Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mira Nair and Jhumpa Lahiri Discuss The Namesake

This evening at the NYPublic Library, when Paul Holdengräber introduced Mira Nair and Jhumpa Lahiri with the namasake joke,* he was met with a polite chuckle, but when Mira Nair explained that "nama-sake" had been a standing joke throughout shooting The Namesake, she raised a belly laugh.

A couple of hours before, I had left the Paris Theater with an uncharacteristic lump in my throat, so there it was, not just rapport, but rather, her extraordinary frankness and benevolent expertise in playing the audience like a harmonium. The crowd was gathered at the Celeste Bartos Forum, apropos of which Mira Nair noted that Celeste Bartos had financed her early films, This no doubt jump-started her career as an independent film maker. Then, these two beautiful women who had become great friends had a riveting chat with the audience about the process of turning a novel into a film, alternating Jhumpa Lahiri's reading of a passage with clips from the film to illustrate various points.

JL said she had had no first hand experience of death when she wrote The Namesake, whereas MN had lost her mother-in-law just before reading the book. Indeed, the brief post mortem caress, something I have seen in life, and only dimly understood until now, is more exploratory in the book, but mostly emotional in the film. JL and MN talked about how time is telescoped in the transition, and how sometimes four pages of prose are conveyed in a few seconds of film but then a single sentence is becomes an entire scene. Much of what JL said resonated with me--how she didn't have a clear visual impression of her characters as she wrote, how a book once written must be set aside for good. She said the film was as a grandchild to her.

MN's choice of Nitin Sawhney to produce the music was a masterstroke, much as Mychael Danna for Monsoon Wedding. The composed score and the music MN wanted imported, like the specially commissioned rap song for the head shaving, as well as some of the State of Bengal track that I've embedded here, are so finely integrated into the action that one barely notices the music as a separate event. Allyson Johnson's editing is precise and sensitive, and the soundtrack overlaps frequently through transitions to sweep the narrative along, yet it's so grounded that the effect is not vertiginous at all. The documentary element remains powerful throughout, and MN has captured the Kolkata hand-pulled rickshaw wallah only a moment before Buddhadeb managed to pull them from the streets by means of the Calcutta Hackney-Carriage Amendment 0f 2006.
Meanwhile, a New York birthday party features a cake of the moment from The Cupcake Cafe.
As for everything else, cicatrix wrote an especially touching review on Sepia Mutiny.

The first surprise guest in the audience was Kalpen Modi, looking suitably rumpled and goofy, and standing at the rear with his "agent," MN's son, Zohran. MN invited KP up to the stage to share some private jokes about foot massages and yoga, and to join in the Q&A. The second surprise guest was Tilotama Shome, who played Alice in Monsoon Wedding. She said her understanding of Bengali men was that they are not given to emotional display, so how could Ashoke Ganguli be so demonstrative with Ashima ? MN explained that people want to see a love story and there isn't much time to tell it on film, things have to be conveyed with a look or a gesture. The last question was one I had in mind-- why did Kal Penn speak Bengali for the first time after shaving his head? The woman was American-- how could she tell? But Mira Nair explained that Gogol would have used Bengali in that situation, although he was unaccustomed to it, and I had to admit that pretty much covered it.

*About nama sake, I'm ashamed to say the play of Roman and Bangla script in the movie titles made my head spin, but I'm happy that the Bangla ay/ae has its foot curled up into a lower case a in the film's logo, which pretty much takes care of the pronunciation problem so long as you can read Bangla.

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