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Director Mira Nair Pairs With Author Jhumpa Lahiri for'Namesake'

Filmmaker Mira Nair (“Mon-soon Wedding, “Mississippi Masala,” “Vanity Fair”) was born and raised in India, where she was chauffeured around by a driver. Despite a relatively affluent background, she became involved in Indian political street theater. When she went to college at Harvard, she set out to study acting—a goal that was soon overtaken once she discovered her calling as a filmmaker.

On Feb. 21, Nair presented the Washington, D.C., premiere of her film “The Namesake” to a sold-out crowd at the National Museum of Women in Arts. The charming director-producer dazzled the captive audience with her graceful self-assurance and eloquent intelligence. Dressed quite stylishly, she would occasionally flip her red scarf back over her shoulder, adding gestures of dramatic flair to the question-and-answer session.

The next day, at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, The Washington Diplomat had the pleasure of sharing tea with Nair. “They never learn how to make tea in America,” quipped Nair. She went on to explain why she gave up other opportunities, including a “Harry Potter” sequel, to make this “small,” personal movie. “I wasn’t looking for a movie. I was booked for two other movies. I just cleared the deck,” she said.

“It really happened quite by chance. I was in a period of acute mourning for my mother-in-law, who had passed away very suddenly. It was the first time I had experienced death in someone who was beloved to me. She died in New York. She was from Africa. It was unexpected and shocking. It was in this period of mourning that I had arbitrarily picked up [Jhumpa Lahiri’s] novel for a plane ride back to India. I was just stunned to find that there was someone in the universe who understood exactly what I was going through at the time,” the directed recalled.

“When the plane landed, I called my agent and asked him to get the rights for me. They were—amazingly enough—available, and Jhumpa was very happy about me doing it.”

Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her debut collection of short stories, “The Interpreter of Maladies.” So critics and audiences eagerly anticipated—and received—her best-selling first novel, “The Namesake.”

“In terms of an adaptation, it’s all about sifting,” Nair explained. “For me, they were great characters. I loved the idea of strangers who marry and fortunately fall in love. It’s an expansive story. It’s not your typical, reductive immigrant story of the old world and the new world. It’s a banquet for me, 30 years linking the two cities in which I have grown up—in Calcutta—and learned how to see, formally—in New York. It gave me a lot to play with.”

Mr. Bong Goes to Washington On a publicity tour to promote “The Host,” South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho made his first trip to Washington, D.C. Minutes after his arrival at Union Station, a driver whisked Bong to the Lincoln Memorial, where The Washington Diplomat joined him on a leisurely walk heading toward the Washington Monument.

On the overcast March day, the Reflecting Pond hadn’t been filled with its trademark blue water. Still, Bong hazily observed, “I’ve seen it in the movies many times, but it’s surreal actually being here.”

Not that he’s a stranger to seemingly unreal situations: Like Bong’s prior film, the unforgettable serial-killer horror mystery “Memories of Murder,” “The Host” is chock full of surrealism.

In the opening scene, the U.S. military irresponsibly dumps toxic waste into a river. A generation later, the water spawns a mutant monster that wreaks havoc in Seoul. On a basic level, “The Host” is a modern Korean update of the Japanese “Godzilla,” in which U.S. atomic testing leaves behind radiation, producing the T. Rex-like reptile that ravages Tokyo. Post-World War II Japan resented the continued G.I. presence in the 1950s, the era of universal atomic bomb shelters, and as the only people to suffer the unimaginable devastation from “the bomb,” the Japanese had good reason to be paranoid. Bong noted, “It’s not just my viewpoint. In Korea, many people don’t like the presence of the U.S. military bases.”

Japan, which ironically occupied Korea in WWII, provided partial financing for “The Host,” which by Korean standards, had a huge budget, employing an American special effects supervisor with a “Jurassic Park” credit.

“It’s not just with this film. In recent years, Korean films have garnered a lot of popularity. The main investor will still be Korean. This movie is just one of the examples of joint financing,” Bong explained.

“The Host” has certainly transcended its genre origins. Generating big buzz at Cannes, a Toronto Film Festival programmer gleefully dubbed it: “The best monster movie ever!”

Nonchalantly, Bong described his upcoming productions: “I’m starting the writing process for the next film—regarding the Queen Mother. Another project in the works is based on a French sci-fi graphic novel.”

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999