“Thank you for coming, on a nice spring day, to watch us ladies in the afternoon,” Mira Nair said with a smile, as she and Bryce Dallas Howard began their “Tribeca Talks” conversation on Saturday, as part of the 12th annual Tribeca Film Festival. Nair is at the festival with her latest feature film, an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist; Howard was there as an admirer, an actress slowly making the transition to filmmaker and looking for some pearls of wisdom from Nair’s 30-plus years in India, Hollywood, and all points in between. Here’s a few things we learned from their chat.
Make a difference in whatever little way you can: Howard asked Nair about the astonishingly low number of female filmmakers working today in Hollywood. “It is a conundrum when I hear these statistics,” Nair replied, sadly, “and I don’t even have to hear them, I see it. I see it in my own journey, because I work without raising a flag about it, almost 80, 90 percent of my crews are women. Because they’re terrific at what they do, and I have a wonderful family.” But it’s a problem Nair sees more in the western world than anywhere. In Indian cinema, “it’s odd: I’m unusual in that I’m a so-called international filmmaker, but I’m not unusual as a female director. Because there are many — okay, not equal, but many more than you will find here.” But in America, “it’s almost more difficult. And I think it has to do with it being seriously a Boy’s Club in Hollywood, if you want to go that route. I never wanted to go that route, so I never thought about it as a route… I didn’t go to the studios. And the trouble is, we only think there’s one way. But there isn’t. There are many other ways. But they’re damned difficult.”
Have faith, even if you’re not sure where you’re going: “You can feel something without even knowing,” Nair said, explaining this idea by translating an Indian saying: “The washerman’s dog is at home neither on the street, nor inside. It is at home everywhere.” Nair said she “felt like that washerman’s dog for a while. I was doing odd things.” But she was fine with it. “You pursue something without even knowing that you have any fruit at the end of it, or an audience,” she explained. “It really humbled me, when Salaam Bombay came out, or Mississippn Masala came out, there were lines around the block of hybrid people, multicolored people, finding themselves on screen, pretty much for the first time. That’s pretty powerful, for what we do… how many people we reach with this amazing medium.”
Don’t spread yourself too thin: “I studied sitar when I was 12 and 13,” Nair said. “and it’s a very difficult instrument, if you know the sitar. There are seven strings, and you have your naked finger on each string, and you basically have callused hands forever… I was playing it every day, and I was not bad, but finally [the instructor] came to my room and I had all of these books on theatre, because I wanted to write and I wanted to act, that was what I did. And he said, ‘You can’t do all this. If you’re doing the sitar, you must focus on this. Or you choose. But you cannot have two great things you follow.’”
“Every single movie will break your heart at some point”: This was a quote that Howard conveyed from her father Ron, and Nair agreed — particularly with regards to the people you work with. “In the younger years, it was harder, because it was new. And especially with friends, it was very tricky. But time teaches, and in my case, friendships were much more important, so we would find a way, after nine months of estrangement or something, we would find a way. Because it is really rare to find share a sensibility with someone, especially someone like me who comes from these worlds, you know?” But on the set, she insists, “I don’t thrive on tension, I don’t thrive on division. I understand, as I get older, you can choose not to be with the disharmonious.”
When it’s all done, get away: Howard told a charming story about her family’s opening night ritual, whenever Ron had a new movie out: “We would all pile into the Suburban, and there were four kids — I remember doing this from the time when I was six or seven. We all pile into the Suburban, and we would all drive from theater to theater to see what the audience was like. And it was fun — when the audience was full.” When it wasn’t, not so much. Nair said she does a similar thing when a film opens. “I don’t have a Suburban, but I’ll get on the subway,” she laughed. “I always do this on opening day.” But after that first night’s screenings, she’ll take a trip home to India, or some other far-off destination. “We take a plane,” she explained, “so we can’t see what the box office returns are the next day!”
The Reluctant Fundamentalist screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival and begins its New York theatrical run this Friday.