society&the arts CINEMA

Classic Remake

India has a starring role in Vanity Fair, Mira Nair's always robust, and sometimes racy, reinterpretation of the remarkable rise of Becky Sharp in 19th century high society England

By Anil Padmanabhan

It is one of the most eagerly anticipated frock films in a year when Hollywood has rediscovered the charms of costume drama (plunging necklines for women and bare calves for men). But say that to Mira Nair and she will roll her expressive dancer's eyes. For in adapting William Makepeace Thackeray's mid-19th century novel Vanity Fair, she has effected a smooth reverse colonisation. She has taken the lace-up-your-corset, button-your-lip and stiffen-your-spine period epic which so typifies Hollywood's view of England and turned it into a robust saga where India is a character and Bollywood just a dance, a song or a costume away.

WIDE CANVAS: Nair directing on the London sets of Vanity Fair

So abundant is its canvas that the movie is already a contender for the top prize at the 61st Venice Film Festival (an old hunting ground for Nair who won a Golden Lion with Monsoon Wedding in 2001) and an early bird in the Oscar race. It is also a coming out party for Hollywood's pop princess Reese Witherspoon, whose conniving-but-beautiful Becky Sharp is as far away from Legally Blonde's ditzy-but-decent Elle Woods as Nair is from stuffy Merchant Ivory.

And to think, the $23 million (Rs 107 crore) movie-Nair's most expensive so far-almost did not happen. It was in March last year that Nair was seated on the back porch of her two-acre home in Kampala, Uganda, which she shares with her husband, academic Mahmood Mamdani, and 13-year-old son Zohran. Gazing up at the stars, she was ruminating over the unfavourable turn of events over the past few months that led to all but the shelving of Vanity Fair. First, the budget for the movie had to be slashed by $1 million and the film location had to be changed from the historic city of Bath in England to Ireland. Then, Witherspoon, who had been cast as the central character in the film, sought a six-month postponement of the shooting.

Just when everything seemed hopeless, the phone rang. It was Witherspoon. She was pregnant with her second baby and wanted to do the film "immediately". It was like a hairspring. In her typical toofani (hurricane) style, the 47-year-old Nair-or international behenji as she likes to call herself-plunged into the movie and got everyone on board. Eighteen months later and ahead of its release in 800-odd theatres in the US, the film's team is engaged in a major publicity blitz. In the midst of it all is Nair, who on August 15 alone recorded 37 television interviews. A tad tired but with no let-up in her enthusiasm, clad in a Rajesh Pratap Singh churidar-kurta, she passionately holds forth on the book, which she first read when in school, and the movie. Not only has she left her unique visual flourish-in the montage of colours, costumes and elaborate settings-in the film, but she has also drawn on some of the finest talents in Bollywood: star choreographer-director Farah Khan for a sensual Moroccan slave dance, designers Manish Malhotra and Arjun Bhasin for some of the costumes and Javed Akhtar and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for a stirring song at the end.

Farah Khan
Nair roped in Farah Khan for a sensual slave dance featuring Witherspoon and 20 others

The story itself, says Nair, could not get more melodramatic, ergo, Indian. There is a woman who defies her poverty-stricken background to clamber up the social ladder, there is unrequited love, seduction through song and also an honourable gentleman standing tall in a corrupt world. Though the novel has some very overt references to India, earlier adaptations had sought to ignore it. In tandem with Julian Fellowes-Academy Award-winning screenwriter for Gosford Park, whose ensemble cast included Witherspoon's husband Ryan Philippe-Nair overhauled the original script. She was lucky that Fellowes has his own hotline to India. His great uncle, Lord Sydenham of Combe, was governor of Bombay and his wife's great uncle, Lord Kitchener, was chief commander of the forces. "Mira wanted to start from the beginning," says Fellowes. "She wanted to make a film of a script which she had co-created. I was a fan of hers anyways, especially after I saw Monsoon Wedding."

"There are several ways to do the film," adds Fellowes. "One would be in a cool and distant way. But that was not for us. Both of us are emotional and we were so involved with the character of Becky that we often cried." They played up Thackeray's references to India. As a result, in the movie, the Indian context emerges early on and is kept up to the end, when Becky travels to India. They also decided to cast a slave dance, Bollywood style. "I thought," recalls Nair, "since I am really imposing my own sensibility, why not go all the way?" Farah Khan, who had worked with her on Monsoon Wedding, came to Shepperton Studios in London and rehearsed with Witherspoon and 20 other dancers for a week before shooting the song in two days. Khan loved the experience: "Reese was a little awkward with her hip movements but she learnt dance for many years, so it was terrific. Plus, I got paid very well."

A Bodice Ripper
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Gabriel Byrne, Romola Garai, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Produced by: Focus Features

William Thackeray's 900-page Vanity Fair has engaged filmmakers since 1915-there is even a silent movie version titled Bahroopi Bazaar by Nagendra Majumdar. Nearly a century later, Mira Nair has rustled the skirts and undone the cravats for a racy revamp of one of the most enduring stories of female frailty and class conscious, rapacious England.

With a cast of 68, the same number as in Monsoon Wedding, Nair gets to direct some of the finest actors from England. Gabriel Byrne as the cunning aristocrat who plays on Becky Sharp's desire for high society success (Page Three prominence, if you like) is appropriately devilish. Romola Garai as Becky's best friend and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (the football coach of Bend It Like Beckham) as her husband are suitably sweet, as is the rest of the ensemble cast, including Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins and Rhys Ifans (cast against type as a gentleman and not a dolt).

But the movie belongs to Reese Witherspoon who has shed her Tennessee twang for a clipped English accent. More than that, she is able to internalise Becky's shame, horror, desire and occasional raunchiness.

The movie has Nair's stamp everywhere. In the choice of fabric, in the music, in the changing colour palette and in the sub-text. This is the revenge of Bollywood, by someone steeped in its culture but with a technique far superior. A vintage movie to match a vintage novel.

-By Anil Padmanabhan

Nair found particular pleasure in teaching Witherspoon how to do the adaab. As for the problem of concealing Witherspoon's pregnancy (then three months on), it was easy. Her measurements were faxed to Manish Malhotra who designed her gown in lycra. "We got all the antique embroidery done in Mumbai and then matched it with jewellery that I had created," says Malhotra. The result: exotic. The dance became a critical part of the film. One of the actors, Douglas Hodge, came up to Nair on the day they shot the dance sequence and said, "I have worked in Shepperton Studios for 20 years but coming in today and seeing two Asian women (Nair and Khan) directing this caboodle, I said to myself: 'Something is finally right with England.'"

And why not? The way Nair looked at it, Regency England had fattened itself on the spoils from India. So India could never be too far from the film. A young Becky is shown playing with puppets, kathputli style. With Becky's rise in high society being powered by her singing prowess, Nair got her chance to pay homage to Guru Dutt. "He taught me to maximise the blending of music and image. We looked at his masterpiece, Pyaasa, for his luminous filming of Waheeda Rehman before we filmed Becky singing Now sleeps the crimson petal," she says.

For the last song, Gori re, she roped in old friend Javed Akhtar to do the lyrics. Says Akhtar: "She told me it should convey the idea of a woman who has achieved all that she wanted and found her own voice." As it was to be filmed on Becky when she comes to India, it is in the Rajasthani dialect. The music was by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. "It was a very last-minute thing but in India we are so used to doing things in a hurry that the song was ready in two days," laughs Akhtar.

Nair had always wanted to shoot part of the film in India. But budget constraints and difficult logistics restricted the actual shooting to four days and included only the climax-two Indian scenes had to be created in England. As opposed to the initial choice of Kerala's backwaters, Nair settled for Rajasthan. The last scene featuring Becky atop an elephant was shot at Jodhpur's Mehrangarh Fort. Though brief, the experience left a lasting impression on Witherspoon (who by then had already had her baby) about India as well as her director. "The Indian leg so informed me about Mira. In two days she managed to get together 500 extras speaking three languages, 15 camels and four elephants. And all of them worked with her for three days. It showed me how much she has had to go through. My hat's off to her. She is a very special person," says Witherspoon.

Designer Arjun Bhasin, a Nair veteran who has worked on Kama Sutra and Monsoon Wedding, was part of the unit in the India segment. He had to dress a cast of dancers, horsemen, camel riders, dholwalas, ayahs and children. "There were a lot of silks, borders, brocades, turbans. Mira wanted jewel tones. She wanted to show the opulence and grandeur of India," he says. Apart from an orange silk corset Bhasin designed for Witherspoon, Nair also got Sandeep Khosla-Abu Jani to give a white chikankari coat for the Jodhpur sequence.

The last scene featuring Becky atop an elephant was shot at Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur

It all seems to have worked (see review). Equipped with immense self-belief and an uncompromising work ethic, Nair has carved out her own niche in Hollywood, as a movie director, as a woman and as a non-American who lives in America. She also has a personality which she is not afraid to pit against the studio system and an opinion she does not hesitate to air. When she was told that filming of some of the elaborate scenes would be curtailed, she wrote to James Schamus, co-president of Focus Features, her producers. In an e-mail she wrote, "Don't hire me to make an epic and then force me to make a film that is now 90 per cent (without exaggeration) shot in daytime interiors. Don't force the multilayered quality of this sprawling story into the chamber piece that it is fast becoming."

The honest but blunt entreaty turned out to be successful, typically for Nair. It reflects her simple, philosophical approach to life: work is pleasure. "To me the great privilege of life is that I am doing what I want to do. I must enjoy myself at all moments. If something begins to feel as a strain or gives me anxiety then it is not for me to do. There is too little time in the world to waste," says Nair.

With a growing reputation, her schedule is increasingly packed. Yet, Nair still finds the freedom to retain her spontaneity. Scheduled to begin the filming of Homebody Kabul for HBO after finishing Vanity Fair, she has instead decided to film Jhumpa Lahiri's debut novel, The Namesake. "We have a major Indian star in it. I am so ecstatic about it. Not because she is a big star, but because she is just perfect. This is a great role and I just fell in love with her-which is how I cast every single actor. I am hoping to shoot three weeks in Kolkata in December and then two months in New York in February and March," she says.

Nair is also establishing an annual filmmaker's laboratory, Maisha, which will be dedicated to the support of visionary screenwriters and directors in East Africa and South Asia. She is also turning Monsoon Wedding into a musical on Broadway. For now, though, she is completely absorbed by Gone with the Vindaloo-which is how she describes the making of Vanity Fair. Will Thackeray ever recover from such divine aggression?

-with Kaveree Bamzai


Q: The movie almost didn't get made?
With Reese's temporary withdrawal from the film, the problem wasn't the loss of Bath, but the lost of the entire film. When a film reaches the brink of production only to run into such a colossal impediment, there is a Humpty-Dumpty possibility of things falling apart never to be put together again. But then eventually everything fell in place.

Q: What attracted you to the story of Vanity Fair?
I had first read it when I was in boarding school in Simla and was completely taken up by it. This was the time in English society when they first felt the flush of wealth from the colonies. This was the wealth that created the middle class which then aspired to the status of the aristocracy. This was the milieu of Thackeray's novel and now our movie.

Q: The parallels with Indian cinema cannot be missed.
Thackeray's gloriously entertaining saga offers an enormous panorama of themes familiar to us steeped in Bollywood: a woman who defies her poverty-stricken background to clamber up the social ladder, unrequited love, seduction through song, a mother's sacrifice for her child, a true gentleman in a corrupt world. The entire catalog of human stories remains the same. Moreover, it is a story that comes down to the basic question: Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desires? Or, having it, is it satisfied?

Q: The centrality of the movie is the multiple facets of each character. Any comments?
Absolutely. One of the great themes of the story, which I love, is the sham-and-facade element. These people have so many faces, and they show one “where there is so much behind it. But we all sort of play this, in our own journeys.

Q: Did Reese (Witherspoon) have a problem mastering the steps for the slave dance?
The extraordinary thing about Reese is that she is technically perfect as an actor but keeps the emotion transparent and new. Indian actors do it all the time. And then she mastered the dance in just 12 minutes. I actually clocked it. It was a pleasure teaching Reese and the gang of 20 (accompanying dancers) to do adaab. Reese got that too, even though it took her a few weeks.

Q: What are your plans with the filming of Namesake?
We are going to start pre-production (for the filming of Namesake) from September 15. We have a major Indian star in it. I am so ecstatic about it. Not because she is a star, but because she is just perfect. This is a great role and I just fell in love with her which is how I cast every actor. I am hoping to shoot three weeks in Kolkata in December and then two months here in February and March.

Q: What about Monsoon Wedding as a musical on Broadway?
At the moment, we have composed the lyrics and musics for two songs. I will show these to the producer in September. The idea is six months of composition, music and lyrics. And, then we will workshop the production in next spring.

Q: How would you sum up your work ethic?
To me the great privilege of life is that I am doing what I want to do. I must enjoy myself at all moments. If something begins to feel as a strain or give me anxieties, then it is not for me to do. There is too little time in the world to waste in disharmony or in small mindedness.