Thursday, September 19, 2013

Archive: On the Set of The Namesake

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On the Set of The Namesake

(from FilmInk, then 3/13/2007)

Despite the rain, the drive from mid-Manhattan up the Henry Hudson Parkway and into the suburbs takes no more than 45 minutes. The destination of the two shuttles that carry us "international" journalists is Eastchester, which oddly enough is located in Westchester. Here, in a quiet, upper-middle class neighborhood, at the end of a cul-de-sac with the safe, secure, and secluded name of Willa Way, stands the split-level house that is being used as the Ganguli family's American home in Mira Nair's much-anticipated adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel, "The

We park near several huge equipment trucks and trailers, including one with the names "Desi" and "Lucy" over bathroom doors, and climb out into the cold, late-morning drizzle. Not making a sound in case cameras are rolling, we are escorted by two Fox Searchlight publicists through the garage and into the house.

We are startled that it has essentially been gutted and turned into a combination of ragtag movie set and construction site. It's hard to spot any of the belongings or furniture of the unsuspecting homeowners who are away on holiday. Even what we see on bureaus and the walls—old photographs, diplomas—are props that belong to the Ganguli family. About forty jean-clad crew members are milling about with the costumed cast members, including actresses and female extras wearing colorful saris. An odd sight. It's the most congenial group imaginable—everyone says hello. And that includes Nair. Dressed in stylish purple blouse and pants, she flashes a big smile at us between takes.

The production is well into its six-week New York-area shooting-schedule, before cast and crew must brave the 115-degree temperatures of Calcutta for another ten days. In fact, the scene being shot as we arrive—scene 143—is of a farewell party for the widowed mother Ashima, played by Tabu, before her return to Calcutta after thirty years in America.

About 15 crew members are squeezed into the small kitchen, with a few, including cinematographer
Fredrick Elmes and his cameraman, standing on top of counters. The camera is directed into the living room, where Ashima's grown son Gogol, played by Kal Penn, enters the house wearing casual American garb. Walking toward the camera, he navigates through partygoers and into the kitchen, where he exchanges a few words with several more guests and then his sari-clad mother. Finally, as the camera pans with him, he moves past her and through the kitchen, exiting stage/kitchen right.
Happily watching the action on a small monitor by the kitchen's other doorway, Nair sits with her back against the wall, perched on an uncomfortable looking, leather-covered end of a large suitcase that has the name "Mira" marked on its side. I say happily because although this scene must be shot repeatedly due to minor glitches, Nair remains upbeat. It's as if the foul-ups amuse her. She has a big smile as she reminds everyone of the tight schedule: "Too much fun, too little shooting!"
A few hours later, out back and under a canopy to protect us from the rain, Nair will tell me that her on-set demeanor is different from when she started out, before she became renowned for directing "Salaam Bombay!," "Mississippi Masala," "Monsoon Wedding," and others. "I'm now assured in what I'm doing," she says. "I no longer have that nervousness of what I used to call 'the exquisite terror of not knowing where to put the camera' while everyone was watching me. It's essential that I remain calm because nothing works if everyone else is tied up in knots."
The complex, deftly-choreographed party scene takes ten takes, during which time Nair replaces one tall male extra with a short female extra, only to then decide she doesn't want either. However, she does pull a journalist from our ranks and has her play a party guest and become part of celluloid history.
But still there is something missing. Nair tells Tabu that when Penn passes her, she should turn around and follow him with her eyes. The scene plays out, this time Tabu turns. "Beautiful!" says Nair, visibly moved by the meaningful glance of a mother to a son she'll soon be leaving. At last satisfied, Nair praises everyone for doing a great job. "We did only one shot but it was an entire scene, "she later explains. "This picture hasn't the budget of a Brad Pitt movie, but because we plan everything carefully, it allows for a creative style despite having little time to shoot. For me, it's exciting to develop an idea, refine it, and then execute it, and have it work, as it did on this scene."
Nair, who was born in India but attended college in Boston, has called "The Namesake" her most personal project, which certainly contributes to her enthusiasm on the set. "I read the book by chance when I was flying to India to shoot the end of 'Vanity Fair.' The book is really rich and layered, and there is a certain degree of interiority. That's what my films are like. I already had financing for two other films, but after reading Jhumpa's book I thought it was like a calling. The moment the plane landed, I called my agent and said to get the rights."

Because Nair is working with a modest budget, the plan for the day is to shoot as many scenes as possible that take place in the house. So after the kitchen scene, Nair immediately begins blocking and rehearsing a scene in the family living room. Like many scenes in Nair's movies, it contains a horde of characters. Fortunately for us, Gogol isn't one of them and Kal Penn is able to steal away and hold court with the journalists in an empty room on the top floor. Kalpen Modi is best known for the stoner comedy "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," but that should change with the release of Nair's prestige film. He says he's in seventh heaven coming to work each day to play the son who is torn between finding his own identity and his parents' wish for him to not lose his heritage.
Like Nair, he seemed to have an epiphany when he read the novel. "I read it in one sitting and cried," recalls the twenty-eight-year-old actor who was born in New Jersey to parents who had migrated from India. "I cried because I felt it captured the sense of isolation foreigners can feel in America. I tried to buy the rights, but Mira beat me to it, so I got my manager to get me a meeting with her. Fortunately, her son and her agent's son were fans of "Harold & Kumar" and forced her to watch it and me. I flew to New York and told her the impact she had on my life showing real Indian people on screen. I also told her that it wasn't that I wanted to play Gogol, but I needed to play him."

Kal Penn, a.k.a Kalpen Modi
Scene from "The Namesake"

Gogol's younger sister is played by Sahira Nair, who had an easier time than Penn getting her part. She is Mira Nair's niece, and also appeared in "Mississippi Masala" and "Monsoon Wedding." "My aunt likes having someone from the family around," she jokes during a break in mid-afternoon, when the sun made its first appearance of the day. "My father is Mira's brother. He and my mother still live in India but they're coming to New York next week to see me graduate from the School of Performing Arts."

Sahira isn't in school to hone her acting skills but to follow in the footsteps of her aunt and be a director of films with Indian protagonists. "I went to college in India for a year and then came to America to go to film school. Mira did the same thing, only she came to study sociology before she changed to film." As a future director, what impresses her most about her aunt's directorial technique? "Her ability to bring out emotions in actors. It's amazing."

Sahira is called to the set, but her seat under the canopy is taken by Tabu, still in a lovely red sari and fresh from a snack break consisting of a muffin and cigarette. India's most famous actress is making her first film in America, and certainly that new endeavor is helping her relate to her character.

"I used to make 12 films a year, a total of over 70," she says. "I wanted to slow down and I was looking for a new experience when Mira offered me this part in an American film. I admired her so much because she had come to a country where she didn't belong and became a big success. I had met her a couple of times, but I knew no one else on the film and no one knew me. So I identify with this woman who was transported into an alien world and has culture shock."

"Tabu is an amazing actress," says Nair. "Yesterday was extremely intense because she had a scene in which Ashima takes off everything to show that she's a widow. For the first time in my career, I was literally weeping while directing."

Apparently, Nair isn't always cheery on the set.

During the course of our 12-hour visit, we watch rehearsals and several scenes being shot from anywhere in the house we can sneak a peek. And on monitors in the makeshift sound-editing room. Otherwise we kill hours of time between scenes and interviews in the backyard eating from a fatty-snack buffet and hearing crew members and extras grumble about how they were screwed working in Hollywood and how they love being part of this unconventional shoot.

A high point is when a relative of the homeowners shows up with a camera and begins to snap random pictures to send them. Fortunately, she is convinced not to enter the house because it would interrupt the filming. This saves her from a heart attack.

Mira Nair

At 9 p.m., the publicists summon us to leave, just as Nair begins to shoot another party scene in which family members and friends sit around drinking, gabbing, and singing. Although it's now late, the energy level is still high because Nair continues to be a cheerleader to lift everyone's spirits. As we head for the shuttles, we hear her implore her actors, "You're three drinks down, show more merriment!" And they do.