Telling Stories

Film Director Mira Nair discusses her new film The Reluctant Fundamentalist with Momtaz Begum-Hossain

Posted: 07.05.13

I meet Mira Nair in London, the same week her debut offering to the film world Salaam Bombay! celebrates its 25th anniversary. Just days ago she was in India as the film re-opened at the cinemas and today she’s in a room of British journalists to promote her new movie The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid.

Over the last few months I’ve interviewed some incredible filmmakers but when I look back at their filmography, Mira’s by far stand out as the most likeable, inspiring and memorable to watch. She isn’t just an intelligent storyteller, every aspect of her filmmaking is about perfection; from the mis- en-scène (the look of every frame) to the accompanying soundtrack and characterisation. Films like Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake are true ‘cross over’ movies, most of the compliments I’ve heard about them have come from non-Asians. So while the industry often ponders why mainstream Bollywood films never become household names in the Western world, Mira’s productions are the timeless sort that get dissected in film studies classes and will always be screened at international film festivals.

For me it’s her approach to using all the senses in telling her tales that defines her brand of cinematography so I begin by asking her about where her appreciation for sound and visuals comes from. Mira explains: ‘I am a student of life and photography has always been a major inspiration in terms of understanding how to make the frame. Music is part of my universe - I can’t live without music.’

The soundtrack to The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one of the films highlights, with haunting Sufi songs and atmospherical instrumentals; but it wasn’t easy to accomplish. Mira reveals: ‘Who knows the modern sound of Pakistan? Not many of us. The beauty of the cinema is that you can use the things that inspire you from any art field form whether it is from music or a painting or photography and use that as your fuel, and that’s what I take joy in.’

Lead star Riz Ahmed, Producer Lydia Dean Pilcher, author, Moshin Ahmed, Mira and actor Liev Schreiber

As an outsider to the reality of the situation, the stories I’m fed, living in the UK, is that Indians hate Pakistanis and vice versa; there is so certainly no shortage of Bollywood tales about these feuds. So how is it that Mira, as an Indian felt enough of an affinity with the nation of Pakistan to make a film about it? She says: ‘Inspiration came from my first visit to Pakistan which was in 2005. I was deeply moved by how familiar the culture was that my father had come from before partition; the kind of Pakistan that you never read in newspapers. I immediately was drawn to make a tale about modern day Pakistan and then read Mohsin’s novel about five months after. It was a dialogue between Pakistan and America; both worlds that I am intimately familiar with. Over the last 12 years we’ve seen so many films about Iraq and Afghanistan but always from the American point of view and never a film that speaks from both sides that sort of humanises this conflict; I felt that this was my opportunity.’

Riz Ahmed as Chungez

With that in mind, I am interested to know what kind of audience she feels will appreciate the film the most. Mira reveals: ‘I made this film for the young, people like my son, who was 21 when I started making it, and for the character Chungez who are both ‘searching’. Chungez is a lover of America he goes and finds the country, thinks that he has achieved the dream but then he feels betrayed by that dream. This is his journey that I wanted the young to question - What is the truth? Why do they really matter? Who will listen to what they have to say? I wanted them to think of these questions before they run to other pastures.’

One of the biggest ‘weights’ carried by Mira when making the film was to ensure the story stayed balanced and didn’t come across as anti-American or anti-Pakistan, which only a filmmaker with years of professional expertise could master enough for the audience to be able to relate to both sides. Just how did she accomplish this? Mira explains: ‘I didn’t want people to have to do their homework or preach to the converted – so I focussed on the complexity of the situation, how that at the heart, it is a story about human beings.’

Mira on set

When she explains this, it sounds very much like a ‘female approach’ to filmmaking; to focus so intently on the emotional side of the situation, yet when I actually watched the film, it was impossible to tell a woman made it. As the credits rolled the first thing the friend I watched it with and I discussed was that it felt like we’d just seen a film made by a man. I ask her opinion on this. She replies: ‘I have seen very sensitive films made by men. It is not the question of gender that gives us more sensitivity, I think it’s ones interest in the world, and that’s what you reveal in how you make your tale.’

My encounter with Mira is brief and shared with other journalists so although I am aching to keep speaking to her (she is fascinating to listen to, graceful and captivating to watch), I round up by congratulating her on the incredible legacy she has created with Salaam Bombay! Mira speaks about the film with much enthusiasm: ‘It is a powerful film that I saw recently on the screen after 20 years. We wanted to show it again so the younger generation who had heard of this film but had not seen it could do so. To open it now in India which is filled with multiplexes is incredible. When it opened in India 25 years ago it was in small seaters with a little beam light bulb, now theatres are so very different.’

For anyone who has seen the film, it was humbling to hear Mira talk so positively about the impact the movie has made. She concluded: ‘What was amazing was it’s not just the film that’s celebrating 25 years, but the Salaam Balaak Trust; the street children’s organisation we founded using the profits of the film. We have about 5000 a year that come through the programme and some of them performed, dance and sang at the anniversary screening. It was amazing to think we achieved a film that has made an impact on people’s lives for the last 25 years.’ A remarkable achievement from a remarkable woman.

Mira is more than just someone who works behind the camera. She is visionary, one whose work is filled with creativity, originality, depth and thought. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a movie of our times, yes we’ve seen films that focus on terrorism before, but her concept, inspired by the novel, makes it a subject that is accessible, human and relevant. It won’t show at all the major cinemas, or be on for a long period of time, so make sure you take the opportunity to watch it during the week of release; a fascinating tale, told by one of the most talented filmmakers in the world.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is released in UK cinemas May 10th 2013. 

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