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Mira Nair’s Rendezvous
With Vanity Fair
“We have so much of American culture on screen all over the world and I need to help in at least correcting or addressing that balance in some way…”
Picture this. A young girl with beautiful almond shaped eyes huddled up in a corner in one of those rooms in a boarding school, poring over pages of William Makepeace Thackeray’s, Vanity Fair. Fast forward and the same girl walks past the author’s bungalow in Calcutta and a few decades later – on 10th August 2004 – with kohl outlined eyes she sits in front of a packed audience, in one of the rooms at the Landmark Midtown Theatre, poised to answer queries about her movie, Vanity Fair. The young girl is now director extraordinaire Mira Nair. The name is synonymous with movies like Mississippi Masala, Salaam Bombay, Hysterical Blindness and Monsoon Wedding among many others and Vanity Fair is just another feather to add to her repertoire. Attired in a blue blazer over a white salwaar kameez, Nair sits enthusiastically in front of an equally enthused crowd and offers her views on everything from the brilliantly etched characters in Thackeray’s novel to Empire necklines.

Reese Witherspoon (center) in a still from Vanity Fair.

On how she casts actors in her films…

I do cast very intuitively and I’d like to be surprising. There’s no fun having a Miramax cast. 

On why Vanity Fair is such a favorite book and what she hopes audiences will have got from it…
You know I grew up in India and like most of us colonial hangovers we think and read in English and English literature was a big thing to me and I studied Shakespeare. And I got this book. I was in an Irish Catholic boarding school in North India and I read it like it was not allowed or something. I don’t remember why that was. I suppose it was what grown ups read, more grown up than 16. I think it was the role of Becky, the character of Becky. For me she was a completely modern character and totally timeless. And I guess I identified with the fact that she was on the outside of society and I know that society, cause if anyone understands class and hierarchy better than the English it’s the Indians. We really have got that down and so to climb into that straight jacketed society as in England at that time, it took a lot of mettle; it took a lot of guts. I think it was that, that kept me. But also I love Thackeray. I loved his point of view on this world, even back when I was 16. He was born and raised in Calcutta. And in fact I used to cross his decaying bungalow everyday when I used to walk to school. Anyway I loved his point of view. He was very clear eyed about the hypocrisy of his own society and I also really loved the way he dealt with the relationships between the colonies and the empire because that was the milieu of the Vanity Fair that he wrote about. This milieu where for the first time England was feeling the flush of wealth from the realm of colonies. And that was what was creating this middle class of Osbornes who had the money for the first time as much as the aristocracy but did not have the status. And I loved the satiric but affectionate way that Thackeray cut through all this. And I think partly maybe because he was also an outsider just like Becky because he didn’t come from there. He was a colony kid who was sent back to become an Englishman and maybe that made him look at his society clearly. It is an elegant banquet of a novel almost like a soap opera. He wrote it like a page turner and it still is a page turner.

On the biggest challenge paring down the book to make the film…
My biggest challenge was doing justice to the novel. It really helped that I knew it so well; it was not a job I got. My first choice to adapt the novel with me was Julian Fellows who had just won the Oscar for Gosford Park, who unknown to me was an equally helpless fan of Thackeray and knew this novel. I just constructed this map of life that I do when I start any of my films. You know a map of life meaning what I would like to have included in the movie and what I really wanted was not just to make it a star vehicle bit I wanted to make it a film about the democratic sort of swirl of the world that Thackeray wrote about. That every character would be important even the dog would have history in a way. And Julian and I saw eye to eye on this and within three months we had a screenplay. But if I have a sensibility at all it is to amplify the frame and to make it as dense as possible with detail and with action and so with anything that I loved in the novel, but didn’t have a whole scene for, I either created a scene for or jammed it in. And what I loved about Thackeray and how I see the world is that there is no villain. Each one of us has this gray area. And actually I don’t have any regrets of what I couldn’t put in.

On why there are such few women directors…
I can only speak for myself. But the route I follow is to follow my own heart and to create my own kind of work and I have been privileged enough that my work has found an audience abroad as well as in this country. So when Hollywood comes calling to me or when other people come to me, they come to me for my sensibility. I think the trouble is when women or men want to get on to that A-list or B-list, usually Hollywood being male-centric would offer a teen comedy or a coming-of-age girlie movie to a woman director. That hasn’t happened to me or I don’t do such films. My criterion is if I can think of one other person to do this movie than I won’t. Why me then? It has to be special to me. I can’t really speak for why there are few women directors. But I think if you want to join a system like Hollywood which is so monolithic and massive then you have to be subsumed by that system, but I come to that system by being alternative to that system and being asked by that system.

On why it’s important for her to do films like Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay in the midst of Hollywood movies…
As much as I like to do versatile things; I also feel increasingly now that we have so much of American culture on screen all over the world and I need to help in at least correcting or addressing that balance in some way. I come from a culture and a country that has extraordinarily explosive cinema and again I’m alternative to Bollywood and that system. But there is enormous validation in showing oneself or people who look like us on screen. And if we don’t tell our own stories no one else will tell them for us.