage musical of her 2001 film, Monsoon Wedding

Business Standard, January 13, 2017 


has a director’s innate sense of mise en scène, of settings and backdrops. For lunch on a wintry day in the new year she chooses Basil & Thyme, the restaurant with elegant European fare started by the late Cordon Bleu chef Bhicoo Manekshaw more than two decades ago that has moved to brighter, better-located premises in Sunder Nagar market.


Against its pristine chic of white walls and snowy linen, the film-maker’s entrance is a theatrical flurry of vivid colour and high spirits. Immaculate in a black and burnished gold jacket by Abraham & Thakore and Issey Miyake scarf, bright red lipstick and steady kaajal-rimmed gaze, she has a full diary in town before flying off to New York.


With brief intermissions in her life — she turns 60 this October — is a series of dramatic acts on three continents. Nair’s big feature Queen of Katwe, based on the life of a chess prodigy from the slums of Kampala, bankrolled by Disney for $15 million and starring, amongst a large ensemble cast, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years A Slave, opened to universal raves last September and is slated for a slew of awards.


It’s not the first time she has worked for a big studio; she describes herself as a pro at “handling Hollywood”, meaning her dexterity in coaxing Disney’s tough bosses —“considering,” she adds with a throaty chuckle, “that it’s a film in Africa without a single animal in it”. When I tell her that Rotten Tomatoes, the ruthless review aggregation website, has given Katwe a rating of 92 per cent, the highest of her many films since the landmark Monsoon Wedding in 2001, she sounds surprised.


Nair is not the kind to rest easy on laurels. Of the many subplots that thread her diverse oeuvre she is on the brink of bringing a long-simmering project to fruition — the stage musical of Monsoon Wedding that she has been developing with the Bollywood producer, director and music composer, Vishal Bhardwaj, for nine years. “The film has music in its bones, and it’s been my dream to bring it Broadway…” she writes in the inexpensive prospectus and design look-book printed in a Delhi market that she’s handing out to potential Indian backers.


Illustration: Binay Sinha

Illustration: Binay Sinha

The two-and-a-half hour production with a cast of 18 — actors who will sing, dance and enact 21 songs include Javed Jaffrey, Sharvari Deshpande, whom she calls the “new Waheeda Rehman”, and Monsoon Bissell as “Shashi Aunty”— and a long roster of top-of-the-line Broadway professionals will soon enter final rehearsals. It opens at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre on May 19 and Broadway at the end of the year. Nair, on a whistle-stop tour of India, is combining “family time” with her exuberant genius for raising cash.


“Shhh,” she says, finger on the lips and eyes sparkling with mischief like a schoolgirl up to a well-practised prank, of the $12 million she requires for both the productions. She admits to Anita Lal of Good Earth and Akanksha Himatsingka of Atmosphere, the textile company, as early-bird investors. Of the remaining large chunk she won’t say who “till the money’s safely in the bank” but speculation points to an industrialist with a penchant for promoting arts festivals.


Erna Chandra, Manekshaw’s silver-haired daughter swathed in superior grey cashmeres, who runs the restaurant with her husband Sunil, is discreetly lingering to take our order. My guest selects a starter of mesclun leaves, hearts of palm and pomegranate followed by a poached John Dory with leek, snow peas and wilted lettuce tossed in cider vinegar and butter; I choose the eatery’s signature chicken liver pate and its classic soufflé omelette, whipped to fluffly perfection, with chives and cheese. “Ooh yes!” she says to wine, promptly agreeing to a new Cabernet Merlot by York winery in Nasik, as being just what the doctor ordered after her sudden health reversal in Kampala weeks before Katwe’s release. She ends up with two glasses, a model of khaatipeeti Punjabi heartiness.


Punjabiyat, she says, was the heart and soul of Monsoon Wedding, her “fatafat film” made from Sabrina Dhawan’s script on a shoestring budget of $1 million scraped together at the Cannes festival’s film bazaar. With its boisterous songs and melancholic moods, dense plotting and mixed cast crowned by her deft direction and Declan Quinn’s masterly handheld camera, not to speak of her mother’s home-cooked food during the 30-day shoot, Monsoon Wedding is the ultimate movie milestone of the little family-and-friends film that became so big — netting $30 million, with the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival as the icing on the cake. But it also came to symbolise the cultural clash post India’s economic reforms, of a let-it-all-hang-out milieu harbouring dirty secrets — “a place where the beep of the cell phone alternated with the cry of the peacock” in the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane’s memorable phrase.


We are diverted by dessert, and decide on sharing an old-fashioned bread and butter pudding. Sadly, it’s not the buttery confection layered with marmalade of her childhood spent in provincial clubs and boarding schools.


Nair grew up in Odisha, the daughter of an IAS officer, and was packed off to Tara Hall in Shimla for school; later at Miranda House, Delhi University, she hit the boards, playing Cleopatra to Shashi Tharoor’s Antony in a college production — a predilection for quality texts that has persisted through films of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (2004), Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2006) and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012).


She was always given to unexpected leaps and sudden jump-starts. Applying to American universities she found Wellesley College turned her down, Yale lost her application but Harvard, on the strength of her essay, gave her a full scholarship. “When I rushed to my father’s office in Bhubaneswar to show him the offer letter he did not jump out of his chair. He looked up from his files and softly said, ‘Achha kiya’.” At Harvard she forged a long-standing alliance with scriptwriter and photographer Sooni Taraporewala, collaborating, in 1988, on Salaam Bombay!, on the city’s street kids that swept major international awards.


Her next big geographical move in 1989 was prompted by stirrings of love. While planning her feature Mississippi Masala (1991) on Indian Ugandan immigrants in America that explored the hierarchy of colour —“of what it was to be brown, between black and white” — she tracked down Mahmood Mamdani, professor of social anthropology at Makerere University in Kampala. A schoolgirl blush still colours her face when she recalls “the beautiful folly of love” at their first encounter. Since then, it has been her third home between New Delhi and New York where she runs the Maisha Film Lab to train Africans in the film arts — 700 alumni so far, many of whom form the cast and crew of Queen of Katwe in a two-acre garden that she is personally landscaping.


It is hard to think of Nair as anything except a protean catalyst and connector. Or as she puts it, “a bridge between Asia and Africa and the West, because if we don’t tell them our stories who will? It’s my job to keep the dialogue going”. Hollywood, she muses, is not to be scoffed at, but its “endless faucets of money” make her cool off. “When people offer me projects I think, ‘Is this something I can do that others can’t?’”


Leaving the restaurant she ducks into antique shops and boutiques — and they’re all out there, selfie-clicking waiters and shop owners and customers hailing her like a long-lost acquaintance.

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