Deserves props for: Being the India-born director of Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair. Her latest, the Jhumpa Lahiri adaptation The Namesake, opens Friday.
Early scenes in The Namesake, with the parents moving from Calcutta to New York City, have a lot of specific detail that feels autobiographical. "Well, that's almost completely from the book. I've just known and seen these images in my life--like an Indian woman hauling her laundry through the snowy street. Or the hiss of the radiator. Or the feeling of floorboards where when you walk everything makes echoes and sounds. The deafening silence of snow and snowy streets. It's so different from the chaos and noise of Indian streets, where everyone's business is everyone's business. The isolation of being here is a very different feeling. It's all things I've experienced, if not necessarily exactly."
How did you want to distinguish Calcutta from New York?
"I wanted to film the two cities as though they were one city, in a way. Because I feel there's a great synergy between them, whether it be the bridges or the traffic, the trams in Calcutta or the subways in New York, or the layers of graffiti and art in both cities. I also wanted to put the audience in the state of being Ashima [the mother, played by Tabu]--to make you feel at times as if you don't know where you are."
The film has a very interesting multilayered take on tradition vs. modernity, where neither is favored over the other.
"I think the push and pull between tradition and modernity is really the stuff of drama. India's such an old culture--we've lived and coexisted with so much change over the years--and yet we still live a certain way. I know the sort of power and beauty of tradition. But I'm also really a rebel in a lot of ways. I'm not a follower."
There's also a lot of empathy in the film. For instance, you don't outright condemn Moushimi, Gogol's adulterous wife.
"She's very interesting. I love that she's this mercurial wannabe French girl. I don't like to judge characters that harshly. It's not much fun to reduce a character, to flatten them. I like to let them live and breathe, with all their conflicts."
Most of your films have Indian characters. How do you approach films from non-Indian points of view?
"People are people. I also know these places. New Jersey was where I tried to make my first documentary in the early '80s, so it's not as foreign to me as people might think. I was a documentarian in the beginning, so I try to put things in a bedrock of authenticity and reality. That buys the trust of an audience."
A Short History of...
Ben Kingsley, You Kill Me
Oliver Dahan, La Vie en Rose
Chris Eigeman, The Treatment
Mark Fergus, First Snow
Lance Weiler, Head Trauma