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Posted at: Jun 9, 2019, 2:05 AM; last updated: Jun 9, 2019, 2:05 AM (IST)

A Suitable Boy for Mira

Writer-director Mira Nair is adapting Vikram Seth's much-acclaimed novel for the BBC and converting her film, Monsoon Wedding, into a stage musical

Saibal Chatterjee

MIRA NAIR’s widely feted  film, Monsoon Wedding (2001), owes its genesis to Vikram Seth’s sprawling novel, A Suitable Boy. “I’ve loved the book since it was written in 1994 and tried to get the rights,” says the Indian-American writer-director who was in Cannes this year as patron of a mentoring programme supported by Institut Francaise as an official part of the world’s premier film festival.

The novel was too big and too hard to adapt back then. “So,” says Nair, “I created my own microcosmic response to the huge epic by making my own intimate Monsoon Wedding. A Suitable Boy was the maa-baap of Monsoon Wedding. It is beautiful to be getting back to it.”

Indeed, the next 12 months will be exceedingly busy for Mira Nair. Both, A Suitable Boy and Monsoon Wedding will figure prominently on her calendar. Nair is weeks away from starting on a BBC World-funded screen adaptation of A Suitable Boy. “I’m already deep in it,” she says.  

Also in the works is an ambitious stage musical version of Monsoon Wedding, which is scheduled to premiere in London’s Roundhouse Theatre in July 2020. “I’ve spent nine years developing a huge stage musical of my film,” says Nair. “I’ve put together a great Indian cast for it. It’s a live show with singing and dancing.” She reveals that she has cast all the actors from the musical in A Suitable Boy as well “because I love them”.

Nair will be shooting A Suitable Boy “all of this year in Lucknow, Maheshwar and other locations” and then editing the series until May. “That done, I will switch gears to putting up the musical.”   

“The casting for A Suitable Boy is 80 per cent done,” she reveals. However, a call on who will play Lata, the teenage university student at the heart of the story, has yet to be made. “I’ve been looking for an actress to play Lata for six months now.” 

A major Hindi film star wants to do the role, Nair reveals. “I would love to have her on board. But I am also looking at a couple of unknown possibilities. I cannot, therefore, declare a name at this point because it is still cooking,” she adds. 

Nair has done successful literary adaptations in the past, notably Vanity Fair, based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s much-filmed mid-19th century novel, and The Namesake, adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning text. Excitement is understandably high as she launches into a project that will bring a South Asian epic to life for global audiences. 

A large part of the ensemble cast for A Suitable Boy is already in place. Among the names that Nair mentions are Tabu (as Saeeda Bai), Shefali Shah (as Rupa Mehra), Vivek Gomber (as Arun Mehra) and Rasika Dugal (as Savita Kapoor). “It is also looking very good with Naseeruddin Shah although it is not yet confirmed, but he is likely to play Nawab Sahib,” she announces. “I’ve got everyone I wanted. These are all amazing actors,” she adds. 

“We would love to premiere A Suitable Boy in a major film festival,” says Nair. “In fact, we would like to bring it to Cannes. We’ll be finished in time for the festival in 2020. But if not Cannes, then it will be Venice. I have a lot of people waiting for it.”

With 1988’s Salaam Bombay!, Nair was the first Indian filmmaker to win the Camera d’Or, the Cannes award for the best first film of a director. She, however, failed to get either Monsoon Wedding or The Namesake into the Cannes selection. “I was grateful, but very upset at the time, that Cannes rejected Monsoon Wedding. I came to the festival anyway and sold Monsoon Wedding to every country in the world in one hour. It then went on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

A few years later, Cannes did not select The Namesake. “I was again upset but the film went on to do great on box-office all over the world,” says Nair, whose 2012 thriller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on the Mohsin Hamid novel of the same, was the opening film of the Venice Film Festival. Nair is the last Indian filmmaker to win the top prize at one the ‘big three’ festivals — Cannes, Venice and Berlin. 

But even as the 61-year-old writer-director continues to spring surprises with a continuously evolving career that is marked by amazing variety and sustained humanity, Nair devotes time to mentoring filmmakers of the future, especially in East Africa under the aegis of the Kampala-based Maisha Film Lab, a film school now in its 15th year. 

Its annual training programme, Maisha Lab has produced over 900 alumni thus far. Says Nair: “There was no training facility in the whole continent. Maisha Lab is a free school. We raise money for it. We have students from the East African region, which is basically Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. When we started we had Asia as well but you know in India there are several more opportunities for learning than in Africa.”   

Nair is extremely enthused by the Indian entry among the ten La Fabrique projects she mentored in Cannes — Meghalaya director Dominic Sangma’s Garo-language Rapture. “The projects that they have selected are highly original and strikingly cinematic. I have seen nothing like these before,” she says.

No holds barred

On India’s 25-year absence in Cannes... 

The onus isn’t only on us, or on what we make. The answer also lies in what the French are looking for, and who they want to champion. It is partly also because of who they are looking at and partly also because what we do is so vigorous in India. We have such a vigorous audience both in India and in the diaspora, do we need to think of festivals? There is a vocabulary to our cinema. I do not know the full answer but do we really need to tailor our vocabulary to suit international needs? 

The campaign for greater female representation in cinema...

The spotlight, the pressure, and the emphasis (of the 50-50 campaign aimed at achieving gender equality in the movie industry and in film festivals) are welcome. It is about time in a sense. I never thought about it this way but since I began — I’ve won several accolades — I would say there has been a difference. (Considering) people of my calibre, it has always been a more hospitable and more nurturing market for the male director. In that sense, I believe that however much the inequity can be the doors are open and the pressure is on. So, I do applaud the idea of the 50-50 campaign. As a filmmaker myself, the obvious caution is that the core has got to be the craft, the story, the excellence of what we do. The pressure is in both directions — one is to open the doors (for more and more female directors), and the other is to always preserve the highest craft and not to rest on our laurels. We will sink if we do not keep the latter in mind.

The fate of her last film, Queen of Katwe...

Disney did not want Queen of Katwe (about Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi) to be a festival film. They wanted it to be seen as a blockbuster film, for better or for worse. Queen of Katwe was brilliantly reviewed but Disney did not know how to market a specialised African film. It was hugely popular in its reception but they sold it as a sports movie blockbuster, which is really not what it is. I was a victim of them spending loads of money in the wrong direction.

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