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Interview: Film director Mira Nair

  • Story Highlights
  • Nair directed "Monsoon Wedding," "Vanity Fair," "Salaam Bombay!"
  • Her film, "The Namesake," is based on Jhumpa Lahiri's novel
  • Nair cast character of "Gogol" after teenage son's recommendation
  • Nair: Indian and American audiences "not that different"
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(CNN) -- From "Mississippi Masala" to "Vanity Fair," Mira Nair's movies have entranced audiences in India and the West. CNN spoke to the director of "Monsoon Wedding" and "Salaam Bombay!" at the Bollywood Movie Awards in Long Island about filmmaking in India and America and her adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel about loss and family, "The Namesake."

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Film director Mira Nair

CNN: What inspired you to make "The Namesake"?

Mira Nair: I happened to read "The Namesake" on a plane in early 2004, when I traveled from New York to Jo'berg to finish the filming of "Vanity Fair." I read "Namesake" while in huge grief with the death of a beloved person to me [Mira's mother in law]. It was at that state of mourning that I picked up this novel, and in it Jhumpa writes really acutely of a loss of a parent in a foreign country, and I thought I had been understood by someone.

It was also a story that linked the two cities in which I had grown up -- Calcutta and New York City -- and it was almost certainly the road that I had traveled. It just spoke to me and I felt compelled to do this film. A few months later we were shooting it.

CNN: It's filmed in both India and New York, such different cultures. Tell us about the universal themes involved during the film.

Nair: Well, the story of movement and crossings is as old as the hills. It's a tale of millions of us that have left one home for another, and tried to find out who we are through these places. Then when we have children, life gets more interesting. It is about growing up through our adult lives and our children's lives.

It is also equally a love story between two people who come from a culture who don't send roses and diamonds for love; who sit at a kitchen table and look at each other. It's about that generation of parents who have that stillness about one another, versus the clang and hustle of young Gogol who is 15 and grows up in an American world because he wishes to be American. That flow -- that see-saw between parents and children, that's what "The Namesake" is about.

CNN: Tell us about casting the role of Gogol.

Nair: Well, Kal Penn plays Gogol and he's known as a comic star, but I had no idea that he existed until my 15-year-old son said, "This has to be your Gogol." I didn't take him seriously at all until every night the campaign mounted at home: "Tell me in the morning it's Kal Penn!" he would say. And then Kal wrote to me and told me he became an actor because he had seen "Mississippi Masala" when he was eight years old and realized people on the screen could look like him, and other such seductive things. He came to my office and auditioned and he was just so appealing, and so much the real thing, that I cast him as Gogol.

CNN: How have Indian audiences reacted to your heavily western-influenced films?

Nair: It's not that different a kind of audience, that's what pleases me. "Salaam Bombay!" we really made for the children on the streets and the kids who really love that Bollywood stuff, and also with "Deeply Alternative," which ran for 27 weeks. "Monsoon Wedding" was also a big hit in India. But no, they don't come to my films for Bollywood fare; it's a completely alternative thing. In terms of audiences on both sides, I've been blessed: the films have been really well received and highly anticipated.

CNN: "The Namesake" was filmed in America and India. What differences were there in the two locations?

Nair: In India it is more about orchestrating chaos, and it's about sifting the chaos, but I get especially excited about the throb and chaos on the streets and so on, and in America it's about paying for the chaos, you know every head has to be placed there and paid for.

CNN: "The Namesake" is about not losing the identity of Indian culture. Was that a challenge?

Nair: I am at home in many cultures. I live actively in three continents and I've done that for most of my life, so I just make films as I see the world, and that happens to speak to people. I do things that I want to do. It so happens because I am fluent in both worlds that my films enter both worlds, perhaps.

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CNN: Do Indian and American audiences behave differently?

Nair: No, not really. I think films have to reach people and really grab them. That's what I hope to do when I make a film -- to get under your skin and really make you think about something, and have a transporting time that takes you somewhere. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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