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Mira Nair on “The Namesake”

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By Dan Persons

IFC News

[Photo: Irfan Khan and Tabu in “The Namesake,” Fox Searchlight, 2007]

Taking several steps back from the lush canvas that was her adaptation of “Vanity Fair,” director Mira Nair turns her glance inward, bringing personal insight and a more straightforward style to “The Namesake.” Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, the film attempts to portray the universality of the modern immigrant experience by tracing the lives of Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) as they face the transition from their life in Calcutta to their new home in New York, and eventually that of their son Gogol (Kal Penn), who struggles to reconcile his identity as a first-generation American with a growing realization of how strongly his roots still reach back to the culture of India. I spoke with Nair in New York:

This film seems to address two divides: the divide of country in Ashoke’s and Ashima’s story, and the generational divide in the story of Gogol’s relationship with his parents. Does one theme inform the other?

Good question — I don’t know if they inform each other. I think the story of parents and children, and therefore the generational divide, is a story that’s not unique to any one culture, it’s the same in many places. Of course, in the case of “The Namesake,” it’s deeply affected by the fact that the parents are born and raised in Calcutta, in a deeply Indian context, and that their children are born and raised entirely in an American context.

The fact is that the parents realize they can’t spoon-feed what they have known. There’s no stasis, things move. And they’re also wiser than most, in that they’re not going to sledgehammer down Gogol’s throat everything that is Indian and everything that they know.

So there’s a certain amount of fluidity, but the story is the ancient story: How do you grow up? How do you come of age? How do you realize who you are? Sometimes, many times, you realize a little too late. You have regrets; you have things that you wished you had done. I know when I became a parent it was the only time I really realized what I had put my parents through. It’s about that continuum, but greatly affected by the fact that there are two cultures here.

You’ve said this film expresses your love for two cities: New York and Calcutta. The things there are to love about New York will be more obvious to American audiences, but what about Calcutta?

Calcutta is incredibly layered; layers of history in that city. And it’s a city that’s devoted to politics and art, the mix of it. It’s a city that is full of erudition in the least expected places. Look at the house Ashima comes from: It has stenciled wallpaper next to a patch of cement next to a family portrait. That was not an art-designed home — that is how it came. I love the need of people to express themselves. It’s classic Bengali living — an oil painter, singing, protests… that’s life in Calcutta. It’s always bristling with some kind of life. I love that city. I discovered musical theater in that city; I grew up in that city. It was a wonderful banquet for me to try to capture that.

You’ve talked about bringing your Punjabi background to this story about Bengals. Jhumpa Lahiri had mentioned bringing you to her parents’ home for dinner to get you better acclimated. What did you see in the Bengali personality that you had to revise in your own approach to telling this story?

Well, I’m Punjabi, but I grew up in Bengal, so I know very well how different it is. The oxygen of culture in Bengal is very inspiring to me. It’s not like I had to temper my Punjabiness, because I wasn’t making a Punjabi film. But going to [Lahiri’s] family and meeting her parents, who were, in her own admission, the way she channeled [her characters] — her mother especially, for Ashima — these were the flesh-and-blood people of the characters that she had written; that was a big key to how to play Ashoke and how to play Ashima. I even took Tabu and Irrfan, the actors, to Mr. and Mrs. Lahiri for the same reasons: They spent the day together, and it was a big, big key in how to get their characters right.

The press notes mentioned your reliance on paintings and still photos when you were developing the look of this film. What inspired you?

I love contemporary photography. Raghu Rai, a great Indian photographer, made this image of a man and a rickshaw pulling the Goddess Saraswati down a boulevard in Calcutta. That image gave me an idea: Durga and Saraswati are like the key gods of the city of Calcutta; you can’t go a block without seeing a goddess of some kind, really. I thought it would be very important to have the blessing of the goddess in our film, because it is a Bengali film, in actual sense. So that image gave me the idea to have the goddess floating above us and being lowered down to the street. It’s like that: Image will give me the idea to make a scene.

You’ve got a gallery show opening at the Sepia Gallery on March 8th. Did all this come to you upon…

I created it. I made it happen, because of the photography that I love, and we created a really photographic film. So I talked to a publisher in the summer — I designed [a companion book for the film], a mix of text from Lahiri’s novel and images from the movie as well as the images of these classic photographers. That book was the foundation of taking it to the Sepia Gallery, and I said, “Do you want to do this?” And they loved the idea.

Did your personal investment in this story inspire you to carry this project beyond just the film?

Of course. It was like total possession, I can’t tell you. And because I know how precious it is to be inspired, I really follow that inspiration. It doesn’t happen often that you have this wave of, “I have to make this. I was born to do this.”

“The Namesake” opens in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and San Francisco on March 9, rolling-out to other cities in subsequent weeks (official site).



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.